Archaeology and occupation in NBC’s TV series ‘Dig’

Earlier this year, the American TV network NBC screened Dig, an action series set in Jerusalem. The series focuses on an FBI agent, Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) who is investigating the murder of an American archaeologist.

Mystery and adventure ensue, with the agent uncovering a cult and conspiracy that have seen the series compared (not exactly favourably) to Indiana Jones and the Da Vinci Code.

Dig, co-created by Gideon Raff, creator of the Israeli TV show Prisoners of War and its more internationally well-known American counterpart Homeland, caused controversy before it reached TV screens. Indeed, the levels of debate about the series before it was shown seem greater than the rather muted reception it received when finally aired.

Set and partly filmed in East Jerusalem, notably in the Israeli ‘City of David’ settlement, located in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, Dig prompted widespread protests from Palestinian civil rights organisations over its apparent normalisation of Israeli control and colonisation of a Palestinian area of the city.

The series was scheduled to be filmed in its entirety in East Jerusalem, but production was moved to the rather less authentic location of Albuquerque, New Mexico, following the Israel Defence Force’s launch of Operation Protective Edge in July 2014.

The series provoked further controversy over NBC’s receipt of a multi-million dollar grant from the Jerusalem municipality, designed to encourage filming in the city and to ‘help brand Jerusalem and the State of Israel in a positive light.’

Dig‘s themes, and the troubled process by which it came to our screens, highlight the longer associations between archaeology and colonisation, in Israel and elsewhere. As scholars such as Nadia Abu El-Haj, Nur Masalha and Keith Whitelam have noted, archaeological practice has contributed to the establishment of ‘facts on the ground’ which appear to naturalise contemporary Israel’s ‘ancient’ roots, and serve to strengthen Israeli territorial sovereignty today.

In this light Dig‘s tagline, ‘The deeper you dig, the further you get from the truth’, seems unintentionally apt.

Israeli archaeological interests have facilitated more direct violence against Palestinians, in demolitions, house takeovers and increased surveillance, as well as leading to the destruction of some non-Jewish archaeological sites.

The New Inquiry recently posted an excellent and wide-ranging review of Dig, written by Molly O. Taking in the politics of the series itself and of its production, its televisual context in earlier collaborations between Israeli and U.S. TV stations, and the role played by culture in Israeli ‘soft power’, the review also offers reflections on the wider stakes in representing Jerusalem. As O notes:

In addition to its narrative mystery, Dig’s mass appeal depends on its ability to produce an image of Jerusalem that posits the city as a potential site of social salvation.

Scholars on Twitter offered lighter thoughts on the series with the hashtag #ScholarsDig, calling out some of its archaeological inconsistencies (Assyrian square script on a breastplate, apparently, rather than paleo-Hebrew), the less convincing ways in which it represents modern Jerusalem (could you really walk into the Holy Sepulchre so easily on Holy Saturday?), and, as you might suspect, its rather implausible plot (a bit too much Ark of the Covenant for most).

If you caught the series, do let us know what you made of it.

Hannah Boast

Larissa Sansour: Palestine, Sci-Fi and Superheroes

An image from Larissa Sansour's Nation Estate project (2012)

An image from Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate project (2012)

Jerusalem-born Larissa Sansour is one of the most well-known Palestinian artists working today, and her films and images have been exhibited around the world.

In this interview with the Institute for Palestine Studies blog, Sansour discusses food, archaeology and myth, and how science fiction can help us to think through Palestinian politics.

One of the works she discusses is her project Nation Estate (2012), an image from which is pictured here. Sansour envisions a dystopian architectural solution to the problem of creating a Palestinian state in an ever-shrinking Palestinian space:

With Israeli settlement activity confiscating more and more Palestinian land, it struck me that for a Palestinian state ever to materialize, one would have to think vertically. This thought was the starting point for the Nation Estate project. In Nation Estate, Palestinians finally have their state in the shape of a single skyscraper housing the entire population. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem on the third floor, Ramallah on the fourth, Bethlehem on the fifth, and so on. Aiming for a sense of belonging, the lobby areas of each floor reenacts central squares and landmarks, the elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor opening up onto a full-scale version of the Dome of the Rock.

Sansour’s high-rise solution recalls Israeli architect Eyal Weizman’s ‘politics of verticality’ (Hollow Land, 2007), of which he describes Jerusalem as an ‘intense case study’.

While Sansour imagines Jerusalem as one floor in a tower block, Weizman discusses a proposal made by Bill Clinton at Camp David for vertically-divided ownership of the Dome of the Rock, where the area would be partitioned imaginatively into Palestinian, Israeli, and United Nations-run segments.

Sansour’s work confronts her audiences with the question of whether her science fictional scenarios are necessarily more absurd than the Palestinian reality.

Jerusalem Interrupted: Modernity and Colonial Transformation, 1917-Present

A new collection, Jerusalem Interrupted: Modernity and Colonial Transformation, 1917-present, edited by Lena Jayyusi and published by Interlink, examines the Arab history of the city.

The volume includes contributions from scholars Issam Nassar, Sandy Sufian, and Nadia Abu El-Haj, among others, and covers a wide range of topics, such as broadcasting, music, and colonial medicine.From Jayyusi in the Introduction:

The history of colonization is always the history of suppression of various texts and voices, as well as ways of being, and the reinscription into discourse and narrative of an alternate set of histories that are predicated on that suppression. ‘Absence’ is not merely docile, it is a produced deficit in knowledge, a kind of negative symbolic capital, a weight and value accruing to that which colonizes empty space. The silenced past needs to speak. The silenced past needs also to be reconnected with the vocal present, in order to speak fully and to play a critical role in subverting the silences planned in the present and the further transformations these silences would enable.

It looks like a fascinating book and there are certainly a few chapters I’ve bookmarked as ‘to read’.

Jerusalem Interrupted forms part of a small but growing field of studies on the city focusing on Arab culture and society in the Ottoman and Mandate periods, often relying on archives such as Islamic court documents, municipal council records, and family papers to reconstruct the details of everyday life.

This new collection sits alongside works by writers including Salim Tamari and most recently, Menachem Klein (whose book was reviewed here by British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh), as well as the work of Imagining Jerusalem network members Roberto Mazza and Jacob Norris.

Thanks to Roberto Mazza for drawing our attention to this book on Twitter.

Hannah Boast