USC staff works to protect artifacts

Countries' possession of controversial artifacts can lead to territorial disputes

Steffi Lau, staff writer
Daily Trojan
April 11, 2008

If USC archaeologist Lynn Dodd and UCLA archaeologist Ran Boytner have buried their schools' differences for the sake of peace, then perhaps the team has a thing or two to teach the Middle East.

For the past five years, Boytner and Dodd, along with a group of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, have worked toward providing a plan to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflicts concerning archaeological artifacts and sites, should peace negotiations between the two entities commence.

The plan, laid out in the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group Agreement, seeks to overcome political and religious barriers to protect the conflict-ridden area's archaeological heritage.

The plan was presented to a conference of Israeli archaeologists and government officials in Jerusalem on April 8.

Boytner and Dodd's undertaking began five years ago when they were shocked to find there were no official preparations concerning archaeology between Israel and Palestine. They decided as private citizens to fill a void not being met by the governments.

After extensive research, Dodd and Boytner brought together a group of prominent archaeologists, consisting of three Israelis and three Palestinians.

Archaeology plays a major role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because groups use archaeological finds to legitmate their claims over territories.

"Objects are used as scientific evidence to justify people's claims of being connected to land. It's a big part of why people keep settling in the West Bank," Dodd said. "People think, 'This is my birthright. These artifacts are made by my ancestors. How could I give these to my mortal enemy?'"

Boytner, director for international research at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, was in Jerusalem for the conference and was not available for an interview.

Dodd said that the abandonment of professional ethics during excavation often leads to disregard for the other sides' artifacts.

"Many Muslims and Palestinians say that Jewish archaeologists are only interested in Jewish remains because when they excavate, they destroy the Muslim layers to get to the Jewish ones below," Dodd said.

Much of the archaeological conflict arises from Israel's 1967 seizure of the West Bank during the Six-Day War between Israelis and Arabs.

Since then, excavations of artifacts in the West Bank have occurred and are overseen only by the Israeli military. But because the West Bank is an occupied territory under international law, the 40-years' worth of artifacts need to be returned to Palestine.

"It's important to lay the issue on the table in advance," Dodd said, describing the plan as preempting peace negotiations. "What will happen is that all of the sudden, negotiations will start, and there will be talks about refugees, water and land, and there won't be time to talk about these issues."

The group of archeologists agreed upon the plan last fall and delivered it to the U.S. Department of State, Israeli and Palestinian governments and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who guides the Middle East Quartet consisting of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia in helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion at USC and contributor to the project who has attended meetings with the archeologists, said that "the level of seriousness and sincerity between the Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists gives hope that civilization can prevail," an indication that an agreement between the two countries can be reached.

Dodd explained the three main points of the document, the first being that sites should be protected regardless of cultural or religious affiliation.

Second, the document proposes that Jerusalem is made a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Zone, meaning that governments would be obligated to protect the area.

Currently, only the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls are designated as a heritage site, which Dodd said is very small. The plan proposes tripling the footprint of the protected area to include the city's widest boundaries during the period of the Crusades.

"Our goal is to have a protected zone that exists no matter who rules a particular side of Jerusalem," Dodd said.

The third point, one of particular controversy, is that any artifacts excavated from the West Bank since 1967 should be repatriated to the Palestinians.

Political and religious tensions have at times stood as barriers to the group's progress.

"We had to take [meetings] out of the region so the Palestinians won't be seen running around with Israelis and vice versa," Dodd said of the group's decision to hold their meetings in Europe. "It can be very dangerous. In the past, Palestinians have been dragged out of their houses and shot for trying to reach peace efforts."

It is so dangerous that a few of the Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists have chosen to remain anonymous to the public.

"They're definitely putting their lives on the line," Dodd said.

While the team has encountered scrutiny from outsiders, differences have also risen within the group.

"There would be times when interests were not the same. People would be screaming across the table," Dodd said. "But also those intensive meetings would be broken up by meals together and getting to know each other. The first night we arrived, people whipped out pictures of their families. It was starting to connect as human beings first, rather than as the demon."

As part of the tedious journey, the group even took the Israeli government to court, after it failed to disclose the artifacts that would need to be repatriated. As a result, they identified thousands of these artifacts excavated from the West Bank, which had previously remained secret under the Israeli military.

Their efforts are the first successful negotiations of this nature to achieve balanced recommendations on both sides.

"What [Boytner and Dodd] are doing is quite heroic," said Donald Miller, executive director of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture and a major contributor to their project. "The political issues separating Israel and Palestine are very complex, but this was a concrete step that could be taken."

Dodd and her team have laid the groundwork for a potential agreement between Palestine and Israel, but a consensus still must be reached by the two countries.

"We knew something needed to be done. We decided we wanted to make a contribution to peace," Dodd said. "And the only way we could do it was as archaeologists."

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