Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Yigael Yadin, the Bible, Archaeology, and Orientalism – When Captions Precede their Photos

Posted by NT Wrong on November 10, 2008


This picture is from Yigael Yadin’s Hazor (1975: 34), a populist book describing the archaeological finds at Hazor in Galilee. I hope somebody finds it as amusing as I did. The caption reads:

“A girl from North Africa felt ‘at home’ operating the two grinding stones, which are over 3,000 years old.”

What’s the scene here? Can you picture it? As soon as the 3,000-year-old relics are dug up, there’s a sudden rush, and a ‘North African’ woman (‘girl’) leaps up towards them, and starts to use them as though she were in her kitchen at home — because nothing in her world has changed in 3,000 years, and she couldn’t really tell the difference between archaeological ruins and her contemporary ‘North African’ (which bit exactly?) world.

What is encoded here is a commonplace of archaeology, in particular ‘biblical archaeology’. The Arab world is unchanging, permanent, in contrast to Western progress and change. So your average Arab can properly serve as a proxy for ‘the primitive ancient’ of 3000 years ago. But what is absent in this photo, although necessarily present? Look carefully. What’s not there? … the fact that the photo is being taken by a Western photographer who has asked the North African woman to pose in exactly this manner. The photo stages an idea in the Western photographer’s head. The caption wasn’t added to this photo — it preceded it.

“Orientalism is staked upon the permanence of the whole Orient, for without ‘the Orient’ there can be no consistent, intelligible, and articulated knowledge called ‘Orientalism’… the Orient is synonymous with stability and unchanging eternality… ‘the Orient’ as an unconditional ontological category does an injustice to the potential of reality for change.”
– Edward Said, Orientalism, 1979: 239-240

23 Responses to “Yigael Yadin, the Bible, Archaeology, and Orientalism – When Captions Precede their Photos”

  1. Thanks for this. And you’ve marked well the photographer as Western or Occidental. Would we be surprised to learn that the one staging and taking the photo is also a “man”?

  2. ntwrong said

    I wouldn’t be too shocked.

  3. Jim said

    it probably was a man. but, and here’s the wry twist, you’ve done here just what you accused the photographer of doing. you’ve ‘staged’ a preconception.

  4. ntwrong said

    But, as argued above, the staging of the photograph is Western, and there is a good case to be made for it being staged from a male perspective. On top of this, the author of the book is a Western (Jewish) male. Ths is not preconception, this is observation.

    And in actual fact, there’s three photographers named in the book — all Western, and as far as I can work out, all male: Mr J. Schweig, A. Volk (chief photographer, Hazor), Mr Z. Radovan.

  5. Dennis Diehl said

    Can you imagine when the mos spectacular Clovis points were unearthed from an apple orchard in East Wenatchee , Wa., someone strapping one on the end of a hoe handle and going after a local cow as a phot op? No, didn’t think we could!

  6. Dennis Diehl said

    that would be like me being able spelling “most” and “photo” properly..ha.

  7. Jim said

    presumption is the mother of fundamentalism

  8. ntwrong said

    Who’s the father?

  9. ntwrong said

    Dennis – If the East Wenatchee Clovis Points had been dug up by biblical archaeologists, they would have had a local Native American decked up in war-paint and feathers, before taking any photos of cow-hunting.

  10. Jim said

    that would be nt wright…


  11. James C said

    That’s a very interesting picture and comment. And so much intellectual assumption in just one picture and a small comment.

  12. rochelle said

    All of you except James C, look again and pay attention:

    First, the North African girl is quite obviously Jewish — not an Arab. Her arms are bare and she is wearing slacks. Further, an Arab girl does NOT wear a hat under her scarf.

    There are, after all, thousands of North African Jews in Israel — and, educated or not, the vast majority back in Yadin’s day were still quite familiar with hand grinding stones, among other practices brought along with their families. How much does anyone want to bet that she was the one who identified the stones for what they were… and the photo was probably taken when she demonstrated how they were used.

    (It is very hard to forget the new-immigrant Kurds digging up the floor tiles in their spanking new apartments to make their cooking fires — and, hey, how about that — the apartments came complete with pickling urns — it was what we call a toilet. They used the gardey-loo technique for their, um, exhausts.)

    Second, more than a few local Bedouins prefer to live in caves — sans electricity, etc., particularly off the Masada Rampart Road — and use precisely this type of grinding stones right now. (And they still use “desert cotton” as wicks for oil lamps.)

    No matter how much one tries to internalize what one has read, it takes seeing these things in action to understand.

    I never truly understood Ps 23 until I walked into it one day back in the 1970’s –outside the dangerous gai tzal mavet; ten steps around the side of the mountain and there in front of me was the green oasis and the refreshing waters.

    Now, shall we try examining the photo again without the preconceptions?

  13. ntwrong said

    Hmmmm… I admit I can’t tell if the ‘North African’ is Jewish or Arabic (or other), but thanks for your firsthand assessment, Rochelle. Although, I would have thought that many of the people working on an archaeological site would be somewhat Westernized, so it might be difficult to tell from the fact that this person wears slacks. But I’m not sure.

    However, isn’t the description of her as ‘North African’ (not ‘Jewish’) significant? She is thereby categorized as non-Western, non-technological. The same contrast between Jewish productivity and irrigation versus Palestinian non-productivity and aridity was made in modern Israel.

    Have I descended into indefensible speculation? I think I have to some extent. I confess my sin. I should have stopped at my basic point about a ‘North African’ doing as North Africans always have for 3,000 years. After all, hand-grinding stones were widely used for much the same period until recently in the West, too. Whatever the truth behind the photo, the representation of lack of change is in evidence.

  14. ntwrong said

    Not completely on topic, Rochelle … did your main criticisms of M. Finkelberg’s Greeks and Pre-Greeks concern linguistic issues, or her willingness to find bits of ‘real history’ in ‘myth’ and ‘legend’? I’m particularly interested in the latter issue, if you had an opinion on it you have time to share.

  15. James C said

    Pay attention yourself Rochelle: I said *intellectual assumption* very, very deliberately. On this level the historical figure behind the picture is another question and not one that was being discussed, at least by me. The framing of the caption is crucial here and it was the framing an caption which gives us the intellectual assumptions not who the girl ‘really was’.

  16. James C said

    I’d also add a couple of other points. The issue of Jewish versus Arab versus North African is also secondary: the discourse of an unchanging Oriental ‘other’ is there and this discourse gets applied to Jews and non-Jews alike (also in Said for what it is worth). Now, of course, there are no doubt many ancient and traditional practices that go on across the Middle East and North Africa and some will no doubt shed light on ancient texts etc but the framing of photos still buys into the Orientalist discourse with great ease.

    Also, on dress sense, some of the more dramatic changes in dress sense in, for instance, Cairo and Palestine (and elsewhere) have come in the past 30 odd-years (esp. with the rise of a politicised Islam and the decline of secular nationalism. There’s some good tv footage of such changes shown from time to time too.

  17. rochelle said


    I did not make any “intellectual assumption” or interpretations. One thing about living (not visiting, living) in so many different areas around the Mediterranean basin; it knocks the automatic “hidden agenda” response out of you. As I have seen them in use, to me it’s simply a photo showing how the grinding stones were, and are, used.

    I live surrounded by all these ancient practices on a daily basis, year in and year out — not just for the length of time of a dig. I didn’t think the photo was worthy of comment. Nor do I think that Yadin was making a political statement or was making a comment on the backwardness of the Eastern Mediterraneans. It is, after all, a simple fact that a great many ancient practices are alive and well in this part of the world, Western influence or no.

    Sure, by 1970 many Jewish North Africans were westernized, but I can tell you from first hand knowledge that this did not apply to the Arab women. Not then, not now. The men wore (and mostly the young men today do wear) Western slacks and wash-and-wear shirts, name-brand tee-shirts, etc.. But a lot of them still wear traditional gear. The older Bedouin women have their “property” tattoo on their foreheads, too. And THAT is a practice that dates back to at least 3,000 BCE and likely was pre-historic.

    So it is very hard for me to make “intellectual assumptions” about such a photo; the unchanging Middle-Easterner to me is a “that’s neat.” I see it every day. The moment you get out of the big cities, you may as well be back in antiquity when it comes to clothing and the “way things are done” — particularly among the older men and women.

    Wander around BGU sometime (it does have the closest university library). The young unmarried Bedouin women may wear slacks under their dresses and not cover their faces, but they are still covered from head to toe to finger tip. The houses in the many villages that spring up overnight out in the Negev may be built of concrete block and have modern cooking equipment and the villagers shop at the supermarkets instead of grinding their own flour (though they are taught how to use the ancient methods), but the foods are the same foods and prepared in the same tradition-honored way… and the women still walk behind the men and they still carry the loads and the Bedouins and Arabs still count their assets in livestock.

    BTW, the dresses on the young women are made from very expensive cloth. And the amount of gold hanging from necks and arms is substantial. We are not talking about “poor” people.

  18. rochelle said

    “Not completely on topic, Rochelle … did your main criticisms of M. Finkelberg’s Greeks and Pre-Greeks concern linguistic issues, or her willingness to find bits of ‘real history’ in ‘myth’ and ‘legend’? I’m particularly interested in the latter issue, if you had an opinion on it you have time to share.”

    Both: on the linguistic side, primarily because the inscriptions are written in such a way as to give valid, linguistic information in the writing itself.

    On the myths and legends side, there are bits and pieces of fact underlying legends… the problem is to winkle them out from under the embroidery. On the other hand, many Greek myths are borrowed from the common Semitic pool. Then, the entire god legends would seem to me, at least, to describe the replacement of the indigenous gods with the Ionian and Dorian gods.

    In that respect, I have to think that this particular group of myths display an underlying real displacement event.

    There are others that fall into this type of reflecting real events category.

    I once saw something odd in Arizona. Unfortunately, the only person who also saw this was my late husband. But, I will tell you what happened anyway.

    We were driving out of Sedona on a rainy day. Hanging above Sedona is a large red mountain which has vertical full length slots at regular intervals on its face. The next major cloud front was boiling up and as it passed over the vertical face, updrafts running along those slots caused the Parthenon to appear in the sky: columns, triangular roof, seeming frescoes, and all.

    I have seen Mount Olympus; despite earthquakes and passage of millennia, some portions retain what were vertical slotting similar to those at Sedona. I got the very strong impression that the Greeks had every now and then seen something similar to what appeared over Sedona and, thus, knew, with certitude, where the gods lived and what a temple should look like.

    I somehow do not think that the Greeks’ belief that the gods lived above Mount Olympus was a myth to them.

  19. ntwrong said

    You’ve seen Olympus! They do say pareidolia is common both for dedicated religious adherents and dedicated academics alike. Well, they don’t really, but I did.

    I do agree that there is some very high-level broad correspondence between a great traumatic event at the dawn of a continuous civilisation and subsequent legend. But with the way legend develops in response to the current culture of the day, and keeps developing over time, there’s not much more to be said beyond than that bare fact. I haven’t yet discovered a surefire kernal-finding method, and I very much doubt this is possible. This goes for early ‘history’, too, if we’re talking about Hecataeus and ‘Dtr’ and Mrs ‘J’ — ’cause the myth/history distinction is just too much of a modern imposition on the ancient lit.

    Please carry on discussing Orientalism. And I apologise once again for trying to go behind representation in discussing a photo. (I’ll never learn!)

  20. rochelle said

    Not pareidolia. I lived in Athens for three and a half years and, obviously, visited numerous sites besides Olympus — Delphi and Sounion, for instance. The Cyclades, of course; Thera is still my favorite. I must say that the huge, modern commuter ships take three-quarters of the fun out of island hopping.

    Which I suppose brings us back to Western technological vs. Eastern non-technological. This distinction is hard to pin down, except in the most superficial sense of powered by electricity and oil and the Western “we know best” attitude. Production line factories are ancient. So are sophisticated irrigation canal systems, magnificent jewelry, crystal lenses, brain operations, and so on. They certainly had fine concepts of engineering and construction. The Minoans were magnificent hydraulic engineers. There is no question that communication by internet beats the Pony Express hands down, still, signal fires between forts was at the speed of light.

    Ancients in the Eastern Med had technology. There is the very important question with regard to the application of Western technology to other societies that have their own pace and their own concepts of what is a good life. There is always a balance between what is given up and what is gained.

    For instance, NT, you wrote, “The same contrast between Jewish productivity and irrigation versus Palestinian non-productivity and aridity was made in modern Israel.”

    Is it Orientalism to state a mere fact? Instead, why not ask WHY this is a fact?

    Balance. In 1948 a new state with primarily war torn and starved inhabitants had to feed its population. So, technology came to the rescue.
    The Arabs in the surrounding areas did not have to change anything in their food production and didn’t.

    Today, of course, their populations have grown too urban for the ancient methods and they now are embracing Israeli food technology. Not with their olive trees, though, or their flocks.

    Now, the question came up in respect of Israel, but it should also be pointed out with regard to Greece.

    In both cases we are looking at societies that are on the cutting edge of modern Western technology and, at the same time, retain massive amounts of ancient practices — with the result that many things that appear agenda driven to the West are a ho-hum to the inhabitants.

    Two examples:

    Greece. A benefit concert was held after the earthquake of 1999. The concert was an oratorio written and conducted by Markopoulos. (The most famous conductor in Greece.) Preceding the concert, Markopoulos was lauded with speeches, given flowers, and finally, a Metropolitan presented him with a large, gold strewn, Byzantine Mary icon. The concert then began. The opening words were a paean to Apollo.


    (Nobody, and I mean nobody, in the packed Herod-Atticus even batted an eye. Think of what this means for our understanding of Modern Greek society. )

    Israel: My street is well paved; to the left, it turns and situated roughly 100 meters from my home it runs along the crest of a wadi The wadi leads down to the Dead Sea 32 km away. Quite visible on the walls of the wadi are the high water marks carved into the sides by the flood back in the 7th millennium. At the top, the hill is covered with modern homes. On the paths worn within the wadi Arab shepherds sit on rocks and watch their sheep and goats.

    (Nobody walking, jogging, or driving on that street notices the contrasts.)

    Is it an attempt to claim “the Orient is synonymous with stability and unchanging eternality…,” when what is stated is merely a fact?

    A child of our age, I have nothing at all against our modern technology; I just want things brought into perspective.

    (BTW, I have a new digital camera and can take photos of those water carved “benches” if someone wants to see this truly unchanging geological evidence of the flood. The rim of the mountains around the southern end of the Dead Sea also bears these carved “benches.” )

  21. ntwrong said

    Here’s some alternative captions for the photo, all factual:

    ‘Like a rose in the desert: Pretty young girl extends her slender bare arms, getting down and dirty for a “grinding session”!’

    ‘The hominid Homo Sapiens is a tool-making species.’

    ‘The exuberance of youth! Young Jewish girl operates the grinding stones with enthusiasm.’

    They’re all ‘factual’, but they all also participate in certain discourses rather than in others. Here, respectively: the discourses of Men’s Magazines, Alien Biology Textbooks, and that of boring old farts. ‘But it’s true!’ does not contradict perspectives such as Orientalism, when ‘facts’ already select from the chaos of possible data, and are selected in order to continue to participate in such discourse, further such discourse, and define one’s own identity. Orientalism is representation, not reality.

    Please email me some flood photos. You might need to briefly label them so I understand them. I’d be interested in photos of any bitumen pits you’ve seen too in the area. n_t_wrong [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk Let me know if you don’t mind me posting a couple here. I like to share sometimes.

  22. rochelle said

    No, none of your alternate captions are appropriate to describe what was found at a dig. Context.

    It;’s always a good idea to ask why X before, as James put it, making “intellectual assumptions.”

    BTW, the girl clearly was Morrocan; urban Morrocan — she was educated or she would not have been on the dig. URBAN, but she knew how to use the grinding stones nonetheless.

    You missed my point. Both the Greek and Israeli examples are commonplaces in this part of the world. Ultramodern and ancient juxtaposed all the time. Nobody thinks twice about the contrasts.

    I’d love to have you wait in the line (which was out the door yesterday) at the PO sometime. You might get the idea of why orientalizing just doesn’t come up in day to day living out here.

    OK, I’ll take the photos on Sunday or Monday, warn you that they are coming, then ship them off in a separate e-mail with attachment.

  23. rochelle said

    Hey, NT, if you want the photos, please answer my e-mail.

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