Introduction to Biblical Archaeology

Introduction to Biblical Archaeology 1: Archaeological History and Method

by Joel Ng (2003)

Archaeological theories and finds seem to have an astonishing lag between claims being made, scholarly acceptance, and actually entering the public consciousness. In some cases, the public may even hear about a theory only after most scholars have already rejected it. Many people still think that W.F. Albright's "conquest hypothesis" of the Israelite invasion of Canaan, for example, still holds today. My hope is that this may in some way help to bring people up to speed on contemporary developments in archaeology, and if possible, make what seems like a hopelessly dry topic come to life. If you are a Christian fundamentalist or Evangelical, reading this may help you to get a better understanding of what archaeology can and cannot prove, and how a much more sophisticated approach to the biblical past is both better, and necessary.

Before we start, I recommend obtaining J.C.H. Laughlin's handy reference, Archaeology and the Bible, 2000, New York: Routledge, and follow the references cited therein for further reading. Notes here are kept to an absolute minimum and this intro roughly follows Laughlin (2000). Many of the details and problems with methods in archaeology cannot be dealt with in an introduction such as this. It also presumes a fair degree of understanding of the major outline of the Bible stories. If you are unfamiliar with the events recorded in the Bible, you can follow by reading (or obtaining summaries of) Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 2 Maccabees (in the Apocrypha) later in the series. The best collated source of information is at Peter Kirby's site, Early Jewish Writings.

What exactly is Biblical Archaeology?

This might seem like an unnecessary question, but in fact, nobody can quite agree on what it should be. Archaeology is the study of the life and culture of the past. Biblical archaeology, then, would be the study of the life and culture of the peoples mentioned in the Bible. There is a current debate about doing away with the term "biblical archaeology" because it is a hindrance to the study of the past on its own terms. Replacements such as "Near Eastern Archaeology" (Eurocentric in its own right), "Syro-Palestinian Archaeology" (cumbersome), have been suggested. However, it is undeniable that historically, the study of Palestine as it relates to the biblical narrative was the main motivating force for the development of archaeology in Palestine, so I have retained the term.

Archaeology concerns itself with finding and then developing theories to account for the artifacts buried under deep layers of sediments. Why are they there? What can they tell us about the people who used these things? When did inventions arise (and how did they spread)? How did it change their ways of living? We now know, for example, just how sophisticated Philistines actually are—a group of larger "Sea Peoples" who share a common past with the later Greek civilisation. We can also tell how early or late the Israelite practice of not eating pork came about by studying when pigs arrived in the region, and when pig bones (with evidence of human consumption) disappeared. The archaeologist taps into a whole new world altogether, by asking the right questions.

However, a word of caution here. Archaeology is an interpretive field. Norman Gottwald recently wrote that "[t]hose who naively assume that 'the hard facts' of archaeology are more easily and definitively demonstrated than the obscurities of biblical texts will necessarily be disappointed by the 'subjective' element in archaeological interpretation." Much of what is discovered must be interpreted, translated, dated, and discussions of origins are subjective. While archaeology has shown that the Bible is not inerrant and reflects the theological disposition of its authors, archaeology remains tentative and must be open to new evidence. It says nothing about the theology or ultimate questions of the Bible, though it does help to illuminate the lives of those who wrote it.

What about History?

A brief detour before I begin (it is unfortunately long, but it deserves to be dealt with at length here for reasons that will become apparent later in the series): Archaeology differs from history in that, strictly, it does not create narratives of the past. The act of writing history based on sources both archaeological and literary is called "historiography. " It is obvious that such an act is both political and focused on explaining history in order to bring certain events to the fore. The "Whig interpretation of history" is the practice of reading history in light of the present, in order to vindicate the present. Needless to say, it has been rejected in the philosophy of history since Butterfield's seminal text in 1931 (see above link), yet continues today among apologists and academics. This trap must be avoided, but has been a major stumbling block in biblical archaeology and history (and many other social sciences, I might add, for example, Francis Fukuyama sees history as leading inexorably to liberal democracy, while Karl Marx saw history as leading inexorably to the emancipation of the working class). Thus, while we may identify different authors of the Pentateuch, just because one seems more primitive than the other does not imply that it is in fact more primitive until a good reason for its age can be argued. The danger of reading the present into the past is always there.

The Hebrew Bible itself contains large sections of ancient historiographical writings (indeed, these are the parts that interest archaeologists), and understanding that fact alone leads one to a more nuanced understanding of what is and is not verifiable. It becomes obvious that it suffers from what we would now term a Whiggish interpretation of history (and some might argue that this is the goal of the ancient historiographers), and that its writing was always politically motivated. The cycle of Israelites sinning, misfortune befalling them, their repentence, and their eventual deliverance, so common throughout the Bible, is a good example of Whiggish history in practice. Yet while Herodotus (an ancient Greek historian who wasn't even that reliable) is sometimes drawn upon to shed light on events and even explain discrepancies, so too is the Bible (which is even more unreliable). Literary criticism comes in here to help understand the Bible and deal with the layers in order that it can better unravel the political motivations of the authors. But there are further problems.

The Bible is a unique case in that no other ancient work has been so influential on the study of a field of archaeology. The reasons for this are obvious—the large Judeo-Christian heritage of the West had dominated archaeological thinking of the previous 100 years, but since the last 20-30 years, it is no longer taken for granted. The long-held assumption of a core of truth to any and every biblical story has now been found to be mistaken, and it's not just the minimalists who are pointing this out. No scholar would take the book of Joshua or Judges at face value any longer (although at one time, both of these books represented the paradigms of leading theories for the rise of the Israelites), and few can agree upon when historically reliable information starts to appear in the Bible. That is the core dispute between maximalists (who would point towards David and Solomon's reigns, and find much use in Samuel and Kings) and minimalists (who would point towards the later kings prior to the Babylonian exile, but rather just ignore the Bible). However, this dispute will be dealt later in the series.

How did it all begin?

The beginnings of Biblical archaeology can be traced to Napolean's expedition in Egypt, from which the famous Rosetta Stone was extracted. Its parallel with Greek and Egyptian immediately enabled scholars to decipher hieroglyphics, and in turn led to an explosion of a new study, Egyptology. The first coup came for J.F. Champollion, who discovered a list of towns defeated during the Pharoah Shishak's (Shoshenq's) campaign through Palestine, attested in 2 Chronicles 12:3. Through the 19th century, explorers and treasure hunters began combing the lands of ancient Egypt and Babylon for artifacts. They were often untrained or ill-equipped, knowing none of the methods available to us today. Some, like Henry Layard and Paul Botta (trained as a lawyer and doctor, respectively), worked by digging, like early paleontologists, unwarily through the rocks in search of monumental artifacts or tablets bearing inscriptions.

Back in their home countries, the new "Egyptologists" and "Assyriologists" worked in deciphering texts and publishing their results to an enthralled public. First H.C. Rawlinson (generally acknowledged as the father of Assyriology) uncovered an inscription by Sennacherib bearing the names of Hezekiah, Judah, and Jerusalem. A collaborator of his, Irish clergyman Edward Hincks, also noticed "Yua, son of Humri" was equivalent to "Jehu, son of Omri" on the Black Obelisk. Then Layard published Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon which cited 55 names of rulers, cities, or countries common to the Hebrew Bible and Assyrian texts. For the first time in two millenia, people in Europe were being reconnected with the origins of their religions, and spurred on more expeditions in an effort to recover more of these, believing that the Bible was being spectacularly confirmed, in an age when uniformitarianism and Darwin's theory of evolution seemed to undermine much of the Biblical record. Unfortunately, we must move on at this point. An interesting article on this period of early Assyriology can be found here: Biblical Assyria and Other Anxieties in the British Empire by the Journal of Religion & Society.

With such spectacular finds in Assyria and Egypt, Palestinian archaeology was largely the poor cousin. Heinrich Schliemann had gone to Turkey, The Iliad in one hand, and a spade in the other, and had discovered Troy in a mound (a tel in Hebrew or tell in Arabic) at Hissarlik. However, his contribution went much further—he uncovered several layers of the city and showed how, by cutting trenches through the mound, one could observe the growth of the mound and provide a relative chronology of the site. Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) turned biblical archaeology into a fledgling science, and his lasting contributions were pottery typology (classifying pottery according to type and style) and his introduction of stratification (the study of strata (layers) in a typical tel) which he had probably learned from Schliemann. These ideas revolutionised the field—scattered bits of pottery found everywhere were now useful objects of study in themselves, and the idea of a tel as a layered cake (think of geological columns) allowed one to sequence the findings in relative chronological order. G.A. Reisner arrived later, and his understanding of the complex structure of the tel permitted him to develop a new way of excavating—they dug till they reached a floor level, and then cleared horizontally from there. By doing so, their finds were immediately consistent to a stratum. His method, unfortunately, was not followed by many others, and it was only later when the Wheeler-Kenyon method (in truth, similar to Reisner's) arrived in the 1950s that a better method of excavation was developed.

After Petrie, new breakthroughs and methods were to arrive in the interwar years (1918-1940), which many call the "Golden Age of Archaeology." The collapse of the Ottoman empire following the First World War opened up swathes of Middle Eastern land to archaeologists. Here, many leading archaeologists like William Foxwell Albright, the giant of the period, appeared on the scene and left their mark. Albright mastered Petrie's pottery analysis, and promoted his methods. However, his major contribution (or curse?) was to tie archaeology with historiography—interpreting the finds in the light of the Bible and other Near Eastern studies. His vast knowledge and ability to synthesise wide and disparate fields (he had comparably little field experience, most of it at Tell Beit Mirsim) enabled him to make great comparisons with the Bible, even if some of his methods were later shown to be faulty. One of his students, G.E. Wright, popularised his findings and led to the public belief that archaeology confirmed the truth of many biblical events.

It was only after the Second World War that this verdict began to be challenged at length. Kathleen Kenyon arrived at Jericho to develop a new method of studying tels. The older, "architectural method" consisted of analysing different architectural components such as floors and walls and so required destructive large-scale exposure and digging. Kenyon designed a less intrusive layered excavation such that each layer was examined in small 5-metre squares, and so differing time periods could be analysed at a specific site. Thus a consistent verification of layers could be made and analysed. This method was adopted by many, but also ran into problems—many of the complexities of habitation could not be fully understood, and Kenyon was also found to have made mistakes because of her neglect of areas around the site. Several methods are now used today, but the shortcomings of each must be recognised since excavation is always a destructive and permanent act.

Recent developments

Finally in the 1970s, regional surveys began to be conducted which attempted to match strata from one site with that of another. It is here that one looks if one wants to dispute the Joshua's invasion of Canaan. A systematic overview of Palestine across several locations was attempted to give a fuller review of the life and culture of the ancient Israelites and their neighbours. William G. Dever, spurred by shifts in North American archaeology, began to criticise the older generation of biblical archaeologists for failing to incorporate work from other disciplines, remaining altogether too narrowly within a theological angle of vision. The field began to move toward a more interdisciplinary approach—archaeologists began working alongside sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, historians, and others (though not necessarily at the digs!) to work at constructing the bigger picture. It is also during this time that the minimalists (sometimes refered to as the Copenhagen school) started disputing the connections with the Bible. T.L. Thompson in 1974, published a devastating work demonstrating the circularity of much of Albright's synthesis in biblical scholarship, ironically, in conjuction with Dever's assault from the archaeological viewpoint, as they were to later clash acrimoniously in the 1990s. We will return to this later in the series.

Work of course, continues today. Vast amounts of discoveries have been made since its unscrupulous beginnings, and many assumptions have been overturned by new theories, and those replaced by yet newer ones. But fieldwork is always complicated by political factors. Excavation at Jerusalem, probably the most important city, is greatly hampered by the sensitive religious nature of many of the sites, particularly the old quarter. Obviously, terror and violence and political conflict do not help the situation. Much of the possible finds remain tantalysingly out of the grasp of archaeologists, perhaps sitting under the Muslim Dome of the Rock or the Jewish Wailing Wall. Perhaps some of the most intriguing archaeological remains will remain forever out of our grasp.

With this briefest of introductions to history and method, we'll get to more interesting things next. In the few pieces, we will cover a brief overview of the different periods (what exactly is the difference between Iron Age II and Iron Age IIA?), some key finds (no, not the James ossuary), some theories of Israelite emergence (just what is wrong with Albright anyway?), and the main disputes (minimaximalism at last!). Stay tuned.

Revised July 2nd, 2004

[1] Other books I will use throughout the series to varying degrees (in no particular order) are:

  1. A. Mazar, 1990, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000 - 586 B.C.E., New York: Doubleday
  2. E. Stern, 2001, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods (732 - 332 B.C.E.), New York: Doubleday
  3. A. Negev & S. Gibson, 2001, Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, New York: Continuum
  4. P.R.S. Moorey, 1991, A Century of Biblical Archaeology, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press
  5. M.D. Coogan (ed.), 2001, The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  6. D.B. Redford, 1992, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, Princeton: Princeton University Press
  7. Z. Zevit, 2001, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches, New York: Continuum
  8. W.G. Dever, 2003, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans Publishing
  9. I. Finkelstein & N.A. Silberman, 2001, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, New York: Touchstone
  10. N.P. Lemche, 1998, Prelude to Israel's Past: Backgrounds and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers

[2] Laughlin, 2000, p.10-16 has further discussion, while a definitive critique can be found in K.W. Whitelam, 1996, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, London: Routledge.

[3] N.K. Gottwald, 2001, The Politics of Ancient Israel, Library of Ancient Israel, Louisville: Westminster, p.186

[4] Here we can introduce two important terms in archaeology: the terminus post quem and terminus ante quem. The terminus ante quem places the upper date of a find—an object discovered in Stratum III cannot date to Stratum IV, for example. The terminus post quem marks the lower limit for dating—the artifact cannot date to Stratum II either.

For example if a tel was dug with the following layers identified:


The terminus post quem for the object found in Stratum III would be 700 B.C.E., while the terminus ante quem for the object would be 600 B.C.E. In this way, relatively precise dating of finds is possible. Many disputes in archaeology are actually seemingly mundane—being fought over a particular stratum's date—but with larger implications for when a practice, innovation, or invasion may be dated. Don't get too discouraged by differing dates—it is more important to understand the terminology and become conversant with the arguments. On a final note, this ante/post quem terminology has made its way into many other fields related to archaeology, but its origins are from stratigraphic analysis.

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