Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Nadia Bahra (Archaeology, University of Constantine, Algeria)

Nadia Bahra. Photo: private

The worrying condition of archaeological sites and monuments and the alarm bells about the looting and destruction of antiquities are periodically reported on by Algerian media and social media outlets. Such reports are usually met with a sympathetic response from those with an interest in antiquities and are duly followed by statements from the institutions in charge of antiquities regarding urgent measures being taken and a team of experts being sent to rescue the situation. By contrast, an outcry concerning the state of academic archaeology in Algeria meets with a more muted response, since sympathy is restricted to specialists in the field. It is as though the state of archaeologists and their discipline had absolutely nothing to do with archaeological monuments.

It is difficult for any archaeologist to broach the subject of obstacles facing archaeology in Algeria without their viewpoint being tainted by a certain subjectivity according to the nature of the institution to which they belong – the (state) culture sector or the higher education sector – or according to their narrow specialism, time period of interest or even professional status (full-time employee, contract worker, student). While university-based archaeologists tend to deal primarily with problems of academic education and research, we find that archaeologists active in cultural institutions (apart from research centers) are more concerned with the preservation of antiquities and raising societal awareness of their significance and their role in local social and economic development.

Academic training in archaeology is part of the humanities in the Algerian university system, a logical outcome of the problematics of the subject, which relate to knowledge of human cultures derived from material evidence. This categorization of the subject is in line with the traditional view of archaeology as based on the description and classification of material evidence and its study in light of historical sources. Modern approaches to archaeology have, however, made it a preeminently multidisciplinary body of knowledge, one difficult to confine to a narrow scope.

Matters are made more difficult once we understand the compartmentalized nature of the Algerian university system, which only rarely permits multi- or cross-disciplinary teaching or research. The situation remains as such despite switching to the LMD system[1] some twenty years ago that was supposed to foster interdisciplinarity and openness to the external environment.

At present, we observe that most students majoring in the humanities, in general, and archaeology, in particular, lack the capabilities that could allow them to master their subject (i.e. limited foreign language skills that prevent them from comprehending the key works in their field, weak scientific background), and this reflects negatively on their education. If a capable student chooses to major in archaeology, he or she will face pressure from their family who are worried the student will ruin his or her future given the limited job opportunities available for archaeology graduates. Employment for archaeologists is largely confined to culture-sector institutions, whose budgets shrink year after year, and they suffer unjustified exclusion from employment in other sectors such as education and local government.

Once employed, archaeologists in all sectors come up against the lack of available means to practice their skills, whether in academic research or working in site protection and enhancement. Nonetheless, we find that many specialists make huge sacrifices to ensure a reasonable amount of work. Of course, this does not mean that the relevant government ministries provide no material support as much as it demonstrates that this support is insufficient to meet the needs of a country rich in tangible heritage such as Algeria.

In the field of purely academic research, the sluggish shift towards multi- and cross-disciplinarity forms a prominent challenge to archaeologists, especially regarding the prehistoric and early historical periods. The organizational structure of research in Algeria – which is currently divided into five thematic research agencies in health, technology, natural sciences, the human and social sciences, and agro-food sciences – plays a not insignificant part in making the main research fields unreceptive to broader perspectives. And despite the proposal to create thematic research networks that transcend these divisions, deeply ingrained working habits cannot be changed overnight. Scholars of archaeology who want to set up multidisciplinary working groups may come up against a lack of interest in their research on the part of colleagues in the natural sciences and technology, and if they do find someone interested, it is necessary to foreground archaeological research problems that may appear unusual to a researcher from outside the field. This is especially the case since those problems have no direct economic returns and may, therefore, be viewed as a waste of time by those uninterested in archaeological research and unaware of its long-term results.

We, therefore, find that most multidisciplinary Algerian research published internationally has been conducted in cooperation with foreign researchers, since they are more conversant with the requirements of working in a multidisciplinary team. Furthermore, they are also able to ensure the quality of laboratory analyses, unlike Algerian researchers who suffer from the periodic unavailability of means and materials.

When it comes to academic research, another challenge for archaeologists is confronting the tendency to limit archaeology’s role to the enhancement of the material cultural heritage for touristic purposes. This tendency has its roots in some people’s ignorance – or disregard – of the humanities’ role in society and in the belief of others that local researchers are unable to break new ground, making assistance from foreign expertise inevitable.

Of course, antiquities have a role other than attracting tourists and providing a cultural backdrop. An important missed opportunity in the field of archaeology has been the neglect of its role in rationalizing identity conflicts that have recently reached the height of irresponsibility. The issue of identity in Algeria is currently polarizing two ideological trends that, far from sober academic debate, have adopted social and other media as a battleground for their propaganda. Any researcher in history and archaeology (and heritage in general) knows of the jostling between proponents of the Arab nationalist trend, who see Arabism in everything and attribute every aspect of the culture to an eastern Arab (Mashreq) origin, and proponents of the Amazigh trend, who see everything as autochthonous, albeit with some sensitivity towards Mashreq elements.

Regardless of the political ramifications of this polarization, and without going into the finer details, an impartial observer would note that the extreme ideas of both trends, despite their differences, are derived from the traditional Jacobin French cultural model, which tends to impose a single central identity (one language and a unified national narrative) – something entirely unsuited to multicultural states such as those of North Africa and the Mashreq.

Extremist discourse impinges on almost all periods of Algerian history, but the most outlandish hypotheses, whose proponents posit as proven fact, cluster at the stage of ancient history and the transition between prehistory and historical eras. To exemplify, we can cite the legend of the conquering Chachnaq and his imaginary battles against Ramesses III, the excessive glorification of the Phoenician presence, to an extent that has led some to disregard the history of local kingdoms (Massyli and Masaesyli) and their prehistorical roots, the search for the Yemeni roots of the inhabitants of North Africa, and so on. Most of these theories rest on dubious approaches that make superficial formalist comparisons of antiquities or citations from sources and that lack academic rigor. It is obvious to an archaeologist that these speculations are linked to diffusionist theories that prevailed in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and which were themselves based on uncritical approaches. The best known were Pan-Germanism, which saw the origin of European cultures in the Indo-Aryan peoples, and Celtomania, which ascribed most Neolithic and Metal Age remains in Europe to Celtic culture. There is a vestige of Celtomania found in the initial publications on dolmens in Algeria from the beginning of the colonial period.[2]

Strangely, we find academics involved in these identity disputes while being completely oblivious to archaeological facts about the prehistoric and protohistoric periods, contradicting ancient sources. While this is hard to explain, it may be because those concerned are outside the field, poorly trained or drawn in the wake of narrow political and ideological considerations.

Every serious researcher in history and archaeology rues the lack of real concern for the objective academic study of antiquities from the periods under dispute using new approaches untainted by the positionings of ideological discourse. It is not so much the lack of those who study protohistoric remains, Phoenician or Punic antiquities, or the vestiges of the Berber kingdoms as much as the need to refresh methods and perspectives and move beyond purely descriptive and enumerative approaches. This situation can be explained, on the one hand, by the shortage of the ways and means and material resources required to research a complex period (analyses, radioisotope dating, modern survey methods) and, on the other hand, by a form of self-censorship, in that any serious researcher knows that they will be subject to attacks and accusations from ideological parties that exploit identity conflict to mobilize politically and gain sympathy (or even positions and privileges). The traditional and social media scene grants the lion’s share to irresponsible discourse that demonizes and vilifies, and it is unlikely that those who benefit from such rabble-rousing will easily allow this opportunity to slip out of their control.

How, then, can archaeologists confront all these challenges? Obviously, it is difficult to create a radical solution for all the problems afflicting the scholar of archaeology without the political will – with all the pros and cons this implies – to implement such a solution. This does not, however, mean surrender to current reality and a failure to launch initiatives that may have a long-term effect.

Indeed, there are many proposals, whether in the field of academic training, employment or research, but, for the most part, these are private conversations in the absence of a body to represent actors in the heritage sector, specifically archaeologists, that enables their voice to reach centers of decision-making. Notably, existing associations for archaeologists are concerned with the protection and enrichment of the cultural heritage and not the conditions of archaeologists themselves. This implies the need to set up an association or organization to fill the gap.

Such a body might take on the task of proposing an expansion of training in archaeology that is consistent with the latest developments in the field and encourages interdisciplinarity, especially in postgraduate studies. Access to this academic training could be limited to those with a specific scientific background to ensure quality and conform with fluctuations on the labor market. It is possible to organize workshops that look into ways to activate multi- and cross-disciplinary research mechanisms through the thematic networks and propose paths for academic cooperation that actually, rather than nominally, contribute to addressing the problems of archaeological research. Perhaps the most important role for a body that represents archaeologists lies in playing the role of a consultant to the official bodies on matters related to antiquities and heritage, whether in academic or in practical issues. It must be able to express all the intellectual currents of its membership in a method-based and sober academic form, thereby providing an alternative to naive or extremist discourse. It must also tirelessly highlight the true picture of archaeology as a stand-alone body of knowledge with its own aims, methods and benefits, while minimizing the image of archaeologists as treasure hunters and tour guides.

Translated from Arabic by Raphael Cohen.

[1] A three-stage system of study – licence (three years), master’s (four semesters) and doctorate (six semesters) – derived from the European university system.

[2] Noël Coye, “Celtes”, in: Gabriel Camps and Salem Chaker (eds.), Encyclopédie berbère, vol. 12, OpenEdition Journals, 1993, 1836-1839, DOI: 10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.2080; see also Marguerita Diaz-Andreu and Timothy Champion, Nationalism and Archaeology in Europe, London: UCL Press, 1996.

Nadia Bahra (نادية باهرة) is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Constantine and a research associate at the Centre National de Recherches Préhistoriques, Anthropologiques et Historiques in Algeria. She received her doctorate from the University of Algiers with a study of the latest research on the Upper Pleistocene in the Algerian-Tunisian border area. She also holds a diploma in pharmacy from the same university. In addition to her research on the prehistoric period, Nadia Bahra is interested in developing multi- and interdisciplinary research in the humanities, modernization of teaching curricula and research on archaeology in Algeria. She is currently a member of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA) and the International Union of the Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (UISPP).

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Citation: Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 10.06.2021

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