On Friday night, my wife and I watched a new (2021) film called The Dig, which stars, among others, Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James. It will be just a bit slow for some folks, but I enjoyed it. The movie tells the story — fairly accurately — of the 1939 discovery of the sixth-seventh century East Anglian ship and burial horde at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, England.
And, last night, my wife and I listened in via Zoom! to an online fireside with Margaret Barker that was organized by a small group of Latter-day Saints based on Bainbridge Island, in Washington. It was, of course, fascinating. Passingly, she mentioned the controversial case of a book, found in Jordan, inscribed on metal plates. Here’s a recent story about them that even mentions Dr. Barker:
Her fireside and The Dig the night before got me into an archaeological vein of thought.
A lot of people have a far more optimistic view of what can be discovered via archaeological research than the facts or the record can justify, and they imagine that we know more than we do and that the picture that we have of the ancient world is clearer than it actually is.
The fact is that most ancient artifacts haven’t survived. In fact, they often disappeared quite a long time ago, maybe only a very little while after they were discarded or abandoned. And, if they survived, the odds of their being found at all are very low. And if they’re found, there’s a good chance that they’ll be found by sheer chance, and that the archaeological context out of which they come won’t be noticed or remembered. Even if professionals find them, though, the odds are sadly quite high, historically speaking, that no adequate archaeological report will be written up on them — finding stuff is fun; writing up reports can be dull — which means that the archaeological context out of which they emerge will never be known to most others and will be forgotten. And even conscientious archaeologists will often misinterpret what they find. (As brilliantly illustrated in David Macauley’s classic 1979 satire Motel of the Mysteries.). And so forth.
But new things continue to be found:
““We had no idea about this kingdom. In a flash, we had profound new information on the Iron Age Middle East,” said Prof. James Osborne of the Oriental Institute, an archaeologist who specializes in examining Iron Age cities. Osborne and colleagues have discovered what looks like a major political center in ancient Turkey from about 2700 years ago — and we knew nothing about it.
I think that it would do many people a whole lot of good if they were to read (and seriously reflect upon) the late and much lamented William J. Hamblin’s important 1993 article “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 .
Of course, it’s not only in archaeology that experts can be surprised. Other sciences, too, are capable of serving up the unexpected:
Rev. Dr. David Wilkinson is a British Methodist theologian at the University of Durham. He earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology. But I should point out (especially to those who will reflexively dismiss him and his comments because he’s a theologian) that he also holds a doctorate in theoretical astrophysics and that he is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. I’ll share below three or four (essentially unrelated) passages that I marked during my reading of David Wilkinson, God, Time and Stephen Hawking: An Exploration Into Origins (London: Monarch Books, 2001):
In the light of such success, writers such as Richard Dawkins contrast science with religion in terms that science proves things while religion simply requires dogmatic belief despite the evidence. Such a view is based on a naive and outdated view of science. It is more of a nineteenth-century view of science rather than the reality of the twentieth century. (62)
Quantum theory tells us that at the atomic level our common sense of everyday imagination will not work, but that through mathematics we can understand it. (67)
The traditional story that the theory of gravity came from Isaac Newton being hit by a falling apple in the grounds of Trinity College, Cambridge, is very doubtful. It does however stress the earthly nature of the discovery. Newton’s friend Edmund Halley than applied the theory to comets and predicted the appearance of a certain comet in the year 1758. Unfortunately, Halley died before the comet appeared (such is science!), but it did appear and was thus named after him.
Halley was assuming that this scientific law proposed by the mind of Newton would apply to these exotic objects called comets. To put it another way he trusted in a resonance between the mathematics of our minds and the mathematics of the universe. (76-77)
And, it has to be said, it is exceedingly weird that there is such a “resonance” between mathematics and mathematical theories, on the one hand, and, on the other, the microcosmic and macrocosmic phenomena of even the most distant realms of the cosmos. It’s what the Hungarian-American theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner was getting at in his famed 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” (Wigner would go on, by the way, to win the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles.”)
Finally, I offer an illustration of the limits of inquiry, and particularly of scientific inquiry, that was first suggested by the English astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and sometime philosopher Arthur Eddington (1882-1944):
To follow an illustration of Sir Arthur Eddington, if you fish in an ocean with a net which has 4-inch holes, it does not mean that when you get your catch you conclude that there are no fish in the ocean smaller than 4 inches. You have imposed such an order. (73)