To archaeologists, the acronym ASOR is as well-known as MASH is to a generation of television viewers. ASOR stands for American Schools of Oriental Research.a It is the premier organization of professional American archaeologists whose scholarly interests focus on the Near East—what in other times might have been called the lands of the Bible.
In 1975, ASOR celebrated its 75th anniversary; shortly thereafter a handsome volume of symposium papers was published to mark the occasion, as befits an organization of scholars.
Now the recently retired president of ASOR, Philip J. King, has published an official history of the organization, entitled American Archaeology in the Mideast, A History of the American Schools of Oriental Research.b The title is no exaggeration, for American involvement in Near Easternc archaeology is largely the story of ASOR.
Today, ASOR is suffering from an identity crisis directly related to the Bible. King’s admirable book helps place that crisis in context.
No one is better equipped to write such a history than Phil King. Having served as president of ASOR for six years between 1976 to 1983 (the maximum two terms allowed by the organization’s rules), he is thoroughly familiar with the organization and its archives, as well as with the history of archaeology generally. He is a careful scholar—and a wonderful person, to boot. He is a man, so far as is known, without enemies. To someone unfamiliar with academic politics, this may not seem to be saying much. But those who know the terrain will find this a remarkable fact.d
King’s book is a mirror of the man—meticulous, detailed, encyclopedic and above all, diplomatic yet truthful.
King begins by describing the scene out of which ASOR grew, for Americans were involved in Near Eastern archaeology long before ASOR was founded in 1900. In 1838 and 1852 Edward Robinson of Union Theological Seminary in New York conducted his epoch-making explorations of Palestine and its environs. Together with his companion Eli Smith, another American, they correctly identified over 100 Biblical sites in two trips that together lasted only about seven months. Their tools consisted only of a compass, a thermometer, a telescope, measuring tapes—and a Bible, as well as a thorough knowledge of Arabic, in which modern names of villages preserved vestiges of their Biblical names. Thus, in the Arabic village named Seilun, they recognized Shiloh; and in Beitun, Bethel.
Interestingly enough, Robinson did not understand the nature of a tell, those mounds that dot the Near Eastern landscape and contain buried cities built up layer by layer. As a result, Robinson failed to identify such important Biblical sites as Jericho and Lachish.e But, as King points 077out, Robinson’s achievements are nevertheless reflected on every map of the Holy Land printed since his investigations.
In 1848, another American, U.S. Navy Captain William F. Lynch, made a scientific survey of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea (see Emmanuel Levine, “The United States Navy Explores the Holy Land,” BAR 02:04). The oft-stated fact that the Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below sea level was first established by Lynch.
Still another American, Frederick J. Bliss, directed excavations for two years in the early 1890s at Tel el-Hesi, succeeding the great Flinders Petrie (see Joseph Callaway, “Sir Flinders Petrie: Father of Palestinian Archaeology,” BAR 06:06). Tel el-Hesi was the first Palestinian mound to be scientifically excavated. While Petrie was unequaled as a pottery expert, Bliss excelled as a stratigrapher and carefully recorded and identified each successive stratum he excavated.
A number of foreign societies and missions also preceded ASOR into the field, including the German Society for the Exploration of Palestine, the École Biblique et Archéologique Française and the British Palestine Exploration Fund. There was even a short-lived American Palestine Exploration Society. Founded in 1870, it lasted only 14 years, however, “victimized,” King tells us, “by constant bickering among its members.”
ASOR, unlike the rest of us, has three rather than two parents—the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Oriental Society. In 1895 the SBL supported a resolution to found an American School of Oriental Research. The AOS endorsed the enterprise in 1896, and in 1898 the AIA, whose focus was largely classical archaeology, guaranteed an annual subsidy. Thus, in 1900 the American Schools of Oriental Research was founded. (Actually, the original name was American School for Oriental Study and Research in Palestine.) Even today each of ASOR’s three parent organizations holds a seat on ASOR’s board.
In the summer of 1900, shortly after its founding, ASOR’s first overseas institute was established in Jerusalem. In 1923, an institute was officially opened in Baghdad, and the organization became in fact the American Schools of Oriental Research.
Like the English horn, which is neither English nor a horn, ASOR’s name is something of a misnomer. “American” is inaccurate to the extent that Canadian institutions have long been members; recently even some European institutions have joined. The “Schools” referred to in the title do sponsor periodic lectures and seminars, but they seldom hold regular classes, so one may question whether they are schools in the ordinary sense of that term. Today, “oriental” means Far East, not Near East. And “research” is an accurate part of the name only if understood broadly to include archaeological excavations, field trips, and geographical surveys.
The name is also an awkward moniker, but it has been hallowed by time and is unlikely to change. As King correctly points out, ASOR’s overseas institutes are the “foreign arm of American higher learning.”
Today there are ASOR institutes in Jerusalem, Amman, and Nicosia; there are also hopes of establishing additional schools elsewhere. The Jerusalem school has been renamed the William F. Albright School of Archaeological Research, in honor of ASOR’s most brilliant luminary, who died in 1971. Each of these institutes is a center of scholarship and a local headquarters for American scholars, providing a broad range of support—libraries, hostels, scientific tools, field trips and money—for an equally broad range of scholarship—from field archaeology to Biblical studies.
Much of the history of ASOR necessarily consists of a catalog of the men who led it and the excavations, surveys and studies it has sponsored. Both the men (and a few women) and the projects they directed are most easily approached as one would go into a large party, looking over the crowd for familiar faces. They are all there the beloved Albright, his brilliance and breadth of knowledge dominating all; Nelson Glueck, the rabbi with a Bible, a spade and 078a kaffiyeh; Harvard’s earnest G. Ernest Wright, an unlikely but inspiring combination of theologian and ceramicist. The footnotes to history are also dutifully recorded; a paragraph each is devoted to Hinckley Mitchell, Robert Harper and Richard Gottheil, who have thus been immortalized. And all the digs are also there—Samaria, Ai, Gezer, Gibeon, Caesarea, Bethel, Dothan, Shechem, and on and on. Most are described in a paragraph or two.
A major theme that runs through this history is the improvement in archaeological methods—the development of ceramic typologies, stratigraphic excavation techniques, careful field recording of all aspects of excavation progress and, more recently, the specialized contributions of experts in disciplines like geology, osteology, and botany.
Modern archaeological method in the Near East is commonly denominated the Wheeler-Kenyon method, after Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Dame Kathleen Kenyon, troth British archaeologists. Their method consists of carefully excavating five-meter squares, removing the debris sequentially, stratum by stratum, and retaining a record of the strata in the walls of the square, which are known as harks or sections. King correctly points out that two brilliant American archaeologists, Clarence S. Fisher and George A. Reisner, anticipated the fundamentals of Wheeler-Kenyon, although, as King tells us, “Kenyon did not acknowledge the fact.” Albright considered Reisner “the father of the field-methods which revolutionized the practice of Palestinian archaeology.”
Another leitmotif that runs through King’s book is the effect of the turbulent political situation in the Mideast on ASOR’s archaeological endeavors. We hear, for example, about the time in 1970 when the “very stable and unflappable” Siegfried Horn, director of the Hesban excavation in Jordan, was caught in Amman in cross fire between the Jordanians and the PLO; he fled through the streets of the city, barely escaping unharmed.
Of more direct concern to ASOR as a responsible scholarly institution is the effect of politics on the scholarly enterprise. King’s (and ASOR’s) position is clear: ASOR must be politically neutral: “It is an unwritten law in the Mideast that archaeology and politics should never be mixed; when they are, it is always to the detriment of archaeology.” Thus, King criticizes Nelson Glueck for working during World War II for the United States Office of Strategic Services as an observer in Transjordan while conducting his archaeological surveys. ASOR’s declared policy of political neutrality, King tells us, “has permitted it to survive and even prosper amidst the political turmoil of the Mideast.” Almost surely, he is right.
King may also be right when he says that when politics and archaeology mix, archaeology is always the loser. But I confess to being troubled by this statement. King does not tell us whether there are limits to his doctrine. Yet there must be some. Some things, indeed, are more important than archaeology. I for one am not prepared to suggest what the limits are, but on the other hand, I don’t think they should be ignored. In each case, the question must at least be raised.
King apparently recognizes the individual archaeologist’s right to dig where he finds the politics congenial. He has no criticism for Paul Lapp, a brilliant young American archaeologist and director of ASOR’s Jerusalem school who became a strong supporter of the Arab cause; after the Six-Day War of June 1967 when the Jerusalem school became part of Israel, Lapp left to dig in Cyprus, rather than stay in Israel.f
Equally matter-of-factly, King records that between 1948 and 1967, when the Jerusalem school was in Jordanian hands, “the political reality excluded all Jews, not only Israelis, from East Jerusalem; ASOR members of Jewish background were, therefore, during that time ineligible for fellowship to the School in Jerusalem.” A fellowship was therefore set up for study in Israel.
For me, the problem goes deeper. Were I faced with the responsibility of deciding what to do in that situation, I might end up doing just what ASOR did, but I would also at least explore other avenues. I am troubled that an American organization of scholars excludes Jews from certain projects because of a requirement imposed by a foreign government.
King also tells us about the international committee that was set up to publish those Dead Sea Scrolls that were controlled by the Jordanian government. He does not discuss the disturbing fact that Jews were excluded from the committee, doubtless to avoid offending Jordanian sensitivities (For the same reason, ASOR avoided appointing Jews to the Board of Trustees of its Jerusalem school between 1948 and 1967.)
In the spring of 1980, the Jordanian government sponsored (i.e. paid for) an archaeological colloquium at Oxford University, with scholars in attendance from all over the world. King hails the conference as a great archaeological success. In connection with the conference, an international advisory board, including several ASOR scholars, was appointed. King recognizes that “archaeology as a scientific discipline can develop only to the extent that scholars collaborate continuously, regardless of national background.” But King does not record the fact that even important non-Jewish American scholars were left uninvited to this conference because they had excavated in Israel.g Only one Jew was invited to the conference, and he was a distinguished retired Keeper of the British Museum.
Perhaps King avoids discussing these matters because he is being diplomatic; it may not be in the best interest of ASOR to discuss things like this in an official history, especially because such a discussion would probably not change anything. Yet there are buried issues here that need to be aired.
At bottom, the concern is not simply that Jews will be offended by Arab exclusion. There is also a principle at stake, a moral issue. But the matter is even broader than this. For if we are to accept political realities, as King is prepared to do, we must also recognize the political reality that Biblical archaeology as such is frowned upon, to say the least, in Arab lands. Every practicing archaeologist knows that you downplay the Biblical connection when digging in Arab countries. As Yigael Yadin remarked in a recent BAR interview, in Syria, Biblical archaeology is “taboo”; it is “a dirty word” there (
In short, Arab politics, as a practical matter may not only exclude Jews from the archaeological enterprise, Arab political positions may also affect how archaeologists in Arab lands relate to the Bible.
Surely there are no easy answers to these problems. But it may be well to stop pretending they aren’t there.
Another matter relating to Biblical archaeology more directly concerns ASOR’s future. In some circles in ASOR, too, Biblical archaeology is a dirty word—not because of any anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiment, but for strictly professional reasons. King raises the issue more diplomatically and less explosively when he asks the question “Biblical Archaeology: An Anachronism?”
“For the past fifty years [King writes], the term ‘biblical archaeology’ has been accepted as an adequately descriptive term for the discipline that Syro-Palestinian archaeologists, especially those of American background, practice. As this enterprise has evolved, however, some feel that ‘biblical archaeology’ is no longer the best name for the discipline; others are convinced that the term is as accurate today as it was a half-century ago.”
ASOR’s roots are Biblical. ASOR was founded by people whose chief aim was to understand the Bible and the Biblical world. That is why they started a separate organization. They were not men of narrow compass, however; they understood “Biblical world” in the broadest possible terms. Nothing that happened in Near Eastern scholarship was irrelevant to their concerns. But their central focus, their central interest, was, nevertheless, the Bible and its setting. Within ASOR there is now a tremendous movement away from the Bible. This is a distinct change from what King refers to as “ASOR’s strong biblical orientation, especially during its formative years.”
But the change has been gradual, not sudden. Until recently, it created no problem. ASOR has been throughout its history remarkably respectful of a broad range of scholarship. The conservative scholar worked amiably beside the liberal. The textual critic shared space with the ceramic specialist. No one discouraged a scholar who wanted to explore new scientific opportunities—computers, neutron activation analysis or image enhancement photography—as applied to a scholarly problem. ASOR has been a congenial home to the prehistorian, to the geologist, to the scholar conducting a survey of Islamic monuments, to the specialist in Cypriote archaeology, as well as to the Biblicist.
The issue of Biblical archaeology, however, has introduced a new divisiveness. This divisiveness stems largely 080from a new intolerance. The intolerance is not among those whose central interest is the Bible, but among those whose central interest is no longer the Bible. Those whose central interest is the Bible are not trying to exclude those whose scholarly focus is elsewhere. Some current leaders of ASOR are, however, trying to delegitimize Biblical archaeology. And the tone of their rhetoric is becoming increasingly strident.
Biblical archaeology, we are told, is not even an academic discipline; apparently it is some kind of scholarly bastard. The term should be “abandoned,” says the leader of this movement, William G. Dever, a vice-president of ASOR. “We ought to stop talking about ‘biblical archaeology,’” Dever says, because “there probably is no such thing.” (See “Should the Term Biblical Archaeology Be Abandoned?” BAR 07:03).
It is perhaps not surprising that almost all the leaders of this movement had a strong religious upbringing that they have since rejected. Dever, for example, who refers to his own conservative heritage, expresses embarrassment that professional archaeologists who dig elsewhere in the world might dismiss a Biblical archaeologist as unprofessional.
Recently the level of the rhetoric has been raised still further. In an article in ASOR’s Bulletin, which Dever edits, Dever referred disparagingly to Biblical archaeology as “the amateur branch of our discipline.”h
It is unclear why Dever finds it necessary to engage in this kind of name-calling. Rhetoric like this does nothing but unnecessarily engender acrimony.
Nelson Glueck once paid tribute to the great Flinders Petrie in these words:
“All of us who are engaged in archaeological pursuits stand on the shoulders of men like [Petrie], who pointed the way which we follow today.”
By contrast, Dever seeks to disown his scholarly forbears. He would posthumously read them out of the profession. Even Albright himself is not spared. Although Dever purports to revere Albright as the founder of the school of “Biblical archaeology,” nevertheless, Dever tells us, “Albright was not an archaeologist”! This is as ridiculous as it is unnecessary.
By common acclamation, Albright was the greatest archaeologist of his age. Through his work, he was the teacher of us all.
Why, according to Dever, was Albright not an archaeologist? Because his “overriding concern was the Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting.” That concern is too “parochial” for Dever.
Dever also unfairly charges Biblical archaeologists with obstructing progress in archaeological theory and methodology developed in American archaeology in the 1970s.i
This is a false charge. Every archaeologist I know, whether Israeli or any other nationality, whether a Biblical archaeologist or a Syro-Palestinian archaeologist (which is the term Dever prefers) makes use of every method and technique that his time and money will allow. Of course, there are differences among archaeologists. Some are obviously better than others. It is also true that some use more advanced techniques and proceed on more advanced theories than others. But these differences exist among those who call themselves Biblical archaeologists and among those who prefer to be known as Syro-Palestinian archaeologists. These differences also exist among Israeli archaeologists as well as among American archaeologists. There is nothing intrinsic to Biblical archaeology that makes Biblical archaeologists less good or less advanced than Syro-Palestinian archaeologists.
The major development in Near Eastern archaeological method in the last 50 years has been, in Dever’s own words, the “hon[ing of] the tools of comparative ceramic typology and stratigraphy to a fine edge.” Here there was no resistance or rejection by Biblical archaeologists. Indeed, Biblical archaeologists were in the forefront of the advances.
Why does Dever charge Biblical archaeologists with resisting the advances of the 1970s, advances encapsulated by the term “new archaeology”? What evidence does he have to support this charge? He cites none, and I don’t believe he has any.
All manner of scholars studying the ancient Near East can live peacefully and productively within ASOR’s halls, which have been hallowed by the great scholars of the past on whose shoulders its present leaders stand. But ASOR will be a house divided if it disparages or excludes those whose chief interest is the Bible and who wish, under the rubric of Biblical archaeology or otherwise, to pursue that interest.
The methods and theory of the “new archaeology” are as welcome in Biblical archaeology as in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. All the innovations Dever often sensitively describes are as useful and valuable to the Biblical archaeologist as to the Syro-Palestinian archaeologist. There is room 081for both. The interests of the Biblical archaeologist are just as broad as those of the Syro-Palestinian archaeologist. Both want to learn everything they can about how ancient societies functioned.
Today, both the Biblical archaeologist and the Syro-Palestinian archaeologist welcome the advances that time has brought: sieving and flotation to recover minute remains like pollen samples and seeds, neutron activation analysis to establish the provenance of clays used in pottery, carbon-14 tests to date organic substances, surveys to provide information beyond the tell. Human bones are studied by specialists to understand ancient diseases and disease patterns; animal bones are studied to determine what people ate; the list could go on and on. In this respect, there is no difference between the Biblical archaeologist and the non-Biblical archaeologist.
Today, ASOR faces an identity crisis, but not because of its expanding interests. Its identity crisis stems from an intolerance by the new of the old—especially of the Bible and of the scholar whose principal focus is the Bible and its setting.
ASOR’s institutional schizophrenia was recently reflected in several votes related to ASOR’s semi-scholarly magazine, which to some of its leaders has the embarrassing title Biblical Archeologist. Some among them regard this title as too narrow and as inadequately reflecting ASOR’s expanding scholarly concerns. Others feel that such a title makes the journal inappropriate to publish reports on archaeology in Arab lands. An ad hoc committee appointed to study the problem unanimously voted to change the title of the journal to The ASOR Archaeologist. The matter then went to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. Only one member of the Executive Committee voted to retain the name Biblical Archeologist. When the matter came before the full Board of Trustees, however, most of these same people who had voted to change the name reversed their position and voted against any name change, a decision opposed both by ASOR’s new president and by Dever, both of whom find the name Biblical Archeologist inappropriate.
One restraining influence on ASOR’s present leadership is no doubt the fact that if ASOR goes too far, it may well lose its chief constituency. Nearly half of ASOR’s corporate members are theological seminaries. Very substantial financial support comes from donors who have a Biblical focus. In scholarly terms, this interest in the Bible is extremely broad ranging, but neither the seminaries nor the donors like to see Biblical archaeology disparaged, nor charged with obstructing archaeological progress.
Moreover, as ASOR moves away from its interest in the Bible, it becomes less distinguishable from the Archaeological Institute of America. Historically, the Archaeological Institute of America focused primarily on Greek and Roman archaeology. The AIA supported the creation of ASOR as an organization that would focus on the lands of the Bible. Today, the scholarly interests of both organizations have expanded. AIA’s archaeological interests are world-wide. ASOR’s archaeological interests extend from Iraq to Tunisia, from Turkey to Yemen. Once ASOR casts aside its special interest in the Bible, there would seem to be nothing to distinguish it from the AIA. If Dever’s views prevail, it may well be that the two organizations will eventually merge.
ASOR has had a great past and it will have a great future. It is likely to survive its present identity crisis and become stronger than ever. This is because in its sacred precincts there is ample room for scholars of every hue—for one who wishes to be called a Palestinian archaeologist, a Syro-Palestinian archaeologist, a Syrian archaeologist, a Jordanian archaeologist, a Near Eastern archaeologist, a prehistoric archaeologist, a plain archaeologist—or even a Biblical archaeologist. However, without open-handed tolerance of the scholar whose primary focus is the Bible, ASOR cannot thrive.
To archaeologists, the acronym ASOR is as well-known as MASH is to a generation of television viewers. ASOR stands for American Schools of Oriental Research.a It is the premier organization of professional American archaeologists whose scholarly interests focus on the Near East—what in other times might have been called the lands of the Bible. In 1975, ASOR celebrated its 75th anniversary; shortly thereafter a handsome volume of symposium papers was published to mark the occasion, as befits an organization of scholars. Now the recently retired president of ASOR, Philip J. King, has published an official history of the organization, […]