Thoughts on ASOR San Diego 2014

Maybe it is just my own particular interest at the moment, but I thought that time and again one particular topic cropped up in various sessions at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in San Diego: historiography, or how we write history. Indeed, there was a whole session devoted to it: Methods of Historiography in the Study of Ancient Israel and the Levant. It was a joint session with the Society of Biblical Literature.

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the very start of the session. David’s Schloen presentation focused on the models implicitly used by many archaeologists and historians. Ever since the “New Archaeology” the dominant mode of explanation has been functional, explaining finds and history in terms of an overall system that is society. Tendencies towards such explanation were present since the beginning of the 20th century. David Schloen drew particularly on Max Weber to critique this approach. He maintained that functionalism fails to give importance to individual motivated actions. Rather, we need to explore subjectively understandable actions by the actors embedded in social worlds. We need to understand why people would act as they did. Both texts and artifacts give us indications of such motivated actions.

Schloen provided the example of trade. Under functionalist terms it is assumed that goods were traded through market exchange. However, there is ample evidence that kin-based or ruler exchange played a far greater role in the Ancient Near East.

While I did not listen to the remaining presentations in the session, I am sure the approaches to writing history were quite different. I assume that few bridges were built, a stated aim of the organizers of the session. Usually positions are maintained and defended.

Bill Dever in his paper also addressed historiography. He attacked the “minimalist” approach taken by some biblical historians, who regard the Biblical narrative with extreme suspicion, tend to dismiss it as a source of historical information and create a new historical narrative of Ancient Israel. While they take archaeological records into account, they do it in a very haphazard manner and generally in support of their previously formulated account.

Bill Dever on the other hand announced that he was writing a history of Ancient Israel based solely on archaeological finds, which he would then compare with the Biblical account to show convergence and divergence. Of course, this could not be a history in the traditional sense, as many events could just not be traced through archaeology. But it would be able to show some of the subsistence patterns, lifeways and political structures.

Questions of theory that affect history writing also came up in the session “Theoretical and Anthropological Approaches to the Near East”. Darren Joblonkay, for example, proposed to see the archaeological record as a complex milieu of practice representative of the entanglement that is society. Through the use of new computer technology patterns can become apparent that indicate practices, just as today the practices of consumers are detected and analysed.

That system approaches do not always have to be expressed in functional terms was shown by the paper of Taco Terpstra “Roman Trade with the Far East: Evidence for Nabatean Middlemen in Puteoli”. He used various inscriptions in Puteoli and elsewhere to analyse relationships through a network approach. Trade was conducted through middlemen that due to their ethnicity were trusted trade relationships in a distant land. Nabateans who lived in Puteoli in Rome were able to form trade and community relationships both with the Nabatean homeland in the Near East and with the local Romans. The importance of ethnicity in commercial and daily life in the Roman Empire is a fascinating aspect of society then.

I’m not sure what direction historiography will take. But I’m sure that it will change and new developments in technology will be part of that.

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