Anson Rainey’s eulogy to Yohanan Aharoni (“Yohanan Aharoni—The Man and His Work,” BAR 02:04) notes Aharoni’s refusal to “bow down and worship at the balk.”a As one who has helped remove more than one balk, I appreciate Aharoni’s flexibility. I note with interest too, his openness to new evidence and his refusal to waste energy perpetuating his own infallibility. Here is the continuing spirit of William Foxwell Albright.
What really caught my eye, however, was Aharoni’s judgment against chopping up strata in a restricted space because this ruins the horizontal picture for future excavation.
A review of near eastern archaeological method would move first from tomb robbers after gold, to pot-hunters after museum pieces. Then, along the way to modern bulldozers, we would find tunnelers, trenchers, and the architectural school with its concern to expose the foundations of buildings.
(The reference to bulldozers is not entirely facetious for they have been used to clear debris; one suspects that debris on occasion included the more recent deposits on a site in which the excavator was uninterested.)
It is said the French excavate in the mass and interpret in macrocosm. On the other hand, one looks in awe at that intriguing section drawing with all its confusing details attached to the end of Kathleen Kenyon’s Digging up Jericho (see illustration). As L. E. Toombs has remarked, the British excavate minutely and interpret in microcosm.b American and Israeli archaeologists fall somewhere in between macro- and micro-, depending on their training and methodological convictions.
It is fashionable to excoriate the diggers of the past for their poor methods. I suspect that future diggers may return the compliment to us unless they are humble enough to recognize their own fallibility in an ongoing process.
No doubt the diggers of the past thought their methods were the best. At one point, the so-called levelers were hailed for using what was thought to be the latest in scientific method. The levelers carefully “pared away” six inches at a time with no awareness that ancient sites did not accumulate evenly or add a neat six inches at a time. In effect, they ignored the vertical as completely as does the current architectural school. In turn, are the vertical-izers ignoring the horizontal dimension as Aharoni implied? Perhaps so.
In 1880, on the English estate of Pitt-Rivers, a certain General Lane Fox was digging stratigraphically, that is, horizontally—layer (stratum) by layer, following the contour of the original deposits. This enabled him to reconstruct on paper the historical periods of the mound. The redoubtable Sir Mortimer Wheeler picked up this method and developed it in England and later India. His student, Dr. Kathleen Kenyon, introduced this kind of stratigraphic digging to Palestine, that “charnel house” of excavations as Wheeler called it.
There the Wheeler-Kenyon method merged with the precision recording techniques of the American Andrew Reisner and with the pottery typology of Sir Flinders Petrie. It is of interest that both of these last two excavators got their start in Egypt. There Reisner so carefully picked up the decorations of Queen Hetepheres’ chair that his assistants were able to reconstruct the furniture though most of the wood was rotted away. Reisner’s later work at Samaria suggests that not all pre-Wheeler 026excavations in Palestine were funerals. Petrie had simply observed (the core of all science!) that pottery changed style, form, technique of manufacture, as one dug from top to bottom of a mound. He placed the varying pottery styles in time order and called it Sequence Dating. Later, inscriptions of known date allowed these Sequence Dates to be tied to absolute dates. Petrie’s work was honed to a fine edge by Albright. Today, pottery typology is our chief means of dating the layers of a near eastern mound.
The Wheeler-Kenyon method has spread around the world. In principle (and in the breach??) the method is used in some sense by scientific excavators everywhere. The hyphenated name of the method and the use of the singular suggests that it is viewed that way by many users and writers. What Rainey points out through Aharoni is that in fact the method is an umbrella for many variations.c
Basically, the Wheeler-Kenyon method is a variation of the old trenching method. The sides of the trench are cut straight down. These straight sides are the balks (which Aharoni refuses to recognize as sacred). As each layer is removed from within the trench, the layer is numbered. The number is marked with a tag on the balk. Cross balks are left in the trench, changing it, in effect, to a series of squares. The cross balks are designed to maintain stratigraphic connections between one side of the trench and the other. The square thus formed (usually 5 meters on a side) is a consistent way of measuring and drawing. Sometimes another trench is dug simultaneously alongside the first, thus widening the trench.
In theory, if an excavator finds part of a building or a layer that is otherwise worth horizontal exploration, additional squares can be laid to either side of the trench or over as much of the mound as desirable. Wheeler shows an “area” excavation formed in this manner.d What happens in practice, however, is that balk and trench become sacrosanct, an end rather than a means. I suspect the reason is not so much divine worship of the balk as of the almighty dollar. The Megiddo expedition found that even with Rockefeller funding, they could 027not afford to pare away the mound inch by inch beyond the first four or five levels. The quick trench satisfied their curiosity about the history of the mound at a much cheaper rate. Add economic to altruistic concern that future generations have something to excavate (no doubt they will improve on our techniques as we have improved on our predecessors) and ipso facto, you have a methodological commitment to a “trench with balks”, all properly drawn of course.
What Aharoni did, was to return to the Wheeler part of the Wheeler-Kenyon method, with a greater emphasis on the horizontal picture. What he represented, I think was someone with more time and money than the rest of us. Perhaps, too, he had a greater interest in the internal history of the mound, with or without the concern for a quicky look at the entire history of the site, albeit a limited one. He was right in that there are many places left for future excavators.
But complete horizontal excavations eliminates checking or correction on a particular mound. I would love to be able to check the top layers of Beth-Shean. But alas, they are gone forever. One notes in passing, Aharoni’s “courage of imperfection.” The advantage of removing the evidence is the increase of courage.
As W. G. Dever has pointed out, the Lilliputian excavation of minutiae works fine on small sites, on large ones that are being reexcavated and on excavations with limited objectives. It does not appear practical for really large areas or sites. The experience of Andrews University at Tell Hesbon may be instructive. In addition to the Wheeler-Kenyon type trench with balks (properly drawn of course!) they made a series of probes, using the same method, at strategic points around the mound, to investigate specific phenomena. The result was much detailed information from a significantly large area of the mound, while leaving more than enough of the site for our more advanced colleagues 25 or 50 years hence. Lateral expansion of squares also permitted extensive investigation of architecture.
I remain a devotee of the Wheeler-Kenyon method but hopefully will restrain myself from sanctifying the 5 meter square, the stratified trench, or the balk. May they be helpful without being eternal!
Anson Rainey’s eulogy to Yohanan Aharoni (“Yohanan Aharoni—The Man and His Work,” BAR 02:04) notes Aharoni’s refusal to “bow down and worship at the balk.”a As one who has helped remove more than one balk, I appreciate Aharoni’s flexibility. I note with interest too, his openness to new evidence and his refusal to waste energy perpetuating his own infallibility. Here is the continuing spirit of William Foxwell Albright. What really caught my eye, however, was Aharoni’s judgment against chopping up strata in a restricted space because this ruins the horizontal picture for future excavation. A review of near eastern […]