How the Past Tells Us Who We Are
Archeology has always been a means for humanity to learn about its past and find more about its history. However, not always archeology has been conducted by representatives of different nationalities and ethnicities in their own lands. The matter is that early professional archeological excavations and expeditions in the 19th century – 20th centuries were conducted by predominantly Western archeologists, which was so for a variety of reasons, including their scientific interest in ancient cultures and pre-historic times, religious inspirations, politics, and imperialistic aspirations. However, expeditions conducted all over the world could hardly be useful in the process of construction of national identity of their countries of origin. Nonetheless, archeology has played a significant role in the construction of national identities of new countries all over the world, for instance, Israel and Gulf states. Moreover, it is still booming in some of those countries that have started using archeology as a means of reviving their past and bringing it together with their present and future.
Overall, archeology has always been instrumental in contributing to “the understanding of human diversity and hence of the human condition” (Renfrew & Bahn 2012). However, it has had different meanings for different people and, in the recent past, it has started playing an essential role in “the definition of national identity where the past is used to legitimize the present of reinforcing a sense of national greatness” (Renfrew & Bahn 2012). This reinforcement has occurred in different ways across the world, depending on numerous factors. Thus, archeology has done very little for national identity of the West, even though the overwhelming majority of early archeologists conducting expeditions in different corners of the world originated from European countries, primarily Britain and France, and, later, from the USA. In turn, “much of the archeology produced in the Anglophone world by and large has tended to strengthen the present power system in the West rather than challenge it” (Tilley 1998). Besides, archeology was inseparable from politics and imperialist aspirations before World War I, since Britain and France saw it as a venue for establishing domination in the international arena and even competed among themselves in the field of archeology (Tilley 1998). Western archeology inevitably politicized its findings, irrespective of whether archeologists wanted it or not. Thus, with respect to the West and achievements of its archeologists, “all too often the vision of the past produced is a capitalist vision, in which present-day values such as maximization are simply transposed to the past, with an unfortunate naturalizing effect in the present” (Tilley 1998). At the same time, even though archeology has had a contributing effect to the national identity of Western countries, despite a vast number of Western archeologists, dominating the field of early archeology, it has played a significant role in the construction of national identities of some new countries with Israel and some Gulf states being the most prominent examples.
Israel, as a state on the geopolitical map of the world, is a relatively new country that has complicated relations with its neighboring countries and controversial claims to the territory, disputed by Palestine. Overall, the history of the Israeli people is complicated and filled with tragic moments and religious motives. Therefore, when the country emerged as a sovereign state, its people seemed to be united by their need to live together in a strong country and mostly by their religious views, but could be hardly claimed to have a strong national identity (Elon 1997). In the 1960s, “religion was the opium of the people” who displayed little interest in the past of their nation and not always recognized themselves as one nation due to their inherent differences in political views, some cultural peculiarities, and background they carried from countries they migrated to Israel during the first and second waves of immigration (Elon 1997). Everything changed within a short period of time after the discovery of a mosaic from the sixth-century Jewish synagogue in the Esdraelon Valley (Elon 1997). Although, local settlers were skeptical and unenthusiastic about the discovery, for some unknown reason, they could not bury it again and forget about it. Hence, the first real craze for the Jewish archeology and discovery of the Jewish past through archeological researches occurred at the time of low morale and disinterest in cultural and national affairs (Elon 1997). Beit Alpha became a symbol of the national Jewish past and created a platform for the construction of national identity of the Israeli people. One of the contemporaries of this first significant archeological expedition in the new country summed up the experience of all individuals who rushed to the site, searching for something they could not name, but that can now be deemed as their shared national identity. He said: “There was a feeling that this piece of ground, for which people had suffered so much, wasn’t just any plot of land but a piece of earth where their forefathers had lived” (Elon 1997). Furthermore, Jewish archeological expeditions, carried out in Israel and Palestine, were essential for people, as “Their history was revealed to them and they saw it with their own eyes” (Elon 1997). This unprecedented enthusiasm about archeology lasted for several decades during which the national identity of the Israeli people emerged strong and rooted in the past. In Israel, archeology became tightly interconnected with nationalism, which can be proved by speeches and moods of politicians who appealed the people’s need for the discovery of their history, as the basis for their national foundation. Hence, archeological findings have become an inspiration for almost all national symbols of Israel, including coins, postage stamps, medals, the State Seal, and others. Military troops were sworn at the site of huge archeological importance for many years and their oath included an element of honoring their past and their ancestors (Elon 1997).