Friday 3 April 2020

University of Helsinki uses Information from Looted Material to Try to Look Relevant

An attempt at an (using the term loosely) "archaeology has relevance - really" exposition from the University of Helsinki ANEE ("Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires" - in what?). In front of neat rows of books colour-matched to their clothes, Dr. Caroline Wallis and Dr. Tero Alstola discuss what they think ancient Near Eastern empires can "teach" us about migration. This is a highly patronising and politicised presentation that one feels was, in reality, made to deflect criticism from recent criticism of the use of looted material by one of their researchers:
Posted on You Tube 27th March 2020 by UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI 27 Mar 2020 39 views•
This is their blurb:
"Throughout history migration has played an important role in the development of different cultures and empires. In this video, two postdoctoral researchers from the University of Helsinki – Dr. Caroline Wallis and Dr. Tero Alstola – discuss migration as a factor in the development of the Ancient Near East during the first millennium BCE. They explore the types of migration and the effects it had on both people and empires. [...] 
Actually what they do is produce a rebuttal of modern neo-fascist nationalist claptrap, which is fine, but not when modern political rhetoric is camouflaged as "what science tells us".

I was irritated by using here the as part of the basis of this propaganda the statement that it is based on (0.34) "a lot of sources, it is not  something that archaeologists have discovered like settlement pattern[s] and changes in them, but also a lot of textual sources on migration" - then mentions "clay tablets" and then gives a plug to his book. Dr Tero Alstola (and its nice to put a face to the name) is the guy that handled and published the Al-Yehudu looted clay tablets. Indeed, they are not a source found by archaeologists, but made available to him from the looting and destruction of precisely the other types of archaeological evidence his studies of dug-up material should be complementing, rather than replacing.

I do not suppose he'd be very supportive of a geneticist suggesting we grind up unread unbaked clay tablets to retrieve hair that may be preserved in them so we can classify the DNA of the people making them.

This is hardly cutting edge stuff. Using migration as an explanation of historical and prehistoric change is one of the original sins of the historical sciences. We have a völkerwanderungszeit/ Migration period at the basis of European identity. The process of agricultural colonisation (and thus migration and cultural interactions)  is well documented by archaeology, settlement geography and written sources (in archives not dug up) in central and eastern Europe - and I'd guess if you looked into it, in Finland too- from the 13th to 19th centuries.* You don't actually have to go tell-trashing to talk about it.

But I think that is not what is happening here. The research question was not first formulated and then the researchers said to themselves: "now where can we get some tell-trashed evidence to examine this?" Rather, the opposite happened (and this is exactly the same process involved as with the "research done" using PAS data): "we've got this heap of tell-trashed stuff, now what the hell can we do with it?" ("I know, let's make it look as if what we do is really relevant to the modern world!")

The University of Helsinki assures us all that they "do genuinely encourage discussion of the ethics of research". Jolly good, let us do that. But it seems to me that this video is an attempt to do the opposite, to defect attention away from the fundamental issue of the source of the research material used here to promote the political point the two participants are so obviously trying to promote. Looting and protection of the historical environment, the and no-questions-asked antiquities trade and private collectors participating in it are also political issues, and ones that I hope the next ANEE videos properly address.

And to be clear, I - being a migrant myself - am in no way opposed to the points these two are making about migration, just its unfortunate format and setting. .

* Medieval Europe really is a much better analogy to discuss migration and its effects, I presume they have medievalists at the University, don't they? and when we do look at it, what the evidence shows does not always conform with the generalisations these two are drawing from it. Teutonic Knights, German settlement in towns (the Hanse too), Jews resettled in central Europe, the Dutch settlers, Scottish protestants - all ample material with a lot of detailed literature. No need to trash any foreign sites to discuss this. 


JMS said...

Tero Alstola in no way published the Al Yahudu tablets. He discussed the portion of the tablets that have already been published by Pearce and Wunsch. And they are hardly the only sources available, or being used to study migration in the ANE.

Paul Barford said...

Hmm. I write about "recent criticism of the use of looted material by one of their researchers" and in the context of the wider discussion (including other posts on this and other blogs), it is irrelevant whether his is the first publication, the effects are still the same, aren't they? You are splitting hairs, whoever you are "JMS". Neither did I say that they were "the only source", but I see the motive for using his work on these tablets as the reason why this video was made as the whole issue of the Al Yehuda tablets was being discussed ... to show "how useful archaeology can be" and it really does not matter if some of the data comes from illicit sources. Next time you comment, please use your proper name.

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