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An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology

Archaeology can be a technical subject. It is therefore the purpose of this section to present an introduction to archaeological tools, techniques, and established findings for those readers who are new to the subject, providing a background which can be used to put the topics discussed in the other sections of this essay into context. I have also provided a brief summation of the history of the Jewish people according to the Old Testament, useful for comparison with the archaeological evidence.

A Brief History of Biblical Israel

According to the Old Testament, the story of the Jewish people, in brief, happens like this: Abraham, a man from the city of Ur in the land of Mesopotamia, receives a vision from God in which he is told to travel to the faraway land of Canaan; in return, God promises to bless him and make him the father of a great nation, and his descendants will inherit the land. Abraham obeys and dwells in Canaan, and the promise passes down through his descendants, to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Jacob in turn has twelve sons, each of whom becomes the ancestor of a large tribe, the twelve tribes of Israel. However, the Israelites are captured by Egypt and enslaved for several generations, until at last God reappears to a man named Moses and through him frees them from their slavery. The Israelite tribes return to the land promised to their ancestor Abraham, where Moses’ successor, Joshua, leads them on a successful military campaign of annihilation to drive out the people already living there. The tribes eventually coalesce into a single kingdom, a glorious and powerful united monarchy under the great kings David and Solomon, with a grand temple in Jerusalem as the focal point of the nation’s worship. However, Solomon’s son Rehoboam proves to be an inept ruler, the northern tribes secede, and the united monarchy splits into two separate nations: the kingdom of Israel in the north, and the kingdom of Judah in the south. This situation persists for some time, until finally the Assyrian empire, the superpower of the day, destroys the northern kingdom and assimilates its population. Soon afterward, the Assyrians’ successor, the Neo-Babylonian empire, invades and decimates the southern kingdom of Judah, destroying the Jerusalem temple and carrying off most of its population to exile and captivity in Babylon. The last few books of the Old Testament tell how, after fifty years of exile, yet another powerful empire, the Persian, arises to prominence and conquers the Babylonians. King Cyrus of Persia allows the Jewish people to return home and rebuild their temple, and there the Old Testament ends.

Archaeological Tools & Methods

Tell Theory

Crucial to archaeology in the ancient Near East is a phenomenon known as the tell. A tell is, essentially, a large artificial mound created by human activity. Tells occur because the most important sites tended to have some quality that made them attractive to people of every era, whether that quality was access to fertile land or a source of fresh water, cultural or religious significance, proximity to a major trade route, or geographical barriers that made the site easy to defend. As a result, when the settlement at such a site was destroyed or abandoned, the next wave of people tended to move right back in, living on the same spot, building their homes literally on top of the ruins of the previous buildings. Over thousands of years, this process gradually results in the formation of a huge mound in which the remains of ancient cities are stacked one atop another, like a layer cake. Modern archaeologists who dig straight down through the tell encounter progressively more ancient occupation layers and material remains as they go deeper – history written in three dimensions. Tells can be enormous, as large as 200 acres, and can contain dozens of occupation layers.

As an aside: A commonly asked question is how the remains of old cities come to be buried. There are several reasons for this, the most important of which is that houses in the ancient world were typically made of mud brick – not a durable building material. Over time, the foundations of these walls would erode away, and the entire structure would collapse, becoming a mound of earth. Another contributing factor is that a typical method of disposing of trash in the ancient world was to throw it into the street – in a sizable settlement over hundreds of years, debris can accumulate to the extent that the level of the street is actually noticeably higher than the level of the floor inside houses. Both trash dumping and ruin mounds eventually tend to be leveled out by natural processes such as erosion, and can also be deliberately leveled and filled by the next wave of settlers for them to build on top of. Over long periods of time, centuries or millennia, this gradually leads to the formation of the tell.

Identifying Sites

Once we have found a tell, another non-trivial problem remains: to determine which biblical site, if any, it corresponds to. Some cities, such as Jerusalem, have been continuously occupied since biblical times and their location has never been forgotten, but this is not true of most of them. The next simplest way to identify a site is through its name; many sites, though abandoned at present, have retained their ancient names, or have preserved them in altered form, or have names that are translations of the original name into a different language. If this is not the case, we must resort to geography: the Bible and other ancient texts sometimes describe the location of a site, and if there is only one tell that fits the description in a specified area, we can be reasonably certain that we have found the ancient location. Finally, we can resort to the archaeological record itself: if ancient texts tell us that a given city was the site of some important building or suffered a severe destruction at some point, and we find suitable traces in the course of excavation, an identification can be made with some confidence. (For example, if an ancient king’s victory inscription boasted of a list of cities which he destroyed, and we know the location of one or more of the sites on the list, we can extrapolate a logical geographical course for the invasion to follow and determine which tells could have been on the route that have destruction layers dating to the appropriate time.) Of course, sometimes none of these methods are applicable; the Bible mentions many places whose locations are completely unknown to us, and will most likely remain so forever.

Excavation Methods

Archaeology is unlike most other branches of science in that its experiments are not repeatable. To learn what a tell contains, we must dig it up, and that can only be done once. To learn, an archaeologist must destroy. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to carefully document the results of each excavation, keeping detailed notes on the composition of layers of the site and the exact location and original stratigraphic context of every item found.

The traditional method of archaeological excavation is the wide-scale method, emphasizing the horizontal dimension of a site by digging to a shallow depth over a large area, exposing one entire layer at a time and then “peeling it off” and moving down to the next. While it is excellent for determining the architectural layout of an ancient city, this method is labor-intensive and very slow. To get down to the lowest level of a site, we must first expose all the ones above it (and, as mentioned above, large sites can have dozens of occupation layers) – and a properly thorough excavation of just one entire layer can take many years.

The second method of excavation instead emphasizes the vertical dimension of a site. Introduced by archaeologists Kathleen Kenyon and Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950s, the Wheeler-Kenyon method entails digging straight down in a small area (typically a grid of 15×15-foot squares), descending through all the strata of a tell. The freestanding walls of earth left by this method are called balks; each balk is a vertical “slice” through the entire history of a site. While the Wheeler-Kenyon method is not as useful for determining the layout of a city, it is much better for establishing the occupation history of the site in general, determining during which periods it was settled. Today, a combination of the two methods is usually employed (Mazar 1990, p. 25).

Material Remains

Archaeology has been called “the study of durable rubbish”. Organic material, such as wood and textiles, survives only in rare circumstances, and is usually not found in the course of excavating a site. Instead, what the archaeologist hopes to turn up is artifacts made of material that lasts: shell, bone and ivory carvings, metal and stone implements, and most importantly, pottery and other ceramics.

Remains such as these are distributed throughout city levels, the debris of everyday living, and require careful sieving of every basket of soil to find. Burial sites in particular tend to be good sources of material remains, since it was not uncommon for people to be buried along with collections of grave goods; analysis of skeletons can also tell us what people ate, what diseases they suffered from, and in a general way what they did for a living. Cities that were destroyed by fire or invasion are often informative; not only did fleeing people leave most of their possessions behind, but destruction layers of ash and rubble can usually be securely dated both by the carbon-14 method and by correlation with historical sources. Finally, people fearing invasion or attack sometimes hid caches of texts or artifacts but never returned for them, leaving them for archaeologists to discover centuries later. Examples of this include the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and the horde of copper artifacts from the Chalcolithic period found at Nahal Mishmar, the “Cave of the Treasure”, in the Judean Desert north of the Roman fortress of Masada (Mazar 1990, p. 72).

Of all the types of remains, written texts are the most informative, but they are also the rarest. Papyrus, a fragile organic material, almost never survives; fortunately, papyrus was a rare commodity in the ancient world. Instead, many scribes used pieces of pottery as writing material. These inscribed pieces of ceramic are called ostraca (singular, ostracon). Inscriptions in stone, called stelae, are also known; most of these were erected by ancient rulers to commemorate military victories. Several of the most important textual remains in the field of Near Eastern archaeology are of this nature, including the famous victory stela of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, extolling his conquests in Canaan, that contains the earliest known extra-biblical mention of Israel (Laughlin 2000, p. 87).

Relative Dating: Pottery Studies

Pottery is by far the archaeologist’s most important tool in ascertaining the relative age of a site, as well as determining the technology, culture and ethnicity of the people who lived there (Dever 1997, p. 28). Pottery is almost never found whole, but instead is broken into many pieces (sherds) which must be reassembled – a laborious process best compared to doing a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, often with many of the pieces missing. Once an assemblage of pottery from various strata of a site is put together, archaeologists study the different characteristics – the use of colored paint and glaze, decorations and cultural motifs, hand-made versus wheel-made styles, the shapes and sizes of pottery vessels, and so on – and observe which ones appear before or after others. This sequence can then be compared to the sequence of pottery styles from other sites, and if certain characteristics appear in a consistent order over many sites, a robust relative chronology can be established, and future findings can be assigned to a specific period based on the pottery styles of the stratum in which they are discovered. (A similar method is used to obtain relative dates for geological strata by means of the index fossils they contain.) Pottery also provides a way to map ancient trade and travel routes, as neutron activation analysis can be employed to figure out the specific site where the clay for the pottery came from by determining the exact proportions of trace elements it contains.

Absolute Dating: Carbon-14 and Astronomical Observations

While pottery seriation can build up a reliable relative chronology, it does not provide us with absolute numeric dates. To obtain those, archaeologists need to turn to radiometric dating methods, and given the time periods with which they usually deal, the most common method is carbon-14 dating.

Carbon-14 is an unstable radioactive isotope of carbon, and like all isotopes, it decays into a stable form at a constant rate. In this specific case, the halflife is approximately 5,760 years, meaning that half the carbon-14 atoms in any given sample will have decayed into their stable forms after this length of time. After two halflives, three-quarters of the carbon-14 in a sample will have decayed; after three halflives, seven-eighths will have decayed, and so on. (The rate of radioactive decay is one of the strange consequences arising from the theory of quantum mechanics. We cannot predict, even in principle, when a specific atom of a given radioactive element will decay; but when we study a sample consisting of trillions and trillions of such atoms, the entire sample considered as a whole decays with clocklike predictability. This behavior is similar to the statistical tables employed by life insurance companies; though they cannot predict when a specific person will die, averaged over large groups of people they can predict death rates with reasonable accuracy, and thereby make money from their policy holders.)

Carbon-14 is created in the upper atmosphere by solar radiation and is taken up into the bodies of living things. While they are alive, organisms are constantly taking up new radioactive carbon, so the relative amount of C-14 in their bodies remains the same. When they die, however, they cease to take in new carbon, and the amount of C-14 in their bodies begins to decrease as the atoms decay. By measuring the proportion of radioactive to stable carbon in a sample as compared to the proportion in currently living things, it is possible to determine approximately when the organism died. Though there are many more complications to the method (for example, the rate of C-14 production varies somewhat with the activity of the sun, and to ensure maximum accuracy C-14 dates must be calibrated against carbon reservoirs of known age, such as tree rings), radiocarbon dating remains an important archaeological method in determining the age of ancient samples. C-14 dating can be used on organic remains such as bones, seeds, charcoal from ovens and fireplaces, eggshells, scraps of papyrus and cloth, wooden building timbers, and ash layers from city destructions.

A second method of obtaining absolute dates has to do with astronomical observations. Some ancient Near East civilizations, most notably the Egyptians and the Babylonians, were scrupulous observers of the night sky, and dated events in reference to important cosmic phenomena. With the advanced astronomical knowledge of today, it is a simple matter to determine the exact year such phenomena took place. (For example, ancient Egyptians observed that the Nile River’s annual flooding – the reliable prediction of which was very important to their civilization – tended to coincide with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius after dawn. This event was originally set to occur on the first day of the month of Akhet, but because the Egyptian civil calendar did not have leap days, the heliacal rising of Sirius would slip behind by one day every four years. It took 1,461 years before this gradual loss of time added up to an entire year and Sirius’ rising fell on the first day of Akhet again. This recurring 1,461-year pattern is called the Sothic cycle, and the basis of Egyptian chronology comes from dating the ascensions of pharaohs in reference to it.) This is the only method that allows us to date ancient events down to the year.

The Archaeological Timeline

Name of Period Duration Significant Events
Paleolithic 1,500,000-12,000 BCE c. 90,000 BCE: Homo sapiens and Neanderthals living side-by-side at Mt. Carmel
Epipaleolithic 12,000-10,000 BCE beginnings of sedentary life, harvesting of wild plants

first semi-permanent architecture

Neolithic 10,000-4300 BCE agriculture invented, first evidence of animal domestication

c.8500 BCE: founding of Jericho, oldest walled city in the world

c.6000 BCE: pottery invented

c.5600 BCE: flood of the Black Sea basin

Chalcolithic 4300-3300 BCE first known cemeteries, first use of metal implements
Early Bronze 3300-2000 BCE emergence of literacy, beginnings of urbanism

invention of the plow

Middle Bronze 2000-1550 BCE c.1630 BCE: eruption of Santorini volcano; probable cause of destruction of Minoan civilization

c.1550 BCE: Hyksos expelled from Egypt

Late Bronze 1550-1200 BCE c.1440 BCE: most common suggested date for Exodus

c.1280 BCE: Battle of Kadesh between Egyptians and Hittites ends in stalemate

Iron I 1200-900 BCE c.1200 BCE: invasion of the Sea People; Philistines arrive in Canaan; “Israelite” settlement wave in hill country?

1208 BCE: Pharaoh Merneptah’s campaign in Canaan; victory stela contains first extra-biblical mention of Israel

c.1000 BCE: most common suggested date for establishment of Israelite united monarchy

Iron II 900-586 BCE 853 BCE: Battle of Qarqar between Shalmaneser III of Assyria and a coalition headed by King Ahab of Israel

720 BCE: Samaria falls, Israel defeated by Shalmaneser V of Assyria; population deported

701 BCE: Sennacherib of Assyria invades Judah; fortified city of Lachish destroyed but Jerusalem survives

612 BCE: Nineveh, capitol of Assyria, sacked by a Persian-Babylonian coalition; Assyrian empire falls

586 BCE: Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Jerusalem; First Temple destroyed, population exiled

Babylonian 586-539 BCE 539 BCE: Babylon is captured by Cyrus of Persia; Jewish exiles allowed to return home and begin construction of Second Temple
Persian 539-333 BCE 333 BCE: Alexander the Great defeats Darius III and conquers Persian empire
Hellenistic 333-63 BCE 165 BCE: Hasmonean revolt led by Judas Maccabeus, Judah briefly regains independence
Roman 63 BCE-363 CE 66-73 CE: Jewish War, Second Temple destroyed

73 CE: Masada falls

133 CE: Bar Kochba revolt crushed; Jerusalem destroyed, Jews exiled

The lengths of the later periods are fixed by reference to historical events which occurred at known dates; the lengths of the earlier periods are approximate and the specific numbers will vary somewhat from source to source. Many sources were used in compiling this list (see references section for full bibliography), but in particular see Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 20, Laughlin 2000, p. 32 and Mazar 1990, p. 30.

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