Why archaeologists must speak up for Gaza

Archaeology is often a mechanism of power. As such, its scholars have an obligation to speak up against oppression. 

Details of parts of a Byzantine-era mosaic floor are uncovered by a Palestinian farmer in Bureij in central Gaza Strip, Sept. 5, 2022. The man says he stumbled upon it while planting an olive tree last spring and quietly excavated it over several months with his son. Experts say the discovery of the mosaic — which includes 17 well-preserved images of animals and birds — is one of Gaza's greatest archaeological treasures. They say it's drawing attention to the need to protect Gaza's antiquities, which are threatened by a lack of resources and the constant threat of fighting with Israel. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Details of parts of a Byzantine-era mosaic floor were uncovered by a Palestinian farmer in the Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip on September 5, 2022 [File: AP/Fatima Shbair]

Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, more than 200 cultural heritage sites have been destroyed alongside numerous archives, universities, and museums. There have been reports of the Israeli army looting historical artefacts and even displaying some of them at the Knesset.

Destroying Gaza’s heritage has far-reaching social, political, and emotional ramifications. It is a concerted attack on the existence of Palestine and its people.

Beyond producing cultural amnesia around what it means to be Palestinian, heritage destruction symbolises the negation of Palestinian history and right to land. The Israeli obliteration of Palestinian memory is intentional. It is a genocidal strategy, according to the definition laid out by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” in 1944. This effort to destroy physical links between Palestinians and their heritage is aimed at erasing Palestinian presence and legitimising Israeli settler colonialism.

The Israeli destruction of archaeological sites and looting of artefacts in Gaza also raises questions about archaeology’s purported neutrality in our world. The reality is that archaeology can be deeply political.

The ability to make claims in the present based on material records of the past endows archaeology with great power. Quite literally, archaeologists provide the physical evidence required for the making of historical narratives. Archaeologists thus carry a moral obligation to inform the public of its deeply political nature.

In this context, the silence of archaeological associations across the world on what is happening in Gaza has been deafening. In Europe, Irish and Ireland-based heritage scholars mounted pressure on the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) to speak up. In early March, the EAA finally issued a statement.

But the text was disappointingly noncommittal and milquetoast in the face of atrocity. It referred to the genocides in Gaza as the “Israel/Gaza crisis” and used language ripped from UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention of 1972. In other words, it spoke of heritage in terms of its socioeconomic value – its integrity or authenticity – rather than recognising the political ramifications of heritage destruction in a settler-colonial setting.

The EAA’s failure to reflect on how archaeology, and subsequently, the construction of heritage, is intertwined with power and history is dangerous, as it misrepresents the discipline as purely objective.

Some people may be aware of archaeology’s role in colonialism. Ever fewer, however, know how it informed 20th-century politics, crafting identities that rely on discovered, shared pasts and invented traditions, as historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger argued.

Archaeology forges links between the land and its people through possessing the past. Used correctly, it has the power to illuminate how people once lived in and related to our world. Used incorrectly, it becomes a technology of oppression, co-opted by power regimes who wish to harness one version or “vision” of the past to dispossess and displace others.

It is no coincidence that, as the Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj has written, Israel is known for using archaeology strategically to legitimise its status as a historical nation in the Abrahamic Holy Lands rather than a modern nation-state founded in 1948.

Archaeology can be a mechanism for maintaining power and this is the case not just in Israel-Palestine.

In Mexico, where I have conducted research for the last 15 years, archaeology and anthropology were explicitly charged with forjando patria, or forging the nation. During the reign of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s second president, the government struggled to bring together its settler population with its Indigenous citizens, who had suffered from linguistic and cultural erasure during Spanish colonisation.

The proposed solution was to construct a nationalist ideology of mestizaje or “mixture”, which celebrated and claimed the monumental ruins and artistic traditions of Indigenous Mexicans as the patrimony of the Mexican state and thus all Mexicans. While this preserved the legacies of Mexico’s Indigenous communities, it also led to dispossession and displacement. As the Mexican state claimed Indigenous heritage for all, questioning the legitimacy of the Spanish-descended ruling class became impossible.

Archaeologists are scholars and experts of the past who are cognizant of the ways archaeological evidence is used to not just fashion history, but control and weaponise it. That is why archaeologists must speak up about Gaza.

Once Gaza’s heritage, libraries, and universities are gone, it can be said they were never there. With the “matter of facts” wiped from both human memory and the archaeological record, it will be impossible to scientifically “prove” Palestinian presence.

We must remember that archaeology is inseparable from politics, playing a major role in the making of history, nations, and national identity. We must also remember how the total erasure of heritage often prefigures the destruction of people, which is why cultural genocide is also classified as a war crime under international law.

The resistance of EAA and other professional archaeological organisations to issuing even a limited statement that recognises the genocides in Gaza – the ethnic cleansing coupled with the destruction of Gaza’s heritage – is tantamount to complicity and is a refusal to acknowledge archaeology’s responsibility. I hope that the continued pressure of archaeologists in Europe and across the world will change their minds.

As an anthropologist of heritage, I am haunted by the question of whether archaeology can ever do right. Here is a moment in which it might, if only it is willing to reckon with its own past.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.