Echoes of absent stones reverberate under my feet, as if the ground were hollow. I begin to trace the vibrations, attempting to locate a source. It is unlike any natural seismic tremor.
In search of the underground disturbance, I climb over a limestone peak for a shift in perspective. Below me lies a field of white stone fragments and monoliths, violently unearthed. Eight monuments of times past are visible between the foot of the valley and the summit, scattered along the green and fertile landscape. With its archaeological strata partly exposed, the town of Sebastia, in the West Bank, hides in the ground.
Hills surround the peak I’m standing on. On each of them, efficiently constructed housing multiplies aggressively. These buildings host the growing population of Zionist settlers who dream of laying claim to the central summit. Here the temple of Augustus stands, built onto the palaces of biblical kings, which in turn stand on earlier remains, pools, and cisterns carved into the hard bedrock. In 1908, excavators unearthed gold and ivory artifacts underneath the temple, and transferred them to their home institution, the Harvard Semitic Museum. To this day, a western institution displays them in exile, alongside thousands of other artifacts from the hollowed landscape of Sebastia, once known by its biblical name of Samaria.
The sound is disorienting. It seems to be projecting from multiple locations simultaneously beneath me. Standing on this peak, I feel defeated yet invincible as the noises of the ground buzz out from its gut and echo through the hills. It is said that this ancient city protects itself with disorienting echoes, confusing enemies approaching the city walls. The settlers organize guided tours of Palestinian villages once a month, with the guidance and support of the Israeli military. On occasion, the settlers dress in costume to perform for their children the narratives of King Ahab and Omri. Yet, according to Palestinians, the settlers are not only terrified of the local population, but of what they believe to be a cursed landscape.
I begin to analyze each sound, singling out specific tones. In the distance, the carved symbol of a hammer on a rock, an ancient mason’s signature, captures my eye. Perhaps the commotion comes from the sound of this engraved hammer. Is it possible that the stones are speaking? The archaeologists of Sebastia have left the hammer untouched—every one of them interested in proving the history of the Old Testament. It still sits there, unwanted both by the inhabitants, who are rooted in and respect the soil, and by the Israeli authorities. The remains of a pre-Israelite past, too recent to testify to the Bible’s veracity, remain as second-class antiquities.
I hope that the sound I hear is not that of another archaeologist, looter, or soldier. The extraction of objects from the soil is a violent exercise. A vessel that has lived underground for centuries may have grown fond of its dusty burrow; it should remain protected. Yet outsiders have have looted, sold, bought, numbered, and revalued these historical remains, then displayed them in Western institutions. They move from one glass vitrine to the next, and from one storage facility to the next.
The landscape today is a composition of the leftovers of all the excavations that worked through the ground over the last century. Archaeologists came and left behind both what was too big to move and too small to have value. What remains is a reminder of the subjectivity of archaeology, which seeks to construct thin and bite-size narratives that audiences can easily digest.
One of the prominent figures in the first excavation in Sebastia was Gottlieb Schumacher, the son of a German missionary who settled in Haifa in the 1860s. His family was associated with the German Templer movement, which had the goal of realizing the apocalyptic visions of the prophets of Israel. In their expedition, they relied on the Bible as a history book, to be verified through archaeology. In 1908, Schumacher directed the team from Harvard University. They, and those who succeeded them, excavated this ground, removed objects from its gut, and piled the rubble back into the voids they had created. The wounds echo in the strata, where stones now speak to each other. Perhaps the ground wonders where the archaeologists took its parts, or how it might refill its hollow forms.
The excavation is a laborious act of displacement. We perceive and value objects differently in isolation than within their context. We also understand the emptied strata differently without their innards.
Israeli authorities are erasing and silently rewriting the history of the ancient city of Samaria, one fragment at a time. Once or twice a month, a militarized bulldozer appears, leaving underground voids, blade marks, and echoes of its gouging. The Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration—which is part of the Israeli military authority of the West Bank—and Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority systematically restructure and displace the ground. They intend to stitch together a Zionist narrative of the past that can act as an excuse to control a territory once inhabited by biblical kings. In Sebastia, as elsewhere in Palestine, Israeli authorities selectively disgorge the past to align the ground with their preexisting narrative, rather than adjusting their narrative to the ground.
Excavations in occupied territories are illegal under the 1954 Hague Convention. But the occupation has blurred fact and fiction at every level. For example, in December 2018, media coverage in Israel celebrated the opening of a new exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, titled Finds Gone Astray, showing fragments from the West Bank confiscated from looters. Through exhibitions of this kind, Israeli authorities present themselves as saviors—by looting the objects themselves before “thieves” can get to them. Israeli authorities are moving the most contested ground on earth from one side of the border to the other, literally one stone at a time. This westward movement parallels the one from Palestine toward Europe and the US in the past. This constant shift of stones creates a complex web of displaced objects, alongside millions of displaced people.
It is uncertain how far down the landscape continues beneath me. Archaeologists have subjectively investigated each transition in the geological strata. As they have come and gone to Sebastia through many seasons, they have imposed their language on the ground. The subterranean encompasses a multiplicity of spaces where elements of order and disorder achieve a momentary equilibrium. Perhaps the bulldozer marks, the uprooted trees, and the voids will tell future generations of the abuse of our own stratum.
The whole history of this place lies underground: every stone that was ever produced, every particle of dust ever inhaled and exhaled. Everything exists in gradients, as a transition through space and time. The fictional and the real, the known and the unknown, the physical and the ephemeral—they all meet and blend into one another. If the ground and its artifacts cannot speak for themselves, Israeli authorities can arrange and construct any story they like.
Following the loudest sounds, I walk off the peak toward an area in the distance speckled with columns, traversing a thick olive grove that sits atop the forgotten remnants of a Greek temple. The olive groves, Sebastians’ livelihoods, have finally grown back, after years in which foreigners took control of them to dig underneath. I worry that they will axe the olive trees again.
In the ruins of the temple, a stone artifact, a feminine figure with a lock of stone curls, quivers as if to communicate a disturbance in the landscape. This lock belongs to Kore, the queen of the underworld. Looters will displace this object, and as a fragment of her body disappears from the ground, Kore will wake up in a locked glass vitrine elsewhere, numbered and categorized. In the space left voided, the resonance of the ground will change, and its sound will vibrate louder.