30 years ago, Mario Liverani delivered a lecture that outlined a research program for the disciplines of the history and archaeology of the Ancient Levant. The essay is also a masterful description of salient long-term trends that characterized Bronze and Iron Age Syria-Palestine. Published in Italian in a hard-to-find volume, it has not received the attention it deserves. Here, in translation, is how the essay begins:
If there is a region of the ancient Near East in which the phenomenon of acculturation presents itself as imposing and obvious, it is the Syro-Palestinian region. The region’s geographical position, a corridor between Egypt and Anatolia, a gateway from the Mediterranean to the Mesopotamian and Iranian heartlands, made it the privileged conduit of commercial traffic and cultural currents. Its political fragmentation (the result of topography, once again) made it the object of the large appetites of neighboring great powers. Its central position made it the pivotal locus in which knowledge of the non-indigenous (of several “others” in juxtaposition) resulted in innovation.
In current historiography it is commonplace to note that Syria-Palestine is a stratified accumulation of acculturations;1 beneath the accumulation there is nothing specific or original to the region – except for the originality of not being original. A society of merchants, caravan operators, and seafarers; of interpreters and translators, exoticizing artisans and hyper-receptive artists; at the level of larger numbers, a population of immigrants and of those forced to emigrate. Is this possible, is it reasonable?
The stereotype, like every stereotype, is to be rejected as such, on the basis of sane critical and anthropological rigor, unless the choice is made to accept it as irremediably true. In that case a historical “truth” succeeds in having the upper hand. That would be tantamount to intellectual resignation, in which history no longer occurs in facts but in what is spoken and written, such that words are treated as more real than things.
Less paradoxically, it might be said that the stereotype raises the question of the value to be assigned to, on the one hand, obvious and distinctive cultural manifestations embodied by a tiny subset of society and, on the other hand, the underlying connective tissue which, for the fact of being less visible, is not for that reason less real and enduring. It is the problem of the value to be assigned to activities of transformation and exchange, exposed without a doubt to the effects of cultural interaction, but constituting a very small quotient of economic activity, as opposed to the primary activities of production, less distinctive, less amenable to historical narrativization, except in terms of the long duration. The primary activities of production nonetheless constitute the structure on which the other activities rest.
If one wishes, it is the problem of the relationship between, on the one hand, the specialized “elites” concentrated in the palace engaged in administration and distribution, speech and writing, establishing contacts - of these activities we have conspicuous if only intermittent testimonies – and, on the other hand, the great rural masses engaged in the work of hearth and field without much opportunity for travel or communication, without the possibility of knowing much outside of the horizon of their own village. Of these social strata more or less impacted by the effects of exchange and of acculturation we have little to no testimony – and when we have testimonials they disappoint because they are difficult to interpret historically and lack uniqueness; they lack “style.” Common household pottery one tends to throw away; the painted piece, the import, is conserved, studied, and published.
1 To be sure, Oriental historiography does not make use of the term “acculturation,” insofar as it is thought I think to be a far-fetched and particularly inelegant coin given its sociological origin.
The opening paragraphs of Liverani’s 1981 essay move in the direction of privileging the study of a region, ancient Syria-Palestine, in terms of long-term historical structures as opposed to one-off events. The work of French historians who emphasized the “long duration” – e.g. Marc Bloch and Ferdinand Braudel - is not footnoted but taken for granted.
The opposition in the above between common household pottery and painted imported ware is more than a metaphor for the redirection Liverani’s project entails. It is also to be understood literally in terms of the possibility and necessity of leveraging the massive amounts of “ordinary” data newer archeological methods collect in order to explicate long-term historical structures of interest.
Since Liverani wrote his essay, the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology has taken baby steps in the direction Liverani hoped for. It cannot be said that the knowledge so far acquired has been successfully integrated into the study of the history of ancient Syria-Palestine, assuming there is such a field of study (I have my doubts), or, for that matter, into the study of the history of ancient Israel.
And what if the long-term historical structures constitutive of ancient Syria-Palestine impinge on the present of the same region? The innovations for which Syria-Palestine deserves to be well-known in the realms of philosophy (monotheism) and communication (the alphabet; “you” plural addressed political genres), after all, are of more than antiquarian interest. And what of the tight connection between particular examples of ethnogenesis and claims to land and resources? Four scholars who have addressed questions of this kind with rigor and originality are Albert Glock, Avraham Faust, Mark Smith, and Seth Sanders. Liverani’s Antico Oriente, yet to be translated into English, is a massive attempt at exploring the entire ancient Near East in terms of long-term historical structures. On the other hand, Liverani’s 1981 essay poses a number of fundamental questions and sketches some solutions with greater clarity and concision than does his later monograph. In posts to follow, I will translate and comment on the entire essay.
Avraham Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance (Approaches to Anthropological Archaeology; London: Equinox, 2006); Albert E. Glock, "Homo Faber: The Pot and the Potter at Taanach," BASOR 219 (1975) 9-28; “Archaeology as Cultural Survival: The Future of the Palestinian Past,” “Cultural Bias in Archaeology,” “Divided We Stand: The Problem of Palestine,” essays published posthumously in Archaeology, History and Culture in Palestine and the Near East: Essays in Memory of Albert E. Glock (Tomas Kapitan, ed.; ASOR Books 3; Atlanta, 1999); Mario Liverani, “Dall’acculturazione alla deculturazione. Considerazioni sul ruolo dei contatti politici e commerciali nella storia siro-palestinese pre-ellenistica.” In Forme di contatto e processi di trasformazione delle società antiche (Giuseppe Nenci, ed.; Atti del convegno di Cortona, 24-30 maggio 1981; Collection de l’École française de Rome 67; Rome: École française de Rome, 1983) 503-520; Antico Oriente. Storia, società, economia (Manuali Laterza 17; Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1988 [10th ed., 2006; pp. x + 1031; Spanish trans. in 1995; Engl. and German trans. forthcoming]); Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Traditions [gen. ed., Gregory Nagy; editorial board: Olga M. Davidson, Bruce Lincoln, and Alexander Nehamas]; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (FAT 57; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)