Are you single and looking for your true love? Someone thought the conference I recently attended at Oxford was the answer: Radiocarbon dating was the way to find the perfect match. Radiocarbon would identify just the right person for you.
The story, of course, is apocryphal. The real purpose of the radiocarbon conference was, of course, to solve one of the most contentious dating puzzles in current Biblical archaeology—the absolute dates of several archaeological layers, or strata, as they are called.
The subtext, rarely mentioned at the conference, however, was the question of whether King Solomon’s reign was archaeologically monumental or paltry.
All agree that King Solomon ruled in the mid-tenth century B.C., say sometime between about 960 and 930 B.C. But what archaeological material—what layer or stratum—is to be identified with the mid-tenth century B.C.?
Answering that, in turn, depends on establishing the date of the transition from what archaeologists call Iron Age I to Iron Age II. Traditionally, Iron I is the period of the Judges (and perhaps of King David, who didn’t do much building) and extended from about 1200 B.C. to 1000 B.C. (or, better, 980 B.C.). Archaeologically speaking, Iron I is not very impressive. In Iron II, however, archaeologists have uncovered monumental architecture, huge city gates and well-built palaces.
If Iron II begins in about 1000 B.C., this impressive architecture is probably to be associated with King Solomon. If, however, we move down 75 years or so the beginning of Iron II (to the ninth century B.C.), then this monumental architecture becomes associated with later Israelite kings (during the Divided Monarchy), and the impoverished remains of Iron I become associated with King Solomon!
In the mid-1990s a brilliant, charismatic, relatively young scholar from Tel Aviv University proposed making precisely that chronological adjustment. Israel Finkelstein argued that the traditional chronology was simply wrong, off by perhaps as much as a century. He would associate the impressive architecture of Iron II (more precisely, Iron IIA) with the Omride dynasty of the ninth century B.C. and the paltry remains of the preceding Iron I with King Solomon. Finkelstein’s proposal became known as the “low chronology.”
The “low chronology” has ignited a firestorm in Biblical archaeology.
Most senior archaeologists reject Finkelstein’s low chronology.1 But at this level of scholarship, you don’t simply count noses; you reason and argue! Recently, two brilliant younger archaeologists working at what is becoming a key site in the debate (Tel Dor on the Mediterranean coast) have parted company on this issue from their mentor, Hebrew University archaeologist Ephraim Stern, and now support Finkelstein’s low chronology.2 Are the sands shifting?
The Oxford conference was intended to bring the contending sides together to see whether their differences could be resolved.
The focus, however, was on one of the main scientific techniques for dating organic remains—radiocarbon dating, more commonly referred to as carbon-14, or simply C14. Anything organic—olive pits, wood, bone, grain, etc.—produces and thus contains carbon-14, a particular isotope of carbon. Once an organism dies, carbon is no longer absorbed and the carbon-14 present in the material begins to decay and turn into something else (in the case of carbon-14, into carbon-12 and then 051into graphite). The rate of decay is known and measurable. In this way, by examining the remaining carbon-14 in a substance, scientists can date the “date of death,” so to speak—the date when the carbon-14 began to decay.
Let’s take a little breather. The conference on carbon-14 and the archaeology of King Solomon’s reign was held at Yarnton Manor, the home of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. It is located in the picturesque countryside about 5 miles away from the university and housed in a grand manor that was 052once owned by Henry VIII’s physician. In 1580, the manor was purchased by William Spencer, a forebear of both Winston Churchill and Princess Diana.
Literature on the center boasts of the famous people who have written and researched in its hallowed halls. Among them is Israeli novelist and playwright A.B. Yehoshua, whom the New York Times called “a kind of Israeli Faulkner”; Yehoshua wrote drafts of one of his novels here. Ted Carmi worked on the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse here.
The most famous person at the radiocarbon conference was traveling incognito: best-selling mystery novelist John Sandford. Most of his novels have “Prey” in the title—such as Mortal Prey and Naked Prey. The last time I saw John was in a full-page color ad in the New York Times for his new bestseller, Hidden Prey. At the Oxford radiocarbon conference, however, he is known only by his real name, John Camp, a senior member of the excavation staff at Tel Rehov. John told me that he had gotten up that morning at 4 a.m. to work on his new novel. He didn’t tell me what it was about, however. But someday the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish studies can boast that part of a John Sandford “Prey” novel was written there.
The bottom line after two days of talks and discussion: Carbon-14 is not the answer. Or, perhaps more accurately, each side regarded the carbon-14 results as supporting its chronology. Finkelstein thought the results were “crystal clear.” But Hendrik Bruins of Beer-Sheva University, on the other side, noted that if Finkelstein were right the result would be that the archaeological strata at Tel Rehov, representing different cities, would be only 10 or 15 years long—an impossibility. Norma Franklin of Tel Aviv University said she was suffering from a “chronological headache.”
Indeed, the two sides could not even agree on what to call the two different positions. The low-chronology people spoke of the “low chronology” and the “high chronology.” The other side spoke of the “low chronology” and the “traditional chronology” or the “conventional chronology.” It is not the “high chronology,” they said; it is the correct chronology.
Despite the disagreements, the discussions were reasoned and friendly—and the informal conversations were even warmer. It was gratifying to see the two sides in a truly collegial atmosphere. Still, little if any ground was given by either.
The principal disputants were the current excavators of Megiddo, led by Israel Finkelstein, and the excavators at Tel Rehov, led by Amihai Mazar. Finkelstein and Mazar have dueled in a series of scholarly articles, but they are on friendly terms personally, like lawyers who confine their conflict to the courtroom and then go out and have lunch together. Longtime combatants Finkelstein and leading American archaeologist William Dever also seemed to put their personal animosities aside. One would never know of the names 053they have called each other in the past.
It was also good to see former director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities Ghazi Bisheh at the conference. He fit easily into the collegial atmosphere. (Jordan’s Prince Hassan is a member of the board of directors of the Centre.)
But there was also enough science at the conference to make my head spin: calibration curves, wiggles, probability of 1 sigma or 2 sigmas, outliers, short-lived samples, pretreatment and Bayesian modeling. In short, it’s not so easy to perform a radiocarbon test, and the results take some interpretation. That’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to get agreement.
The other reason is that we are talking about such a relatively short time period, about 75 years. Can carbon-14, even with the recent advances in techniques, confidently date a 3,000-year-old sample so precisely? Thomas Higham of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of Oxford University and one of the conveners of the conference, noted that carbon-14 scientists are seldom asked to date a sample within such a narrow range. Until recently, they would have been unwilling even to try. On the other hand, the use of dendrochronology (the dating of tree rings) allows the scientists to measure their carbon-14 results against an accurate absolute date of some of the wood samples.
Statistically speaking, both sides appear to be a bit biased in favor of their respective mentors, Finkelstein and Mazar. Statistically, one would expect that whether a person digs at Megiddo or Rehov should be irrelevant as to whether he or she favors one chronology or the other. Presumably, if someone at either site looks at all the evidence objectively, where he or she is digging is irrelevant. But, perhaps predictably, those who dig with Finkelstein at Megiddo favor his low chronology. Those who dig with Mazar at Rehov favor the traditional chronology.
It is apparently difficult to overcome the inclination of each side to defend its position no matter what. Are the two sides biased—just a little? Each side has suggested that the other is acting to defend the Bible or to discredit the Bible. Ami Mazar ended his presentation at Oxford by noting that the difference between the two sides was only 60 years or so. But, he asked, “Is it a coincidence that this 60-year period includes King Solomon’s reign?” He answered his own question: “I doubt it,” he said.
Lowering the chronology so that the remains from King Solomon’s reign are quite poor is also consistent with Finkelstein’s other views about the Bible and the tenth century B.C.E. According to Finkelstein, only about 500 men lived in all of Judah in the tenth century B.C.E. And the Biblical text itself was written only in the seventh century, without any sources as to what happened three centuries earlier.
Tom Levy, of the University of California at San Diego (and a convenor of the conference), recognized that “the primary force that drives” our search is an effort “to understand the holy texts.” Levy defended the term Biblical Archaeology against those who would drop the name altogether. “Why not call a spade a spade?” he asked. Recognizing that for some the term had odorous baggage from its past, when it tried to prove the truth of the Bible, Levy wondered aloud, “Perhaps we should call it the New Biblical Archaeology.”
Are we all biased? Yes. The only thing we can do is try to identify our biases and not let them get in the way of our assessment of the evidence. But as Bill Dever noted, “Ideology shapes our view of the past.”
Photos by Hershel Shanks.
Are you single and looking for your true love? Someone thought the conference I recently attended at Oxford was the answer: Radiocarbon dating was the way to find the perfect match. Radiocarbon would identify just the right person for you. The story, of course, is apocryphal. The real purpose of the radiocarbon conference was, of course, to solve one of the most contentious dating puzzles in current Biblical archaeology—the absolute dates of several archaeological layers, or strata, as they are called. The subtext, rarely mentioned at the conference, however, was the question of whether King Solomon’s reign was […]