Politics and Economics in Archaeological Practice

In an ideal world the motivations and practices of archaeology should form a study of non-biased, systematic exploration of all aspects and regions of the human past. However, humans are inherently biased creatures, and the subjectivity and personal incentive of excavators, commissioners of investigation, and interpreters greatly affect the field of archaeology. The 20th century witnessed a rapid systematization of archaeology all over the world, marking a dramatic shift from the antiquarian 'excavation' and collection practices of the 19th century. This development, however, has not occurred within the same timeframe in different countries, nor has it produced parallel results across the globe. It seems apparent that this impetus for "the institutionalization of archaeology, within professions and museums, was associated with the increased awareness of the political value of the past" (Crooke, 2000, pp. 10). The clear reason for this regional disparity is that all geographical areas, indeed all countries, have different historical backgrounds and have undergone different experiences which influenced their archaeological agendas. The methodology of archaeology in any given country has been largely impacted by the political situation of that country, both in restrictive ways and in its function as a political tool. It has also been affected by a range of economic developments which give rise to special needs and considerations for archaeological practice in different areas. These varying political and economic developments in regions around the globe have shaped the differing aims and limitations of research agendas and archaeological practice in an increasingly nationalistic world. This article will attempt to illustrate the effects of these developments by focusing on the distinct cases of the United States, the Middle East and Europe. These regions are vastly different yet historically connected through relationships of colonialism and profit, and selective comparison will be made to highlight how archaeology in each region has been formed by its unique political and economic circumstances.


One of the major political factors which has influenced the practice of archaeology is colonialism, the effects of which are most clearly demonstrated in the case of the Middle East. The practice of archaeology was unknown in the Middle East prior to European contact, and subsequently became instituted as a Western discipline during the height of colonization (Bahrani, 1998). The Middle East's existence as a colonized entity was characterized by physical and symbolic oppression due to the inferiority ascribed to them by the Europeans. Archaeology was one of the tools used to subjugate the locals, as "the reconstructed monuments, juxtaposed with the surrounding rural poverty, said to the natives: 'Our very presence shows that you have always been, or have long become, incapable of either greatness or self-rule'" (Anderson, 1991, pp. 181). In this way the archaeological remains served to disconnect the local people from their past and discourage them from becoming involved with their own archaeology. As a result, the excavation and publication of Middle Eastern archaeological sites was done solely by Anglo-American institutions which ignored the cultural and historical memories of the local people (Meskell, 1998). The choice of sites for excavation was made by imperial powers with specific imperial goals to attain, and the archaeological record was interpreted through an extremely politically biased lens to demonstrate the "supposed evolutionary distinctiveness and superiority of 'civilized' people of white, Christian, European descent, at the same time as denigrating or denying the cultural achievements of 'other' peoples" (Skeates, 2004, pp. 94). Colonialism in this case has clearly caused archaeology to be utilized and perceived differently by Europe and the colonized regions. The harmful effects of colonialism in the Middle East have narrowed the field of archaeology to be used as a means of asserting superiority, and have caused the practice to be dominated by Western agendas, an aspect which has only recently begun to change.

Colonialism in the United States occurred under different circumstances than in the Middle East, and so spawned a different process and result, although its beginnings were similar to those of the European colonies. In North America as well as in the Holy Land "archaeology began as a colonial venture that downplayed the achievements and skills of a vanquished people to excuse the reduction and subjugation of that people" (McGuire, 1992, pp. 818). The Native Americans were seen as 'others', and as the surviving population of primitive humans who would be corrupted by civilization (McGuire, 1992). This ethnocentric view gave non-native Americans justification to seize and control American archaeology and use it to their benefit. However, the United States differed from the Middle East in that it was a newly settled colony rather than one governed from afar, and the close proximity the settlers shared with the Native Americans gave rise to unique tensions and conflicts. The non-native Americans' attempt to appropriate the past was met with resistance from the Native Americans, whose demands for the rights to their heritage began to hinder the ability of archaeologists to study those pasts and excavate and retain artifacts associated with them (McGuire, 1992, pp. 818). This has led to the increased integration of the two peoples and attempts at mediation of the archaeological record, though as will be shown further below, excavation and study is still an issue of contention within the American population.


Another political development which has crucially influenced archaeological practice is that of nationalism, which has impacted with great diversity the many countries of Europe. The 19th century in Europe saw the rise of the social construction of nation-states, ideologies which focused on identity and shared memory. Nationality as such required proof of political legitimacy and historical authenticity, and political leaders were quick to use archaeology for these purposes (Brown & Jones, 1996). Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator in the mid-20th century, ordered excavations re-tracing the travels of Vergil's Aeneas in an attempt to link himself to the great Roman figures of the past and thereby promote an ancient lineage which validated his position of power (Gilkes, 2003). This example of Italy's transition to nationalism and totalitarianism shows how freedom in academic excavation was curtailed and how interpretation of archaeological data was influenced by preconceived notions of political ideology. The rise of nationalism in Ireland made use of archaeology in a slightly different way, although it was also thought to give legitimacy and a shared national memory to Ireland under the yoke of British domination. In this case, "archaeological artifacts can become signifiers of a belief or emotion beyond that of their function, and consequently they may be used to create or trigger personal or shared memory" (Crooke, 2000, pp. 13). The Irish people conducted archaeological excavations not as much for the scientific study and retrieval of information as they did for assigning artifacts and monuments symbolic value for their heritage. Context was not necessarily important, as hoards of artifacts found accidentally by land plowing were given as much significance in the social sphere as artifacts found in controlled excavations (Crooke, 2000, pp. 130). One consistent factor in the nationalization of Europe was the rise of xenophobia, thus increasing archaeological excavations and interpretations to support exclusivity and political boundaries (Graves-Brown & Jones, 1996). The example of this at its most destructive level is that of Hitler using archaeological data to support his claims of an Aryan race and to justify the historical 'otherness' of the Jewish people, thereby validating their extermination (Collis, 1996). This brief discussion demonstrates the varying effects nationalism had on how archaeology was used even among European nations. These examples are congruent with the overall European manipulation of Celtic identity to create a shared nationality, in which example we can see that "because state functionaries must balance considerations of scientific importance with the potential of sites as national symbolic resources, archaeologists can ill afford to neglect emphasizing the latter" (Dietler, 1994, pp. 597). Clearly this has caused archaeologists to refine their agendas in terms most likely to get them funding. Though the effects differ slightly between countries because of the specific political situations in each place, it is clear to see that archaeology was used as a tool to promote political validity and that throughout Europe regimes have "drawn upon selected material remains of the past, and, more specifically, upon the services of archaeologists who have depended on them for funding" (Skeates, 2004, pp. 90). It becomes apparent that European archaeology flourished under nationalism but was severely limited in its freedom of academic focus and interpretation.

The impact of nationalism on archaeological practice in the regions of the Middle East was also quite diverse, though the archaeological changes generally helped propel the local people toward greater independence. In the Middle East "the last fifty years have witnessed movements of people on an unprecedented scale, the disintegration of empires, decolonization, the deconstruction of old nations and the re-formation of new ones" (Meskell, 1998, pp. 8). Archaeology certainly played a large part in the formation of the Egyptian nation, and the monumental discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 was the final straw for Egyptians who wanted to break free from British rule. This discovery "hastened the establishment of Egyptology in the Egyptian (now Cairo) University and intensified demands for national control of the Antiquities Service, excavations, and the export of antiquities" (Meskell, 2003, pp. 153). The national movement of Pharaonicism developed from Egyptology in this way, and reclaimed the mystical past and achievements of the ancient Pharaohs for their modern descendants (Meskell, 2003). Pharaonicism was greatly beneficial in encouraging Egyptians to claim and control their heritage, which in turn furthered their aims toward independence, but it did have a destructive effect on research agendas and archaeological practice. It promoted the 'Cult of the Pharaohs' in Egypt, basically depriving other histories of importance to the point where Christian and Islamic remains were mostly discarded or ignored because of their inferior status to Pharaonic materials (Meskell, 2003). Although the archaeological record was subject to extreme bias in Egypt, it cannot be disputed that this archaeological agenda was a major factor in giving rise to Egyptian nationalism. The rise of nationalism in Turkey was also synonymous with archaeology, although it occurred under very different circumstances. Turkey was ruled by the Ottoman Empire rather than by European powers, but was impacted by Westernization anyway because of the early modernization of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century (Ozdogan, 1998). When the empire collapsed, the birth of the modern Republic of Turkey struggled to define Turkish identity, and achieved it by archaeological means. Remarkably, Turkish identity came to be defined as an amalgamation of all cultures and peoples who had inhabited Anatolia, and the remains of them all "have been regarded impartially, either in issuing research permits or in the funding of archaeological expeditions" (Ozdogan, 1998, pp. 117). The high standards of excavation in place may limit the numbers of projects in Turkey, but reflect the importance and care of archaeological sites in the creation and maintenance of a national identity. These examples demonstrate how, similar to European countries, archaeological agendas in the Middle East were shaped to accommodate nationalism, but were also unique in their roles of liberating peoples from imperial rule and empowering them through the exploration of their cultural heritage.

Nationalism in the United States consisted of the Native Americans' resistance to Western subjugation and the creation of First Nation ideology, which has generated the archaeological conflicts in place today and the legislation produced to mediate it. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first step toward the development of relations between Native American and non-native Americans in terms of archaeology. "The careful excavation and removal of artifacts required by Antiquities Act permits were necessary for the development of typological and stratigraphic description and analysis that would become methodological and technical standards for professional archaeology in the United States" (McManamon, 2006, pp. 171). This increase in professionalization and protection of ancient and historic sites showed a change in the way non-native Americans perceived the archaeological material, though the absence of mention of Native Americans in the legislation indicates that they were not yet seen as a hindrance to fieldwork. The shift to nationalization of Native Americans and their increasing control of their heritage can be seen through the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (King, 2002), which gave the right of excavation permit issuance to Native Americans and the right to attach whatever terms they wished (Watkins, 2000). The recognition of Indian control over land in this legislation shows the power of the tribes as First Nations people who are in direct contact and conflict with the non-native American nation, and who have power over archaeological practice on their land. Further conflict has arisen with the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990, which gives custody of all human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to the Indian tribes on whose land they were found (Watkins, 2000). This has called into question the ownership of the archaeological record and has led to frustration and discontent on both sides of the issue. The outcome of these legislations has illuminated the cultural and archaeological conflict between the two groups, and the limitations placed on archaeology because of them "requires that archaeologists initiate a process of dialogue with Indian peoples that will fundamentally alter the practice of archaeology in the United States" (McGuire, 1992, pp. 828). The rise of Indian nationalism and the political legislation that has been published to address the conflicts between nations has encouraged professionalism in archaeological practice but have also set limits which hinder excavation and the analysis of recovered artifacts.

Dialogue and compromise between peoples have not been the primary result of conflict and political legislation in the Middle East as it has been in the United States. The comparison of these two regions with similar processes but such different results will suffice to illustrate the political variety of nations and their archaeology. The Middle East, as a colonized region, has been engaged in conflict with several different peoples at a time. Even after European powers departed, "archaeological interpretation of the Near East has been embedded within a Western construction which opposes the East or Orient as 'other'" (Hodder, 1998, pp. 125), and continued colonial thinking places the East as lower on the ranks of civilization and culture (Bahrani, 1998). In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western archaeologists singlehandedly constructed the agendas for research in the Middle East, resulting in a dramatic preference for Greco-Roman and Byzantine remains (Ozdogan, 1998), as well as for studies to validate the historical truth of the Bible (Bahrani, 1998). This practice of "excavating with a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other" (Magnusson, 1977, pp. 24) contributed to a prejudiced archaeological practice and a bias in the interpretation of results. This Western management of excavations was curtailed by the rising independence of Middle Eastern nations, and began to decline at the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 (Silberman, 1998). The conflict in Arab nations halted excavations and created a new divide between Arabs and Jewish people which was to have a lasting effect on the freedom of archaeological practice. Increasing opposition to Jewish settlement in Arab nations and conflicting claims of heritage shifted research agendas once again, bending archaeology to various political wills. "The task of archaeology was to prove a point about Jews in the Holy Land and not always, as it probably should have been, to explore material remains in order to determine the circumstances of ancient cultures and civilizations in a country where they have been so varied and so many" (Elon, 1997, pp. 38). Rather than leading to discourse and negotiation as it did in the United States, the political conflicts between peoples in the Middle East led to prejudice and partition which still exist today and which have a very limiting effect on the motivations and uses for archaeology.


Economic developments throughout the world have also had a huge impact on regional archaeology, with the nearly worldwide rise of urbanization and expansion ranking as the most influential. Economic development has caused a similar spiked growth of contract archaeology in each of the three regions studied in this paper, yet the diverse circumstances in each area have led to noticeable differences in the way contract archaeology functions. This section will address the differences between Europe and the Middle East because contract archaeology in the United States has followed a similar pattern to that in Europe.

The archaeological agendas and practices in European nations have been impacted by the pressures of economic progress for well over a century, although the most dramatic changes have taken place as recently as the 1980's and 1990's. Urbanization on a large scale in Europe was the result of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800's, which developed rural landscapes to further improve technology and means of production. This understandably caused social upheaval and, amidst the rapid transformation of the countryside, Europeans came to idealize the pastoral lifestyle of the past and the traditional values associated with pre-Industrial nations (Zvelebil, 1996). This nostalgia, provoked by the development, led to a shift in archaeological research agendas as historical emphasis increasingly fell on ancient farmers and the romanticism and purity of their rural existence. This focus and archaeological favoritism encouraged an uneven view and treatment of archaeological evidence relating to the Neolithic farmers and their less appreciated counterparts (hunters and gatherers). It is a clear example of economic urbanization influencing research agendas and interpretation in archaeology (Zvelebil, 1996), and it documents the beginning of a national consciousness of the past and a desire to protect archaeological material threatened by that development.

This awareness of the disappearing past grew in Europe throughout the next century and reached its pinnacle with the birth of contract archaeology in the 1980's and 1990's as a result of destruction of archaeological sites through economic improvement. Due to public spending cuts in the UK and the inability of English Heritage and local authorities to fund as many projects as they once did, archaeologists have become increasingly dependent on commercial developers to pay for their work (Chadwick, 2000). The high rate of development led to the issuance of the PPG16 in England in 1990, a document which requires developers to fund archaeological investigations in the areas they plan to build in order to avoid the destruction of sites (Chadwick, 2000). While this has been beneficial in supporting the practice of archaeology during times of recession, many scholars believe that this contract archaeology leads to a "lowering of standards of professional practice" (Skeates, 2004, pp. 75). Many, like Skeates, argue that the process of competitive tendering commodifies archaeological practice and often leads developers to hire the least expensive and fastest working archaeological firms (2004). While this does not happen exclusively, it is certainly quite common, and it is easy to recognize the shift from academic research to developer-funded contract archaeology as the typical form of excavation. The situation in Ireland is similar, where the expansion of multi-national corporations has led to "increasing corporate control of universities and bureaucratic pressure on academics to orient teaching to meet the needs of industry" (Ronayne, 2008, pp. 115). There are even accusations of corruption and pressure put on excavators to find the results desired by the developers which will allow them to build, using low wages and insecure employment to make archaeologists dependent on their good will (Ronayne, pp. 121). Archaeology in many countries in Europe now acts as a rescue or salvage operation, trying to save as much information as possible before development occurs. Ultimately this has meant that sites are chosen for the threats facing them rather than for research-driven agendas. Due to the economic development so prevalent in Europe, archaeology has become increasingly state-based and technical, potentially reducing specialists to simply 'diggers' through the uniformity and mechanicality it demands (Chadwick, 2000). It is now up to individual archaeologists to uphold the integrity and importance of archaeological practice in the face of financially inspired developers and governmental agencies.

The ongoing battle between developers and conservationists has been no less rampant in the Middle East, but the strength of development and divisions within the countries have resulted in catastrophic losses for archaeology. The clearest example of this imbalance is the case study of Beirut in 1994. The downtown area of Beirut had long been abandoned due to war, and its redevelopment was planned since the 1970's (Naccache, 1998). A private company was given ownership of the land and agreed to the tenets of post-academic archaeology, where they would pay for the excavation of the site before its development (Naccache, 1998), yet they bulldozed 90-95% of the 5,000 year old city without giving archaeologists the chance to study it (1998). Archaeologists employed by the state did not have the power to stop this, nor did that state attempt to rein in the hasty revenue-generating reconstruction. Naccache's explanation for this destruction is that Beirut's "archaeological and historical heritage did not partake directly to that heritage that is of direct relevance to Western archaeology, which happens at present to be the leading force in world archaeology" (1998, pp. 156). This demonstrates that in third-world regions such as the Middle East, state development and revenue are often supported over archaeology in attempts to gain wealth and status. The industrialization of the Middle East is occurring much later than that of Europe and the United States, and "as in all countries currently undergoing the process of industrialization, considerable destruction is unfortunately being inflicted upon sites and monuments" (Ozdogan, 1998, pp. 119). In the Gulf Arab States archaeological inquiry hardly existed until the threat by developers manifested itself because of the discovery of oil, and today most of the excavation taking place is salvage work (Potts, 1998). The force of economic development and the monetary bias of the states in the Middle East endanger the archaeological record and inhibit the methodical practice of excavation.

The increasing exploitation of archaeological sites and artifacts through the tourism and commercial industries has affected all three regions in both positive and negative ways. The economy of the Middle East, for example, is in many cases almost completely supported by the mass tourism industry and archaeological interest. While this is beneficial to struggling nations, it unfortunately means that the choice of archaeological projects is "part of an international trend toward the exploitation of monumental archaeological remains as income-generating entertainment venues" (Silberman, 1997, pp. 75). The need for money promotes the illegal antiquities trade, and the famous site of Catalhoyuk has closed on separate occasions due to the looting of artifacts (Hodder, 1998). Middle Eastern archaeology faces the serious dilemma of needing international interest and revenue to keep projects funded, yet also facing damage to the sites themselves by the worldwide tourism and antiquities industries. The United States also dealt with illegal looting and antiquities trade, when the growing appeal of American archaeology spurred on a commercial demand for authentic artifacts (Mcmanamon, 2006). The Antiquities Act and increasing respect for Native American heritage has effectively reduced this practice, although private property owners (not hindered by NAGPRA) still bulldoze large tracts of land to collect artifacts for private collections (Skeates, 2004). Interestingly, exploitation of archaeological sites and the selling of artifacts by the natives are common in Alaska, generating much-needed income for them while destroying context and remains for archaeological study (Skeates, 2004). There is still much controversy over the ownership of the past and archaeology must gingerly work around this. European nations have responded to looting and private collecting by developing the field of cultural resource management, which makes all people responsible for the heritage and the care of the past (Skeates, 2004). This has led to the growth of tourism and commercialization, which "has a major impact on those very places people wish to tour to, in extremis leading to the destinations actually being closed or managed with various forms of 'people rationing'" (Fowler, 1992, pp. 128). It is obvious to see that tourism and commercialization have affected the archaeological agendas and practices across the globe, being both necessary and problematic for research and excavations in different national contexts.

In conclusion, there are a wide range of political and economic factors which influence the agenda and practice of archaeology in the diverse regions of Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. The purpose of this contrast has been to show how similar trends in archaeology have emerged across the world in different ways and in different timeframes due to the unique conditions in each region. The politics of colonialism, nationalism, and conflict between peoples have clearly altered the research agendas of archaeologists, and this discussion has demonstrated the ways in which politics have in many ways utilized archaeology as a tool in matters of power and identity. Economic developments and the commercialization of archaeology have changed the practices and methods of excavation, as well as raising issues of integrity and cultural heritage. This article attempts to emphasize that "archaeology is not a neutral or purely 'scientific' discipline, but it is a process affected by the aims of its practitioners, who are deeply enmeshed in contemporary intellectual, social, and political agendas" (Kane, 2003, pp. 3). These unique and shifting circumstances across the globe, modeled by the cases of the US, Europe, and the Middle East, create specialized agenda and archaeological practices in the nations around the world.

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