What I’ve Been Reading: Reflections on Archaeology and Israeli Settler-Nationhood

Today I read Nadia Abu El-Haj’s article, “Reflections on Archaeology and Israeli Settler-Nationhood,” and found it to be super relevant and awesome. Her principal claim is that the Israeli government used archaeology to justify their occupation of palestine, to construct that occupation as a proper return, an not as violent emigration. She emphasizes the importance of archaeology’s supposed empiricism to this effort, arguing that Israel used the ‘objective’ methodology of excavation to construct the notion that their return and subsequent occupation were scientifically sanctioned, and that the land belonged to them in a deep historical way.

The use of scientific rhetoric to justify occupation definitely resonates with what I’ve been reading and thinking about in terms of North American archaeology, but the fact that Israel aims ultimately to construct a story of return makes the two archaeological constructions of nationhood very different. The similarities are still compelling, and I found El-Haj’s discussion of constructing new  knowledge and new history out of the ’empirical’ practice of excavation to be very enlightening. The contrast of inherently deserved return vs. rightful, virtuous invasion reminded me of something very interesting, however.

In a class last semester I read William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “The Prairies” which narrates that totally insane history of the mounds that archaeologists totally believed for an embarrassingly long time ( I summarized this account in my post about the mound builders–the story where a different, probably white, race of people built the mounds and then were killed off by the Indians). Reading El-Haj made me look at that archaeological narrative different. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I think that by constructing a history in which the European colonists that began arriving in the 16th century were not the first white people to live on American land, United States’ archaeologists were able to fashion themselves a kind of narrative of return.

Bryant concludes his poem with the lines “From the ground/Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice/Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn/Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds/Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain/Over the dark-brown furrows. All at once/A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,/And I am in the wilderness alone.” I read these lines as mourning the loss of people that Bryant feels kinship with, the lines describe his regret over the long-ago loss of his kind. and even though the poem ends with wilderness and solitude, I think Bryan is constructing a history where his occupation of native land avenged the destruction of what he describes as a glorious civilization of people. 

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