Colonialism, Past and Present

ANEE publishes a series of blog posts on decolonization of the ancient Near East, produced in cooperation with Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

Mandate Period Palestine was a different field for archaeology than today. It was not an empty world of ancient sites owned by the state, but a dense array of private lands, cultivated by people who lived on or nearby.

Excavations of prehistoric or ‘primitive’ man became fashionable, after the discovery in 1925 of the “Man of Galilee” by Francis Turville-Petre hit the news (Fig. 1). Man, of course – archaeology was predominantly a male domain. The petition of Ali Hassan Abu Shehadeh, a few years later, did not make the news. He and his family:

“Were living in this place from [times] immemorial and […] have never been treated so harshly even during the Turkish Regime” (ATQ258, May 1933). (On petitions see Ben-Bassat 2015; 2017; Zachs and Ben-Bassat 2015). Many petitioners were illiterate, and had to use the service of professional writers.

His home was the cave of Kabbara on the Carmel Coast, where Turville-Petre was excavating for prehistory. The labourers, said Ali, “evicted them from their cave breaking the doors and damaging their vegetable groves”.

Turville-Petre did not exactly deny the allegations, but claimed that the Bedouin was not living permanently in the cave: he only kept there goats in winter, perhaps. His “vegetable grove” was neglected and his door was a flimsy, miserable affair. The British Administration hurried to help Turville-Petre. The cave belonged to the State, since it was not registered. The British wanted to develop the land market by registering common and shared lands as private properties; it was a complex, protracted matter. Turville-Petre held an excavation licence signed by His Excellence, the High Commissioner. Behind the High Commissioner stood the mighty British Empire. Ali Hassan had neither papers nor an Empire to support him. The "primitive" man of Prehistory was much more important than a "primitive" living native.

It is easy to blame the European powers for the colonial sins of the early 20th century. But while we must not justify colonialism, we should not treat the past in monolithic terms. Tuville-Petre himself was not the typical colonialist one imagines: openly gay, an activist for gender tolerance (Bar Yosef and Callander 2017). We should also oppose nostalgia, like the notion that it was a “Golden Age” for Archaeology (Compare Bar-Yosef 2017). Colonial situations were complex and ‘mixed’. For example, the British disregarded the local farmers (fellahin) when deciding policies about antiquities sites and development. However, they cared for the fellahin by continuing the custom (already current under the Ottoman Empire) of requesting excavators to fill back the excavated areas after the excavation, in order to enable cultivation. This also helped to preserve building remains, but sometimes hindered keeping them open to the public. The British developed a central Museum in Jerusalem, but also passed legislation that gave excavators a large share of the finds and allowed them to take it abroad.

Today, when thinking about the inhabitants of Israel-Palestine, we think mainly about Arabs and Jews, but under the Ottoman Empire, until they became fixated by the British Mandate, the communities tended to be more fluid. All the subjects of the Mandate were “Palestinians”. However, the Jewish community perceived itself mostly as Hebrew, not Jewish. There were Christian and Muslim Arabs, Arab-Jews and Christian-Jews. Life under colonialism changed them all, for good and bad, often in unexpected ways. There was some cooperation between Arabs and Jews, e.g., in the Department of Antiquities of Palestine; but it was limited, since the colonial hierarchies were strictly kept. Women were hardly employed in the Civil Service. British men held top positions, while almost all the manual workers were Arabs. Jews and Christian-Arabs occupied a middle ground, reflecting their often higher level of education. The majority of the fellahin and Bedouins were illiterate. Unlike claims to the contrary, there was no discrimination between Inspectors. There were three Arab and one Jewish Inspectors in the Department of Antiquities. They did not advance to higher positions, because those were very scarce and reserved for Britons. More importantly, the Inspectors lacked high formal education and most were not of scholarly inclination.

Contemporary Israeli archaeology, especially by established archaeologists, tends to eschew (post)colonialism (unlike other disciplines in Israel, notably sociology). It worries lest discussing people of the past as colonialists – for example, Israelites and Philistines –will immediately bring modern Israel to the mind of the readers (e.g., Pitkänen 2014; cf. Sulimani and Kletter 2022).

It is not a defendable position. One cannot study, in the world today, ancient migrations (or possible migrations) without awareness to Postcolonialism. That, because our languages, our terms, and our historical and archaeological disciplines are deeply embedded in the colonial past and cannot avoid the Postcolonial present (Dietler 2010; Young 2015; 2016).

Yet, are we postcolonial yet (Hamilakis 2012)? Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine shows the same desire for conquest, subjugation, and land that are so familiar from the empires of old. This is, of course, not the only example. Speaking about “de colonization” is perhaps dreaming of utopia.



ATQ 258. Atiqot File “Kabbara”. Israel Antiquities Authority (Mandatory) Archive, Jerusalem. (

Bar Yosef, O. and Callander, J. 2017. A Forgotten Archaeologist: The Life of Francis Turville-Petre. PEQ 129: 2–18.

Bar-Yosef, Y. 2017. Bonding with the British: Colonial Nostalgia and the Idealization of Mandatory Palestine in Israeli Literature and Culture after 1967. Jewish Social Studies 22/3: 1–37.

Ben-Bassat, Y. 2015. Petitioning the Sultan. Protests and Justice in Late Ottoman Palestine 1865–1908. London: I.B. Tauris.

Dietler, M. 2010. Archaeologies of Colonialism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hamilakis, Y. 2012. Are We Postcolonial Yet? Tales from the Battlefield. Archaeologies 8/1: 67–76.

Pitkänen, P. 2014. Ancient Israel and Philistia: Settler Colonialism and Ethnocultural Interaction. Ugarit Forschungen 45: 233–63.

Sulimani, G. and Kletter, R. 2022. Settler-Colonialism and the Diary of an Israeli Settler in the Golan Heights. Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies 21/1: 48–71.

Young, R.C. 2015. Empire, Colony, Postcolony. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Young, R.C. 2016. Postcolonialism. A Historical Introduction. Chichester: John Wiley.

Zachs, F. and Ben-Bassat, Y. 2015. Women’s Visibility in Petitions from Greater Syria during the Late Ottoman Period. International Journal of Middle