Biblical Archaeology in 2009: Still Going Strong

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Excerpt This review of biblical papers delivered at the 2008 ASOR meetings clearly shows that biblical archaeology is anything but dead, even if scholars are uncomfortable with the term itself. Indeed, it illustrates the central role that the Bible continues to play in the history and archaeology of the region; a source unmatched and unrivaled in its rich detail and description of life in antiquity... Continue reading

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Some time ago I reported on the annual meetings of archaeologists at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Near Eastern Archaeological Association (NEAS), part of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). These meetings are held in the same city simultaneously each year in November. The city chosen for 2008 was Boston, Massachusetts.

The ASOR meetings consist of hundreds (287 this year) of papers delivered by scholars who work for academic and theological institutions the world over and who excavate sites in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Cyprus. The presentations cover a myriad of subjects from ceramics to computers in archaeology, from satellite settlement analysis to the microscopic record. The chronological sweep includes papers from prehistoric periods up to and including the Ottoman period in the Near East.

However, the focus of the majority of this research remains the periods most closely attuned to the Bible. The central importance of the Bible remains unchanged. Though the term ‘biblical archaeology’ has gone out of fashion, scholars are still preoccupied with correlating their finds with the biblical text. The fact that the vast majority of the sponsoring institutions are secular should encourage Christian believers of all stripes.
Before I survey some of the research topics presented at the 2008 meetings, it is worth reviewing the purpose and mission of ASOR, which was founded in 1900. Its purpose is:

To enable properly qualified persons to pursue Biblical, linguistic, archaeological, historical, and other kindred studies and researches under more favorable conditions than can be secured at a distance from the Holy Land.

To this end ASOR maintains three overseas centers; the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (AIAR) in Jerusalem, the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia, Cyprus. The organization publishes several journals, most notably the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR).

Of particular interest to ABR subscribers was a paper given by Jonathan Tubb, “John Garstang’s Excavations at Jericho: A Cautionary Tale,” which are known by most scholars primarily for his misdating the EB walls to the time of Joshua. Leaving that contentious debate aside, what was most interesting about this lecture was Tubb’s attempt to exonerate the reputation of Garstang by blaming his flawed interpretations on the undue influence and pressure from the main financier of the excavations, Sir Charles Marsden, who was a ‘fundamentalist’ Christian. Whatever conclusion one draws from this allegation, it does not reflect well on the intellectual integrity of Garstang or the sponsoring agency, the Palestinian Exploration Fund (PEF), both of which should come under equal condemnation if Tubb is correct. On the other hand, it may merely represent an expedient attempt to resuscitate Garstang’s damaged reputation. [For more on Jericho see Dr. Bryant Wood's work here: Jericho ]

Another paper pertaining to the Book of Joshua was titled “Babylonian Kudurru and the Granting of Land: Joshua 24 in Light of the Sun-God Tablet,” by Eric Smith. According to Smith, there are striking similarities between the method of land granting and demarcation in Joshua with kudurru, which were boundary stones that commemorated land grants and acquisitions in ancient Babylonia. It would seem as though the author of Joshua was aware of other Near Eastern traditions regarding land entitlements.

Amos Nur of Stanford University presented a paper on the cause of widespread destructions that signaled the end of the Late Bronze Age, which is still poorly understood. While he avoids attributing sole causation, he believes a series of earthquakes known as an “earthquake storm,” were responsible for a 50-year interval of urban destructions from 1225-1175 BC. This theory has been proposed before, but has not generally been accepted by scholars.

The subject of the Philistines continues to elicit wide interest with two dedicated session in Boston. Reports on the excavations at Tell es-Safi (believed to be the site of Gath) after 13 seasons by Aren Maeir and those at the coastal site of Dor by Ayelet Gilboa reveal further insights on the origin and arrival of the Sea Peoples. At Dor, where ancient sources locate the Sikil people, evidence of Aegean culture is quite limited. During the Iron II period at Gath, the Aramaeans under Hazael (cf II Kings 12:18) evidently constructed a siege trench around the city, which has now been excavated and dated. This was a unique tactic, one the excavators claim is further attested in the Zakur Inscription from northern Syria. In another presentation, Assaf-Landau examined the role of the Philistine bird motif on ceramic vessels and its role in ritualistic feasting and religious imagery.  
Itzhaq Shai of Bar-Ilan University argued that the fact that four of the five principle cities of the Philistines bear Semitic names (Gaza, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron) relates to the nature of settlement and the choice of settlement locations by the immigrants. Not much is known about Philistine domestic architecture, but one of the broadest exposures of such remains at Ashkelon has revealed examples comparable to Aegean prototypes that illustrate aspects of daily life, the subject of a paper delivered by Adam Aja of Harvard University.

On a related topic, the author of this article presented an Iron I period potsherd painted with the image of what appears to be a Sea Person, which has implications for the ethnic identification of new settlers in the Northern Levant at Tell Ta‘yinat, Turkey, contemporary with the Philistines in the Southern Levant. Their ceramic assemblage is characterized by a high percentage of painted Aegean style pottery similar to that of the Philistines during the Iron I period. The site may have been the capital of a heretofore unknown Philistine kingdom.

Khirbet en-Nahas was the subject of another session of papers in 2008. This important Edomite copper mining site near the Dead Sea has already caused a revision in the date of the emergence of the Iron Age polity of Edom to at least the 11th century BC, where scholars had long assumed no such development had occurred prior to the 8th century. The process of peer-polity may help to explain the process of state formation, which attributes parallel development to emulation on the part of ruling elites.

Further excavations in Jordan are shedding new light on the Moabites. A fortress site at Khirbet al-Bayada discovered in 1999 appears to have been part of a network of sites protecting the capital city of Diban, known most famously as the site where the Mesha Stela was discovered. Annlee Dolan has increased our understanding of Moabite domestic architecture, which was similar to contemporary Ammonite structures, in her excavations at Khirbet al-Mudayna. Interestingly, these rarely included the 4-roomed houses typical of the Israelites.

Another erstwhile enemy of ancient Israel, the Aramaeans, was the subject of a study by Jeffrey Szuchmann entitled, “Aramaeans at the Dawn of the First Millennium BCE: From Tribes to States?” In his view, the transformation of the Aramaeans from a semi-nomadic tribal people to a dynastic urbanized group of kingdoms between 1050-900 BCE was due to withdrawal of Assyrian hegemony during this period.

Robert Deutsch examined newly discovered Hebrew bullae that reveal strong Egyptian influence. Nearly 4000 so-called lmlk (“for the king”) jar handles bear Egyptian style scarabs from the time of King Hezekiah have now been collected. So the presence of such iconography should not be surprising when it appears on the seal of the king himself. In this case, a two-winged scarab (dung beetle) is depicted pushing a ball of dung. “New Epigraphic Hebrew Seals and Bullae from the City of David in Jerusalem and their Chronological Significance” by Roni Reich theorizes that seals were first introduced in Judah sometime in the 8th century BC, based on contexts dated by associated pottery.

A very provocative interpretation of an incised potsherd found in earlier excavations in Jerusalem was delivered by Garth Gilmour of the University of Oxford. The drawing features two figures, one male and one female, containing Canaanite elements that he asserts represents Yahweh and Asherah. If he is correct, this would be the earliest depiction of Yahweh and the only known example from the biblical period. But this should not be entirely surprising, given the large number of so-called pillar figurines found throughout contemporary Iron II Jerusalem thought to represent Asherah herself.

Two papers assessed the Bible as an historical source using two distinct approaches. In “Memory and the Historiography of Ancient Syria-Palestine: Reassessing the Bible as a Historical Source,” Daniel Pioske warns that new avenues of research emphasizing the historical value of memory should be adopted only in concert with standard methodologies of extra-biblical literary and material corroboration. Peter Feinman imagines what a written history of Israel would look like if there were no attempts to prove or disprove the Bible or if there was no need to legitimize or delegitimize the modern state of Israel. His analysis is based on the Merneptah Stela and the data derived from surveys and site excavations. 

Two papers relating to the New Testament deserve mention. David Stacey presented “Qumran: A Seasonal, Industrial Site,” in which he attempts to refute the common view that Qumran was the settlement of Essenes who maintained a library of scrolls. The evidence of pot making, leather manufacture, as well as wool, flax, and rope production show that the site was “smelly, smokey, or both” and therefore “unlikely to be home to an educated elite capable of copying biblical texts”! Indeed. It is likely that all ancient settlements contained such malodorous occupations and lifestyles that modern scholars like Stacey would find distasteful!

Finally, Joe Zias issued a critique of recent claims by Shimon Gibson to have found the cave of John the Baptist, an identification based primarily on crudely inscribed graffiti on the walls of the cistern. The absence of oil lamps typically associated with Roman period cultic activity and any other votive objects argue against Gibson’s theory. Zias believes the totality of evidence supports the identification as that of St. Lazarus from the Crusader Period.

This review of biblical papers delivered at the 2008 ASOR meetings clearly shows that biblical archaeology is anything but dead, even if scholars are uncomfortable with the term itself. Indeed, it illustrates the central role that the Bible continues to play in the history and archaeology of the region; a source unmatched and unrivaled in its rich detail and description of life in antiquity.

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6/12/2009 3:36 PM #

A post script to my earlier comment:- I should have stressed more fully the observation I made that, at least through out the Hasmonean period, because of the very limited amount of available stored water, occupation at Qumran could only have been possible for a couple of months in the winter, relying in large part on the seasonal presence of flocks.  For any one who wants to read my observations in full go to DSD 14:2 (2007) 222-239 and BAIAS 26 (2008) 7-29

david stacey - 6/12/2009 3:36:23 PM

6/12/2009 3:54 PM #

Re:- my paper on Qumran. Besides the site being "smelly or smokey or both" I made several slightly more important observations - that the site had,  from time immemorial, played a necessary part in the seasonal transhumance of sheep and thus of the rural economy; that, as such, it   was an essential part of the burgeoning Royal Estate in Jericho; that the estate relied on its agricultural success on'expensive' spring water brought to the site by long and often tortuous aqueducts and that  the exploitation of a different water source in Qumran for unromantic utilitarian industries minimised the need to use the spring water for other than 'high-return' agriculture;  the fact that the  water in Qumran happened to be rain water, as against the highly calcareous spring water in Jericho, was essential for certain processes (eg retting flax, scouring wool, dyeing etc). The location of those smelly and smokey industrial processes well away from the royal palaces was a bonus.

Dr David Stacey

david stacey - 6/12/2009 3:54:13 PM

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