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
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