The Middle West Branch of the American Oriental Society (AOS) has hit on a marvelous idea. Every couple of years, it devotes its annual meeting—a two-day affair—to a particular archaeological site that has produced an important ancient archive. Then the papers delivered at the meeting are collected in a published volume.
In 1979, the meeting was devoted to Ugarit, an ancient city on the Syrian coast that produced a 14th- to 13th-century B.C. cuneiform archive in a Canaanite language known to scholars as Ugaritic.a The book that resulted from that meeting, Ugarit in Retrospect, was published by Eisenbrauns in 1981.
In 1983, it was Mari’s turn. Located close to the Euphrates River in ancient Mesopotamia, Mari was a thriving center during the third and early second millennia B.C. The archaeological and epigraphical finds from Mari may illuminate the history of Hebrew origins and provide important data for Biblical research. The volume on Mari, Mari at Fifty, is expected out later this year.
The success of the Ugarit and Mari meetings led to this year’s symposium, now co-sponsored by the midwest branches of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research, in cooperation with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Chicago section of the Archaeological Institute of America. The topic was the great Egyptian site of Tell el-Amarna. Held at the Oriental Institute from February 1 to February 3, the el-Amarna symposium was nicely timed to commemorate the centennial of the discovery of the el-Amarna tablets in 1887, when a peasant woman, in the course of collecting mineral-rich soil for her garden, uncovered inscribed clay tablets.
Subsequent excavations revealed that the site was ancient Akhetaten, the capital of Egypt during the last 12 years of the reign of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled from 1377 to 1360 B.C. (see “The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh,” in this issue).
Over 380 texts including important pieces of diplomatic correspondence were ultimately recovered from Tell el-Amarna, mostly to—but four (file copies) from—the Pharaoh himself. His correspondents included petty rulers of city-states in Canaan, as well as major figures like the Babylonian king Burna-buriash II. Few archaeological discoveries reveal social and political conditions on the eve of Israel’s emergence as clearly as the el-Amarna tablets, written in the diplomatic lingua franca of the day, a Babylonian language scholars call Akkadian.
The site also proved rich in tomb art (44 tombs for Akhenaten’s nobles were found carved out of the adjacent hills), architecture, hieroglyphic inscriptions and statuary. The latter included the famous head of Akhenaten’s beautiful wife Nefertity that graces the cover of this issue of BAR.
How this head of Nefertity ended up in Berlin’s Agyptische Abteilung Staatlichen Museen was disclosed in personal reminiscences by the Oriental Institute’s Hans Güterbock, one of the world’s leading Orientalists. The Nefertity head was found in 1912–13 during excavations conducted by Ludwig Borchardt on behalf of the Deutsche Orient-Gessellschaft. Pursuant to an agreement with the Egyptian government, the finds of the dig were to be divided between the Germans and Egyptians, with the latter getting first choice. The Germans, however, did not show the Nefertity head to the Egyptians in its full beauty. As Güterbock remarked, “It should have been treated as a unique piece and left to Egypt.”
Knowing this, the Germans did not exhibit the piece for more than a decade. When the Egyptians finally saw the piece in Berlin they were naturally furious. Charging fraud, the Egyptians banned all German excavations in Egypt, not just those conducted by the Deutsche Orient-Gessellschaft.
Several efforts to negotiate a settlement failed. The last occurred during the Nazi regime. After Hitler came to power, the Egyptians renewed a previous proposal involving the return of the Nefertity head in exchange for other objects and permission to resume German excavations in Egypt. The deal was approved by the necessary Nazi authorities all the way up the line to and including Hermann Goering in his role as Prime Minister of Prussia. When Hitler was told of the arrangement and that Germany would lose the Nefertity, he nixed the deal: “The German nation does not give up what it has!” he said. That was the end of the matter.
During the war, the Nazis hid Berlin’s artistic and archaeological treasures at various sites outside the city to avoid their destruction by the Allies. By a stroke of luck, the Nefertity head was hidden in an area that fell to the Western Allies rather than to the Soviet Union. Otherwise, the head of Nefertity might now be displayed in East Berlin, or perhaps in Moscow.
The story has, in Professor Güterbock’s words, “a happy ending, at least for me.” In 1976, an archaeological exhibit of Egyptian antiquities in Germany included among its sponsors Anwar el-Sadat and the Egyptian directorate of antiquities. And Germans are once again permitted to excavate in Egypt.
Over 300 people, attracted not only by the subject of the symposium but also by the array of senior scholars who presented papers, registered for the el-Amarna conference in the Oriental Institute’s impressive Breasted Hall.
Among these senior scholars, in addition to Professor Güterbock, were Donald Redford of the University of Toronto; Cyrus Gordon of New York University; John Brinkman of the Oriental Institute; Keith Schoville of the University of Wisconsin (who is preparing an article for BAR on the el-Amarna tablets); Moshe Dothan of the University of Haifa; Trude Dothan of Hebrew University; James Muhly of the 061University of Pennsylvania; George Bass of Texas A & M University; Elisha Linder of the University of Haifa; Avner Raban of the University of Haifa; Robert Steiglitz of Rutgers University; David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University; Anson Rainey of Tel Aviv University; Israel Finkelstein of Bar-Ilan University; and Michael Astour of Southern Illinois University.
Professor Astour’s paper discussed the alleged philological relationship between the hapiru mentioned in the el-Amarna tablets and the word “Hebrews,” ‘ibr
Moreover, Astour concluded that the hapiru were not lawless elements outside society, but were Bedouin seminomads who infiltrated cultivated territory. This phenomenon has been observed for millennia in Near Eastern society, he said. Anson Rainey agrees with Astour that ‘ibr
David Ussishkin discussed the puzzling absence of fortification walls at major Canaanite cities in the Late Bronze Age—the period just prior to Israel’s emergence in Canaan. In the Middle Bronze Age, massive fortification walls buttressed by huge earthen glacis were common in Canaan. But despite intensive excavation, no Late Bronze fortification walls have been found at Hazor, Megiddo, Lachish or Gezer. The site of Gezer presents a special case. There, Gezer’s excavator, William Dever, now of the University of Arizona, and formerly director of the William F. Albright 062Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, contends that the famous outer wall of Gezer was in fact built in the Late Bronze Age, although it was re-used in the Iron Age.b His conclusion was disputed by a number of prominent archaeologists. So Dever went back to Gezer for a short season in 1984, specifically to determine the date of the construction of Gezer’s outer wall. Dever found what he considered decisive evidence that his earlier conclusion was correct. Ussishkin still disagrees, however. The outer wall at Gezer, Ussishkin believes, was most probably built much later, in the Iron Age. Dever’s recent excavation has also failed to convince a number of other archaeologists, including Bar-Ilan’s highly regarded Israel Finkelstein. According to Ussishkin, unquestioned Egyptian hegemony of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age accounts for the fact that fortification walls were not constructed at these sites in the Late Bronze Age.
Despite the intellectual excitement of the Tell el-Amarna symposium, serious program deficiencies left many participants frustrated and exhausted. Basically, the planners of the symposium started from the wrong direction. They began with the call for papers, instead of imposing a structure on the presentations. Virtually everyone who responded to the call for papers was allowed to present one.
The result: too many poor papers by junior scholars crowding out papers by senior scholars. Each presenter was given the same 25 minutes—whether Ph.D. candidate or a doyen. Many of the younger scholars were brilliant and well worth listening to; the next generation looks promising. But clearly they lack the scope and range of mature scholars who dominate their respective disciplines.
Because each presentation was limited to 25 minutes, there was rarely an opportunity for questions and never an opportunity for public discussion and exchange of ideas.
Because so many papers were accepted, they had to be presented back to back—55 of them in a 50-hour period. Some talks were given as early as 8:30 in the morning; others began as late as 9:35 p.m. Coffee breaks were limited to five and ten minutes; lunch to 55 minutes. With little charm, Oriental Institute director Janet Johnson “warned” the presenters in her brief welcome that the time limits would be observed “ruthlessly”—and they were!
The only real break in the 50-hour marathon was the presidential banquet at which retiring Middle West AOS President Gordon Young of Purdue University presented a thoughtful, ruminative talk on the broadest of subjects, “On History and the Ancient Near East.”
The program was deficient in another respect, probably also the result of organizing it on the basis of responses to the call for papers: There were no comprehensive papers framing the major sub-subjects of the conference. For example, not a single paper discussed the overall archaeology and history of excavation of el-Amarna.
Based on my experience at the conference, I am prepared to defend the proposition that no human being can sit through 55 lectures (excluding the banquet) in 50 hours. But I’m glad I tried. It was stimulating and insightful, even if grueling and exhausting. It would have been far better, however, if, instead of ruthlessly limiting the time of each speaker to 25 minutes, the sponsors had cut the number of papers by junior scholars; this would have allowed time for a variety of formats, including major addresses, panel discussions, papers with responses, and question periods, as well as time for a few more comprehensive papers providing everyone with a framework within which to place the more specialized papers.
The conference papers, edited by Barry Beitzel of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Gordon Young, will be published by Jim Eisenbraun. The effort in producing this volume will be enormous and the profession must be grateful to the editors. I was amazed to learn that Jim Eisenbraun will be able to publish a scholarly tome like this without a financial subvention—a tribute to the efficiency of free enterprise and to a dedicated entrepreneur.
The Middle West Branch of the American Oriental Society (AOS) has hit on a marvelous idea. Every couple of years, it devotes its annual meeting—a two-day affair—to a particular archaeological site that has produced an important ancient archive. Then the papers delivered at the meeting are collected in a published volume. In 1979, the meeting was devoted to Ugarit, an ancient city on the Syrian coast that produced a 14th- to 13th-century B.C. cuneiform archive in a Canaanite language known to scholars as Ugaritic.a The book that resulted from that meeting, Ugarit in Retrospect, was published by Eisenbrauns in […]