Elena Corbett “Competitive Archaeology in Jordan” (2014)

Corbett, Elena, Competitive archaeology in Jordan: Narrating Identity from the Ottomans to the Hashemites, Austin: Texas University Press, 2014


Elena Corbett brings archaeology into the realm of identity politics in this brilliant book on Jordan’s relation to its deep past.  The book revolves around the construction and variation of the national narrative that Jordan, and its geographical predecessors from late Ottoman times onward, built in relation to its antiquity, be it material or textual. Corbett argues that archaeology projected scientific knowledge on a past that legitimized the present contributing to the imagination of political geographies. “Archaeology not only was a camouflage for politics, but proved after the war [WWI] to be the very essence of politics.” (88, italics in original)

She uses a wide array of sources including Ottoman magazines, reputed archaeological monographs, school textbooks and other school materials, postage stamps and currency, museums, etc. In this way she reaches two main audiences: historians and political scientist interested in the modern use of antiquity for the construction of a national narrative, and archaeologists interested in a critical survey of the politization of their own discipline.

Corbett argues that archaeology was not only providing the geographical scenario for
a colonizing competition between several European powers; which was demonstrated by the intimate relation between military funds and survey expeditions or the amusing international competition over material antiquities such as the Mesha Stele worth of a second Jordan-corbett 2based Indiana Jones movie. But, more importantly, archaeology was at the core of a narration that would legitimize evolving political identities, including colonial privilege, Semitic multi-confessional Ottomanism, Zionist claims, Arabism, Islam-based prerogatives and, finally, Bedouin-like “Nabateanism”.

… cultural heritage is inseparable from the power embedded in imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, hegemonic iterations of postcolonialism or resistance, and most recently neoliberalism. “ (65)

Religion was initially at the epicenter of any archaeological quest. “If Catholics considered Palestine generally and Jerusalem particularly the epicenter of the Holy Land because it was the sanctified terrain of Jesus, for Protestants the importance of this same geography was that it was the terrain of the ancient Israelites.” (26-27) Hence it is not surprising that European archaeological teams produced a concentric scholarship with Jerusalem at its core and Trans-Jordan in the periphery.

Drawing from this religious point of departure, Corbett’s careful analysis of al-Muqataf, a late Ottoman magazine published in Arabic for the dissemination of scientific knowledge, reveals that its audience was mainly interested on the topic of Semitic populations, specifically on its origins and the landmarks of the biblical exodus. This responds to a search for a legitimate coexistence in the multi-religious society of late Ottoman Empire.

However, during the Mandate competitive narrations appear on the light of a renovated interest on Trans-Jordanian geography. It is particularly interesting the case of Nelson Glueck, whose work on the Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite sites during 1930s laid the basis for the interpretation of the eastern side of the Jordan River as the non-Jewish territory. But strategic narratives were also appropriated by Arab scholars to produce a nationalist narration that connected contemporary populations with the remote past to cement their legitimacy to the land.

 “Antiquity as evidence of new geographic realities was a vital component of the nation-state. Demonstrating the perennial nature of the imagined national community within the geographical boundaries of state was a prerequisite for self-determination.” (123)

Locating Jarash and Petra at the forefront of the “national” heritage in postage stamp during the 1930s was an attempt to popularize the geography of Trans-Jordan crediting both ends of its constitution: the Hellenistic archaeology widely appealing to the European understanding of civilizational origin and the nomadic Arab-like Nabateans that were slowly fashioned at the core of the Jordanian national narrative.


Elena Corbett

After independence, and with the ideological push of Pan-Arabism, the narrative of Hashemite dynasty needed to diversity representing itself at once as fighters against imperialism, leaders of the Arab nation, protectors of Palestine, and patrons of Jordan. On the one hand, historical narratives connecting the Hashemites with the Hejaz and the Prophet were used to emphasize their role as the Arab Muslim guardians of Jerusalem. On the other, archaeological narratives were deployed to solidify the existence of Jordan as a coherent nation-state differentiated from the surroundings countries. However:

The exigencies of ideologically competing against Zionism and representing Arab nationalism left no safe space in which to let the proto-Jordanians of the Hashemite core drive the paradigm; they would either compete with other Arabs, or, by their existence, help affirm the antiquity narrative of the state of Israel.” (177)

The 1967 War and 1971 Black September prompted Jordan to disengage from the West Bank and to return to its core waving another set of narratives. The loss of Jerusalem was disguised with the recovery and reconstruction of local shrines of the companions of the Prophet while promoting Jordan as a hub for multi-confessional dialogue appealing not only to Christian-Muslim dialogue but also Sunni-Shi’a. Additionally, the fading of the pan-Arab narrative in the region allowed the Hashemite to renovate the meaning and importance of its tribal network showcasing contemporary Bedouin tribes as a pure representation of a nomadic Arab culture and living remnants of a Nabatean past.

In sum, Competitive Archaeology in Jordan is an essential book to understand contemporary identity politics in this country. Elena Corbett builds a solid political historiography of archaeology with a very critical view that expands over a century and a half and draws on multiple sources. But most importantly, she renews our interest on material culture and extends the role of antiquities beyond museology into the realm of cultural history.





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