Saturday, October 06, 2007

Abu el-Haj: archaeology, scholarship - bulldozer archaeology

Here, I examine claims surrounding the use of bulldozers and earth-movers in Israeli archaeology in Nadia Abu el-Haj's facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society.

Bulldozer archaeology?

[Posted on the 22nd of October 2007.]

Anonymous C (14th May 2007) noted that, '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."' (If the link doesn't work, you can check the 'inappropriately used' quote elsewhere.)

As I pointed out in the previous post on critiques of Abu el-Haj's theory and methodology, Anonymous A's (7th December 2006b) assertion that, 'Abu el Haj makes no effort to prove her case, except by quoting an anonymous archaeologist' is unfair.
Their quote, that
Israeli archaeologists have routinely "used bulldozers and otherwise dismantled and removed various finds and buildings dating to various Islamic periods" (p. 157) in a deliberate and calculatedly nationalist effort to "quickly work their way down to those strata in which the Jewish (colonial-) national imagination is rooted" [p. 153],
(understandably) did not include the very next sentence on page 157 that, '[i]n addition, such criticism is based upon a reading of the archaeological records and excavation reports', or the one after that, in which she referred to Nahman Avigad's work, from whose excavation reports, just a few pages earlier, Abu el-Haj (2002: 149-150) had reproduced direct quotations stating that bulldozers had been used on "recent" (early Islamic to Ottoman) material.
It almost looks like Anonymous A used Amazon Reader themselves, as I did, but searching for sets of key terms, for example, bulldozer and Islamic or Jewish and national. If they had read Abu el-Haj's book, it would be difficult to explain them choosing those two quotes, four pages apart and citing them in reverse order as if they were from the same page; it would be very difficult indeed to justify them excluding the sentences that put her claims in context and that prove those (about Nahman Avigad, if not David Ussishkin) correct.

Martin Solomon and Anonymous A (27th November 2006b) reproduced the passage that has fed this controversy.
This excerpt from Abu El Haj's book gives some idea of why the archaeological community is irate:
"The most controversial practice in Israeli archaeology has been the use of bulldozers on archaeological sites. Among Palestinian officials at the Haram al-Sharif and the Awqaf as well as many other archaeologists – Palestinian and European or American (trained) – the use of bulldozers has become the ultimate sign of "bad science" and of nationalist politics guiding research agendas. Critics situate this practice squarely within (a specific understanding of) the politics of a nationalist tradition of archaeological research. In other words, bulldozers are used in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible (Iron Age through Early Roman.) During the excavation of the biblical site of Jezreel in which I participated, a bulldozer was used in order to more quickly determine the direction and structure of the Iron Age moat. In doing so, the remains above it were summarily destroyed. A joint dig of the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, the research priorities of the excavation were defined by the Tel Aviv team. The aim was to study the Iron Age."
(the footnote to this paragraph reads: "This bulldozing incident occurred a week after I stopped participating in the excavations and was recounted to me after the fact by several participants, both archaeologists and student volunteers. The decision to use bulldozers precipitated quite an argument between the British and Israeli archaeologists digging the site, I was told. With one exception, the former strenuously objected. The exception was a British archaeologist who was a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, a student of the Israeli archaeologist leading the dig.")
"While this chronological focus (and its nationalist implications) provides a partial explanation for such excavating techniques, in order to more fully understand when and why bulldozers are used on excavation sites in Palestine/Israel, the practice needs to be situated within a broader set of methodological questions. The practical logic that guides archaeologists at work determines how sites will be excavated and which remains will be produced, carefully recorded, and preserved. At both the Jezreel excavations and the Jerusalem excavations, archaeologists moved through dirt rather quickly. Israeli excavators tend to use large shovels, pick axes and large buckets in order to move through the earth. In contrast, for example, the European (mostly British) trained archaeologists at Jezreel explained that they would prefer to excavate with smaller tools and slower digging techniques, including, for example, sifting dirt in search of very small remains: artifactual, animal, seeds, and so forth[.] These smaller finds are seen as essential to the reconstruction of aspects of ancient daily life. In general, however, in Israeli archaeology – and clearly, on those excavations carried out in Jerusalem's Old City – the practical work of excavating favors larger (mostly, well-preserved architectural) remains over smaller remains. It is only after "significant finds" have been located that specific loci are more carefully excavated [for] smaller remains (often pottery shards) that can illuminate the history (the chronology of identity) of the architectural structures themselves or lend insight into the settlement patterns of specific (of significant) stratigraphic layers." (pp. 148-149)
.... Here is a site that monitors the destruction wrought on the Temple Mount... perpetrated by the self-same people El Haj points to as authorities on archaeological elegance.
(As biblical and ancient Near Eastern archaeology Prof. Aren M. Maeir (September 2004) noted, 'Abu el-Haj's failure even to mention the wanton destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif by the Muslims in Jerusalem is quite strange'.)

What David Meir-Levi (14th August 2007) deemed,
Most salacious of all is her condemnation of Professor David Ussishkin for what she calls his unprofessional use of "bulldozers" and "big shovels" (pp. 148 ff) at Tel Jezreel. Her accusations are based upon comments by other excavators and volunteer participants, all anonymously reported. She never interviewed Professor Ussishkin to ask him about his use of what she considers inappropriate techniques.
His use of quotations was understandably selective - Abu el-Haj used the words '"bulldozers" and "big shovels"', after all, while she didn't explicitly accuse Ussishkin of unprofessional behaviour - but she did accuse him of having 'summarily destroyed' archaeological material.

Abu el-Haj's (2002: 148-149) actual point was that,
In general, however, in Israeli archaeology – and clearly, on those excavations carried out in Jerusalem's Old City – the practical work of excavating favors larger (mostly, well-preserved architectural) remains over smaller remains. It is only after "significant finds" have been located that specific loci are more carefully excavated for smaller remains (often pottery shards) that can illuminate the history (the chronology of identity) of the architectural structures themselves or lend insight into the settlement patterns of specific (of significant) stratigraphic layers.
Jezreel excavation director David Ussishkin did defend his work; yet, before his defence is reviewed, it is important to note that Martin Solomon and Anonymous A (27th November 2006b) prefaced the excerpt that Ussishkin saw with Prof. William G. Dever's accusation 'that "her scholarship is faulty, misleading and dangerous.... demonizing a generation of apolitical Israeli archaeologists"'; that damning quotation was elicited from Bill Dever by journalist Gabrielle Birkner.

As I showed in my previous post on the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, Birkner (16th November 2006) claimed that 'Ms. Abu el-Haj suggests Jerusalem was destroyed not by the Romans, but by the Jews themselves due to rising class tensions among them', when Abu el-Haj (2002: 145) had actually stated explicitly that 'we know... that the Roman Legion burned the city down' (cited in Anonymous A, 30th November 2006a). (It's unclear both whether Dever had read the book or just his interviewer's excerpts and whether he would have reacted similarly had he known that Birkner's statements were incorrect.)

[On Dr. Ralph Harrington's blog, an anonymous commentator has said that, '[p]ace [contrary to] Sam Hardy's aspersions, William Dever has read every tedious, tendentious, politicized, convoluted, jargon-laden, disorganized page of Facts on the Ground'.

David Ussishkin saw only the extracts presented in a blog post; not knowing whether Bill Dever had likewise only seen extracts or whether he had read the book, I declared my ignorance. I cast no aspersions and fail to see how stating my own ignorance of relevant facts could constitute casting aspersions on someone else.

I would note that the value in declaring one's own ignorance is precisely in avoiding casting unsubstantiated aspersions on possibly innocent parties. If Anon had read my post, they would have known that I neither criticised nor condemned Dever; if they knew that, they would have known that they were unfairly casting aspersions on me. I wouldn't seek to read anything into them making that statement elsewhere, rather than here, where their reader would also have read what I wrote.

Since Dever has apparently read 'every... page of Facts on the Ground', he must have read the 'tedious, tendentious, politicized, convoluted, jargon-laden, disorganized page' on which Abu el-Haj stated that 'we know... that the Roman Legion burned the city down'.

I do not believe that Bill Dever would have known that Abu el-Haj recognised the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem but failed to correct Gabrielle Birkner and I do not believe that, thus corrected, she would have published material she knew to be false. I presume that they did not discuss it and her ignorance went unchecked.]

Moreover, since Ussishkin (5th December 2006) had to 'rely upon [Solomon and Anonymous A's] quotations', it is interesting to look at what was left outside of them - Abu el-Haj's sustained (and empirical) critique of Nahman Avigad's excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem - which, I think, may partly explain both why Abu el-Haj interpreted Ussishkin's work the way she did and why he interpreted her work the way he did.

Unfortunately, having chased up so many questionable quotations, I ran out of access to facts on the ground through Amazon Reader; nevertheless, I have been able to match controversial parts of that text with parts of Abu el-Haj's (1998) article on the remaking of past and present in contemporary Jerusalem. In the footnote to the phrase 'the use of bulldozers has become the ultimate sign of bad science' in an earlier article (1998: 172; in her (2002: 148) book, it was 'the ultimate sign of "bad science"'), Abu el-Haj (1998: 183n17) said that:
They [biblical archaeologists] emphasized, that before pulling out a bulldozer the area to be demolished has to be adequately studied to determine if it is still a stratified and therefore useful archaeological site or if there is unstratified "debris" that can be removed. The criticism of these archaeologists, then, concerning the use of bulldozers on the Jerusalem excavations was based upon their assessment that bulldozers demolished sites that may well have contained useful data. Not enough prior work had been done to know.
After the end of Martin Solomon and Anonymous A's clip, Abu el-Haj (2002: 149) went on to say that:
Reading through Avigad's reports, it is incontrovertible that more recent periods received far less attention in these excavations than did earlier ones.... It ['the term "recent periods"'] encompasses everything from early-Islamic through Ottoman times... in contrast to chronological labels for earlier eras that specify, for example, Iron (Israelite), Hellenistic, or the Herodian periods as distinctive and distinguishable moments in the city's past.

At the most obvious level, bulldozers were used again and again (mostly those of the municipality) to remove more recent remains before the work of archaeology was begun.
Having quoted from Avigad's excavation reports, Abu el-Haj (2002: 150) continued that:
these more recent periods were often not enough of a historical priority for the archaeologists to intervene and demand that they be protected as archaeological sites, at least long enough to study and record before they were destroyed.
I don't know about the state of preservation of buildings, but in her footnote, Abu el-Haj (2002: 307n15) observed that,
Ottoman period as well as medieval buildings were standing buildings, not ones that needed to be excavated. As such, these bulldozing decisions transformed the contemporary landscape, obliterating an existing architecture.
Abu el-Haj (1998: 172) had previously stated that 'one cannot plausibly argue that finds are preserved simply because they are labeled "Jewish" or come from nationally significant periods'. Her (1998: 172) point - again made in relation to Avigad's work - was that the archaeological record 'may partly reflect the result of excavating techniques, as well as an a priori definition of what constitutes a (significant) find'.

Abu el-Haj (1998: 183n19) even went so far as to plead that:
I do not want to overstate this argument, however. Jerusalem has been continuously occupied for several millennia, and building activities of later periods have largely destroyed the remains of the earlier cities on which they were built. Thus, in contrast to undisturbed sites, much less evidence is likely to be preserved – particularly when we are talking about "smaller finds" that may be essential to reconstructing the daily life of other times.
She was explaining a basic archaeological principle: the logic and method of excavation affects what data is recovered (which may or may not, deliberately or incidentally, coincide with nationalist ideologies).

Abu el-Haj did not accuse Ussishkin of nationalist archaeology; still, she did claim that, because British and Israeli archaeologists dig differently, they recover different evidence and that, at Jezreel, 'the remains above it [the Iron age moat] were summarily destroyed'.

In an older article, as well as in the newer book, Abu el-Haj made clear that this was a matter of professional disagreement: while 'one British archaeologist with whom I spoke was particularly angry precisely because this decision meant the destruction of the area's Byzantine strata in which he was most interested' (Abu el-Haj, 1998: 183n17), '[t]he exception' to British objections to the use of earth-moving equipment 'was a British archaeologist who was a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, a student of the Israeli archaeologist leading the dig' (Abu el-Haj, 2001), because he had learned the Israeli, rather than the British, way of digging.

Ussishkin's (5th December 2006) defence ran:
Here are my comments regarding the observations of Nadia el-Haj about the Jezreel excavations. I don't know the book, and I rely on your quotations.
1. I don't remember meeting Nadia el-Haj during the excavations. All her accusations are based on talks with anonymous participants after the excavations.
Not because they expected it (at least not from the director against whom the allegations were made, who has provided the model of a professional defence of professional practice since), but merely as a precaution, (particularly junior) members of the excavation might well have wanted to voice their concerns without the risk of retribution, that is, anonymously; given the campaign against Abu el-Haj, some might consider their fears justified.
She did not study the excavation reports nor approached the directors of the project to ask their views. This is not a proper and serious way of research.
That would appear to be poor practice; still, her sources may have been sufficiently senior that she (perhaps unwisely) took their information on trust.

Although tactlessly phrased, her statements were based upon the testimony of archaeologists who dug at the site and ought to be accepted as fair comment. While, intuitively, it feels like he ought to have been given right of reply, some would argue that that opportunity exists - discussions and arguments can run on and on for years in journal articles and letters.
2. The main interest in Tel Jezreel is the Iron Age enclosure, which turns it into a site of prime importance. Beyond that the site is of minimal interest especially as most remains in most periods are badly preserved and hardly stratified. I initiated the excavation project as monumental Iron Age remains were exposed in development works. As an archaeologist I am specializing in the ancient historical periods and hence my interest in Jezreel.
This is the crux of the matter. I don't know the site or the material, so I would not seek to comment, but Abu el-Haj's point was that the British archaeologists wanted to prioritise 'the reconstruction of aspects of ancient daily life' that might survive despite poor preservation and stratification.

It is very difficult to parse the phrasing, but given Abu el-Haj made it very clear that she was discussing the way the schools of thought and practice had developed, I suspect that she did not mean to accuse Ussishkin of behaving unprofessionally when she said that the more recent material had been 'summarily destroyed' (or 'rather summarily removed', as she more tactfully phrased it in her (1998: 172) article), but (rightly or wrongly) to emphasise just how differently different archaeologists might treat the same material.
3.... Wherever there were remains later than the Iron Age they were properly excavated and studied....
4. There are legitimate discussions of excavation methods in each site and of course such discussions took place at Jezreel, and different opinions have been expressed....
Either Abu el-Haj or her informants may have considered these 'discussions', 'argument[s]'.
5. I believe the use of a JCB to determine the line of the rock-cut Iron Age moat was justified. It was essential to establish the size of the Iron Age enclosure in order to understand properly the site. In most of the area to the south of the site where this work took place bulldozers had removed and disturbed the debris during development works which had taken place here prior to the beginning of the excavation project. In view of the nature of the debris here it would have been impossible to accomplish the work with the aid of students/volunteers. A JCB with a long arm working delicately under archaeological supervision was the right solution: it can do useful work without damaging ancient remains, and I believe that this was the case here. Some later wall remains were exposed and recorded but were mostly left unexcavated – they probably belong to Byzantine domestic remains in the Iron Age moat or along its inner side. They all remain buried for future excavations.
As historian Dr. Ralph Harrington (2007a) acutely observed, '[i]n general non-technical discourse the term 'bulldozer' is frequently applied in a loose way to a wide range of earthmoving vehicles' - I myself, while writing this, almost accepted the use of the term "bulldozer" uncritically, as I knew what she meant by it (technically), even though I was aware of what she meant by it (politically), but - 'in this context the distinction between the two types of machine is important'. Abu el-Haj ought to have been more careful with her use of the term.

[Dr. Harrington has made two important comments on "Nadia Abu el-Haj and 'bulldozer archaeology'", both valid. The first is that there is a 'distinct difference in tone' between her 1998 article and her 2003 book, most marked by the loss of nuance in the book, despite having had more time to think and more space to write.

The second is that '[t]he bulldozer has come to be seen as an epitome of Israeli brutality and destructiveness, and I believe Nadia Abu El Haj is consciously drawing upon that significance', which Harrington had already excellently explicated in his original piece on "excavation, earthmoving and archaeological practice in Israel". After I cut that discussion out of an earlier draft of this post, I forgot to direct people to Harrington's consideration of the issue.]

As Abu el-Haj (2001) claimed, earth-moving equipment 'was used in order to more quickly determine the direction and structure of the Iron Age moat'; but, as Ussishkin (5th December 2006) explained, that was because the debris of the later strata had been 'removed and disturbed' by prior development work.

(It's worth remembering that there can never be 100% recovery of the many sets and webs of data contained within an archaeological site and that choices about what should be targeted with the limited resources available have to be made; in line with good professional practice, some of the material outside of the research priorities of the excavation that was not subsequently going to be destroyed by the development was 'left unexcavated.... buried for future excavations' (Ussishkin, 5th December 2006).)

In her critique of Avigad's work, Abu el-Haj appears to have done sound work, but in her criticism of Ussishkin, she appears to have phrased things tactlessly; nevertheless, it must be remembered that in his defence, Ussishkin spoke equally tactlessly, dismissing the material outside of his research interests as 'of minimal interest especially as most remains in most periods are badly preserved and hardly stratified'.

That echoed exactly Abu el-Haj's informants' concerns about the loss of information about daily life that is accessible despite poor preservation and stratification. Presumably, that is how he talked about it during the 'discussions' and that is what led Abu el-Haj's informants to perceive that the material had been 'summarily destroyed'. Nobody comes out of this unscathed and the most important lesson for all concerned is probably to moderate their own language so that they don't elicit intemperate responses from others, which only creates increasingly bitter disputes that might have been avoided.

The next post casts an eye over the phenomenon of settler archaeology.

[Updated on the 25th of October 2007.]

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