Saturday, October 06, 2007

Abu el-Haj: archaeology, scholarship - Roman destruction of Jerusalem

In this and the previous paired post, I explore questions of archaeological knowledge raised by Nadia Abu el-Haj's (2001) facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society. The previous one addressed the Assyrian destruction of Samaria; this one addresses the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

Roman destruction of Jerusalem

Here, I go through the criticisms of Abu el-Haj's discussion of our knowledge and understanding of the Burnt House and the Herodian Quarter in Jerusalem, which are both accepted as the remains and as evidence of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Note as I do that she had affirmed that 'we know... that the Roman Legion burned the city down, destroying the Upper City' (Anonymous A, 2006a) and that she had derived the alternative from the site director Nahman Avigad's (1970: 136) excavation report, which considered that '[t]he building was destroyed before 70 A.D., perhaps by the Zealots'.

Internal disputes

Biblical and ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Prof. Aren M. Maeir (September 2004) was the first to query Abu el-Haj's treatment of two sites associated with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.:
In her discussion of the "Jewish Quarter" in Jerusalem, Abu el-Haj argues against the "standard" explanation (Roman destruction at Jerusalem in 70 C.E.); she prefers a ludicrous explanation, relating the archaeological evidence of wide-scale destruction in Jerusalem to internal disputes, that flies in the face of available evidence.
(It would appear to be from this review (and a subsequent interview with Maeir) that journalist Gabrielle Birkner (16th November 2006) determined 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', although Birkner's use of 'class tensions' sounds closer to anti-Abu el-Haj activist Paula R. Stern's (7th August 2007d) 'Marxist-style rebellion' than it does Maeir's more generic 'internal disputes'.)

Accidental fires

Academic Anonymous A (30th November 2006a) joined in:
Roman (Second Temple) Judea is well-documented. The details given in Josephus, Tacitus, and elsewhere correspond neatly with the very extensive evidence that has emerged from the archaeological record....

Occam's razor is the rule that, when given two equally valid explanations for a phenomenon, one should embrace the less complicated, or, parsimonious, formulation. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae. It does apply to archaeology. Judging from the following, Anthropology may be the sole field of knowledge where it has ceased to apply.
[....] "Both of these interpretive frameworks clearly rely upon an already existing story. We already have to know that there was a Roman siege and destruction of the city. We have to know that there was internal Jewish strife in the Herodian city, a conflict that precipitated the burning down of Upper City homes.

No historical cause can be ascribed to evidence of fire on the basis of the material remains alone. With no prior narrative at all, ash could quite simply be evidence of the accidental (or, at least, an inexplicable) fire, or more accurately, of accidental (or inexplicable) fires.

On the basis of the ash itself, there is no way of determining either which cause the evidence of fire indexes, or whether all the evidence of fire at a single site (the Herodian Quarter or Burnt House) points toward a single historical cause, be that a known historical event or an accident.

(After all, 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 incident.)

"In such arguments and interpretations, the key (historical) texts and the key (archaeological) evidence remain in a circular relationship of discovery, explanation, and proof. The history produced through this work of archaeology relies on an already-existing story, which is used, in turn, to interpret the evidence found... The overall historical narrative produced about these periods in Jerusalem's past, whether Iron Age or early-Roman, never transcended this national quest or the broader historical paradigm implied therein." pp. 143-146[.]
As far as I can tell, Anonymous A (30th November 2006a) went on to quote most of pages 143-146 verbatim, with a few ellipses. They derided:
I suppose that, in a sense, it is "equally plausible" [italics by Abu El Haj] that the foundations of the only two houses uncovered from the time of the destruction, both happened to have been destroyed by accident or by multiple "accidental (or inexplicable) fires" in the year between the minting of coins found in them and the date of the known destruction of the city. But it is certainly not parsimonious.

Occam, you created your razor in vain.

Moreover, while it is true that "these interpretive frameworks clearly rely upon an already existing story," the "story" of the Roman destruction of the city in the year 70 is a well-documented part of Roman history supported by a vast amount of evidence, much of it literally carved in stone. This is hardly a case of an archaeologist choosing a narrative on a nationalistically-inspired whim.

By Abu El Haj's unique reading, however, archaeologists leapt to dubious conclusions because they are dedicated Jewish nationalists, and "a tale of destruction [is] much more in keeping with a nationalist historiography than are several alternative but equally plausible accounts," such as accidental fires in the only two houses discovered, fires that happened to both occur in stone houses with tile roofs in the early months of the year 70.
Even if Maeir (September 2004) labelled her alleged explanation 'ludicrous', at least he said it was grounded in 'internal disputes', not 'accidental fires'.

Parsimony and over-interpretation

Abu el-Haj did not 'argu[e] against the "standard" explanation (Roman destruction at Jerusalem in 70 C.E.)' as Maeir alleged. Anonymous A did not accuse her outright of questioning the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but did paraphrase her discussion of narrative down to 'the "story" of the Roman destruction of the city' and did feel the need to point out that it was, 'a well-documented part of Roman history supported by a vast amount of evidence, much of it literally carved in stone', implying that that was questioned by Abu el-Haj.

Yet, Anonymous A (30th November 2006a) even quoted a passage in which Abu el-Haj stated that, '[c]learly, we know... that the Roman Legion burned the city down, destroying the Upper City on the eighth of Elul in the year 70 C.E.'

Using just the material Anonymous A (2006a) reproduced, it can be seen that Abu el-Haj only considered that,
[f]or example, at least some of the evidence of fire and destruction at both Burnt House and the Herodian Quarter could just as convincingly be read as evidence of class or sectarian conflict.... From those same historical sources, after all, we also know that Jerusalem erupted in intra-Jewish conflict on more than one occasion prior to the year 70 C.E. and that Upper City homes were set alight by "Zealots" who considered Jerusalem's priestly class to have become corrupt, having strayed from the values of Judaism.
Indeed, Abu el-Haj's interpretation is anything but the condescendingly-branded 'unique reading' that Anonymous (2006a) alleged: it is derived from the excavator Nahman Avigad's (1970) own excavation reports.
In fact, in one Preliminary Report, the house at Site E is interpreted as exhibiting the material signs of such intra-Jewish conflict: "The period of the Herodian dynasty (37B.C. to A.D. 70) was represented [at this site] by three floor levels in most of the excavated area... The building was destroyed before 70 A.D., perhaps by the Zealots, who are known to have caused severe damage to Jerusalem in the period prior to its destruction by the Romans" (Avigad [1970: 136])[.]

That possibility is not recognized at either Burnt House o[r] the Herodian Mansion, however, even though the time span between those two possible kinds of fires - those set by Jewish Zealots and those by Romans - is too short for any dating of the ash itself to determine which event it proves.

In other words, both of these stories are underdetermined by the data. Each is potentially compatible with it. The choice thus rests at the conceptual level: which interpretative framework is to be brought to bear upon the archaeological evidence.

Abu el-Haj's alternative narrative

Anonymous A (30th November 2006a) quoted 'Abu El Haj's alternative narrative':
"[....] From about the middle of the first century C.E., when the construction finally stopped and money ran out and so forth, historians are now beginning to point out how much tension there began to be within the city of Jerusalem between poor people living in the slums who had worked on the Temple and the rich people living in the Upper City who were the landlords, landowners, and Temple functionaries, and so forth...

In fact, (vis-a-vis) the beginning of the revolt in 66, Josephus (a rich person himself) tends to downplay the social aspects of the revolt... (But) people came up from the City of David, which is Silwan, and burned the municipal records office and then the villas of the rich in the Upper City... So this may be evidence of the rage and anger in Jerusalem, and the destruction you see here was not done by Romans but by Jews themselves."
Anonymous A (2006a) invited readers to,
Follow Abu El Haj's chain of logic with me:
Avigad found just two largely intact houses in the upper city, both burnt.
Abu El Haj knows f[ro]m Josephus that there were class riots in the year 66.
She postulates that each of the two houses was burnt, but only partially destroyed, in the riots of the year 66.
Then each house was rebuilt - in the midst of a major war against the Romans, a strange time to build or rebuild a Jewish mansion, albeit not inconceivable.
And the rebuilding was done promptly, the houses were reinhabited in time to be filled with the coins, pottery, and utensils destroyed by the fires in the year 70.
All of this is in aid [of] avoiding the parsimonious explanation; that the ash layers are evidence of the fires known to have burned the city in the year 70.
It is a little unclear here, but it sounds like either there were more than one layer of ash in one stratigraphic sequence, or there were more than one, discontinuous ash layer across the site.
There is, of course, a political agenda here. Abu El Haj wants to establish that all archaeological dig reports and monographs are mere "stories."
This claim is, of course, undermined by Abu el-Haj's derivation of her interpretation from the excavator's own dig report, which Anonymous A (2006a) must have known when they wrote that, because they wrote out that passage verbatim along with the others within their post.

Academic Anonymous C (14th May 2007) recounted:
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....

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, [as] "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.
I don't know if the evidence revealed repair or rebuilding, but Abu el-Haj did not claim that the damaged and/or destroyed parts of the building were 'rebuilt' (as Anonymous A said her alternative required) or '[abandoned then] reinhabited' (as Anonymous C said it required).

Histories underdetermined by data

She posited that, '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 incident'. (That is to say, they could have continued to live in the parts of the house undamaged by the first burning episode.)

Anyway, the critics have made far too much of Abu el-Haj's note of the possibility that one site suffered two burning episodes, possibly because it was easy criticism; the class or sectarian (or accidental) fires that she noted could have caused the burning at the houses could have happened in 69 or 70, removing the need for a second burning episode in the explanation.

Her point was that we know there were fires set by Romans, Zealots and slum-dwellers between the years 66 and 70 C.E., but that we have no evidence at the houses that reveals to us which of those arsonists burned which of those houses.

In a footnote to page 146 that Anonymous A (30th November 2006a) did not quote, despite the pages of material they did, Abu el-Haj (2002: 306n8) recalled that:
In his critique of the field of classical archaeology, Anthony Snodgrass fabricates a humorous and telling example of the dangerous tales that can be spun out of such evidentiary reasoning:
Imagine the reaction of the future excavator of Geneva in, say, 3,000 years' time. He uncovers the ruins of the Grand-Théâtre de Genève, which was in point of fact destroyed by fire on May 1st, 1951. He forms tentative hypotheses, which he tests by excavating some 250 metres away. He he strikes the ruins of the Bâtiment Electoral, burned by another fire on August 4th, 1964. His hypothesis hardens; it would be perverse to deny that both destructions were caused by the same historical event; he has the chronological evidence to show that they occurred close together in time; he knows, too, the dates of World War II. We can safely predict the conclusions to which (at least if he follows the practices of twentieth century classical archaeology) he will come. (Snodgrass 1987: 65-66)
Abu el-Haj's point was no more and no less than the one that she made in the body of the text, that 'both of these stories are underdetermined by the data'. She neither denied nor even questioned the Roman destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, she affirmed it.

Questions of archaeological knowledge are important - they affect Abu el-Haj's reputation within the archaeological community, her ability to work and the impact that her work has. These incriminations negatively affect that and the campaign against Abu el-Haj uses them as intellectual cover.

Anti-Abu el-Haj activist Paula R. Stern (7th August 2007d) wants Israel and Israelis 'to be ever vigilant against those who seek to rewrite our history and deny our past' (although Abu el-Haj denied nothing that was true), but Stern cannot write that in her petition against Abu el-Haj, so she (19th February 2007a) 'urge[s] you [Columbia University/Barnard College] to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj.... because the use of evidence in "Facts on the Ground" fails to meet the standards of scholarship'.

It sounds like Stern's (7th August 2007d) true objection is that,
Even without the security of tenure El Haj has signed the petition urging Columbia to divest f[ro]m Israel, and a petition alleging that Israel planned to carry out a brutal and massive ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians at the start of the Iraq war. There was no evidence of such a plan, just as there is no evidence for the absu[r]d allegations found in her book.
I examine that indictment in a later post on the petition expressing fears of Israeli ethnic cleansing during the Iraq War, but Stern gave as an example,
her allegation that in the year 70, Jerusalem was destroyed not by the Roman Army, but by a Marxist-style rebellion of lower-class Jews targeting upper-class Jews. The book is filled with risible pseudo-history of this type.
In this case, Nadia Abu el-Haj's did not even say anything controversial, merely noting that we know there were fires set by Romans, Zealots and slum-dwellers between the years 66 and 70 C.E., but that we have no evidence at the houses that reveals to us which of those arsonists burned which of those houses; her critics didn't defend archaeology, but help the campaign against her (which does no service whatsoever to archaeology).

The next post explores some of the ways Abu el-Haj's argumentation and presentation have been questioned, through archaeologist and activist Alexander H. Joffe's attack upon Abu el-Haj's work, in particular her understanding of archaeology as science (with digressions into the backgrounds of Campus Watch and the David Project, for which Joffe worked and from which the reasons and strategies for targeting can be deduced).

(Some paragraphs quoted were broken for readability.)

No comments:

Post a Comment