Category Archives: Archaeology

Considerations of how archaeology influences our understanding of the ancient world

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.

Gilded Age

What relevance could the Gilgamesh Epic possible hold for contemporary people? Well, one of my colleagues has said that every book is now about Trump. While I resist such thinking, he has a point. Even in reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh it’s hard to avoid making comparisons. The famous epic is about a bully king who is eventually humbled by the gods. That should make the contemporary association clear enough. Damrosch’s book, however, is actually about how one of the world’s classics—if not the first classic—was lost to the human race and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. The cast of characters involved in finding the text is colorful and tragic, rather like the epic itself.

Hormuzd Rassam, associate of some of the largest names in Assyriology, was a native Iraqi whose role in the recovery of antiquity was overlooked in his lifetime. Although Rassam did much of the actual finding he was unfortunate enough not to have been born English. While Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Sir Austen Henry Layard, and even the irrepressible George Smith, gleaned fame over the rediscovery of the glories of ancient Iraq, the very model of a modern Middle Easterner simply didn’t receive his fair share. Rassam wrote books that were essentially ignored. The moving tale of his treatment makes this already gripping story poignant. The Epic, however, not only became world famous—it forced scholars to reevaluate how to interpret the Bible. Although not the earliest flood story, already in the mid-1800s it was recognized that the flood myth in Gilgamesh had more than just a passing influence on grand old Noah.

One of the stories behind the preservation of Gilgamesh is that of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian emperor. Ashurbanipal believed that to be a world leader one had to be well read. He was the most powerful man in the world in his time. The idea of government is useless without the corrective of history. That doesn’t mean people should only look backward, but those who refuse to look back at all are doomed to make mistakes that go all the way back to the Bronze Age and before. In fact, Stone Age mistakes can (as we are living to see) be repeated even in a nuclear age. That’s part of the charm of Gilgamesh. Reading the classics serves a higher purpose than might be obvious at first.

Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?

Comet Tales

Göbekli Tepe, apart from being impossible to pronounce correctly, is a site of embarrassment to historians. First of all, this archaeological site in Turkey is too old. Abandoned around 9000 BCE—some 5000 years before the Sumerians show up with their writing—Göbekli Tepe had already gone through several phases of elaborate building and willful destruction. A large “temple” has been unearthed there with elaborately carved plinths that suggest a mythology at which we can only guess. Conventional wisdom states that the state came first, then organized religion. Göbekli Tepe suggest that it was the other way around—religion came first. We have no writing to go by here, however, just towering monoliths that make us scratch our heads in wonder. We are the apes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

A friend pointed me to an article in New Scientist that suggests one of the Göbekli Tepe “carvings show comet hit Earth and triggered mini ice age.” That’s a lot of ice. And eisegesis. Part of the problem here is that old scientists tend to sweep anomalous evidence off the table. It’s an admitted part of the empirical method. If a single anomaly stands against a host of conventionally expected results, the anomaly goes into the bin as an outlier. Göbekli Tepe, as real as it is, is an anomaly. Reputable books on it written in English by archaeologists and historians do not exist. Embarrassed turning away and staring at shoes ensues. The site is just too old, too sophisticated, and too far outside convention to be dealt with rationally. You can read a lot into an isolated carving, especially when accurate information is lacking.

To give you some perspective: the great pyramids of Egypt date from the Old Kingdom of Egypt, after 3000 BCE (remember, we’re counting backwards here). Stonehenge’s main phase (the famous blue stones) was a couple of centuries later than the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Göbekli Tepe had closed up shop some 6000 years prior. By comparison, more time had passed between Göbekli Tepe and the Great Pyramid than between the Great Pyramid and us. We, with the internet in our pockets and humans walking on the moon, preparing to go to Mars, are only less than 5000 years from jolly old Khufu. Göbekli Tepe, with its inscrutable carvings, shouldn’t be there. And yet it is. Standard procedure suggests it be ignored. So far, conventional historians have done just that. And in my opinion that’s worse than an ice age brought on by comets written on a stone that nobody can read.

Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb