Category Archives: Archaeology

Considerations of how archaeology influences our understanding of the ancient world

One Isaiah

Everyone wants to be remembered. While many don’t wish to be famous, we all hope that someone notices the noteworthy things we’ve done. By any measure Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have succeeded. Every year around Christmastime his words, set to music, are sung in churches around the world. He gets regular readings among those who attend synagogue and even those who take secular Bible classes have to reckon with him. Isaiah even attracted imitators before his book was finally compiled. According to the Good Book he was a trusted advisor to King Hezekiah. But what do we know of him as a person? Biographical episodes in his book are rare, unlike those of his fellow major-leaguers Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Who was Isaiah?

It’s not Christmastime, so why am I writing about him now anyway? Well, a friend pointed me to a recent archaeological discovery from Jerusalem that is a broken seal impression (technically called a bulla) that may have originally read “Isaiah the prophet.” The news was broken in Biblical Archaeology Review, but it can be read about for free here. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist publishing the inscription, notes that it reads “Yesha‘yah[u] nvy…” As often happens in archaeology, the end of the inscription is missing. In case your Hebrew’s even rustier than mine Yeshayah sounds a lot like Isaiah—go ahead, sound it out. The word prophet is nvy’. Don’t let that apostrophe fool you; it’s a full-fledged consonant in Hebrew. If that final letter has been reconstructed correctly the seal would read “Isaiah the prophet.”

My friend asked me what I though of this. My initial impression is that it would be odd for anyone to sign themselves with the title “the prophet.” If they did it would require a bit more hubris than I mentally attribute to Isaiah. You see, a prophet was selected, so they believed, by God. Chosen even among the chosen people. It wasn’t a pleasant job—once again, Jeremiah’s jeremiads come to mind. Would someone have signed himself “the prophet”? We don’t have a terrible lot of information from the ancient world about individuals. What we do know is subject to exaggeration and other forms of hyperbole. Did Isaiah, mouthpiece of Yahweh, carry an official seal declaring that the contents were bona fide possessions of a man who saw God sitting on his throne and survived to tell the tale? Or is it a hopeful reading of those who want to demonstrate the Bible is true? It’s a question the reader must decide, for, as always seems to happen, the evidence is broken just at the crucial point.

Dominus Flevit

I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Ever since I was a child I’d read about this place. The city conquered by David and visited by Jesus. The city around which most of the Bible rotated. Jerusalem the golden. One of the perks of working on an archaeological dig was the opportunity for weekend travel, and here I was, amid camels and cars and churches and synagogues and mosques, in Jerusalem. No amount of reading prepares you for such an experience. Suffused with the rich mythologies of three major religions, this city is like a dream. So much had happened here. The church I was attending at the time was only the latest in a long succession that informed me that God himself had actually been killed here and had risen again. The ultimate game-changer. The once in forever event of all time had taken place right here.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

But this was not a city at peace, despite its name. There was a bombing the first weekend I was there. Young men and women in military garb carried scary looking weapons openly in public. Even civilian bus drivers wore pistols. Jerusalem had a long history of violence, but that didn’t justify it. If God had really been here—in either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim contexts didn’t matter—how could this city be so prone to terror? In the old city old men sat around hookahs, placidly smoking. Tourists, many bearing crosses, thronged. Jerusalem, however, was also a very political place. The fragile, Christmas bulb-thin peace of the region involved the city being divided up and not being claimed by Israel alone. Even that man driving his goats through these ancient streets knew that.

Trump, to the cheers of evangelicals who want nothing so fervently as the end of the world, has said he’ll recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This political move of weaponized ignorance will almost certainly lead to war in the Middle East. Another war. An illegitimate presidency leaving a frothing sea of corpses in its wake. Negotiating in this part of the world is like haggling with that street vendor for a pair of sandals. You go back and forth on the price. You act insulted and walk away. You come back and haggle some more. It’s a delicate dance. This is no place for egomaniacs who can’t understand such subtleties. Just ask the last Caligula who wanted his statue set up as a god in this city. Jerusalem is home to too many jealous gods, and those who are self-appointed divinities will only leave the city, the world, in tears.

Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?

Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

Nicholas of Myra

It may be a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but archaeologists don’t often worry about timing. A piece in the Washington Post announced something of potential interests to hagiographers everywhere—Saint Nicholas may still actually be in his tomb. According to the article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., bandits broke in and stole the relics of the saint centuries ago. In fact, they took them to Bari where a thriving cult grew up around the giving bishop. It seems, however, that they got the wrong tomb. If the analysis is correct, Nicholas of Myra is right where they put him sixteen centuries ago.

Photo credit: Bjoertvedt, via Wikimedia Commons

None of this, however, impacts Christmas as we know it. The relationship between the historical Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is a wide-ranging and fascinating one. Stories of generosity surrounded Nicholas during and after his earthly life. It took centuries of evolution to get from that to what we now accept as standard Christmas mythology. In the early—pre-rampant capitalist—United States Christmas wasn’t much observed. It was even illegal in some places. Too Popish to appeal to the dissenter sensibilities that made up the colonial majority, the holiday season simply did not exist. It was, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “winter without Christmas.” For those of us who grew up with warm memories of presents, special foods, and days off the obligations of school, such an existence is difficult to imagine.

The feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6. Because of its proximity to the revisionist birthday of Jesus on December 25, the gifts of the Magi and the storied presents of Nicholas to families in need eventually merged. The holy days eventually became spending days and the whole jumble of Yule and other solstice celebrations got mixed into a wonderfully tolerant holiday. And all this time we thought Saint Nicholas was missing. He was missing in his own grave.

Miracles are attributed to the relics of saints. I suspect they work even if the wrong bones are plundered. Belief is like that. Historically, little is actually known of Nicholas of Myra. Little is known of Jesus of Nazareth, for that matter. The holiday that grew up in the wake of those willing to give, and to give to those who were undeserving, is a lesson that seems to have been interred with their bones. “So let it be with Santa,” you can almost hear Mark Antony say, standing before Congress, itching to slash any safety nets so one-percenters can have the happiest holiday season ever. Yes, Saint Nicholas is well and truly dead.

Ocean Blue

I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.

The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.

So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.