A controversy is swirling around a book about archaeology in Israel, Facts on the Ground. Archeological Practice and Territorial Self Fashioning in Israeli Society, that appears to have drawn relatively little attention until its author came up for tenure at Barnard College (Columbia University.) The politics of the controversy are not exactly news: the author, a Palestinian-American academic named Nadia Abu El Haj does not like Israel. More interesting is the question of how scholars in other fields use archaeological evidence
Abu El Haj attributes extraordinary powers of creativity to the archaeological profession. Archaeologists have "created the fact of an ancient Israelite/Jewish nation," where none actually existed, all those city walls and bullae with impressions written in paleo-Hebrew are "pure political fabrication." (Ms. Abu El Haj is said to be young and she likes using italics.)
While the idea that William Albright, with a little help from his friends, created the ancient Israelite kingdoms out of whole cloth is perversely flattering, it ain't necessarily so.
The archaeology of ancient Israel is hotly contested terrain, with pitched battles currently raging over such issues as whether a centralized Israelite kingdom emerges in the tenth century or the ninth, and weather or not Eilat Mazar has uncovered a tenth-century royal Judean building. I am not, however, aware of a single archaeologist or historian who would support Abu El Haj's contention that the Israelite kingdoms are mere fiction constructs, the Jewish "nation's origin myth," comparable, that is, to the Aeneid, or the founding of Japan by the sun goddess.
This sort of silliness would ordinarily be dismissed as mere crank writing – heaven knows no academic discipline is subject to a greater output of crank scholarship than archaeology – except for the fact that this book is published by the University of Chicago Press and based on a PhD dissertation accepted by Duke University. We are forced to conclude that theories historians and archaeologists regard as daft are actually seen as plausible by at least some anthropologists.
Amusingly, Abu El Haj is something of a positivist when it comes to the myths of Palestinian nationhood. All Israelis are part of a definitionally illegitimate "settler colonial society;" strident nationalism drives Israelis to commit every kind of crime including the destruction of non-Jewish artifacts; this contrasts with the ethical archaeological stewardship displayed by Palestinians, especially the Waqf, held up here as the embodiment of best practice; and when Palestinians do deliberately venerable sites - "looting (Joseph's Tomb) and setting it alight" – their actions are to be "understood" and excused.
Determined to reiterate that which she already knows to be true, Abu El Haj alleges without evidence that bulldozers are "commonly" and inappropriately used by Israeli archaeologists "in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance as quickly as possible" while other "remains are summarily destroyed." Her belief in the myth of jingoistic Israeli archaeologists whose "research priorities" are determined by "nationalistic politics" is so strong that she seizes on the merest hearsay to level serious charges of deliberately destroying significant non-Israelite strata at a highly regarded archaeologist form Tel Aviv University. Almost as shocking as the accusation is the fact that Abu El Haj's sole evidence consists of personal conversations with anonymous "archaeologists and student volunteers" at a dig in which she was not participating. The archaeologist in question has been forced to take time from his work to formally refute Abu El Haj's reckless accusations.
Elsewhere, she presents a memorable discussion of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Abu El Haj does not deny that in the year 70 Rome was ruling the Jewish population of Jerusalem, she merely dismisses "connection" between that ancient community and "the modern Jewish nation" as a matter of mere "belief." The other thing she doubts is the dating to the year 70 of the destruction layer discovered by Nahman Avigad during his the post-1967 dig in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
In the remnants of a building now open to the public as the Burnt House Museum Avigad's team found a destruction layer complete with ash and coins minted in 67, 68 and 69 CE. Based on this evidence, Avigad concluded that the house was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, "probably" on the 8th of Gorpieus, the date when Josephus tells us that the city was burned.
This was, of course, an extraordinary find. A cache of coins is such a delight because it gives you certainty: when a cache of coins is found in a destroyed building, the building cannot have been destroyed earlier than the date of the latest coin in the cache. Archaeologists have almost no other way of establishing so precise a date. Picture the excitement that must have raced through the staff as news of that perfect find spread.
Abu El Haj begs to differ. She finds it "equally plausible" that the house was destroyed by "accidental (or inexplicable) fires" or by fires caused by the Jews themselves, "there was internal Jewish strife in the Herodian city." Furthermore, "each of these houses could have been burned more than once, by Zealots, by Romans and by accident, partially but not wholly destroyed during each ensuing incendiary accident."
The Roman Jewish War of the years 66-70 was a failed war of national liberation, and, simultaneously, a Jewish civil war. We know from Josephus that early in the war the faction known as Zealots set fire to houses in the upper city. For Abu El Haj's scenario to be plausible we have to assume that the Burnt House, one of the few largely intact house foundations uncovered by the Avigad dig, happened also to have been among those few houses that were burned by Zealots early in the war, and that after it was burned thoroughly enough to leave an ash layer it was repaired and reinhabited at the height of a notoriously brutal war by whoever left that pile of coins.
We also need, according to Abu El Haj, "a lot more evidence to claim that the entire city burned down." Of course, we have it, a lot more. And not only from Josephus, although no one distrusts Josephus on this, there is too much collaborating evidence. (Note here that Abu El Haj accepts Josephus's word about the wealthy houses burnt by Zealots early in the war in a thoroughly positivist fashion, although she refuses to take his word on other things, and although there is very little corroborating evidence for these Zealot-set fires outside of Josephus.) There is corroboration for the burning of the entire city in the form of impressive archaeological evidence of a fire of extraordinary heat. The imprints of Herodian-era buildings can be seen today burnt into the massive limestone ashlars that form the walls of the Temple Mount. They bear witness to small limestone arched buildings (almost certainly shops) that turned to powder in the heat of a fire that could only have been generated by someone - Roman soldiers are the suspects fingered by Josephus – carrying in wood or other fuel to make the fire burn. Stone cities do burn, but they do not often burn with a fire that intense in peacetime because in ordinary times people not only fight the fires, they reduce the amount of fuel available by carrying textiles and other flammable objects of value out of houses and shops in the path of the fire. Daft is a good word to describe Abu El Haj's use of evidence.
None of this is to deny that archaeology and national narratives are inextricably entwined. Nationalists like Abu El Haj will undoubtedly continue to appropriate and misappropriate facts that come out of the ground.
What we can hope for, however, is that Duke University, the University of Chicago Press, Barnard College, and Columbia University will rediscover a commitment to uphold responsible standards of scholarship with regard to the use of archaeological evidence, and, certainly, refuse in future to accept work in which the author makes wild allegations based on the informal remarks of unnamed "student volunteers."