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Archeology is defined as a study of past human actions through the process of recovering and analyzing environmental data and material culture that were left by the human population in the past. For the last two decades, the science of archeology has often been besotted with certain methodological procedures that are deemed to be very important in quest of objective knowledge. On the contrary, modern archeologists have abandoned this historical aspect of engaging in archeological excavations due to the ever-increasing dominance of technology in contemporary society, viewing archeology as an important aspect that can be used to determine national identities. The new batch of archeologists have developed a new concept of archeology, whereby it can be seen as an instrument of the present that has some aspects that say and contribute to the current state of the world (Tilley, 1998:2). Furthermore, it has made it easy for various stakeholders to know to what extent archeology has contributed to forming identities in new countries. The main role of archeology in legitimating and constructing collective cultural and national identities is therefore perceived as the most important aspect of archeological practice and theory. Thus, the paper will analyze how this science has been used to shape the identity of new countries such as Israel and states within the Gulf region regarding their culture, ethnicity and socio-politics.
The Influence of Archeology on the Formation of National Identities
In a broader spectrum, archeology has often been associated with the aspect of nationalism, especially in new countries that were formed in Europe after the end of the Great War (Elon, 1997:3). For instance, in Israel the findings of archeological research were instrumental in creating the national symbol of the country from postage stamps, coins, and medals to state seals. From the time Israel gained its independence, coins have often been stamped with motifs copied from silver shekels of the Jews living in the first century (Elon, 1997:4). Moreover, most people in Israel believe that the ancient coin is more beautiful in design and more accomplished than the modern one they were using at that time. This aspect further stresses nationalism where the use of archeology helps Israel in identifying with the past culture in preference to the modern one.
Furthermore, in the years preceding the establishment of Israel as a new state and in the first two decades of its independence, archeology was very instrumental in determining the direction of the whole culture of Israel. The main reason was to help the local people identify with their past cultures, such as the kind of economic activities the past inhabitants used to engage in, as well as sports and languages that were originally used within the state. Archeology helped them identify with their cultural backgrounds (Elon, 1997:4). This aspect has been the major building block of undivided unity that the people of Israel have been identified with from the inception of a new Jewish state. In the modern world, as a country, Israel is widely identified with great archeological monuments and sites that date back to the time of Jesus. The discovery of the latter has not only been instrumental in opening up the country to the outside world, but also in receiving economic gains from numerous tourists who flock the country to have a glimpse of these historical sites and artifacts.
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Considering new states in the Gulf region such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates, archeology helped in shaping their history from the degenerating connections of empires, namely, between the Ottomans, Babylonians and the Pharaohs, to a more focused history. In the nineteenth century, most of these Gulf States were not influenced by archeological research and were engulfed in the history of the past (Potts, 1998:3). The aspect was greatly changed by the discovery of oil and oil wells in new states that eventually brought a huge number of foreign laborers, who discovered the most important sites within the region. Oil discovery prompted more oil companies to engage in archeology. For example, one of the major sites in Abu Dhabi, the graves and settlements of Umm an-Nar Island, was brought to attention of archeologists by the employees of the Arabian American Oil Company (Potts, 1998:3). On the other hand, Bahrain is a famously known island identified with the burial mounds discovered by an archeologist in 1969.
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In another context, the expatriation of archeological labor has been largely influenced by archeological studies of slave trade within the Gulf States. Most of these new countries currently employ skilled labor within other Gulf States such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to aid in archeological surveys on their territories. Skilled workforce has been instrumental in the excavation and restoration of historic monuments within these countries and the coordination of museum exhibitions. It is contrary to the traditional aspect of archeology as a research-driven study only (Potts, 1998:6). Archeological museums have an educative value regarding presenting the past to the public, being places where most members of the given nation can visit their past. Besides, museums provide these countries with a sense of pride. In the modern world, the transformation of these sites should play an important role in the archeological process within new countries that is normally practiced as a form of political and social action. Museums should be influential in providing the public with necessary intellectual means to define, criticize and redefine the nation’s past (Tilley, 1998:10)
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Apart from defining national identities of new countries based on material artifacts, archeology is also vital in determining country’s socio-political aspect. Since the study defines the relationship between the past and the present that is mediated by individuals and institutions, it has inevitably become of ideological and political character (Tilley, 1998:3). The ideological aspect of archeology is brought about by the fact that it is a social practice that helps fundamentally in developing the sustainability, justification and legitimatization of the values of society or the entire nation.