Category Archives: Archaeology

Considerations of how archaeology influences our understanding of the ancient world

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

Excavating above Ground

It’s like a horror movie. You’re about to enter a place where the dead were laid to rest. You’re out in the remote Orkney Islands, and nobody knows you’re here. This cairn, although it has a modern entryway, is prehistoric, and to get to the burial chamber you have to descend the stone stairs into total darkness. There’s no towns anywhere nearby. The guidebook advices bringing a trustworthy flashlight. At the bottom of the stairs, as the daylight from the door fades, you face a tunnel lined with stone. You have to stoop to walk through it until you come to the burial chamber itself. Completely isolated from the rest of the world. It makes you stop and think.

While I was a student at Edinburgh, my wife and I made two trips to the Orkney Islands to explore the antiquities. The expense of getting to the islands north of the mainland is the most prohibitive part of such a journey. Once on the islands you find things relatively inexpensive, and safe. As the local at the car hire asked us, “It’s an island—where would a criminal go?” Nobody locked their doors. But the tombs. Orkney, being relatively unpopulated, hosts more available antiquities per square mile than just about anywhere else in Europe. Tramping through barren grasslands where you might encounter a few sheep, you can hike to a burial chamber that was built thousands of years ago and, after archaeologists tidied it up, has been left for you to explore on your own.

My wife sent me a link to Historic Environment Scotland’s Sketchfab page. Using photogrammetry, the site offers three-dimensional, manipulable images of the various cairns and soutterrains you can find on Orkney. You don’t need to crawl through the damp chambers on your hands and knees, or even bring a flashlight. The technology brings back memories, but I do wonder if something hasn’t been lost here. There was a reckless sense of discovery being a young couple in an isolated, underground chamber where no one, not even my doctoral advisor, knew where we were. No smartphones, this was off-the-grid living. Not once did we encounter anyone else in these Neolithic chambers. Gray skies and windswept cliffs. Puffins cowering in the lee of a North Sea gale. None of this can be experienced on this armchair odyssey, but it can certainly be recalled. And after exploring the exotic underground chambers, I know I have to make my way to a similarly windowless cubicle above the ground and have the audacity to state that this is the world of the living.

Fictional Facts

“If you want truth,” Indiana Jones famously said, you need to go to philosophy class. The sad fact is most people have little practical training when it comes to such issues as discerning truth. Some time ago I read an article about how fake news travels faster and is more deeply believed than actual truth. I suspect that’s because the truth is hard. The age-old trope used to be a wizened elder sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position. A lifetime of thinking through the labyrinthian corridors of wishful belief to get to what is finally and unassailably true. Our president, with the full complicity of the Republican Party, is out to dismantle the concept of truth once and for all.

Indiana Jones was contrasting facts to truth in this scene from The Final Crusade. The idea was that facts sometimes make you question truth. In GOP University, however, facts have alternatives. He who bellows the loudest is the harbinger of truth. Never mind that still small voice that comes after the raging wind. The voice that can stop a fiery prophet in his tracks—a man who could raise the dead, for crying out loud—but even his successor called Herod a FOX. In the culture of the shrug, who really cares? Finding the truth is so much navel-gazing. There are real enemies to bomb and somebody has some money that I can take away and claim as my own. To do so we can make up facts as we go along and lies will see us through. With the Evangelical seal of approval.

Even with rumors of a fifth film swirling, I miss Indiana Jones. In his formative days fascists were the enemies, even of the Republicans. Although he was showing his age in Crystal Skull, Jones still couldn’t countenance oppressive regimes. Scientific studies show people would rather believe fake news. We’re hopelessly prone to fantasy, I guess. Even as I volunteered on the archaeological dig at Tel Dor, although I had little money a fedora was required. There was a difference, however. I knew I really wasn’t Indiana Jones. I was digging for facts so solid that they could be held in my hand. Unlike Dr. Jones’ students, I did go down the hall to Dr. Trammel’s philosophy class. Surrounded by the young Republicans of Grove City College, none of us doubted that truth was spelled with a capital T. Now Truth is apparently an artifact buried in the sand, awaiting a hapless archaeologist to bring it to light. Amid all the forgeries that non-specialists can’t tell apart.

Lazing Around

I was a science nerd as a kid. Well, at least I had a real soft spot for charismatic megafauna, but who doesn’t? We had those cheap, plastic figurines of dinosaurs that we incongruously mixed with our mammoths and cavemen—wait, no. We weren’t allowed cavemen because people didn’t evolve. Nevertheless, we didn’t see any problem putting glyptotherium in combat with t-rex. Pleistocene or Triassic didn’t matter—they weren’t here now. Extinction is the great equalizer. One of the figurines that always intrigued me was the giant ground sloth. I mean, here was a creature bigger than it needed to be. Not hurting anybody, it just wanted to eat leaves and laze around. A lifestyle that sounds attractive to this day.

Photo credit: Postdlf, from Wikimedia Commons

Human beings, in a process that is still continuing, wiped out animals bigger than themselves. The story is poignantly told in footprints discovered in White Sands National Monument. A Washington Post piece by Ben Guarino tells how paleontologists discovered a human footprint embedded in that of a giant sloth. Reading the story I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the very last one in existence. What if we’d uncovered the story of extinction in real time? Sloths, apart from being named after a mortal sin, never harmed anybody unprovoked. Simple vegetarians—principally vegans, apart from the occasional accidental bug, actually—they were the ultimate victims of human greed. It is virtually certain that we drove them extinct just like we did the dodo and the fiscally conservative Republican. Not exactly fast food, sloths couldn’t really outrun us, and like good Trumpists, we took advantage of their weakness to our own gain.

Or loss. There are no giant sloths left. We’ll never thrill to the sight of a living eucladoceros, or wonder at chalicotheres roaming the savanna. We’ll never run for our lives from an African bear otter (the mind reels). Our world becomes poorer for our presence, it seems. We moved from huddling in fear in our caves out to take on the beasts with our technology. Once we cottoned onto the concept, we refined it until we could drop an elephant with the single pull of a trigger. Our destruction of megafauna continues at an alarming and accelerating rate. Evolution does have quite an imagination, after all. Like human beings, it can take sins and make them larger than life. And “thou shalt not kill,” we say, applies only to our species.

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.