Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Inscribing Ideology: Construction of the Levantine Landscape

            Alan R. H. Baker and Gideon Biger titled their 1992 co-edited volume Ideology and landscape in historical perspective, emphasizing the way in which landscape is culturally constructed. Humans do not just modify their environments for purely functional reasons; they often do so in an ideological manner, embedding their motivations and paradigms into the space they inhabit. It is this human tendency that makes landscape archaeology a valuable subdiscipline. Through analysis of the physical remnants of human impacts on landscapes, archaeologists can make interpretations concerning not simply which materials cultures historically utilized, but also concepts higher up on Hawkes’ ladder of inference: concepts that are more ideological. Social class divisions can be inscribed on the landscape through privatization and restriction of certain preferential locales, and religious beliefs are evidenced by, for example, the association of offerings with particular spatial attributes (cardinal directions, water features, elevated areas, etc).

            This use of geography to infer ideology is not restricted to prehistoric cultures, however, nor is it restricted to material remains uncovered during excavation. Ideology can just as easily, if not more so, be construed through analysis of historical records, particularly maps. There is a tendency to see the advent of cartography as the beginning of an objective view of space, as if with mapmaking humans were able to visualize the Earth’s “true” geography. Any map, though, inscribes the worldview of its maker, which is dangerous when this subjectivity goes unrecognized. For example, maps of the Levant continue to refer to archaeological sites by Biblical names assigned to them by European imperialists, often without historical or material evidence. Yet, because of the emphasis placed by Western thought on the written word, and because of the Eurocentric global power structure, these maps are preferenced over other narratives that may exist in the eyes of, for instance, Bedouin peoples who actually inhabit the area.

            It is important to consider the role that archaeology played, particularly in the 19th century, in imbuing Levantine landscapes with a Judeo-Christian ideology. In her book A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past, Margarita Diaz-Andreu discusses several instances of archaeologists who set out specifically to map Biblical sites. Some of these pioneering figures in the archaeology of Palestine in particular, including Eli Smith, lived in Missions and thus aimed to convert local peoples to the Christian faith. Therefore, archaeology provided one means to the end of illustrating the essential “truth” of Christianity. Even if conversion of others was not an explicit goal, the naming of sites based on nonspecific Biblical descriptions implies a preeminence of that time period in history, as though little of note occurred before or since. Diaz-Andreu includes this passage from one account of traveling in Mesopotamia, written by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1849:
With these names [Assyria, Babylonia and Chaldaea] are linked great nations and great cities dimly shadowed forth in history; mighty ruins in the midst of deserts…the remnants of the mighty races still roving over the land (135).
The terms “ruins” and “deserts” in particular connote uninhabited, desolate landscapes, even though the land was still occupied at the time of Layard’s travels, and the word “remnants” indicates a belief that any culture that does remain is but a lesser shadow of the region’s former majesty.


              It is obviously problematic to confer Biblical names on archaeological sites, as occupation of the region predates the advent of Judeo-Christian tradition by many millennia. Perhaps more problematic, however, is that these labels are still utilized on political maps to refer to current settlements. As a student of archaeology, it is on some level gratifying to see the extent to which archaeology is valued in the Levant, demonstrated by this constant referencing of land areas by the material remains that exist belowground. Yet, this act intrinsically denigrates the current inhabitants of these regions that do not subscribe to a Judeo-Christian ideology or to a Eurocentric concept of land ownership (e.g. nomadic Bedouin peoples). Like on the African continent, European powers were able to assume control of land partitioning due to military might. But because of the significance of the Levant within the Western religious tradition, imperialist ideology was supplemented by a Biblical one, and thus the names themselves, not just the initial act of naming, continue to elevate the imperialists and their supposed Biblical ancestors, denying others the agency and power to define themselves.

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