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‘Oriental’ archaeology society reconsiders its name

Members of the American Schools of Oriental Research are pushing to update wording they consider outdated and racist.

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Mourners Sarcophagus from royal necropolis of Sidon, Lebanon

Tombs at Sidon, Lebanon, were excavated with support from ASOR in 1901, shortly after the group was founded. Credit: DEA Picture Library

Many members of one of the United States's oldest archaeology societies are so embarrassed by its name that they call the group by its acronym — ASOR. And the society itself has buried the full name on its website.

Some now say that it’s time for a change. At the annual meeting this week of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Denver, Colorado, scholars will discuss whether to rechristen the 118-year-old society on the grounds that its moniker is irrelevant and racist.

“I worry that keeping the word ‘oriental’ in the name alienates students from our field,” says Danielle Fatkin, an archaeologist at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, who co-organized a session on the issue that is scheduled for 16 November. “I feel like we need to have a larger conversation as a community of scholars.”

The US government stopped using ‘oriental’ in 2016, along with ‘Negro’, ‘Eskimo’ and other terms deemed offensive and culturally insensitive.

ASOR was founded amidst Western scholars' growing interest in the ancient cultures of the Near East, which these researchers called ‘the Orient’. The society’s original headquarters were a Jerusalem hotel room, but ASOR later established outposts in Baghdad; Amman; and Nicosia, Cyprus.

The society now publishes three journals — the Journal of Cuneiform Research, Near Eastern Archaeology and the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) — as well as books and monographs.

ASOR also funds students to go on archaeology digs, and since 2014, it has addressed the cultural-heritage crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, says the society’s current president, Susan Ackerman, a religion scholar at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The society has documented damage and supported local efforts to protect cultural sites in these regions.

Ackerman’s discomfit with ASOR’s name extends beyond the term ‘oriental’; one-quarter of the group's members have non-US mailing addresses. “The ‘American’ doesn’t feel quite right. The ‘schools’ is obscure and the ‘oriental’ is problematic,” she says. “‘Research’ works for us. We do do research.”

Identity swap

In 2016, under Ackerman’s leadership, the society considered a name change. But selecting a name that signals the geographical breadth of members’ work — which spans North Africa to the Caucasus, and the Levant to Afghanistan — proved challenging, Ackerman says. She and her colleagues also worried that changing the name of BASOR, the society’s flagship journal, would sow confusion in library catalogues and dilute the journal’s prestige.

So the society rebranded itself as ASOR, and avoids mentioning the full name wherever possible. “We tried to become IBM. We tried to become KFC,” Ackerman says. There is scholarly precedent for this approach: SOAS University of London, a leading international-studies institution, stopped calling itself the School for Oriental and African Studies in 2012.

But some ASOR members want their society to go further. The term oriental is not only inappropriate but inaccurate, says Michael Homan, a biblical scholar at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and a former ASOR vice-president, who will speak at this week’s session. Most people — including students he teaches — see the term as referring to East Asia, not the regions where ASOR members work. “I think if we all put our heads together, we can come up with a better name,” Homan says.

Calling the society ASOR does not solve the problem, Fatkin says: “We all know what it stands for”. She is concerned that the name will turn off a younger generation of scholars, and that it could hinder the society’s efforts to advocate for people from the Middle East and North Africa. “Having this legacy of racism in our name as an organization has the potential to make us less welcome allies in helping people from the region,” Fatkin says.

But what to call the society instead? That will also be on the agenda this week. Ackerman says that a similar exercise in 1982 produced a list of 11 potential names, but the group’s board felt that none was quite right. “The alternative is coming up with a name that’s not 26 words long,” she says.

Fatkin, who recognizes that those calling for a name change also need to offer suggestions, has one: “Society for Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and History, perhaps. SEMAH,” she says. “I don’t know if people would go for that.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07396-9
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