In the service of politics

Politically-informed Bad Archaeology

This section explores all the ways in which archaeology is manipulated for political, ethnic, social and religious causes.

Archaeological evidence is often made to fit people’s prejudiced opinions about other people and the world, or it legitimises particular political ideologies and their historical bases. Whether this means discovering Iron Age pottery marked with swastikas or claiming to have found evidence for a mythical god, it constitutes Bad Archaeology.

18 Replies to “In the service of politics”

  1. I have a question, please. Does Salima Ikram really believe the ancient Egyptians and pharoahs were black (as in negroid) as has been asserted by Bauval, author of Black Genesis? If so, what are the motivations that would inspire her to go against Hawass’ assertion that the pharoahs and ancient egyptians for the most part were egyptian–a race that is different from the negroid peoples of some other parts of Africa? I don’t care about race at all, myself, but I passionately care about the truth–in all things and in archeology. I view the paintings and all the artifacts from ancient egypt and I see an Arabic looking people mostly–in the hair, the facial structure, etc. I also see variances in color–with Nefertari almost fair skinned. There are some negroid appearing people, but they are not the pharoahs–they are combatants to the pharoahs–and such. To believe Mr. Bauval, must I disbelieve my own eyes and the research of respected archeologists?

    1. Kate

      The whole idea that the ancient Egyptians were a physically sub-Saharan type has been raised a number of times and is one of the cornerstones of the Afrocentric movement. This holds that all important early human innovations originated in Africa and were subsequently “stolen” by Europeans (the Greeks usualy get the blame, hence the title of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena). As one of the world’s oldest known civilisations, the Egyptian must, therefore, have been created by black (i.e. sub-Saharan) Africans.

      This idea has been thoroughly debunked. I will do some research and, eventually, write a page specifically on this subject.

      Thanks for asking the question!

      1. Thanks for your reply Keith. I look forward to your future writings on this topic. Again, I really don’t think most people care at all what race anyone is— race has no significance in and of itself—but where science is concerned there is value in knowing every detail about the world, and the people and animals in it—-simply for the sake of an accurate body of knowledge from which to base and discover additional truths. If the truth about the origins of civilizations is simply whatever someone with a theory wants it to be—and can be made up by anyone at will— and there are no accepted standards upon which we base evidence— then there can be no value to knowledge, culture or education at all. And that is upsetting to all of us who put our time and money into education!

      1. The problem comes with what you mean by “black”. Yes, they were much darker-skinned than the olive-skinned Mediterranean Egyptians, but in modern English, the term “black” is usually applied to people of sub-Saharan type (what, in the past, would have been referred to as “negroid”), which the Nubian people are not. Race is a contentious issue at the best of times and I certainly don’t want to get into arguments of that sort!

        1. Present-day Egyptians are genetically intermediate between Berbers and Horn Africans. While the later can reasonably be considered Black the later I think of as white to ambiguously brown. Interestingly, Ancient Egyptians has turned out to be genetically more like Yazidis, Syriacs and Mizrahi Jews. What caused this historical shift in genetic composition? Military conquest can’t create such a change, but long-lasting slave trade can. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the conquerors did their best to enforce that you could not be born a slave. This made it increasingly necessary to by new slaves from elsewhere at least once a generation. The main source of these slaves was Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Horn of Africa. Such slave trade – lasting for many centuries – could explain why Ancient Egyptians were likely whiter than present-day ones.

        2. The Nubians are undoubtedly a “ black “ people by modern standards and Ancient Nubia corresponds to Black areas of modern East Africa today.

  2. This seems to be a recurrent discussion, when in all honesty the only answer has to be that Ancient Egiptian rulers had very different ethnic origins depending upon which Dynasty are we analysing.
    Just to give to extreme exemples, the XXVth Dynasty(c.760-656 b.C.), came from Kush (modern day Sudan); hence the Pharaohs of the Kushite Dynasty were clearly African in aspect.
    On the other end, the XXXIst Dynasty (Ptolomaic Dynasty c.332-30 b.C.) was greek; its founder (Ptolomey I or Ptolomey Soter -“The Saviour”) was born in Macedonia and one of Alexander the Great’s finest generals.
    As such, Pharaohs of this period would have a quite European appearence (who knows, maybe Cleopatra did look like Elizabeth Taylor after all…:D)

    Best Regards,

    P.S.: Outstanding Site!!!!! Congratulations!

  3. Perhaps the current Palestinian claim of them being the original Canaanites, and that Jews have no history in Jerusalem, is an example of the ‘politics’ of bad archeology. It’s dangerous stuff.

  4. good luck with the cat herding.I greatly admire anyone who takes on the task of educating people who cannot distinguish the difference between opinion and evidence Finkelstein still gets death threats for publishing the results of field surveys that show the Palestinians have a valid claim to be autocthonous

  5. Actually I read, years ago, in a review of a medical tome on blood types (which had taken its author years to compile) that all Mediterranean peoples are about 55% black anyway. That includes Jews, Palestinian, Greek, Italian, Spanish etc. as well as North African peoples. (I forget the scientific way it was put). Taking more recent work on the ancient migration of homo sapiens out of Africa and subsequent movements around the ancient Mediterranean this seems highly reasonable to me.
    I have also read a book on genetics written by a science journalist (A friend still has it) where it is suggested that there is a probability that all European peoples have Jewish ancestry somewhere. Basically because of the diaspora.
    Re the Palestinians, it has occurred to me that when the Romans banished the Jews from Israel they would have concentrated (as did the Babylonians) on the princely and priestly elite. The peasants who tilled the land and watched the animals were left on the land by the Babylonians. Was this true under the Romans? I have read stuff on the web claiming that the Palestinians are Arab incomers and others who say this is a Jewish excuse for displacing them and that they are the original peoples. What is right? Does anyone know? I would have thought that the Palestinians are as likely to be the descendants of Jewish peasants who, like peasants elsewhere, just went along with whatever religion their leaders told them to follow and got on with the real work of feeding everyone.

    1. Helena,

      Jews were not the only inhabitants of the Roman province of Palestine.

      There were a great many peoples from other groups, including a great many Greeks and Romans (Palestine had been part of the Greek kingdom or Selucia prior to conquest and eventual annexation by Rome).

      The “locals” need not have been jewish at any point in time, whether you track that status by genes, religion or culture.

  6. Having skimmed Black Athena recently, I don’t think it’s fair to say Bernal ‘blames’ the Greeks for stealing all human innovations, what ever that may mean. I thought his argument was that the ancient Greeks themselves were aware that their civilization(s) came from many different sources, including, notably, from Africa, but that this insight had been lost in post-Renaissance Western Classical scholarship, which increasingly sought a ‘pure’ white Graeco-Roman world as the cradle of democracy, literature, culture, and all the rest. And which tried to minimize the mixed inheritance of the Greeks.

    1. I am no Bernal lover by a long shot. But, he did not claim that the Greeks “stole” knowledge. That ridiculous assertion is championed by certain Afrocentric groups in the U.S. Honestly, how can one “steal” knowledge? This theft idea is an appeal to victimhood in an effort to garner support and sympathy. As we are discovering, the Greeks probably were much more influenced by ideas circulating in Anatolia and the near Mid East (probably learned from Phoenician traders plying the waters of the Aegean).

      Bernal is a radical diffusionist who has deluded himself into that old historical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (“before the fact, therefore because of the fact”). Bernal’s linguistic assertions have been debunked by the scholarly community as being too simplistic and based on incorrect associations. Simply, it is as if you found the word “sayonara” on a tomb; Bernal would leap to the assumption that that civilization originally came from Japan. Or, the words “fire” and “firefly” are related (besides just sharing some letters). He also has swallowed, completely, the idea that the classical myths are true.

  7. The answer is actually quite simple. Depictions of black human Egyptians indicated that they were dead. Green was also used (as on Osiris.) That said, there were prominent Nubians in ancient Egyptian society, as Nubia was part of the empire for a long time.

  8. Just wanted to mention that in Japan archaeology is at the mercy of politics regarding its connection with ancient Korea and the origin of Japanese culture. I would suspect that a similar situation exists in other countries. Any views on this skewing of data in the service of nationalism or other isms?

  9. I think the Netherlands is probably one of the few countries on Earth without significant chauvinism. We prefer to just talk down about our country and achievements instead :) Ergo, we don’t have the need to make our past better than it is.

    Though we really don’t have an archaeological history worth mentioning. That part is true.

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