As an anthropologically trained archaeologist, I am often asked, “What does anthropology have to do with Biblical archaeology?” My response is usually a lighthearted, “not as much as it should.”
Anthropology and archaeology are, of course, distinguished by the vitality of their subject matter: Anthropologists concern themselves with the living, while archaeologists prefer the dead. For the past century, anthropologists have used a method based on participation and observation. This means that anthropologists partake in the daily life of their subjects, asking lots of questions both formally and informally. They do this while simultaneously maintaining a critical perspective (not in the negative sense), particularly regarding the structural and functional makeup of the society.
In contrast, archaeologists can neither live with their subjects nor interview them. All we have are clues from the past, which by themselves are highly skewed toward materials that have a long shelf life. Thus excavation reports include countless examples of ceramic vessels, stone objects and architectural foundations but very little clothing, wooden objects or organic foodstuffs.
That is why archaeology’s tie to cultural anthropology is so important. While archaeology extends the timeframe of human cultures into the distant past, anthropology provides valuable interpretive tools for archaeologists. The most important of these is that of ethnographic analogy. A basic definition goes something like this: the use of ethnography—the study of a living people—to infer how another group may have lived long ago. In other words, by looking at behavior observed among peoples in the modern era, archaeologists may draw a picture of what to expect from an ancient group that lived in a similar fashion.
This provides an extremely valuable resource to archaeologists and has been widely adopted. Open up a recent journal on Inca or Maya studies, peruse a monograph on early agriculture, or read about incipient civilization along the river valleys of the Indus, Yangtze, Nile or Euphrates. In all of these cases you will find that the archaeological remains have been interpreted in light of ethnographic analogies.
Yet Biblical archaeology has struggled to keep up. Because anthropology was not part of the initial fabric of the discipline—as it was in New World archaeology—it has been at best intermittently exploited (some exceptions include the work of Lawrence Stager of Harvard University,a Thomas Levy of the University of California, San Diego,b Avraham Faust of Bar-Ilan Universityc and Gloria Londond). Two decades ago, it seemed that this might change, particularly in interpretations of early Israel, but unfortunately most debates since then have focused on issues of proper dating and arguing over whether or not King David was a real king (again, through the prism of chronology, among other things). While these are indeed important issues, they have done nothing to bridge the two disciplines and have led to the relative isolation of Biblical archaeologists from the larger archaeological community.
I would certainly like to see this change. Those of us trained in anthropology need to do a better job advocating our anthropologically oriented interpretations. Students of Biblical archaeology should be encouraged either to major in anthropology or at the very least to include a cluster of such courses in their curricula. Conference organizers should continue to reach out to anthropological perspectives as ASOR (the American Schools of Oriental Research) has done in their sessions titled Theoretical Approaches to Near Eastern Archaeology. Once the conversation begins, anthropologists and Biblical archaeologists will discover that they have much to share with each other.
Let me conclude with an example from my own research. Recently I have been exploring ancient Israel through the lens of social and political complexity. While most Biblical archaeologists agree that Iron Age I Israel (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.; the period of the Judges) was a tribal society, there has not been much discussion on what that really means, that is, what kind of tribal society was ancient Israel?
To find out, I began by culling the anthropological literature on tribal societies, from “Big Man” to “acephalous” (literally, “without a head”) to 064 chiefdoms. I then used these paradigms to construct a model of how they might be identified in the archaeological record. Finally, I compared the actual archaeological record with my model. This has led me to conclude that Iron Age I Israel best fits the paradigm of a “Big Man” society.
In brief, “Big Man” societies generally correspond with small, autonomous, village-based agricultural communities. Good examples of “Big Man” societies are found in Melanesia and New Guinea where the typical village size is about 100 people. Leadership is informal and emerges out of achievement based on charisma, personality, etc.; it is not inherited. No one is considered inherently superior to anyone else, and this egalitarianism is manifest in uniform material wealth. The giving of gifts is important for establishing relationships and reciprocal obligations.
By using this ethnographic material, we give ourselves a new avenue for interpreting early Israel. That leadership was conceived of as informal during the period of the Judges is expressed most clearly in an episode concerning Gideon. After a successful campaign against Midian, the “men of Israel” specifically request that Gideon and his children become permanent leaders: “Rule over us, you, your son, and your grandson as well” (Judges 8:22). Gideon rejects the offer on behalf of himself and his children in the spirit that the “Lord alone shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23).
While this passage makes explicit that the Judges (shoftim) did not pass on their leadership from generation to generation, only the anthropological literature can inform us just how hard it is to be a leader when you have no formal authority. You have to beg, nag, harass and persuade people to do what you want. You have to be a good talker and patient and persistent. Your reward is the reward of leadership and no more. Yet these leaders emerge, and the rest of the people tolerate them, egg them on and benefit from their hard work.
This type of political organization can continue unimpeded for centuries, even millennia. But in certain circumstances, a threshold is crossed and a new type of leadership emerges, that of a chief who is given (or seizes) significant power and authority. How does this happen? We’ll just have to ask an anthropologist.
As an anthropologically trained archaeologist, I am often asked, “What does anthropology have to do with Biblical archaeology?” My response is usually a lighthearted, “not as much as it should.” Anthropology and archaeology are, of course, distinguished by the vitality of their subject matter: Anthropologists concern themselves with the living, while archaeologists prefer the dead. For the past century, anthropologists have used a method based on participation and observation. This means that anthropologists partake in the daily life of their subjects, asking lots of questions both formally and informally. They do this while simultaneously maintaining a critical perspective (not […]