Perhaps one of the more interesting takeaways from the objects on this list are that most of these discoveries are from outside of Israel Palestine and they are in reference to people and events which take place in the Bible. Not only is the extra-biblical evidence (outside of the Bible) but also it is "extra-Israel/Palestine" (outside of the region of modern day Israel/Palestine). The Kurkh Monolith is among these discoveries which actually mention an Israelite king and while also providing information concerning the strength of his empire.
These monoliths were found in Turkey by a British archaeologist by the name of John George Taylor. They are monuments with Akkadian writing describing a famous battle known as the Battle of Qarqar which was between the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, and the other West Semitic kings in 854 - 846 BCE.
Among these West Semitic kings listed is one “ "A-ha-ab-bu Sir-ila-a-a" which is generally accepted among scholars as “Ahab of Israel,” assumed to be the very same biblical Ahab of the house of Omri mentioned in the 2 Kings chapters 18 – 22. The inscription mentions each West Semitic king by name and by the military might which they brought to the fight. Ahab was said to have brought “2,000 chariots, 10,000 soldiers” which is a massive military force, second in strength by numbers only the Hadad-ezer of the Arameans. This shows the might of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as their significance in the Ancient Near East.
The picture being painted here is one that shows the background of the impending exile of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. Ahab is trying to show his military might against the Assyrians, which the Bible says the prophets have been warning them since the beginning. Ahab is clearly unsuccessful and his war with the Assyrians ends with later Israelite kings forming an alliance with them.
The stele is also one of the few archaeological discoveries which also mentions, by name, the nation of Israel rather than "House of _____" (ex. House of Omri, House of David, etc.) in an ancient context.
See you tomorrow for number 6 in our countdown to Christmas!
Today’s archaeological discovery that illuminates the world of the Bible are the Annuls of Sennacherib found on a series of objects known as prisms. These clay prisms were inscribed in cuneiform and contain the same text, the annuls of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.
It was discovered in 1830 by Colonel Robert Taylor in the ancient city of Nineveh. The account dates to the early 7th Century BCE and discusses Sennacherib’s exploits and campaigns across his vast empire. It is also important for biblical studies because it mentions the siege of a certain Judahite king named Hezekiah and his royal city, Jerusalem.
This event is also recorded in the Bible in the books of Isaiah (chapters 36 and 37), 2 Kings (ch. 18), and 2 Chronicles (32). In this account, Sennacherib takes siege of the city only to be decimated by the army by and angel of the Lord, forcing Assyrian King to retreat.
The account on the prisms are different however, as it mentioned “Hezekiah of Judah” by name and states that Sennacherib had him “caged like a bird in his own royal city.” His annuals do not mention his defeat at the hands of an angel or heavenly host, nor does it say that he conquered the city, however, it does say that Hezekiah paid tribute to him in the end implying that the siege was successful
Perhaps the most interesting point to take away from this study (I have written about in a previous post), is that Sennacherib did not conquer the city of Jerusalem. It is implied that he took the city for himself as Hezekiah is forced to pay tribute. But this victory is only mentioned in these annuls.
My previous post on the Lachish Relief (#9), discovered in the very same palace in Nineveh, shows Sennacherib’s army winning a glorious battle against a major city in Judah. The question then is: where is the relief for the siege of Jerusalem? If Jerusalem is such a royal city, as mentioned in his annuls, why not explicitly say that he took the city, and carried off slaves and gold from the treasury by force?
Assyrians were masters of psychological terrorism and intimidation (look at some of the images from the Lachish Relief). Though the taking of Jerusalem, the royal city of the Hezekiah of Judah, seems like an aside. A relief or boasting of an event such as this would be expected to be plastered in many palaces throughout the Assyrian Empire. Sennacherib only mentions the destruction and battles of smaller cities and towns (46 in all), but Jerusalem remains standing.
Thank you for tuning in this week! I hope you have enjoyed the list so far. Be sure to check in tomorrow for number 7 in our countdown.
Number 9 in our countdown for archaeological discoveries that help provide context to the Bible are the Lachish reliefs found in the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. It was carved sometime between 700 and 681 BCE and located in the Palace of Sennacherib, whom was mentioned prior in our number 10, the Siloam Inscription post.
The reliefs were discovered in 1853 and first assumed to be to be an another city conquered by the Assyrians proposed by Henry Rawlinson. However Yigael Yadin, a famous Israeli archeologist, points to the excavations at Tel Lachish and show that the excavations match precisely the events shown on the relief.
The Bible also describes siege of Lachish in 2 Chronicles 32:9 “"Later, when Sennacherib king of Assyria and all his forces were laying siege to Lachish, he sent his officers to Jerusalem with this message for Hezekiah king of Judah and for all the people of Judah who were there.” The reliefs depicts a major battle of a walled city showing archers firing, the building of a siege ramp to breach the wall, soldiers being impaled on stakes, and prisoners being marched away bound.
The excavations at Lachish discovered a major destruction layer, many Assyrian arrow heads and a massive siege ramp made which is still in view today (see image above). There is little doubt among scholars that this Lachish is the same mentioned in the Reliefs in Nineveh that Sennacherib is claiming as his prize.
I have a previous post in which I discuss the site of Lachish further in relation to (spoilers) number 8 in our countdown for tomorrow, the Annals of Sennacherib.
See you tomorrow!
Number 10 in our countdown is the Siloam inscription, discovered in Jerusalem in 1836. The pools of Siloam are the only known water source which brought water into the city. 2 Kings 20 mentions a construction of an underground conduit which brought water into the spring. It states, “And the rest of the events of Hezekiah and all his mighty deeds, and how he made the conduit and the pool, and he brought the water into the city, they are written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah."
The ancient city Jerusalem was on a mountain and easily defensible on all sides. However, when the threat of the Assyrians loomed over the city of Jerusalem, King Hezekiah feared that the water system would be exploited during the siege. 2 Chronicles 32:2-4 says “And he took counsel with his officers and his mighty men to stop up the waters of the fountains that were outside the city, and they assisted him. And a large multitude gathered and stopped up all the fountains and the stream that flowed in the midst of the land, saying, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?’”
The inscription found in the tunnels contains six lines of early Hebrew script which dates to about the 8th Century BCE. It reads:
... the tunnel ... and this is the story of the tunnel while ...
the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to (cut?) ... the voice of a man ...
called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right ... and on the day of the
tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed
water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. and (100?)
cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters ...
The inscription records the process by which the tunnel was created in how two groups of men worked on both ends of the tunnel and met in the middle. The mention of them using their voices perhaps indicates that the workers used acoustics in order to better locate each other.
This is a fascinating discovery which displays some context to Hezekiah’s reign in Jerusalem both creating the water system and perhaps how he blocked it during the Assyrian Siege under Sennacherib. The inscription itself is exhibited in the Istanbul Museum in Turkey and Hezekiah’s tunnels are still famous today as you can tour them yourself in Jerusalem. It is a nice tour to do in the hot summer.
See you tomorrow to see what number nine is in our countdown of 12 Days of Archaeology and the Bible!
Very few times does archaeology harmonize to what is mentioned in text. Yet, both text and archaeology are lenses by which we view the world and neither one usually give the whole picture. It is the interpretation of this picture, which is what we call “history.”
There is a passage in the book of 1 Kings in 9:15 that says “And this is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon drafted to build the house of the YWHW, his house, the Millo, the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor, and Megiddo and Gezer.”
The passage refers to the reinforcement and building projects King Solomon implemented on the temple, his own palace, the walls of Jerusalem, and the walls of some major cities within his kingdom -- at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. There is not evidence of his building projects on the Temple since it was destroyed in 586 BCE and later built over by Herod the Great in the 1st Century BCE. What may remain from Solomon’s palace is under centuries of occupations in Jerusalem which is also not to mention a living, thriving city. However, the building projects for rebuilding walls of these other cities in interesting may provide a clue to King Solomon himself.
In gate structures during this period, we have what are called “chambered gates.” This is a particular architectural gate style which emerges in the Iron Age II period (10th – 9th Centuries BCE). There are two chamber gates, four chamber gates and six chamber gates reflecting the amount of chambers each gate has (see schematic image above). The purpose of these chambers was span from their use in cultic shrines for travelers to offer sacrifices, to watering areas for animals and livestock.
Around this time period we have only three examples of what are known as the 6 Chamber Gates, which are the largest and more significant of the three types. The sites which contain this mysterious architectural feature are only found at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, the three cities where Solomon supposedly reinforced the city walls mentioned in 1 Kings 9.
Do the discoveries of these three gates exhibit the building projects implemented by Solomon during his reign in Israel? The topic of David and Solomon’s historicity is another hotly debated subject and many have used this architectural feature to champion for Solomon’s relevancy.
See you tomorrow with number 10 of our countdown!
First on our list are a group of artifacts known as the Tel El-Amarna letters. These letters were found in Egypt and date the Late Bronze Age New Kingdom of Egypt 1360-1322 BCE. They are a collection of over 300 clay tablets which are correspondence between the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, and the major kingdoms of the Ancient Near East.
These tablets were inscribed in cuneiform (wedge writing) and written in a language known as Akkadian which was the lingua franca, or common language of the ancient world in this time period. Most of the correspondence contain devotion and praise to the pharaoh as well as providing details as to the culture and events of these distant kingdoms.
This information provides biblical scholars with a wealth of knowledge since majority of these tablets are written from kings living in the areas of modern day Syria, Lebanon, and Canaan. Evaluation of these texts can help quite literally “set the stage” and provide the historical and geographic context for the emergence of the Israelites in Late Bronze/Early Iron Age in Canaan.
Some of these texts also mention the troubles the Canaanite kings have had with two people groups known as the Hapiru and the Shasu. Both of these groups have been linked with the “Hebrew” people. Some prominent scholars have suggested that these are in fact the emerging ethnic group of the Israelites infiltrating the land of Canaan however this is heavily debated.
Tune in tomorrow for Day 11 in the 12 Days of Archaeology and the Bible!
Sources and for further Reading.
Dever, William G. (1997). "Archaeology and the Emergence of Early Israel" . In John R. Bartlett (Ed.), Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 20–50. Routledge.
Hoffmeier, James K. (2005). Ancient Israel in Sinai, New York: Oxford University Press, 240–45.
Rainey, Anson F. (1995). "Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society". In Wright, David Pearson; Freedman, David Noel; Hurvitz, Avi (eds.). Pomegranates and Golden Bells. Eisenbrauns.
Stager, Lawrence E. (2001). "Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel". In Michael Coogan (Ed.), The Oxford History of the Biblical World, pp. 90–129. New York: Oxford University Press.
El-Amarna Tablets, article at West Semitic Research Project, website of University of Southern California accessed 12/12/19.
Christmas is the month of giving. Among the lights, gifts and Mariah Carey music, we like to use this time to be with family. This is a welcome break for most academics because we are taking a break from classes and research until the new year.
I am often asked questions about archaeology and more specifically “Biblical Archaeology” concerning discoveries, interpretations, and of the latest documentary on the History Channel. Usually the questions center around three subjects: Dinosaurs, the Ark of the Covenant, and Noah’s Ark. All of which are very interesting topics but unfortunately true academic archaeology does not provide many answers for these subjects. Since there is so much debate over these subjects, is there any archaeological evidence that I can hang my hat on? What is agreed upon amongst most scholars and archaeologist that can help introduce us to the world of the Bible?
So, for this Holiday Season I thought I would do something slightly different from my traditional monthly blog post. We have no doubt heard of the “12 days of Christmas” that begin with twelve drummers drumming and ends with a partridge in a pear tree. Traditionally the 12 Days of Christmas begin December 25th and end on January 5th. However, I will be counting down this month from the 13th to the 24th, Christmas Eve, with my favorite 12 archaeological discoveries for biblical studies that give insight into the world of the Bible.
We will begin with number 12 tomorrow!
BTW, if anyone wants to make a song of my list, feel free to submit it and I will play it on my website.
This year I had the opportunity to attend two conferences in San Diego (where I am writing this). One being the American Schools of Oriental Research (or ASOR, which I attend every year) and the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL, first time). These conferences can seem intimidating to some, especially if you are new to the field of archaeology and considering it for a career. It is important however, to stay up to date on excavations, new finds and new interpretations discussed in the ever growing field of archaeology in the Middle East. On top of this, you may even get to rub shoulders with some of the “rockstars” of archaeology, pun intended.
I believe this is the perfect time to start a dialogue with those who may be interested in a career in archaeology. I have received questions on how one would get into this gig, so I will briefly tell my own story of how I got involved in archaeology as well perhaps give some advice to those who are considering this as a vocation.
In the Beginning
There was something romantic about archaeology when I was younger. Naturally, anyone would be enticed by the life of adventure brought on by Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. However, the reality of our craft comes crashing down upon you in your first anthropology/archaeology 101 class. From what I observed most people had trouble staying awake in these classes. I was a lost freshman at the University of North Florida, trying to find my way amongst the thousands of other students taking their Gen Eds. Finding myself was harder than it should have been considering that I was not even a great student in my own right, as I rarely went to class or even prepared for exams. I simply floated by. Nothing interested me. All I knew is that I did not want pursue a generic degree, and I did not aspire to making a lot of money to live comfortably. I wanted to do something that was different.
I also grew up in a conservative Christian background and I had a desire to investigate the Bible on a deeper level. I felt that if I were to understand this book, that was the source for my faith, then how best to investigate it then to study the periods and people in which it was about? After almost two full years of floating, I did something that was very uncharacteristic of me. I wanted to try out this archaeology thing, so I picked up a phone and called the University of Chicago. Why the University of Chicago? Because that was where Indiana Jones taught in his movies of course! I called and I asked the admissions councilor what it took for me to do my PhD in archaeology there. They were very helpful in telling me exactly what I needed to know. They gave me a list of things to keep in mind and I want to share that list with you.
I will be upfront with this however, to be a professional archaeologist, it will require a considerable amount to schooling, almost 10+ years. But there are other ways to be involved in archaeology without all of that and I will address career choices at the end of this post for those that may still want to be involved indirectly in archaeology. For those interested in becoming a professional archaeologist, take note and read below.
I. Learn the Languages
I wanted to investigate that people and places of the Bible. In order to do that I had to put myself in a position where I could learn the language(s) of the book and ancient people. That meant going to a school where I could learn Hebrew and Greek. The reason for this should be simple: how can one claim to know the culture or people in question if one cannot bother to learn the language? Language reveals much about a particular culture and it should be the first step to really understanding other people. What we read in a book such as the English Bible or even in a history textbook about a culture that is not from our western world is an interpretation of the actual thing.
Based on this revelation I found a school, Harding University, which met my needs and offered a major in Biblical Languages. I studied Greek and Hebrew as well as doing some advance study in backgrounds of the Biblical text. These are good starting points to build off of if you are interested specifically in the world of the Bible. If your interest is in another part of the world, then go to a school that offers that. For example, if you are interested in archaeology in Central America, you can find a school that will prepare you for that. If you are interested in Japanese archaeology, you can find a school in that. All it really takes is a quick Google search. If you need help finding a school I would be happy to give assistance. Messaging me in the comments section below.
2. Go on a Dig
Perhaps this should be number one, but this also should be a no-brainer. How will you know if you like archaeology if you have never been on a dig? Here’s the good news, you can go on a dig and not be an archaeologist. There are excavations going on all over the world and at all different times of the year. Most excavations offer “field schools” in which they will actually teach you the methods and practices of an on-going excavation.
My very first dig was during my undergrad was with Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations (2013) in Israel. I was simply just happy to be there. I had no experience and had only been told what life on an excavation was like. The first week was hard only because I had no idea what to expect. It was actually quite laborious for me and I did not enjoy waking up at 4am in order to go do physical labor. The question always comes to mind to every beginner-- "Did I actually pay for this?"
However, it became all worth it the first time I uncovered pieces of a storage jar from the 10th Century Iron Age. The longer I stayed with it, the more I began to wrap my mind around the methods and cadence of a dig. It was rewarding and not only did I enjoy it, I realized I was good at it. Since then, I excavated other sites such as Abel Beth Ma’acah (2015) while I was working on my MA, and am currently at Khribet Safra (2018, 2019) while on my PhD. I have even done some CRM (cultural resource management) work with the military cataloging Post Civil War cemeteries and surface surveys at major military bases.
So naturally I would recommend you go on a dig. However, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you don’t even have to consider being a professional archaeologist in order to be involved in a dig. I know scores of people who simply love to do field work, and they also have other jobs they do back home. For them, it becomes a hobby and they have found out that you can still be involved in archaeology without all of the school.
But, here’s the crux, going on a dig is typically not cheap, especially if it is overseas. Most digs will offer packages that include room and board, food and weekend tours. Take advantage of these because nothing beats traveling in a foreign land with an archaeologist who has been excavating there 20+ years. At Safra we do something similar in which we travel to exotic sites in Jordan on the weekends and will cap off the remainder of the trip in Israel the final week. To see what the daily life of an archaeologist in the Middle East looks like, see my Youtube video here.
3. Consider your career options
Jobs in archaeology are few and far between. It is no secret that everyone wants the cushy teaching job, teaching in the Fall and Spring while excavating in the summers. However, this is not realistic for most. Consider all of the schools in the United States, then think about all of the schools that have archaeology programs. I will go ahead and tell you that there are not many. At the conferences I attend, there are many young PhDs looking for a teaching jobs and the sad part is that most of them will never find one. They will have to learn to contribute to our craft in another way.
Luckily we are in a day-in-age where our government is becoming conscious of its ecological footprint as well as its culture footprint. I have mentioned before my experience with CRM, in that there has developed this entire industry that seeks to help private landowners and even the government navigate preserving America’s culturally sensitive heritage. I have done quite a bit of work in this area and there is a real need for archaeologists to commit themselves to preserving America’s intellectual history.
As I mentioned before there are many ways one can be involved with archaeology and not be a professional archaeologist. Gone are the days where the archaeologist needs to be a jack-of-all-trades in educating themselves in every facet of ancient culture. We need ceramic experts, biologists, chemists, linguists, historians, economists, metallurgists, zoologists, botanists, geologists, medical professionals, database analysts, coders, GIS specialists, cartographers, fund raisers, and the list goes on. All of these disciplines and specialists can be archaeologists in their own right and help in the ultimate goal for uncovering and preserving the past.
4. Stay humble
I did not end up at the University of Chicago, but I found an institution that met my needs and is willing to support me and my research. Every day, I learn something new about myself and about history that adds another puzzle piece into my ever-growing view of the world we live in. At ASOR this year, I met with the great William G. Dever, a world renown archaeologist and was incidentally the professor to two of my professors (guess that would make him my grand-professor). He had this advice to say to me. He told me to always be willing to learn and do not ever think that you know everything. When you get to the point where you stop learning then you have failed as an academic. I understood what he was saying, and I was grateful for his wisdom. I have seen how fluid our discipline can be in that new finds and new methods are being discovered every day that can be applied to how we view the ancient world. Humility play a large role with every academic because when you have stopped learning, then you cease to be a scholar.
Archaeology is an immensely rewarding discipline that can take you to places you never dreamed you would go. Understanding the past has immediate relevance to our own issues in the present. Find your niche and get involved.
Thanks for reading! If archaeology is something you are interested in, feel free to reach out. I can recommend some schools for you and of course help you in your search to find a dig.
For some, the summer means school is out for students. Growing up in Florida, it meant going to the beach daily, barbecues, bon-fires and fishing. When one is in academic discipline of archaeology, summer means: “dig season.”
It is true that there are other excavations, which operate outside of the months of May – July, but in the Middle East, summer is the most convenient for students. Field schools are in full swing and archaeological projects either begin or pick right up where they left off last year.
In this case, Khirbet Safra kicked off its second season in Jordan for 6 weeks (end of may to mid-July). Andrews University has been involved with excavating major sites in Jordan since 1968 led by the renowned archaeologist Sigfried H. Horn. In fact, Tall Hesban Excavations just celebrated its 50th year anniversary of continuous work as apart of the Madaba Plains Project. Two additional excavations at Tall El-Umayri (1984) and Tall Jalul (1992) have also been excavated by Andrews.
:::Warning::: Technical, but not too technical, archaeology jargon coming henceforth. All pictures I use in this post are my own (unless specified) and are, by no means, publishable quality. I do this intentionally to protect the integrity of the publications.
To answer more questions regarding the Iron Age in Transjordan (the politically correct term for the land in modern-day, Jordan) excavators moved their focus southwest to Khirbet Safra. Some sites in archaeology are called Tells/Talls or Khirbets. A Tell is a mound created over time with layers of ruins and occupations beginning with the most recent occupation on the top and the earliest material culture at the lowest levels. (For a better description of Tell structures check out my blog post here.)
A khirbet is the designation for a site where its ruins or architecture are exposed prior to any excavation or disturbance to the site. From aerial photographs, the khirbet has a clear outer-wall surrounding the circumference along with an inner wall also running along the interior forming what is known as a “casemate” – a double reinforced wall structure commonly seen in the Levant.
Initial surveys of the site found several different time periods of pottery on the surface ranging from Iron IIA (10th-8th Century BC) to the Byzantine periods (AD 3rd century). Four fields were opened on the four areas of the city -- A, B, C, and D. These fields were strategically placed in order to 1) delineate the casemate (in all fields); 2) expose any remaining gate structure in the north and east on site (fields C and D); and 3) expose any large, assumed administrative structures in logical locations (Fields A and B).
The first season (2018) yielded fine results of pottery and helped establish a better chronology of the site. Two squares were opened in each Field and majority of the squares were finished and closed by the end of the season on account of bedrock laying a meter to a meter and a half under the surface. In most areas, upon the exposed bedrock was a sealed locus of Iron I pottery dating to the 13th Century BC, which was earlier than what the excavators expected since Iron II pottery sherds were collected in the initial 2017 ground survey.
The second season in 2019 was focused primarily on Fields B and D respectively. Field B opened four new squares where a monumental building was discovered abutting the casemate wall to the south. Field D also opened four more squares and discovered several rooms connected to a 13th century BC gate complex to the city, complete with a threshold stone and stone benches. The gate finding is significant for several reasons since it is a high traffic area for entrancing and exiting the city. Many administrative and legislative processes occur at city gates. For ancient and biblical parallels, see texts dealing with events where the elders meet at the city gates to make judgements and form contracts. (Gen 19:1, 34:20; Exod 32:26; Deut 25:7; Josh 20:4; Ruth 4:1, 4:11; Prov 31:23; etc. ).
A better picture of phasing is appearing and tells us that the first settlers to Khirbet Safra built a walled town/city upon bedrock, filling in holes and depressions in the bedrock with a red-bricky material in order to make it flat. The site was most likely destroyed at one time as there is a thin ash layer in Fields A and B most likely caused by an earthquake on account of tectonic/seismic activity frequent along the Jordan River Valley which is a known fault line. There is also a possiblity that that destruction could have occured by the growing Moabite presence in the Iron Age II seen at other sites in the surrounding areas like Dibon and Ataruz. Some settlers during the Byzantine period reused the abandoned/destroyed walls in Fields A and B but only had a short period of occupation.
For copyright and publication reasons, I will leave any more details about the findings of Khirbet Safra for now. It is a fascinating site which will help answer questions we may have concerning the Transjordan in the Iron Age I. For those interested in biblical chronology and archaeology, this is most likely the time period of the books of Joshua and Judges. If geographic information and boundaries in the Bible are accurate then the city of Khirbet Safra lies within ancient Reubenite territory.
Next Season we hope to reopen all 4 fields and continue with excavation. Although some questions were answered, more questions are raised. We have yet to find any inscriptional evidence or material culture which shows what kind of people lived at Khirbet Safra, whether they were Moabite, Ammonite or -- dare we say, Israelite? Only time will tell as we press onwards and downwards. Consider joining us next year as we dig into history and uncover the secrets of Khirbet Safra.
I realize a lot of this text can appear as technical, archaeology “mombo-jumbo.” However, these are valuable results that we uncover which help us understand the world that came before us and ultimately tell us something about ourselves. Archaeology is about discovering our intellectual heritage. It is not all working in the hot sun every day. You can see my video in what a typical day in the life of an archaeologist looks like here. When we are not working, we tour exotic sites, eat wonderful Jordanian cuisine and more importantly, form relationships with people who are not much more different that ourselves. Archaeology is an opportunity for building a bond between people of different cultures. It brings together people from all walks of life in different age, ethnicity, language, religion and politics. We coexist and work towards a better understanding of humanity. See my video of our wonderful volunteers and students from last year here. Come join in on the adventure with us next year. You will not regret it.
Summer Excavations are in the books, a new semester has started and publications are being written. In the meantime, I figured I’d answer one of my “frequently asked questions" with my next post. A question I am often asked is: “how does one choose a site to dig?”
Archaeology as a discipline began in the 17th and 18th centuries. The methodology used today was developed in mid 1800’s by a famous Egyptologist, William Flinders Petrie also known as the “Father of Archaeology.” He developed a dating technique known as Ceramic Typology (for an explanation of this, see video “A Day in the Life of an Archaeologist”). This began what was known as the “Golden Age” of archaeology in which people began seriously considering this discipline as a profession. Other methodological techniques such as the Wheeler-Kenyon method came out of this age (setting up sites in a grid system and excavating stratigraphically based on the architecture and material culture), which we still implement today and even still might be the preferred method of excavation. This introduction to archaeology as a scientific/academic discipline helped shape the way we understand the evolution of human civilization in an even bigger picture within anthropology.
The Wheeler-Kenyon Method maps the site out into a grid of 5x5 meter squares for excavating. A one-meter buffer or "balk" in between each square are used to keep track of the changes in layers in order to have complete, three dimensional control of the area. Assigned to each square is a supervisor tasked with taking meticulous notes of not only artifacts which may pop up, but also architecture, soil color and consistency, measurements, and other miscellaneous data.
Implementing the Wheeler-Kenyon methods to Khribet Safra
Within this understanding of anthropology, in which one chooses to excavate a site, there are many factors that come into play before one even puts spade to dirt. Text and oral tradition play a role in choosing a site, however before one attributes these indicators to a site one has to consult the basic needs of any human culture. I will name four which are, including, but not limited to:
Aside from Wifi (which would no doubt be a necessity for most in this day in age) these four factors must be present when a site is in consideration. This can all be determined by viewing aerial images and maps (both modern and ancient). If one of these factors are not present, then an explanation is needed in order to show how this factor is compensated. For example: if there is no clear water system such as a river, lake or spring nearby, then how did the ancient people living at the site gain access to water? Now, there are clearly exceptions to this rule for not every site is easily explainable. However, majority of the time, these factors are available and they are somewhat universally applied to sites all over the world.
The ancient fortress of Masada. Archaeologist are still perplexed as to how the ancient peoples had access to water on a mountain in the middle of the Judean Desert.
Conveniently enough, in the Near East, this is one more factor that helps in identifying a site for excavation, this is a structure known as a “Tel” (Arabic: “Tall”). The word Tel means, “ruin” and it is a man-made mound with layers and layers of human settlements created over centuries. You may have heard some sites referred to as “tels” such as Tel Abel Beth-Ma’acah, Tel Miggiddo, Tel Hazor, or Tel Azekah. These are in reference to the site as an ancient city or town with multiple occupations over the course of human history. This is of course compared to what is also known as a “khirbet,” which is a site where there are exposed ruins on the surface. The excavation I am currently involved with is known as Khirbet Safra, which is not a tel structure.
Before adequate techniques of archaeology were put into practice, trench archaeology was applied to some sites, which it was precisely as it sounds. Past archaeologists would dig a large trench in the middle of the tel, like slicing off a piece of cake, in order to see the layers in relationship to the site. As one can imagine this was a horrible method as it destroys a considerable percentage of the site. When the Wheeler-Kenyon method was adapted and applied, it was a slower process, but much more controlled and yielded better results.
After the basics of human needs are addressed comes the fun part of choosing a site. This is where one will look at textual evidence and oral traditions in order to determine if a site is worth excavating and also helps judge the importance of a site. Countless surveys done by explorers and cartographers have identified sites that are yet to be excavated today. The modern names of some sites are typically given by local neighbors and settlers. This is what is referred to as an “oral tradition” of the site. Sometimes even the modern name of a site will contain traces of the ancient name in it such as Tall Heshbon in Jordan (ancient Hesban in the biblical text). Other sites like Tel es-Sultan have been identified as the ancient biblical city of Jericho based off of geographic information from textual sources such as the Hebrew Bible and ancient maps, as well as the oral tradition of the surrounding settlements of the site in question.
Choosing a site is a process and should not be taken lightly. It is as much of a science as the method of excavation applied to a site. A lot of care is taken into choosing a site because once one has put spade-to-dirt, the site will never be the same way again. Archaeology as a discipline is destructive by nature. Excavators have the ethical responsibility of man’s intellectual heritage to uncover what lies beneath one layer at a time.
Let me know what you think in the comments! If there are other questions you may want to ask and archaeologist leave it in the comments below.