Biblical Archaeology: Accuracy Matters!

In this new Kontakt Apologetics series, we will be looking at archaeological remains that have helped corroborate the Biblical accounts or have helped illuminate the meaning of some Biblical passages. Before examining our first artifact (an item made by humans that has some historical or cultural significance), it is important to understand how these artifacts are found and studied, as many of these artifacts have or have had scholarly debates surrounding them. So, understanding how archaeology is conducted helps us understand the debate.

Archaeology is the study of old things from the Greek archae (old) and logos (word or study), but as an established science it is relatively young. Some even suggest that it wasn’t until 1735 with the excavation at Herculaneum (the other town destroyed besides Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79). This excavation was hardly scientific or systematic. While there has always been an interest in the past, a systematic study of human artifacts did not develop until the 1800s. The spark for this push for understanding the past came ironically through conflict. Much of the desire to explore the Holy Land for archaeological remains came from all the treasures from Ancient Egypt that Napoleon brought back after having conquered Egypt in 1798. Soon after, explorers from Europe ravaged Egypt and Mesopotamia for ancient treasures. Henry Layard excavated Nineveh in the 1840s and discovered marvelous treasures, winged bulls, and a 100,000 clay tablet library. It was the age of treasure hunting in which massive trenches would be cut through a site and little in the way of careful recording of finds was done. An important reality of archaeology is that once an item is dug up, it can not be put back so its location and all the information concerning it is lost without careful records.

pexels-photo-18416974-18416974.jpgIt wasn’t until the excavations at Troy in the 1870s in that the modern science of archaeology began to develop with systematic approaches and careful recording of finds. It was here that stratigraphy, the recognition that ancient sites (called tells) were layered was first understood. Archaeology would take a monumental jump forward with the work of Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. At his excavations in Egypt and in Syria-Palestine, Petrie noticed that ancient sites were laid down in layers and the pottery found in those layers was of a certain style that changed over time. Petrie comes up with the idea of pottery or ceramic typology as a means of assigning dates to finds. But it would be William Foxwell Albright (who is often called the father of Biblical archaeology) who really solidified the style changes of pottery through the ages and much of his work on pottery, though constantly refined, is still used today. It is pottery that is the first means of dating archaeological finds.[1]

By the 1950s, archaeology had finally settled on a careful methodology. Instead of deep-cut trenches (though occasionally in certain circumstances they are still used), a grid-like format of typically five-by-five-meter squares is dug. Each layer of soil (called a locus) is carefully removed and elevations are taken for the beginning of the locus and the end. Digital photographs are taken of the various loci as well as the balk (the wall of the square which gives a cross-section view) of the square. In addition, a top-down picture is taken as there may be several loci in view at a time. All this data is recorded, including all the artifacts with each locus so that in theory the archaeologist could reproduce what the site looked like before it was dug. [2]

Today’s excavations are highly technical affairs. Ground penetrating radars look for artifacts before even digging up the soil. Radiometric dating (using carbon isotopes of organic material like seeds), neutron activation analysis for pottery (helping to ascertain what elements constitute the sample) and laser-guided transits for taking elevation are commonplace in most archaeological digs. In addition, it is no longer just solely archaeologists at digs anymore. You have anthropologists, paleobotanists, linguists, historians, surveyors, and many other types of specialists. Thus, modern archaeological digs are highly scientific affairs, a far cry from archaeology in the 19th century.

Yet, you may be wondering why this is important. By having a careful recording of archaeological finds that are “in situ” (that is their origin is found in the ground rather than found in the antiquities’ market). Finding artifacts “in situ” helps prove the authentic nature of the artifact and helps to properly date the artifact and relate it to other artifacts. Artifacts not found on official digs are common, but their legitimacy is suspect and sadly there are a lot of fake artifacts out there because people will buy them thinking they might be legitimate.

Hopefully, this brief introduction to the history and method of archaeology will give you a greater appreciation of archaeological discoveries and their relation to the Bible. While some of archaeological work is highly technical, much of it is still done by common laborers who are trained to dig, sift, and record everything in their 5-meter square. Every summer volunteers from around the world join these digs and lay their hands on things that no human had seen in thousands of years. If you are interested in experiencing this for yourself, Biblical Archaeology Review magazine has a yearly dig issue, where you can find the information to join a dig and become an amateur archaeologist.

[1]Shikin Excavation Project, picture courtesy of Walt Harper.

[2]Shikin Excavation Project, picture courtesy of Walt Harper.

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