A headline caught my eye: “Archaeology in the Struggle for Jerusalem“. As usual when archaeology is used for political ends, it is actually subservient to written history in this case.
In the Bustan neighbourhood of the Silwan precinct in East Jerusalem, the municipality of Jerusalem has ordered 88 buildings torn down. Most are inhabited by Palestinians, most were built without a permit, most can be expected to sit on top of interesting archaeology. But not just any cool anonymous Prehistoric stuff for us nerds: the municipality wants to make an national archaeological park of the area to show off a certain historically documented period. They’re not curious about the Chalcolithic, they don’t itch to learn more about Canaanite settlement, they aren’t fans of Saladin curious about the 12th century AD. When we learn that the nationalist settler association Elad are intended to run the park, we know what levels they’re going for: The Kingdom of David and the 1st Millennium BC. Anglophone readers will know the place name Silwan as Siloam, of Pool fame, one of the sites where the Old Testament can be linked to the archaeological record.
If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve seen this sort of thing after the fact: the great open pits of the Fori Imperiali, where Mussolini had entire neighbourhoods torn down in order to shovel away the Middle Ages and reach the Imperial Period. In that case, it was basically rich Italians evicting poor Italians, so any protests would have been far more quiet than in East Jerusalem.
At Tell Hazor in the Galilee, where I did my first digging in 1990, excavations have largely been funded by wealthy New Yorkers. That is, until the team reached the pre-Israelite period and hit upon the ruins of a Canaanite palace. Very cool stuff! Then it suddenly proved quite hard to find the money to build a protective roof over the remains. Canaanites, schmanaanites, you know?
Extreme nationalism is an ugly thing regardless of the specific ethnicity involved. On-lookers everywhere wish that Israel would just elect a mixed-ethnicity secular liberal government and stop looking to the past. I mean, come on, those buildings in Bustan were built without permits because Palestinians can’t get building permits in Jerusalem. Archaeology should proceed in constructive dialogue between scholars, local people and other interested parties. To project managers: if you start to feel a need to evict living people forcefully in order to get at a site, you’re doing it all wrong and for the wrong reasons.