It was the day before the excavation was scheduled to end. Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who discovered the site of Troy, had his crew of 80 workmen furiously digging through the tel’s various strata in quest of museum-worthy artifacts from the Homeric city (which he thought was at the bottom of the tel). Then, on June 14, 1873 an incomparable treasure of gold was found. That evening, after adorning his young Greek wife with the ancient jewelry, he reportedly told her: “You are wearing the treasure of Helen of Troy.” Today, scholars are agreed that Schliemann, in his enthusiasm to find a city worthy of Priam, had cut right through the city known to Homer’s heroes, and the gold he found belonged to a city 1000 years earlier.
Three years later Schliemann turned his attention to the ruins of Mycenae—where the expedition against Troy originated. Within a month he found royal graves, with the features of the dead exquisitely preserved on golden face-masks. Incurably romantic, Schliemann wired the King of Greece: “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.” Modern scholarship judges that he was again wrong, though this time by only 400 years.
These two instances illustrate the influence that romantic interest in the ancient world can have on the judgment of an archaeologist—the temptation to identify what we find with what we want to find. Perhaps the problem is intensified for the Biblical archaeologist, whose piety and patriotism often nurture and renew the romantic interest which first moved him or her to become an archaeologist.
In 1929 Sir Leonard Woolley, who should have known better, cabled the press from Mesopotamia: “I have found the flood.” Evidence of a flood, or the bed of a shifted river, was indeed found by Woolley. But reference to the flood (of Noah) was an undisciplined, impulsive, and outrageous claim—perhaps better calculated to win financial support for the dig than to serve the causes of either truth or piety.
In 327 A.D. the site of the Holy Sepulcher was “discovered” by no less a credentialed archaeologist than Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The drama of its identification can be seen only through mists of legend. Helena, guided by both a vision and a local bishop, believed she located the tomb of Jesus beneath a pagan temple, and remnants of the true cross in a nearby cistern. Eusebius, an historian in the service of the Emperor, reports the tomb’s discovery in obsequious tones1—though he conspicuously does not mention Helena’s discovery of the site of Calvary. Within a generation, however, legend supplied what Eusebius had omitted, and the discovery of Golgotha, the tomb, and the cross itself were attributed to Helena. There is in the story no evidence whatsoever to help us distinguish authenticity from wish-fulfillment. Yet, no less a distinguished archaeologist than Kathleen Kenyon blithely and uncritically assumes “it is not unreasonable to believe that she must have been given some convincing evidence”2—which is a fine instance of piety substituting for proof.
However much subsequent devotion has hallowed the site, there is not the slightest reason to believe that anyone in 327 A.D., after two major destructions of Jerusalem and centuries of Christian longing not for the old world but for a new heaven and a new earth, knew where Jesus had been buried. Later references to Hadrian’s motives in 135 A.D. for building a pagan temple on the site (to defile a Christian holy place) are clearly an anachronism which Hadrian is not available to correct.
A visitor to the southwestern spur of Jerusalem can today see the “tomb of David.” It is an impressive site, hallowed by piety, patriotism, and centuries of Jewish suffering. The fact is, however, that this southwestern spur (today called Mount Zion) was not the “Mount Zion” on which the City of David was situated, and where David was buried (Ophel, the eastern spur was).3 In a strange and complicated “adjustment” of geography, the nomadic name “Mount Zion” has wandered from the eastern City of David (later extended to include the Temple Mount) to the western spur—partly because of Byzantine ignorance, and partly to accommodate the realities of piety and politics.
The temptation to identify sites that accommodate piety is not limited to the ancients. Anyone who has been on a dig in Israel, attended professional meetings, or read preliminary reports, knows the inordinate enthusiasm surrounding the possible identification of a Late Bronze Age or (better) Iron Age wall, gate, building, or object. I am aware of one dig where a “bench of the elders” just inside the city gate (where judgment was held) fumed out in a final report to be only another nondescript section of a public building.
Piety and patriotism seek holy and national shrines. This search was an overt motivating force in the work of early archaeologists, and it is just below the surface today.
Antithetically, there is another force operative in the judgment of modern archaeologists. Compared with what we have been examining, it is a mirror image—the inclination to debunk the piety, patriotism, or accepted wisdom of (usually older) colleagues.
For example, this attitude is reflected in the view that the synagogue at Capernaum cannot possibly be the one in which Jesus taught, since Christian piety obviously wants it that way. This is not, of course, the way the argument is stated, but it is the way the evidence is handled. The usual reasoning is that the synagogue’s architectural style belongs to the second or third centuries A.D. The fact (recently discovered) that an almost identical structure was destroyed by the Romans at Gamla4 in 67 A.D. does not apparently move most modern archaeologists to rethink the criterion, but only to allow for an exception.
Interestingly enough, the recent finding of hoards of late fourth and fifth century coins beneath the floor of the Capernaum synagogue has led many scholars—prominent Americans among them—to plug for a fifth century date for the building. Several Israeli archaeologists, on the other hand, contend the coins were placed there after the synagogue was built. But no one seems to be reconsidering the possibility, based on the assured dating of the Gamla building, that the Capernaum synagogue is in fact the one in which Jesus preached. After all, no more likely candidate has been uncovered.
Since the 1930s, textbooks in archaeology have shown the “stables of Solomon” at Megiddo to be one of the few remaining monuments from the time of the united monarchy. Now we are told that they are neither Solomonic nor stables. That they belong to the time of Ahab does today seem unquestionable: That they are not stables strains the imagination.5
There is a strange kind of self-righteousness (not to mention sadistic glee) among those who assure us they are not pious. And, iconoclastic debate points are often counted, by those seeking to be intellectually respectable, as though they had double weight. The student of modern archaeology should be aware of these professional, inhouse games of one-upmanship.
Biblical archaeology’s search for truth is more like a process than a proof, sometimes achieving tentative consensus, but seldom if ever achieving unquestionable knowledge. Data that is reviewed by one mind suggests an interpretation that is often different when reviewed by another. These differences in perspective actually contribute to the process as theories are proposed, debated, and revised. Of course, piety, patriotism, ideology, training, and the opposite expressions of these, influence the archaeologist’s judgment, just as they do the historian’s. In candid moments, every professional archaeologist knows this—the best scholars know it about themselves; others only know it about their colleagues.
Probably most readers of BAR understand these matters. But it is good to be reminded, because the reader needs to be free from the tyranny of expecting scientifically certain “proof,” in order to enjoy the excitement of the process that is modern archaeological scholarship.
It was the day before the excavation was scheduled to end. Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who discovered the site of Troy, had his crew of 80 workmen furiously digging through the tel’s various strata in quest of museum-worthy artifacts from the Homeric city (which he thought was at the bottom of the tel). Then, on June 14, 1873 an incomparable treasure of gold was found. That evening, after adorning his young Greek wife with the ancient jewelry, he reportedly told her: “You are wearing the treasure of Helen of Troy.” Today, scholars are agreed that Schliemann, in his […]