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Memory and Nation Building: From Ancient Times to the Islamic State

Memory and Nation Building: From Ancient Times to the Islamic State

By Michael L. Galaty. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield 2018. Pp. xxiii + 200. $75. ISBN 978-0-7591-2260-4 (cloth).

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As Benedict Anderson argued in 1983 (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso Editions), nations are imagined communities, although one could argue that all social groups draw on constructed identities. In Memory and Nation Building, Galaty explores how aspiring leaders of states and nations have mobilized their pasts through collective memory work and the ways that groups have resisted these narratives through counter-memory. What is most significant about Galaty’s ambitious and highly readable book is that he takes a comparative and long-term diachronic approach to collective memory practices, focusing on the histories of Egypt, Greece, and Albania from the Neolithic through the present. He is particularly attentive to those traces of the past that leave a material presence, such as monument building and mortuary rituals, but he also draws on other forms of memory work, such as funeral lamentations and even cultural heritage management. Galaty combines his skills as an archaeologist who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Greece and Albania with his concern for long-term history in order to discern patterns in the success of nation-building in the three regions. He does this by exploring the interrelationships between six variables: crisis, nostalgia, imagination, identity, nationalism, and time. In doing so, he reveals patterns between political crises and the ability of states to control collective memory: when crisis levels are low, the state has a greater ability to control this memory; in periods of crisis, memories of a golden age may ring hollow and heterodox memories may proliferate, posing challenges to aspiring leaders. In this way, Galaty has brought a positivist-processualist approach to memory studies.

The book is centered on three core chapters that analyze the histories and collective memory practices of the three case studies: Egypt, Greece, and Albania. These chapters are sandwiched between chapters and sections (prologue, preface, epilogue) that provide the philosophical, theoretical, and personal contexts for Galaty’s interests in memory and nation-building. These include an evocative description of his attempts in 2012 to cross the border from Croatia to Bosnia with his Albanian wife from Kosovo to visit family in Sarajevo, capturing something of the lived experience of border crossings in this region. Chapter 1 provides a brief overview of memory studies in the social sciences and history. Here, Galaty examines the leap in memory work that occurred when “traditional” societies transitioned into early states. In “traditional” societies, collective memory work took place through oral histories and material mnemonics and was generally “distributed” via families and at home, although over time, religion tended to co-opt these practices. In early states, those individuals with ambition short-circuited “traditional” mechanisms for collective memory production to tell different kinds of stories. This was done normally through the construction of integrative facilities and monumental architecture, and it was often accompanied by a shift from individual burials (marking the place of ancestors) to commingled burials (emphasizing the group) and a reliance on written records. Once the state emerged, more ambitious projects were often undertaken to reshape collective memories, such as the defacing and destruction of monuments (damnatio memoriae). Creating divides between “traditional” and “modern” societies is always problematic. For example, in many families in the United States today, collective memories are still maintained and triggered through stories and material means, such as photographs and cuisine; only the most elite families will have written records of their collective memories and past available to them. One could also argue that those variables treated as independent (e.g., crisis, identity) are themselves dependent on other phenomena. Indeed, the opportunities and value systems that make it possible or attractive for some people to act out ambitions and short-circuit “traditional” collective memories are shaped by social conditions and cultural values. Galaty takes inspiration from the curious concept of engrams, developed in the work of Daniel Schacter (Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, Basic Books 1996). An engram is defined as a memory imprint and is a concept that seems to bridge the physiological and the cultural. In the book, an engram refers to a kind of essentialized memory (e.g., unification, in the case of Egypt). It was not entirely clear to me, however, how the engram concept enhances the concept of cultural or collective memory, and indeed, the conceptualizations of regions by engrams reads as stereotypical simplifications (unification for Egypt, diversification for Greece, and adaptation for Albania).

In chapters 2–4, Galaty examines the histories of Egypt, Greece, and Albania between the Neolithic and the present, explores the tensions between collective memory practices and counter-memory, and analyzes the diverse ways that emerging states and empires in these regions managed collective memory. Viewing the histories of these regions through the lens of memory practices was fascinating. The regions where Galaty has done primary fieldwork, particularly Albania but also Greece, were the richest and most illuminating. Although Galaty often refers to the gender of those individuals entrusted with collective memory, it would have been useful to develop more explicit ideas about the role of gender in the transmission of collective memories. He noted, for example, that in early modern Greece women were key carriers of counter-memories through funeral lamentations, while in Albania men and women were involved in lamentations, although of different kinds. No explicit mention is made of the role of Egyptian women in memory practices. The role of the environment and geography was also little discussed throughout the book, which is somewhat surprising given Galaty’s positivist stance. The rugged landscapes of both Albania and Greece versus the circumscribed riverine world of Egypt must also have shaped the abilities of leaders to govern large numbers of people and the mechanisms that worked. The book would also have benefited from more photographs (and higher-quality images) of sites and objects, as well as more tables to help the reader follow the histories and memory practices being discussed.

Memory and Nation Building is, nonetheless, a compelling book and an excellent example of how the archaeological study of memory has matured over time. It will be of interest to scholars involved in the study of memory, the relationship between memory practices and the longue durée, and comparative approaches to history.

Katina T. Lillios
Department of Anthropology
The University of Iowa

Book Review of Memory and Nation Building: From Ancient Times to the Islamic State, by Michael L. Galaty
Reviewed by Katina T. Lillios
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Lillios

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