Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Land of Enki

The Summer 2009 Review of Middle East Studies included a review by Fred Lawson of Mills College of The Land of Enki in the Islamic Era: Pearls, Palms, and Religious Identity, written by Timothy Insoll with contributions from Robert Carter, Ian Smith, Eden Hutchins, and Mark Beech, a scholarly monograph springing from the excavation of the site of Bilad al-Qadim in Bahrain. The review's second sentence is, "Archaeologists tend to pose questions that are impossible to answer, given the nature of the evidence with which they work." Although I have some sympathy for that perspective with regards to "religious identity," and am skeptical of the concept of the "archaeology of Islam" advocated elsewhere by Insoll and which he seeks in places to apply here, I felt as I was reading that although Lawson is actually a political scientist, his review expressed much of what I sometimes hear historians say about archaeology and its potential for improving our understanding of the past.

Lawson frequently expresses disappointment with the lack of clear conclusions. This, I think, misunderstands the nature of this book. A key difference between archaeology and history is that the former requires more methodological sophistication to extract the primary source material, and that this extraction inevitably destroys much of the usable information. Further, artifacts are unique and cannot be reproduced. Because of this, an archaeological monograph reporting on a single excavation is often not so much a book comparable to historical monographs, but more like an edited chronicle with an introduction, footnotes, and perhaps some analysis in the back.

No historian of medieval Europe would deny the contributions archaeology has made to that field, particularly with regards to social and economic history. This contribution, however, depends upon a significant amount of information, information which remains missing for the Middle East after the rise of Islam. In discussing Chapter 10, on "Trade, Exchange, and Related Processes," Lawson laments Insoll's admission that "little permission is permitted" in explaining the complexities of Bilad al-Qadim's trade connections. Yet a key point is noted in the first paragraph of the end of chapter summary:
"Yet compiling this table only serves to indicate that much of what has been reconstructed is provisional in nature, pending further research both on the materials from Bilad al-Qadim, but also further fieldwork in the regions described; most pressingly within the Gulf itself, allied with the urgent publication of sites already investigated, though exceptions such as Siraf and Kush exist. It is emphasized that it is not presented here as the definitive reconstruction of trade either from Bilad al-Qadim or the Arabian Gulf, far from it. It is merely a presentation of some of the available data allied with a degree of speculation as to what this might signify."

In other words, the conclusions are tentative because to a great extent they address questions that cannot be addressed with what little evidence is available thus far. In the next chapter, for example, Insoll has interesting ideas on possible ways to recognize Carmathian sites archaeologically. In order to go anywhere with them, however, one has to have a bunch of excavated Carmathian sites and see what pops up. In the meantime, Insoll and his colleagues make their work available so others can easily access it, and to prevent historians like me from grousing about how archaeologists never publish their findings.

Ultimately, too, as with any discipline, archaeology's strengths won't strike everyone as interesting or important. In all periods before modernity, for example, it is the best, if not the only, way to get at concrete daily life, especially for non-elite communities. It can also move our understanding of economic environments past the usually impressionistic views of the literary sources. Derek Kennet's article "The decline of eastern Arabia in the Sasanian period" is an example of the latter, one made possible by information from a number of sites around the region, all of which served to shed light on each other. Insoll's book is ultimately an entry into that kind of conversation, interesting for what it suggests, but important for the use others can make of it.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous First said...

I'm surprised that Lawson, as a political scientist specialising in the Gulf, doesn't pick up on the politics behind the dig. Bilad Al-Qadeem has long been a centre of Shia scholarship and I don't think this project would have happened before. If the construction of Bahraini identity by the state is about a narrow promotion of Sunni history - as writers like Lawson contend - then what were those who sponsored Dr Insoll's dig hoping to find at Bilad Al-Qadeem?

6:57 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home