Pharaonic-Themed Nonsense

I do not have to wait until February to say with certainty that Dr. Zahi Hawass’s much ballyhooed press conference about Tutankhamun’s DNA will be just another publicity stunt and embarrassment to Egyptian archaeology.


The Perfect Storm

My host at the Institute for Asian Cultures at the Sophia University in Tokyo– whose research theme this year is “Nationalism and Cultural Heritage”– urged me to visit Hiroshima, and I’m grateful that he did.     

The name “Hiroshima,” like those of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, and more recently Srebrenica, Halabja, Kigali, and Darfur are conversation stoppers, bringing either a nervous change of subject or futile expressions of collective guilt and/or grief.                            

Yet Hiroshima, in the bustling, busy present, is much lighter and more beautiful than I imagined.  Unlike the grim, gritty frozen un-reality of Auschwitz or the still raw rage and sadness of Srebenica, this western Japanese port city calmly goes about its business, as a city not only with a UNESCO World Heritage site, outdoor morality classroom, and formal memorial to the victims of war—but with a cause.     

Hiroshima in the morning


 At lunchtime, on the bridge that links “Peace Island” to the east side of the city, the white-coated doctors and nurses of a local hospital solicited signatures from passers-by for a petition to support the city’s 2009 Peace Declaration to ban all nuclear arms.                                

Yes, we’ve all seen and heard it before.  Nothing special about that.  But at Hiroshima, inside a strikingly modern museum, an extraordinarily powerful narrative unfolds—illustrated with facts, models, photos, documents, seared children’s clothing, grotesquely melted artifacts, and irradiated human flesh.                                

That story is how a medium-sized industrial city both embodied and was incinerated by runaway nationalism and regimented, industrialized terror and violence of the modern world.  And it happened so suddenly:  at 8:15am on August 6, 1945, when a US air force B-29 called the Enola Gay released a newly perfected atom bomb and detonated it precisely 2000 feet above the city’s heart.                                

Everyone knows that general story; Wikipedia can add most of the other relevant facts-and-figure details.  What I want to speak of here is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s interpretation of the meaning of that event—which is one of the finest public presentations at a “site of conscience” that I have ever seen.                                

The original museum, designed in a strikingly modern style, opened a scant ten years after the bombing, as the “Memorial Museum of Atom Bombed Relics” on an island in the river whose buildings had been levelled by the bomb.  It was part of a larger peace park, yet its exhibits– like the A-bomb itself– were designed for their shock and awe effect.    

The tatters and ruins, the watches frozen precisely at 8:15am, the burnt and bloody children’s clothing, melted housewares, grisly photos of radiation burn victims, and even shreds of the victims’ bodies are all still  there, of course, as incomparably graphic illustrations of the effects of nuclear devastation.    

But today’s renamed and renovated Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (opened in 1995 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing) gives those relics a context, a story, that shows a seemingly unstoppable process of dehmanization– a perfect storm of morally unbridled technological development that began in the late 19th century and reached its climax at 8:15am on August 6, 1945– in which a modest fishing port became an industrial city, an industrial military center, and eventually the ultimate target in an industrially designed war.  

原爆ドーム Genbaku Dōmu


How ironic that one of the only buildings in the city to survive the blast was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, where the products of Hiroshima’s laboratories and factories were once proudly displayed.  As an architectural monument it is a rather ho-hum example of early twentieth-century commercial style.  But as an iconic symbol of the incinerated lives of those caught up willingly or forcibly in the race to build ever more powerful things, regiment lives, and concentrate power ever more intensely, it is, even as a crumbling hulk, an industrial exhibition hall indeed.  It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.                     

The Dome and the museum do not look backward only, but remember forward, urging action.  Its story does not end, as usual for a heritage site, in the relationship between past and present, between former crimes or achievements and the society we have built today.  The story does not end so neatly, but narratively extends its “history” into the uncertain future that humanity will make for itself.

Digging for Jews

The conference at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme in Paris that I mentioned in my last blog post was at least as interesting to me for the questions it begged as for the information it supplied.  That it was a success by the terms that its organizers hoped for, there is no doubt.  This gathering of historians and (mostly) archaeologists from France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine was another important step in placing archaeology of medieval Jewish communities in the mainstream of European archaeology     

That is much more of an achievement than many would think.  It’s not only that the Jews have been vilified as Europe’s most familiar and easily attackable Other, it’s that European medieval culture has simultaneously been romanticized, idealized, and homogenized.  Despite the work of a few social historians, the public impression of European medieval history—particularly material culture—has been all about suits of armor, reliquaries, cathedrals, castles, and tapestries.     

That is certainly what the European public gets in its menu of museums and heritage sites.  And if it weren’t for the enormous expansion in the last twenty-five years or so of urban archaeology (read: emergency salvage archaeology at building sites and infrastructure projects in the rebuilt and expanding cities across Europe), there would probably not even be such an advance in the knowledge and teaching of the European medieval “common people’s” everyday pottery, diet, and trade.     

But today—despite the look-down-your-nose-at-those-ditchdiggers disdain of the staunchly elitist, conservative curators and art historians toward archaeologists—enormous strides have been made in understanding the material evidence of medieval society in recent years.  INRAP in France and urban archaeology offices across Europe have dug where they had to, not where they might have wanted, and so they have discovered things they were not looking for.     

Subterranean stepped pool excavated by INRAP archaeologists in Montpellier in southern France


It’s almost like a kind of mikve-mania or synagogue syndrome; all over France and in a few places in Germany there is a sudden wealth of archaeological traces of Jewish habitation that were never recognized or acknowledged before.  In France and Spain, particularly, the archaeologists (the overwhelming majority of whom are not Jews and usually have very little familiarity with Jewish culture), sent out to work in places with ancient names like rue aux juifs or el juderia, are now more and more finding themselves discovering things that are identified as “Jewish” and becoming fascinated by Jewish archaeology.     

As I mentioned in my last post, I get a little nervous when archaeologists start illustrating a traditional narrative rather than challenging or at least testing it.  In this case the narrative is the unchanging “otherness” and rigidly orthodox behavior of Jews—ironically testified to by the opinions (and often protests) about ongoing archaeology by hardline, fundamentalist Jewish religious groups.  This is certainly true when it comes to the excavation of medieval cemeteries, and no less in their religiously authoritative identification of ancient synagogues, study houses, and mikves or ritual baths.     

Yes, the Jews were omnipresent in medieval European society, but is the ongoing archaeology really telling us anything new?  Instead of mapping and documenting the Jews’ supposed religious tracks across Europe—or submitting to the political pressure by rabbinical authorities top stop the digging—could there be another purpose to the expanding field of Jewish archaeology?     

Anyone interested in the historical image of the Jews in Europe should take a look at Alan Steinweis’s fascinating 2006 book Studying the Jew:  Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany  where he documents how German scholars twisted ancient and medieval references to Jews and Jewish communities to “scientifically” validate the central presumption behind the Final Solution.      

That presumption (or certainty) was that Jews were biologically and racially incapable of productive integration into European (read: Aryan) society.  They were always a definitively alien presence, whose continued existence there undermined the cultural coherence and cultural health of their hosts.      

Steinweis describes how more than a few of the “scientifically” anti-Semitic German historians were absolved of their sins by their academic colleagues in the de-nazification rituals of the 1950s and went on to have prominent careers in Jewish and medieval studies.  The result is that even shorn of the political backing and aktionplan of the National Socialist Party, the stereotype of the Jew in medieval cities remained alive and well.     

At least archaeologically.  For while Jewish historians from the time of Salo Baron to Ivan Marcus have stressed the interaction and symbiosis of Jews with their various European surroundings, Israeli and Jewish archaeologists have shown virtually no interest in the supposedly unremittingly dark and dismal centuries of diaspora—preferring to concentrate on the evolution of ancient Israelite and Jewish material culture in the Land of Israel.     

And so the Jews of medieval Europe remain golem-like ciphers in the archaeological record, identified by a bizarre combination of modern rabbinical opinion and anti-Semitic stereotypes.  How much more we could learn if it were NOT taken for granted that: 1.) medieval Jews across Europe unhesitatingly followed modern ultra-orthodox practice, or 2.) that they remained culturally distinct and separate from those around them.     

The myth of the eternal Jew is as dangerous when it arises from an archaeological report as from an anti-semitic screed.  I certainly do not fault the hardworking archaeologists whose interest in a diverse and multi-cultural European past (and future?) led them to devote their time, interest, and personal passion to publicly presenting their finds.     

The Find from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, now on display in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme


And it’s not that there haven’t been some amazing discoveries.  The highlight of the conference for me at least was the presentation of archaeologist Mylène Lert of a find from the village of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux in southeastern France.  In a crumbling multistory building identified with the “Tower of the Jews” mentioned in late medieval records, the local archaeological team recovered an astoundingly well preserved limestone wall cupboard, dated stylistically to the mid 15th century.  It is ornamented on its top with the well-known “Jews’ hat” of the Middle Ages, inscribed with a Hebrew Inscription, and arguably the earliest known, conscious use of a Star of David as a Jewish symbol.  It still bears its original wooden doors.     

If any archaeological artifact can confidently be identified as an ancient Holy Ark (inside or outside the Land of Israel), this is certainly one.  But neither modern rabbis nor conventional wisdom can really tell us what rituals were performed before it, whether men and women were separated in its presence, what scrolls or other objects were contained within it, and whether the direct, lineal descendants of its users in that small French village in the late Middle Ages, identify themselves as Jews today.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

I’m in Paris this week to participate in a conference on the Archaeology of Judaism in France and Europe, sponsored jointly by the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme and the Institut National de Recerches Archeologiques Préventatives (INRAP).

More and more excavations are being conducted throughout Europe, probing the buried remains of their medieval Jewish Quarters– and examining the traces of everyday life in simple houses and shops– not only in monumental religious structures like synagogues and ritual baths.

This has enormous potential of providing new information about the Jews of Medieval Europe (Christendom’s most familiar and despised Other) and to see just how impermeable or porous were the cultural boundaries between Christians and Jews.  For just as archaeology revolutionized our understanding of the early Israelites, it can do the same with medieval European Jews. 

What were their paths of migration?  How did they make their livings?  What trade links did they establish?  Were they a genetically coherent group or a European-subculture that adopted the trappings of a venerable religion and linked itself to its social networks?  Did their diet and lifeways remain unswervingly faithful to Mosaic law?  Was there an evolution of communal characteristics?  What did it mean to be a Jew in 11th century Rhineland, 13th century Languedoc, or 14th century Andalusia? 

The written sources and conventional histories all have answers to these questions.  But archaeology offers a perspective that highlights what people actually did rather than what their elites and religious leaders (later?) said they did.  Maybe the potsherds, animal bones, coins, tools, and graffiti excavated in medieval Jewish sites from across Europe have a different story to tell…

Simply to interpret the archaeological finds by what we already know or are told by the texts is nothing more than circular reasoning and circular interpretation.  Let’s see what the archaeological finds say.

More about this in the coming days.

Fighting Over the Bones of the Dastardly Cao Cao

Thanks to the vigilance of Chris Fennell, trawler extraordinaire of archaeological news and its modern implications, my attention has been drawn to the following controversy from China’s Henan Province:

It seems that the supposed ancient resting place of Cao Cao (c. 155-205 ), famous warlord, poet, and would-be emperor of the Han Dynasty period– lost in the mists of legend for almost two thousand years– has now emerged as bitterly contested cultural capital (capital both in the economic and political senses!).

Cao Cao has enormous importance for the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, as a powerful and successful regional leader who united vast areas under his political and economic control.  In the classic novel called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao is portrayed as scheming, cruel, and paranoid, being responsible for brutal death of countless enemies– real or imagined.  He is best known in modern Chinese popular culture as the stock villain of opera pantomimes.  

So in an age of celebrity heritage, the discovery of the real Cao Cao’s tomb would be an enormous tourist draw and merchandising opportunity.  And in fact, there has already been more than a bit of ideological revisionism about him, in the suggestion that political unification requires a certain measure of– um– discipline and that Cao Cao was not such a completely bad guy after all. 

China’s dizzying pace of industrial development directly led to the discovery of the tomb, which came during a massive south-north water diversion project, involving the bulldozing and excavating of large expanses of the landscape of Henan province.  In late December, China TV announced the discovery near the city of Anyang– and the story was quickly picked up by news outlets all over the world.

Yet not so fast.  As with the claims for the discovery of archaeological proof of other mythic and quasi-biblical figures, wishful thinking, ideological agendas, and– in this case at least– economic rivalry all play major roles.  New questions in the Chese press and on TV have arisen about both and the source (from looters or perhaps even modern forgers) and the evidentiary quality of the evidence

But more important is the bitter modern dispute between the officials of Henan and nearby Anhui provinces over where the real Tomb of Cao Cao is– and, by inevitable extension, which province gets the historical credit and which gets the anticipated economic benefit of the tourist flow. To make matters even more intriguing, a new public debate on the authority of Chinese academia has emerged in this ongoing debate.   

China, like everywhere else in this globalized world, is rapidly adopting a kind of caricatured, tabloid approach to the past.  It’s all image, all spin, and all marketing– and we are all increasingly incapable of seeing heritage as anything but media sensations, local boosterism, or the raw material for profitable tourist sites.

Hallelujah or Caveat Emptor?

So once more we are treated to the spectacle of religious fundamentalism masquerading as “scientific” archaeology.  Another fairly competent archaeologist has hitched his career wagon to the star of “proving the Bible true.” And yes, the audience-aware journalistic summarizers of National Geographic and the New York Times will credulously report it; the usual scholarly heavyweights and blowhards will crow at the “death of minimalism;” and the champagne corks will be popping at the offices of the arch-cheerleader of the twin obsessions of biblical antiquities collecting and biblical literalism, the Biblical Archaeology Review.      

But does the ostracon (ink-inscribed pottery sherd) discovered in 2008 at Prof. Yosef Garfinkel’s excavations at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa in southern Israel really indicate “that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research”?       

Professor Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa suggests that the “contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.”      

These are all notable sentiments, no doubt, but their identification on an ancient pottery sherd is all a fantasy of wishful thinking that will thrill the faithful yet demonstrate little more than Galil’s clever crossword puzzle skill.  Here is the version included in the official press release:      

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.      

But here is an earlier translation of the text that gives a better idea of the extent of the uncertainty of the reconstruction:      

1          Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]
2          ruler of [geographical name?] . . . ruler . . .
3          [geographical names?] . . .
4          [unclear] and wreak judgment on YSD king of Gath . . .
5          seren of G[aza? . . .] [unclear] . . .       

Just look at the drawing Galil provided, with the extent of the uncertain (or non-existent) letters represented in outline:      

Drawing by Gershon Galil. Courtesy of the University of Haifa.


Science?  Or epigraphic Rorschach test?      

Shame on the University of Haifa for issuing this donation-harvesting press release with such sweeping, religiously loaded assertions.  Is this archaeology or a devotional exercise?  What’s the point of digging at all?