The Bloody Politics of Archaeology

When It Comes to Digging Up the Past, the Present Doesn’t Lack for Hidden Agendas

The past is the past, and perhaps it is a truism that we can never know the past with absolute certainty. However it does not follow that the past should be manipulated or mythologized for present social, personal, and political agendas—yet that is what all too often happens, sometimes very purposefully and consciously, other times inadvertently. Often we fall into the trap of seeing what we want to see, seeing that which suits our current purposes. It occurs among laypeople, political leaders, archaeologists, and historians. This has been the situation for thousands of years.

The Romans of Imperial times looked back to their antiquity. Aeneas, fleeing from Troy, landed at the mouth of the Tiber and contributed to the greatness that was to be Rome. In the United States today a group of African-Americans claim the ancient Egyptian civilization, which they typically refer to as Kemit or Kemet, as their patrimony. I attended a conference not long ago in Georgia (USA) where the ethnicity and race of the pharaoh Tutankhamun was among the topics of scholarly discussion. Clearly, most attendees agreed, the boy-king was a “Black African,” as were many, probably most, of the pharaohs. Honestly, I believe those who reconstruct ancient dynastic Egypt as an inherently African civilization have a point, but they (as well as their opponents) may be thinking in modern racial terms, which were not applicable thousands of years ago. Certainly the African continent is huge and diverse, and the pharaohs were not representative of a pan-African indigenous culture as some of the presenters at the Georgia conference implied.

As I have encountered during my travels in Egypt, people can have mixed feelings about the archaeological remains found in their country. A predominantly Muslim nation, some modern Egyptians have nothing but contempt for relics from the time of the pharaohs. Once, while having lunch in a café near the Giza Plateau, I struck up a conversation with a local Cairo University faculty member. Clearly well educated (indeed, my impression was that he held a Ph.D.) and a man of the modern world, he was curious about my business in Egypt. When he learned I was studying the Great Pyramid, he replied that it is a heathen monstrosity of the pre-Muslim era that might as well be destroyed. Perhaps a large shopping mall, modeled on those in Dubai, could be erected in its place. No, he certainly was not an Egyptologist. The ancient Egyptians were not his ancestors; rather they represented the people his Arab forefathers conquered centuries earlier! I believe this gentleman was an economist, in which case his emotions led him to ignore the fact that the Great Pyramid and other ancient sites are worth a lot of money to the Egyptian economy—much more than a few shopping malls.

Tourism based on archaeological remains is not always compatible with local concepts of national and religious identity. In Egypt the dynastic monuments are simultaneously a source of pride, monetary gain, and an offense to certain devout Muslims who, given the chance, would take action against them. The situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in 2001 comes to mind; ancient monuments and artifacts were systematically damaged or destroyed, including the destruction of some of the world’s tallest carvings of the Buddha, 55- and 37-meter-tall standing statues cut into the Bamiyan sandstone cliff 1500 years ago. Similar desecration occurred in China during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, with the ongoing political instability in Egypt, there are those who would follow the Taliban lead and deface or destroy ancient Egyptian monuments. However, such actions could economically cripple the large proportion of the Egyptian population dependent on tourists who, for the most part, are coming to see the antiquities. Destroy or remove the ancient monuments and artifacts, and perhaps a quarter of the Egyptian population will be severely impacted financially (and many more will be affected indirectly). Such actions would only further foment the unrest and could, I believe, help fuel an all-out civil war between different factions and interests.

Use and abuse of archaeological excavations and interpretations seem to run the gamut from employing a site as a tourist attraction, to using the glories of the past to instill present pride in a people or country, to manipulating archaeological interpretations to bolster a particular brand of political thought and action, to utilizing archaeological findings as support for territorial claims, to even legitimizing various forms of ethnic cleansing based on the purported evidence of the past. Some years ago I read a book focusing on these types of issues: Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East, by Neil Asher Silberman (1989). Silberman’s message, that archaeological interpretations are often not objective but rather serve to enhance one nationality or point of view while degrading the claims of political or religious rivals, remains true. Indeed, even what archaeologists study, and where they dig, is often influenced by political and ideological as well as scientific factors.

It is not difficult to enumerate examples illustrating Silberman’s thesis. In Iraq, before the U.S. invasion, Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party allocated precious resources to excavating and reconstructing archaeological sites (often with little regard for any genuine semblance of authenticity) and ancient names were restored to modern cities, all for the greater glorification of modern Iraq. One of the dictator’s many homes was built overlooking the remains of ancient Babylon, the better to impress guests with the commanding authority of his regime.

Lieutenant General Yigael Yadin (1917–1984) was an Israeli archaeologist, politician, and supreme commander (Chief of Staff) of the Israel Defense Forces (1949–1952). Yadin’s archaeological excavations at Masada in the 1960s were put to good political use. The story told was that, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, the remaining Zealots took refuge at the fortified palace constructed a century earlier by Herod the Great at Masada. There they carried on the resistance for nearly three years before finally committing mass suicide rather than face certain capture by the Romans who were about to breach the fortress. The heroic myth of Masada became a focus for modern Zionists. Another interpretation is that the story of Masada, which actually comes from the first-century historian Josephus, was embellished and altered (including by Josephus himself) to serve political purposes. The truth, some suggest, is that the Zealots (Sicarii, the dagger-men or assassins) who occupied Masada were a band of rebels, terrorists, thieves, and assassins, who also preyed on their fellow Jews, and for this reason were driven out of Jerusalem by their own countrymen even before the holy city fell to the Romans.

In the 1930s high-ranking members of the Nazi party, including Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945; among other positions, he was the commander of the notorious Schutzstaffel—the SS), sought desperately to track down archaeological and anthropological data to support their notions of German and Aryan racial and cultural supremacy. Some even advocated that the Aryans, and thus the Germans, were the rightful descendants of Atlantis. The Nazi Studiengesellschaft für Geistesgeschichte, Deutsches Ahnenerbe (“Research Association for Intellectual History, German Ancestral Heritage”) engaged in propaganda, so-called research, looting of archaeological treasures from conquered lands, and sponsored expeditions to support their preconceived views. Famously in 1938–1939, an expedition was mounted by the Ahnenerbe to Tibet, led by Ernst Schäfer, in an alleged search for the antecedents and origins of the Aryan race. Inspired by the work of German medievalist Otto Rahn (who came to Himmler’s attention and joined the SS), the Ahnenerbe sent out archaeologists to search for the Holy Grail (from which Jesus reputedly drank at the Last Supper), the Spear of Longinus (said to have pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross), and the Ark of the Covenant (which contained the stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments). All of these objects were said to possess miraculous powers, powers that the occult-crazed Nazi fringe believed could be put to use in the interest of Germany.

Perhaps the most serious use, and abuse, of archaeology by Nazi Germany was to justify territorial expansion. If archaeological remains indicative of (according to the interpretations of Nazi scholars) an ancient Germanic or Nordic culture were found in any lands outside of Germany, it meant that this land must rightfully belong to the German people and thus it should be returned. Such logic was used as part of the justification for the invasion of Poland in 1939, touching off World War II.

The archaeological record can also be used to support modern “politically correct” agendas. A famous (or infamous, depending on your view) example is the work of the late Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994). Interestingly, even ironically, Gimbutas utilized much of the same archaeological material that the Nazis used previously to justify their notions of racial supremacy and territorial expansion. But Gimbutas came to very different and, according to her harshest critics, equally untenable conclusions. Gimbutas focused on what she referred to as “Old Europe,” the supposedly rather homogenous and widespread culture of Europe (particularly central and eastern Europe) during the Neolithic, or about 7000 BC to 2000 BC (dates vary from one region to another throughout Europe). In her view, Old Europe was composed of Pre-Indo-European peoples (or they might be referred to as Pre-Aryans) whose communities and societies were settled, egalitarian, matrilineal, female-centered, supremely artistic, spiritual, and nurturing. Their religion was goddess-centered, and Earth and all life on Earth were regarded as sacred. Agriculture and animal breeding naturally arose in such a hospitable environment. Old Europe was characterized by peaceful cooperation between peoples; warfare was virtually absent. Then everything changed, at least according to Gimbutas. Invading Indo-Europeans (the Aryans of the Nazis) overran Old Europe, introducing a social order based on violence, warfare, hierarchy, and the domination of women by males. This, according to the scenario of Gimbutas and her followers, laid the basis for subsequent Western societies that were male dominated, Earth destroying, aggressive, and brutal.

It is easy to understand the appeal of the Gimbutas goddess-centered, peaceful, Earth-loving, spiritual, and artistic Old Europe. The notion was readily embraced by various environmentalists, by people disenfranchised by the modern hierarchical structure of our society, by feminists and so-called eco-feminists, and by those interested in emphasizing and reinstituting ancient (or perceived “ancient”) spiritual values. A rallying cry of some centered on the theme that we must return to the ancient values of Old Europe. But what, really, is the truth about Old Europe? Gimbutas has been heavily criticized in some circles, and her notions have been dismissed outright by certain archaeologists (a major critic is David W. Anthony of Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York). Among other things, “Old Europe” was not as homogeneous as Gimbutas asserted, and she would choose data to fit her idealized conceptions. Indeed, there are plenty of heavily fortified sites in Old Europe dating well before the presumed Indo-European invasion, and one does not build substantial fortifications unnecessarily. Furthermore, weapons such as mace heads have been associated with Old Europe—and maces are the “ultimate weapon” in the sense that a mace, unlike a hammer or axe, serves no purpose other than to hurt or kill another person (maces were rarely used against animals, as an axe or spear was preferable). Some “fortifications” such as “moats” have been interpreted by Old Europe advocates as drainage ditches or flood control devices, but by most standards these explanations are rather unconvincing.

As things stand today, there appear to me to be two diametrically opposed views of Gimbutas and her concept of Old Europe. Her supporters and admirers believe she made profound and penetrating insights and discoveries, forcing a new view of ancient Europe—a view that we must take to heart if we are to save our planet and species. Her detractors contend that, despite her wide knowledge of archaeology, she too readily mythologized while selectively picking and interpreting data to develop a view of the past that suited her own purpose and agenda.

Even if false, the concept of the peaceful goddess-dominated and Earth-centered Old European society may be harmless enough, or even a positive influence in today’s violent and contentious world plagued by war and environmental problems. What does it matter, some ask, whether the Gimbutas view of Old Europe is true or not? But archaeological truths do matter and have real consequences, particularly in volatile regions of the globe where the past and the present too often blur together. The archaeological opinion held by an academic researcher can literally have life or death consequences. A sad example may be the killing of Dr. Albert E. Glock.

Dr. Glock, a former Lutheran missionary from Illinois (USA), was head of the archaeology department at Birzeit University when a masked assassin shot him three times at close range on the afternoon of January 19, 1992, on a street in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Why would Dr. Glock be a target for assassination? He was an advocate of the view that most archaeology of the area was Bible-oriented, either Jewish or Christian, and the Palestinian people and their Arab archaeological heritage (such as might be revealed in excavations focusing on the Islamic period) were being set to the side. Indeed, in an article published after his death, Dr. Glock stated his opinion bluntly, writing, “the ‘archaeological record’ has been selectively used to document and sometimes defend the version of the past required by Christian and Jewish Zionists to justify the present occupation of Palestine” (Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1994, p. 71). Certainly advocating such a view would not engender favor with the Israelis, especially given that the Israelis (like the Germans before them) have repeatedly subverted and reinterpreted archaeological evidence to support their modern territorial claims. Some believe an Israeli agent killed Dr. Glock for this reason (reportedly he was killed with a type of gun used by the Israeli army and the killer escaped in a car with Israeli license plates). There were even rumors, perhaps a bit farfetched, that Dr. Glock had made a discovery set to undermine the Israeli claim to Jerusalem. On the other hand, some feel that perhaps Hamas or a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) killed him because he was seen as a little too close and cozy with the Israelis, or because he had opposed the appointment of a Palestinian to a university position, or possibly because he had become romantically infatuated with a young female Palestinian assistant whom he was reputedly grooming as his successor. Whatever the reason, he was murdered and the case remains officially unsolved.

Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, best known for his re-dating of the Great Sphinx of Egypt. Dr. Schoch’s new book, Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, is scheduled for publication by Inner Traditions in August 2012. Website:

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.

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