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Archaeology is the study of the remains of ancient civilizations, frequently as the result of systematic excavations. Archaeology is a relatively young discipline, the first excavations in Mesopotamia being those of the Frenchman Paul Emile Botta at Nineveh in 1842. The earliest discoveries in the Aegean area were those of the German Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in 1870 and at Mycenae in 1876.
Egyptian antiquities were introduced to Europe by Napoleon’s invasion in 1798, but most 19th-century activities in Egypt were undisguised treasure hunts and not archaeological excavations. At the end of that century the Englishman Flinders Petrie introduced order into the archaeology of Egypt. He was also the first to excavate in Palestine, in 1890 at Tell el-Hesi, 16 miles east of Gaza. Except for interludes forced by war, excavations have continued unabated in biblical lands.
In spite of a prevailing skepticism by scholars toward biblical documents in the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeology has provided a mass of evidence that as a whole confirms the reliability of the Bible. Where such supportive evidence is still lacking, it may yet be uncovered in future digs. Present archaeological data are but a small fraction of the ancient remains potentially available for study.
Surface Surveys. Many outstanding discoveries have been entirely accidental. At Ras Shamra in Syria a peasant’s plow struck a tomb that led to the ancient site of Ugarit. A Bedouin in search of a lost goat discovered the cave at Qumran which contained the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1887 an Egyptian woman found the Amarna tablets while seeking decomposed bricks for use as fertilizer. In 1945 Egyptians hunting bird manure in caves near Nag Hammadi discovered important Coptic Gnostic manuscripts.
Such chance finds, however, are no substitute for systematic surveys. In the Middle East, excepting Egypt, numerous tells, or artificial mounds of the remains of ancient cities, dot the countryside. Because of erosion, potsherds (broken pieces of pottery) can be found on the surface, especially in gullies down the slopes. An examination of such sherds can give an idea of the periods of settlement represented in the tell. Sometimes the variation of vegetation on the surface presents clues to structures below. Leonard Woolley discovered some graves by observing patches of weeds that grew in clumps which were never more than six feet across. The deep-rooted weeds were growing over graves that had broken up the soil.
The founder of modern surface exploration was an American, Edward Robinson, professor of biblical literature at Union Theologial Seminary, New York. Together with Eli Smith, a former student and missionary in Lebanon, Robinson made a pioneer survey of sites in Palestine in 1838. Yet Robinson did not recognize the true significance of tells, because his work preceded stratified excavations.
The greatest practitioner of surface archaeology was the indefatigable Nelson Glueck, late president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Glueck began surveys in the Transjordan in 1933 and continued them year after year (except for 1940–41) until 1947. In 1952, following the Arab-Israeli hostilities of 1948, he began systematic explorations of the Negeb desert area of Israel. He located over 1,500 sites, most of them previously unrecorded. Glueck used the Bible as his guidebook and recommended that others do the same. After reading Deuteronomy 8:9 he made his famous discoveries of copper-mining operations in the Wadi Arabah. Glueck’s explorations showed that there were pottery-producing settlements in the Negeb during the 20th and 19th centuries BC (Middle Bronze I), but not for a millennium before or after. His finding fits very well the period assigned on other grounds to the narratives of Abraham. He also discovered a break in sedentary occupation in the territory south of the Jabbok River between 1900 and 1300 BC. Since the biblical narrative implies opposition to the Israelites by settled communities in those areas, many scholars, therefore, put the conquest of the Promised Land in the 13th century BC, when there were such communities.
However, a number of discoveries have been made recently in Transjordan of materials from the Middle Bronze (2000–1500 BC) and Late Bronze (1500–1200 BC) periods, which may require us to qualify those conclusions somewhat. In Israel important surveys have been carried out by Saarisalo in Lower Galilee, leading to the discovery of ancient trade routes, and by Yohanan Aharoni in Upper Galilee, bringing to light the patterns of Israelite occupation. Such surveys covering broad areas can show trends that are not always reflected in the main centers, which are the usual targets of excavation.
Between 1965 and 1968 more than 500 new sites were discovered in surveys of the Negeb and Sinai regions. The Israeli surveys of 1967–68 examined the Golan Heights, Samaria, and Judah. All told, close to 2,000 sites were examined, of which 800 were previously unknown. One important result of the survey of Judah is growing recognition that the biblical site of Debir (Jgs 1:11) should be located at Tell Rabud, south of Hebron, instead of at Tell Beit Mirsim, a site excavated by W. F. Albright.
Identification of Sites. Identification of biblical sites is based on several considerations: topographical mention in the Scriptures; in some cases, retention of biblical names; and correspondence of archaeological evidence with the known history of the site. A number of sites have been continuously occupied and have retained their biblical names. Such is the case, for example, with Taanach, Jerusalem, Bethel (in the form Beitin), Gaza, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. Sometimes the ancient name has been retained not on the tell itself but at another site in the vicinity. Ancient Beth-shan, Tell el-Husn, is located 1,600 feet north of modern Beisan. Tell Beersheba is three miles from the modern town. In Byzantine times the name of biblical Beth-zur migrated to a new site at Beit Sur. The village of Jeba lies two miles to the east of Tell el-Ful (biblical Gibeah). The fact that there were two Jerichos, OT Jericho at Tell es-Sultan and NT Jericho about a mile south, may explain the apparent contradiction between Mark 10:46 and Luke 18:35 (which describe Jesus approaching Jericho) and Matthew 20:29 (which describes him leaving Jericho) at the time he healed Bartimaeus and his companion.
There are a few situations where inscriptions from the site identify its name, as at Carchemish in Syria and Naukratis in Egypt. André Parrot at Tell Hariri found a statue with the name of the king of Mari. In Anatolia the sites of Derbe and Lystra were identified by inscriptions found on the surface. The name Lachish appeared on one of the ostraca (pottery fragments) found at Tell ed-Duweir. At el-Jib, James Pritchard found two dozen jar handles bearing the name Gibeon. Aharoni discovered a bowl at Arad with the name Arad inscribed seven times on it. Often sites can be identified only with varying degrees of probability, such as Tell en-Nasbeh as Mizpah and Tell el-Ful as Gibeah. Others cannot be identified at all.
Excavations. In Israel the chances are that excavations will be carried out at a biblical site and will be limited to a tell of such size that the areas worked can be excavated to bedrock. Since in most cases the interest centers on the earlier periods, excavators will usually avoid a tell that is covered with a great depth of modern, Muslim, and Byzantine materials. In the early days of archaeology such material was often “disemboweled” and dumped aside. Today the excavator must first deal with the top and later levels before getting to the lower and earlier strata.
Once a site for excavation has been selected, the first step is to secure permission from the country’s department of antiquities. The department must be satisfied that the excavators are professionally competent, that they have the necessary resources, and that they will publish their reports with reasonable promptness. The various antiquities laws specify that the ownership of land does not mean ownership of any antiquities that are in the land—they belong to the nation.
An area to be excavated is either purchased, as at Megiddo and Dothan, or more usually rented for the requisite periods, with the understanding that the land, if used for crops, will be restored to its former condition and the owners compensated for destroyed crops. In some cases, as at Beth-shan, the land is already government property. Renting the property is often complicated by the fact that small areas of land can be owned by many families. In the case of Tell el-Ful an area of less than two acres was owned by no fewer than 66 people. They first demanded 400 Egyptian pounds. Albright finally settled for seven Egyptian pounds. Rarely, an owner will donate the land outright. Cyrus Gordon described such an occurrence in Iraq: “We were very fortunate in the case of Tepe Gawra, for it was the property of an enlightened Moslem of Mosul who donated it to the expedition for the sake of science.”
The cost of financing excavations varies greatly. At one extreme was the luxury of the Chicago expedition at Megiddo with a budget of 16 million dollars. At the other extreme was the fabled austerity of Petrie’s camp. He and his assistants spent only $1.20 a week for provisions, and his crew of laborers cost $140 a week (at the end of the 19th century). Margaret Murray recounted that on Petrie’s expeditions one ate the sardines from tins and then the tins themselves.
Inflation has affected the cost of archaeology as it has everything else. In the mid-19th century Henry Layard paid his workers two and a half pence a day. At the end of the 19th century the first American expedition in Mesopotamia at Nippur paid ordinary workmen 12 cents a day. In 1932 Max Mallowan at Arpachiyah was paying one shilling per day; in 1949 at Nimrud he paid three shillings per day. Before the end of the expedition at Nimrud in 1963 the rate had doubled. In 1968 workers in Jordan were receiving the equivalent of $1.50 per day. In the 1968 excavations at Jerusalem, Israeli workers were receiving 10 lira per day ($2.80).
An additional expense is the payment of baksheesh, a reward given to workers for special finds. Some excavators give baksheesh to workers as an incentive to keep their eyes open for objects and also to keep them from pocketing small artifacts for sale to dealers. Others are sharply opposed to what Mortimer Wheeler called “bribed honesty” and counsel instead constant supervision to prevent theft. But Kathleen Kenyon, who was opposed to baksheesh, reported that in spite of the careful supervision of her excavations at Jerusalem, some inscribed weights suspiciously similar to those found in her trenches appeared in a Jerusalem shop.
Kenyon recorded her expenses for her work at Jericho from 1952 to 1958: “Seven seasons cost $84,610, or an average of $12,087 for a season of about three months of work involving a staff of about two dozen [trained people].” Her excavations at Jerusalem ran up to about $30,000 per season, subscribed by 43 universities, museums, and societies, including the British Academy.
In the past some funds often came from wealthy patrons, such as John D. Rockefeller and Sir Charles Marston. Jacob Schiff donated $60,000 to the Harvard University project at Samaria. In the 19th century, individual subscribers in Britain supported the Palestine Exploration Fund and the Egypt Exploration Fund. In recent years the United States has begun to use the so-called “counterpart” funds for excavations. These are funds for surplus American goods paid for by foreign countries but kept in those countries for developmental or cultural projects.
Along with securing the necessary funds the director must assemble a staff of trained supervisors and a work crew of laborers. Some of the workers from particular villages in Egypt and Iraq have worked so long at various excavations that they are almost a skilled craft guild. The number of workmen should be limited to the number that can be supervised adequately. In the early history of archaeology large numbers were employed without much supervision: about 300 workers at Khorsabad in 1843–44; 600 workers at Kuyunjik (Nineveh) in 1874; and an average of 200–250 workers at Babylon from 1899 to 1917. One site in Palestine in the early 20th century witnessed the use of 1,300 workers with only one supervisor present.
Workmen are usually divided into pickmen who break up the soil, hoemen who save the sherds and then scoop up the earth in baskets, and basket carriers who take the earth away. At Jerusalem in the deep trenches Kenyon used a crew of 2 pickmen, 2 to 4 hoemen, and 40 to 50 basket carriers for a given area. In modern excavations trained supervisors are generally responsible for a plot about 16 feet square. In addition, specialists on the staff work as recorders, architects, photographers, surveyors, draftsmen, and pottery restorers.
The digging season varies from a short period of 2 weeks to a lengthy season of 6 months. The rainy season in the winter curtails activity. Most expeditions take place in the summer for the convenience of participating professors and students. Exceptions include places like Jericho or Susa that are unbearably hot in the summer. Kenyon dug at Jericho from January to April.
The average workday is strenuous, beginning early in the morning after a cup of coffee, with perhaps a short break for breakfast, and continuing until lunch. At Tel Anafa the present writer worked from 6 a.m. until lunch, with a short break at 8:30 for breakfast. After lunch we washed pottery until 3 p.m. At the Israeli excavations in Jerusalem we began at 7 a.m. and continued until 3 p.m., with a short mid-morning break from 10 to 10:30 a.m. The work of the supervisors and directors continues long into the night after the workmen have retired. At Hazor the workday for the staff began at 5 a.m. and did not end until 10 p.m.
Tools of the Trade. Although the spade has become the symbol of archaeology, it is actually used very little in excavations. Picks are utilized to break up the soil, and large, oversized hoes scoop up the dirt into gufas (baskets made from old rubber tires). For finer work a patish, or small pick, is used, together with a trowel and a brush. Also essential are meter sticks, levels, strings, tags, and labels for measuring and recording.
Modern technology has produced an instrument called a magnetometer, which can be used to measure variations in the magnetism of the earth. Such variations, called anomalies, are indications of buried walls and other structures. Beginning in the late 1950s, effective use of the magnetometer together with a reverse periscope and camera enabled Carlo Lerici to find and investigate hundreds of buried Etruscan tombs in Italy. Lerici was able to find a tomb with the magnetometer; then, by drilling a hole and inserting a reverse periscope with affixed camera and light, he was able to see whether a tomb was painted and thus worth excavating. At a tomb where a graffito read “Giovanni, 1947,” robbers had obviously been there ahead of the archaeologists.
In the exploration of the Bar Kochba caves north of Masada in 1960–61, Yigael Yadin used a mine detector with success. The magnetometer was used to a great extent in Israel in the 1964 survey of Hebron by Philip Hammond. The rocky nature of the hill country limits the usefulness of such a device in the Holy Land, but Hammond reported some success in locating caves.
Aerial photography is another promising technique. In the recent Israeli survey of the Golan Heights, aerial photography detected a large field of thousands of dolmens (monuments) and a large Stonehenge-like circle of basalt stones. A further development of aerial photography is the use of ultraviolet and infrared film. At Sybaris the U.S. Air Force, which took pictures of the site, found that the best pictures were made by using infrared film at altitudes under 5,000 feet.
Stratigraphical Excavations. With the exception of briefly occupied sites like Khorsabad in Assyria or Qumran in Palestine, most ancient cities have left their remains behind in the stratified mounds called tells. Since there was a limited number of places that could be easily defended and that were near to water, trade routes, and fertile land, the same sites were reoccupied even after being destroyed by invading armies. Further, mud brick, the most common building material in many areas, seldom lasted more than a generation. In addition, the ancient housewife solved her house-cleaning chores by covering over litter with a new dirt floor. Such processes would raise perceptibly the level of a city. The debris would be kept in a compact shape by the city wall.
The height of accumulated debris could become considerable. In Mesopotamia the tells range from 56 feet at Kish up to 140 feet at Tell Brak. In Palestine the depth of debris at Jericho is about 60 feet; at Beth-shan and Megiddo about 70 feet. Tell es-Sa ‛idiyeh in Transjordan towers 138 feet above the surrounding plain. As the tells grew higher, however, the slopes became steeper and the living area on the crown became smaller. Tepe Gawra in Mesopotamia was finally abandoned in the 15th century BC after some 20 levels had contracted the top to an area large enough only for a watchtower.
Since only limited areas can be excavated, the director needs to select strategic spots to place trenches. An exploratory trench may be dug into the flank of the mound to give an overview of the strata to be encountered. The walls of the city must be located. The gate of the city was usually placed where the approach to the mound was gradual. The main road from the gate would lead to important structures, such as a palace. An elevation may indicate the position of a citadel or temple.
The levels characterized by major rebuilding are known as strata, whereas minor alterations are known as phases. The strata are numbered in Roman numerals from the latest, or topmost, down. Since successive strata are not deposited at a uniformly level rate over a flat surface, absolute heights above sea level are useful in plotting but are not chronologically meaningful. Added complications arise from intrusions. Very often buildings have their foundation trenches cutting into earlier levels. It is highly desirable that the areas excavated should, if possible, be tested down to bedrock or to virgin soil. When the water table is reached, however, the entire trench turns quickly into a quagmire. Sometimes it is possible to dig deeper with the aid of pumps.
The general practice today is to dig in areas about 16 feet square, separated from other squares by earth partitions called balks. The faces of these balks are kept as perpendicular as possible so that the various strata can be detected and tagged. In one small area of the square the supervisor will dig a probe trench so that excavators can anticipate the levels to be encountered.
Work must proceed carefully; when a special object is found, its exact location and level are recorded. Ordinary sherds are placed in carefully labeled buckets for washing and examination later.
It is necessary to sift the soil only when small objects such as coins are expected. Bronze coins appear as tiny spots of green in the soil. On one exceptional day in the Mazar excavations in the Jerusalem temple area we found almost 100 coins by sifting the dirt. In that excavation 19,000 coins were found in the first three years (1968–70). At Masada, Yadin had close to 50,000 cubic yards of soil sifted so that the excavation could recover hundreds of coins, scores of inscriptions on pottery, and tiny pieces of jewelry.
The Kenyon-Wheeler Methods. The older (Fisher-Reisner) methods of analysis included the careful recording of objects and of building levels. Improved methods were developed by Mortimer Wheeler from his experiences in India and were introduced into Palestine by his disciple, Kathleen Kenyon, during her work in Samaria in 1931–35 and at Jericho in 1952–58. The newer methods require the careful cutting of balks and minute analysis of different types of soils that appear in the balks.
A given stratum should include not just the floor level but the fill associated with it both above and below. A further principle is that one digs down not by predetermined levels but by layers of the same soil, no matter how uneven they may be. In contrast, the French excavated Byblos in a series of rigidly horizontal 8-inch layers without regard for the irregular contours of the site. Another insight of the Wheeler school is the rule that one must not dig along the line of a wall but at right angles to it to determine the relationship of the wall to the deposits.
Although the insights of Kenyon and Wheeler have been adopted in subsequent excavations, their methods are best fitted for small, limited operations where sizable architecture is not present. Such careful analysis demands a large staff and is time-consuming.
Sherds and Bones. The most common objects to be found in all excavations are pieces of broken pottery in enormous quantity. Petrie estimated that during his work in Egypt he had looked at about 3 million pieces. Pritchard estimated that four seasons at Gibeon produced in excess of 200,000 sherds. Of 145,000 sherds washed in the first season at Dothan, Joseph Free recorded 6,000 pieces.
From time to time animal bones are encountered. In view of the Hebrew prohibition against eating pork, it is interesting that pig bones have been found in an underground sanctuary dated to the 18th–16th centuries BC at Tell el-Far’ah, north (Lv 11:7, 8; cf. Is 65:4; 66:3, 17). Pig bones that were pierced and hence may have been used by the Canaanites in divination or as amulets were found at Megiddo and Taanach.
The most extraordinary assemblage of human and animal bones was found on the northwest slope of Lachish, from the carnage of either the Assyrian attack of 701 BC or a later Babylonian attack. From 1,500 to 2,000 bodies had been dumped into an old tomb through a hole in the roof. Over the mass of human bones was thrown a layer of animal bones, mostly of pigs. Pagan soldiers who ate pork may have purposely scattered the pig bones to desecrate the Jewish remains.
Human skeletons can sometimes provide medical information. Three of the Lachish skulls had been trephined (that is, holes had been cut into their skulls, perhaps to cure headaches). A female skeleton from a Byzantine-Roman grave at Heshbon revealed that the woman had died from a chest tumor, the calcified remains of which were about the size of an ostrich egg. The height of a population at a given time may be guessed from skeletons. Jothams-Rothschild concluded from skeletons found in the tombs of the Herodian period that the average Jew of that day was quite short, about 5 feet 3 inches tall.
In 1968 Israeli archaeologists discovered the first indisputable physical evidence of a victim of crucifixion. While clearing ground for apartments in northeastern Jerusalem at Giv ‛at ha-Mivtar, builders found a number of cave tombs containing ossuaries with redeposited bones. One of the ossuaries contained the bones of an adult male and a child. It was inscribed in Aramaic with the name Yehohanan. The man’s calcanei, or heel bones, were still pierced by an iron nail; his calf bones had been broken. Nails had also pinioned his forearms. His crucifixion may have taken place during the census revolt led by Judas of Galilee in ad 6–7 or at some time before the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in ad 66. After the latter date there would have been no opportunity for the Jews to rebury the bones so carefully in an ossuary.
Works of Art. Artistic representations are an important source of information. They give us an understanding of many items that have otherwise perished. Pictures from Egypt and reliefs from Assyria are our primary sources of information about military weapons. Art works sometimes portray historic events, the most valuable example being the relief of Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish in 701 BC, now in the British Museum. It is particularly noteworthy because we have no account of that important siege in Sennacherib’s annals. The famous Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III portrays King Jehu of Israel (or his servant) prostrating himself before the Assyrian king.
Most human and animal figurines, such as the common nude figurines of Astarte, were probably made for cultic purposes. From Beth-shan came figurines and scarabs of lions, dogs, gazelles, hippopotami, asses, pigs, elephants, crocodiles—all of which may have emanated from the cult of Nergal-Mekal-Set.
The inhabitants of Gibeon incised sketches of wild birds or chickens on their cooking pots. On three potsherds from Gibeon were incised six-pointed stars, the so-called “star of David.” Before the six-pointed star was found on a masonry block from Megiddo, many scholars believed that the symbol dated from the Middle Ages.
Paintings of birds, fish, and animals in red and black on pottery from about 1500 BC have been attributed to a single Canaanite painter from Tell el-Ajjul, who has been called Palestine’s first artist. A unique piece of painted pottery was found at Ramat Rahel. The fragment has a drawing in black and red of a bearded man with curled hair who was probably a king. The style is similar to that of 8th- or 7th-century BC Assyrian ware, but the drawing was made by a local artist.
Ivories have been found at Samaria, appropriately in view of the references to Ahab’s “ivory house” (1 Kgs 22:39). They are the remnants of “beds of ivory,” ostentatious show-pieces of the wealthy (Am 6:4). At Nimrud, Mallowan found thousands of ivory pieces, including master carvings which had been preserved in the mud of very deep wells.
Large statues in the round are most rare from early Palestinian levels. Two complete statues and remains of two others dated to 800 BC from the Amman citadel are about the only freestanding large statues of that early period made by native craftsmen. In the Hellenistic-Roman period statues of pagan deities and of rulers became common in the largely gentile cities such as Sebaste and Caesarea.
Many small seals bear not only important inscriptions but also fine artistic representations. The seal of Shema found in 1904 at Megiddo, dated to the time of King Jeroboam II of Israel (793–753 BC), has a magnificent engraving of a roaring lion. The seal of Jaazaniah found at Tell en-Nasbeh and dated about 600 BC is interesting because of its representation of a fighting cock. Since cocks are not mentioned in the OT, it was formerly believed that they were not known in Palestine until Hellenistic times.
In a few places small plans of buildings or of cities have been found. The actual form of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon was determined from a depiction of the gate found on a gold plaque bearing an outline plan of the citadel. The underwater expedition at Caesarea found a small coin or medallion with a representation of the harbor. In the design the entrance to the port is flanked by round towers surmounted by statues; arches border the jetty on either side of the towers.
The problem of Jewish art in the Roman period is a complex one. In the 1st century BC, it seems that in Jewish areas even Herod the Great was reluctant to offend the sensibilities of the Jews concerning representations of the human form. Thus the mosaics at Masada have either geometric or plant motifs.
Coins. Metal objects vary greatly in their preservation. Gold objects are the best preserved. Silver is usually covered with black tarnish, bronze with a greenish patina. Iron rusts very badly, at times to a reddish powder. Of objects made of metal the most valuable for a variety of reasons are coins, which are usually made of silver, copper, or bronze.
The invention of coinage is traditionally attributed to King Gyges of Lydia in the 7th century BC. It was then introduced to the Greeks about 600 BC. In the middle of the 6th century Peisistratus, a tyrant of Athens, began the practice of stamping the head of Athena on one side of a coin and an owl on the other—emblems that became widespread with the imitation of Athenian coinage in the 5th century BC.
From Palestine two coins of the 6th century BC have been published, including a coin from Thasos found at Shechem. In 1960 an Athenian coin from the time of Peisistratus was found on the surface in a suburb of Jerusalem. Three imitations of Attic coins from the 5th century BC have come from Samaria, and a fourth example from Beth Zur.
From the 4th century BC we have an interesting group of YHD or “Yehud” coins. They were minted during Persian rule over Judah and indicate a measure of autonomy given to the local Jewish rulers. The best-known examples are minute silver coins bearing the figure of the Athenian owl and inscriptions in Hebrew script. One particular Yehud coin, now in the British Museum, portrays a male divinity seated on a winged wheel.
The coins mentioned in the OT and NT were mainly foreign coins. Truly Jewish coins, an indication of autonomy, are rare except for coins of the Hasmoneans, to some extent those of the Herodians, and those of the two great Jewish revolts.
The “penny” brought to Jesus (Mt 22:19 kjv) was a denarius, probably of Tiberius or possibly of Augustus. That Roman silver coin, which weighed about ⅛ of an ounce, is the coin most often mentioned in the NT. It was the standard wage for a day’s work for a laborer and also for a Roman soldier (Mt 20:2). The drachma was a Greek silver coin about the same weight as that of the Roman denarius. The coin mentioned in Matthew 17:24 was probably a double drachma, a half-shekel silver coin of Tyre. A half-shekel was due from every Jewish man as an annual contribution for the support of the temple. The stater found in the fish’s mouth (Mt 17:27) was worth four drachmas and was probably a Tyrian shekel. The widow’s mite or lepton (Mk 12:42; cf. Lk 12:59) was a diminutive bronze coin about 1/20 of an ounce.
Dating of Objects. One of the chief values of coins is the aid they may provide in dating levels of an excavation. Of course, coins, especially gold and silver issues, may be kept and used for some time, a factor that must be considered. The “heirloom” concept also applies to seals and amulets. Excavators at Beth-shan were misled in dating their levels because they did not recognize this principle. Gordon found an ancient seal at Tepe Gawra which had been treasured and kept for 1,500 years.
Apart from the discovery of written texts and the association of destruction levels with historical events, the primary means of dating levels has been the comparative typology of pottery. When a certain type of pottery can be dated, as from the known occupation dates of Masada, similar examples of such a type can usually be assigned to the same date. At Masada was found a rare example of a jar dated precisely to 19 BC by the inscribed name of the Roman consul. Paleography, or the comparative typology of handwriting, may also be used to establish relative dates.
Most OT dates are secured by synchronisms with the chronologies of Egypt and of Mesopotamia, where quite accurate lists of kings and their reigns were kept. Some of those dates can be determined by the precise fixing of astronomical observations made in antiquity.
In biblical archaeology the following chronological periods are observed:
Early Bronze Age
Middle Bronze Age
Late Bronze Age
63 BC–ad 323
In recent years radiocarbon dating, first developed by W. F. Libby, has been used to date organic material. It is based on the fact that living creatures take in the radioactive isotope carbon-14 as well as carbon-12 from the atmosphere in a known ratio. Carbon-14 breaks down into nitrogen-14 at a known rate of decay. The ratio of carbon-14 remaining (after decay) to the carbon-12 (which does not decay) can be used to determine approximately how long ago the organism died (and thus stopped taking in carbon-14).
Radiocarbon dating seems to correspond quite accurately with Egyptian dates back to 2000 BC, but beyond that it seems to give dates that are too recent. One factor interfering with the results may have been a change in the earth’s magnetic field. When radiocarbon dates are reported, a plus-or-minus figure called the standard deviation indicates the margin of error.
New Scientific Techniques. New scientific tools and methods are being used in other aspects of archaeology besides surveying and dating. A University of California physicist, Luis Alvarez, set up a spark chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza to trace the paths of cosmic rays called muons. A computer was used to record the data. By this method Alvarez hoped that he might locate any undetected passageways in the pyramids. Unfortunately he found none.
A computer is being used by Ray W. Smith of the University of Pennsylvania Museum to reconstitute the thousands of pieces of a temple of Akhnaton that had been dismantled by Akhnaton’s successors. More than 35,000 sandstone blocks have been collected. As each is photographed, its characteristics are recorded on an IBM card. As the project progresses, the cards are fed into a computer to enable the archaeologists to make an accurate reconstruction.
A remarkable method called photogrammetry has made it possible to reproduce Egyptian bas-reliefs. Two stereoscopic photographs are taken of a relief. Contour lines are then plotted from the photographs. The contour plotting is then placed in a pantograver, a special device which follows every detail of the stereoscopic plotting and reconstitutes the relief on a block of plaster. The reproductions are accurate to a 50th of an inch.
The Value of Archaeology. In the period since 1843 a great deal of information has been acquired about the history, religion, and culture of the ancient world. While there is much still to be learned, the discoveries have enabled us to formulate a background of events and people against which the various scriptural narratives can be realistically set. Archaeology does not attempt to prove the “truth” of the Bible, if only because spiritual matters have to be discerned spiritually. It does show, however, that those who recorded the scriptural accounts of life in antiquity were responsible persons, writing carefully about familiar situations. The rediscovery of actual sites mentioned in the narratives puts the material in proper historical perspective, while the recovery of artifacts from the everyday life of the people gives legitimacy to their existence. By understanding the archaeological background we begin to see more clearly the life situation in the ancient world, and this enables us to appreciate better the way in which God’s plan of salvation was rooted in historical processes.
by Edwin M. Yamauchi