Nationalism, politics, and the practice of archaeology in the Caucasus

Nationalism and archaeology in the Caucasus

Nationalism, politics, and the practice of archaeology, edited by Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett

Cambridge University Press 1995

Nationalism, politics, and the practice of archaeology in the Caucasus (Part III Eastern Europe and Eurasia) pp. 149-174

By Philip L. Kohl and Gocha R. Tsetskhladze

This chapter examines the politics of archaeology in an area that can justly be viewed either as part of the northern frontier of the modern Middle East (and ancient Near East) or the southeastern boundary of Europe. One of the fascinations of Caucasia - both Ciscaucasia and Transcaucasia - is that it is a region where European (Christian) and Oriental (here Islamic) traditions meet or, more appropriately today, collide. It is also characterized by exceptional, almost unparalleled ethnic and linguistic diversity, making it - depending upon one's temperament - either an ethnographer's dream or nightmare.

In addition to sectarian, linguistic, and ethnic diversity, the Caucasus is characterized by a very long and vivid historical consciousness, extending back with rich historical and then archaeological documentation for millennia. Archaeology and ancient history are exceptionally alive and meaningful for all the myriad peoples of the Caucasus. Today, given the collapse of the former Soviet Union, it is a very volatile region replete with numerous territorial disputes and several exceptionally bloody and explosive ethnic conflicts. Given all these conditions, it is an area where one would not expect the practice of archaeology to be an idle academic pursuit, unrelated to contemporary politics. One is not disappointed.

This paper will demonstrate the political nature of archaeology in the Caucasus by relating several examples illustrating this fact, proceeding first regionally, considering interpretations of the prehistoric record in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and the northern Caucasus, and then chronologically with an evaluation of Caucasian archaeological evidence for the classical period, particularly as it relates to Greek colonization in western Georgia, beginning in the mid-sixth century BC. As it proceeds, it will also attempt to establish criteria for distinguishing acceptable "readings" of Caucasian prehistory from serious "misreadings" or distortions of that past that may result in the systematic suppression, if not slaughter, of one people by another.

At the outset, we wish to emphasize that, while we are being critical of the practices of many local Caucasian archaeologists, this does not mean that we are not appreciative of their many substantive achievements in reconstructing their incredibly rich remote past; while we generalize critically about the behaviors of entire peoples (and as generalizations, there are, of course, numerous exceptions), this does not mean that we are at all demeaning or holding suspect the proud and distinctive cultural traditions that make the area so fascinating and intellectually stimulating. If we spend more time illustrating the questionable practices of archaeologists of one culture and fail to mention those of another, it is not a political statement of support for the latter on our part. Sadly, no group is above criticism. Current ethnic conflicts, based on territorial political disputes in the Caucasus and all too often justified by archaeological "readings" of an always deficient, never satisfactory record, are extremely complex and, unfortunately, lack simple solution.

We argue against an "essentialist" conception of culture, particularly as applied to the archaeological record. This view maintains that cultures are Nationalism and archaeology in the Caucasus  like minerals that have crystallized; once formed, they assume a distinctive shape that characterizes them "from time immemorial" to the present. An essentialist (or primordialist) view holds that Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Ossetians, Abkhazians, Chechens, etc. have "always" existed in a manner that blurs necessary distinctions between culture, language, and race. This conception of culture, which is adopted consciously or not by most Caucasian archaeologists, is opposed to the view of cultures as constantly "in the making," historically rooted, open-ended systems which are continuously transforming themselves, borrowing from their neighbors, and being inextricably caught up in historical processes much larger than themselves (Wolf 1984; Kohl 1992:173-4).

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