The Limitations of Archaeology

I promised my friend Quintin from South Africa that I would read and comment on this article on Old Testament historicity that he posted up on Facebook last week. Finally having had some time to go through the article, I find that I have very little to say. It is not remarkable or new, and really only speaks to the ignorance of the public in the uses and limitations of archaeological research. The first point of contention I have is that Ms. Miller seems to think that someone wrote the Bible. This is really a bit a silly, and I’m glad that she does not carry the point too far, as almost anyone can recognize that the Bible is a compilation of many books, obviously written in different time periods by different writers. Dating some of the Old Testament books is notoriously difficult, and one needs to remember that those books which claim to be historical (not all do) need to be evaluated as any other historical document. They should not be taken at face value any more than we would take Thucydides or Plutarch, despite the assertions of some stupid Christians.

We also need to be careful about ascribing too much to archaeological finds. While many people seem to believe that an excavation is going to turn up something that “proves” an event that appeared in the literary sources, this is not how real archaeology works. Real archaeology recognizes the fact that most sites have been continuously inhabited for centuries, some for millennia, and that trying to narrow down a particular find to a particular event is almost impossible. An example from my own research will suffice. Excavations have been carried out on the ruins of the city of Amorion with a specific focus on the middle Byzantine period for about the last 20 years. Amorion was chosen as a good site to study the middle Byzantine period because of what the archaeologists knew about it from the literary sources: Theophanes Continuatus tells us that the city suffered a great sack by the Arabs in 838. They expected to find a clear destruction layer with which to establish a chronology of their excavations. The problem is that they were unable to date the destruction that was found to that particular year. Carbon samples placed the ash layer in one of the destroyed towers to sometime in the late 8th/early 9th centuries. This does not mean that Amorion was not destroyed sometime ca. 838, but merely that the best scientific tools that we have available are unable to place us within even a few decades of events that are recorded in the literary sources. (An exact date of 838AD even from literary sources is questionable, simply because Byzantine chroniclers liked to create inventive dating systems and frequently got things wrong. Fortunately, they frequently included meteorological events that are attested in other sources from Western Europe, India and China, so we have something to work with.) As such, we need to take a cautious middle road in regards to archaeological findings, and not be eager to write off events as unhistorical simply because the physical record does not corroborate it. Another example is the great plague of Justinian. The literary sources record massive mortality in urban areas, with the authorities forced to create mass graves for all of the corpses. The problem is that we have never found any evidence to suggest that the plague ever happened. Nothing has ever been found. No mass grave has ever been uncovered that dates from this period. There are no records of mass graves having ever been uncovered in the medieval period, either. Nor is there any indication that the economy ceased to function properly, which should occur concurrently with massive mortality in the industrialized urban centres, which the plague hit hardest. This does not mean that the plague never happened, but rather that we cannot always expect archaeology to yield the same results as the literary sources. In this case, the lack of evidence for the plague should suggest to us that we need to be careful in the use of the literary sources in regards to their figures of plague mortality, not that the plague itself never happened.

“Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united kingdom of David and Solomon, described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.” The new theories envision this modest chiefdom as based in a Jerusalem that was essentially a cow town, not the glorious capital of an empire.”

Not a new theory, and probably quite accurate. Israel was a tiny state in a small region.

“The story of Exodus, one of the most powerful epics of enslavement, courage and liberation in human history, also slipped from history to legend when archaeologists could no longer ignore the lack of corroborating contemporary Egyptian accounts and the absence of evidence of large encampments in the Sinai Peninsula (“the wilderness” where Moses brought the Israelites after leading them through the parted Red Sea).”

As I discussed above, just because there is no evidence for large-scale encampments in the Sinai does not mean that a small group of semi-nomadic exiles fleeing from Egypt did not wander around there. It is quite implausible that there were large numbers of Israelites wandering the Sinai given the fertility of the location, so it is not unreasonable that there is no record of them being there. Even short stays can produce a lot of archaeological evidence (Lans aux Meadows is a great example), but when a group is likely very similar to its neighbours (Israel’s ongoing struggles with the separation laws attest to this) they are very difficult to detect.

“By comparison with today’s skeptical turmoil, the early years of the modern Israeli state were a honeymoon period for archaeology and the Bible, in which the science seemed to validate the historical passages of the Old Testament left and right. As Finkelstein and Silberman relate, midcentury archaeologists usually “took the historical narratives of the Bible at face value”; Israel’s first archaeologists were often said to approach a dig with a spade in one hand and the Bible in the other.”

A standard problem for archaeology of the era. Schliemann did the same, except he approached the sites with a spade and The Iliad.

“The Bible’s story of David, who with his great army captured Jerusalem and united a vast empire in Palestine, and his son Solomon, who built the First Temple in Jerusalem and many magnificent gates, palaces and stables throughout the land, depicts the united kingdom as ancient Israel’s Golden Age. The founders of the modern state of Israel invoked that kingdom and heralded its “restoration.” And even Jews who consider themselves secular can experience the revelation of David and Solomon’s relative insignificance as deflating.”

This is not any different than the Greeks having to deal with the fact that their formative experience, the Persian Wars, seems to be a lot small event than Herodotos made it out to be. Just because it has been inflated by the literary sources does not mean that they do not contain some semblance of accurate history. No historian is going to dismiss the Persian Wars, but the trend today is to downplay the relative role of Persia. This does not make the event unhistorical, but rather one that needs to be carefully evaluated considering the literary evidence.

“He established his reputation in part by developing a theory about the settlement patterns of the nomadic shepherd tribes who would eventually become the Israelites, bolstering the growing consensus that they were originally indistinguishable from the rest of their neighbors, the Canaanites. This overturns a key element in the Bible: The Old Testament depicts the Israelites as superior outsiders — descended from Abraham, a Mesopotamian immigrant — entitled by divine order to invade Canaan and exterminate its unworthy, idolatrous inhabitants. The famous battle of Jericho, with which the Israelites supposedly launched this campaign of conquest after wandering for decades in the desert, has been likewise debunked: The city of Jericho didn’t exist at that time and had no walls to come tumbling down. These assertions are all pretty much accepted by mainstream archaeologists.”

Again, not new ideas. Most of those who considered themselves to be Israelites by the early Iron Age were displaced Canaanites. Those who originally came to the land seem to have been a motley group of semi-nomadic raiders. There have been some challenges to the rough era of the arrival of these people in Canaan, but am not familiar with them off hand. There is no good reason to simply ignore the literary record that suggests that a group came from outside of the land on the basis that most of Canaan appears from an archaeological standpoint, to be filled with Canaanites. Joshua’s “conquest” probably amounted to raiding and the movement of small populations. In sum, Ms. Miller is not a total crackpot, but neither is she original or interesting.

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