The Archaeological Pendulum

The Archaeological Pendulum

The Israel Museum has a wonderful archaeological wing that I love walking through, and I’m always discovering unnoticed artifacts that give nuance to our history. Recently I guided our shul group through this wing, and in the two hours we spent there I could barely touch on some of what I consider the “highlights”. It is fascinating to examine artifacts from the biblical periods (what archaeologists refer to as the Middle Bronze Age 2, Late Bronze Age, and Iron Age in this region, leading into the Classical period). It’s equally interesting for me as a tour guide to see the reaction of people to these artifacts, as I connect them to stories they may have read in the Tanach or sites they may have visited in Israel.

In truth, I try not to refer to biblical episodes as “stories”, as that implies fiction, whereas today it is widely accepted that many of these “stories” found their origins in historical events – at least from around 925 BCE (that’s when the Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq invaded Canaan… more on that later) – supported both by the archaeology we see here, as well as extra-biblical records found in places like the ancient cities of Assyria, Egypt and Persia. This surprises a lot of people who are used to thinking of the bible not as a source of history, but as a purely religious text (and therefore, for those who are not of faith, as complete fiction). 

At the same time, archaeology and its associated sciences have, over the last century and a half, presented some serious challenges to many biblical accounts, and we must always keep in mind that interpretation of archaeological discoveries is a fraught science – actually, more of an art that references science. To the archaeological outsider like me, the arguments over the historicity of the bible seems like a slowing pendulum; for a while the biblical archaeologists were ascendent, then the pendulum came rushing back to the opposing side (at the end of the 20th century), then it swung the other way again – but not all the way. The pendulum now seems to be settling in the middle – the events in the bible are not mere stories, but at the same time they should be understood and interpreted critically.

And sometimes, a discovery is made which could settle a matter… or not. The archaeological record is sadly strewn with lost opportunities for clarity, caused by reasons such as poor digging methodology, which was especially prevalent in early excavations of the last century. One of my favorite missed opportunities in this regard is the Shoshenq Stele, a fragment of which was uncovered at Tel Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley and can be currently found sitting in the courtyard of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.  A stele is essentially an inscribed stone slab, which records or commemorates an event. Without going into too much detail here, let me just say that Tel Megiddo is the archaeological epicenter for the arguments for and against the historicity of the biblical accounts of the United Monarchy under King David and King Solomon. Who built the palaces from the Iron Age in Tel Megiddo? Was it Solomon? Even more fundamentally: was there a Solomon? Or was it the later Omride dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel, perhaps Ahab? And how could the Shoshenq stele have helped solve this matter?

The story so far: Pharaoh Shoshenq I invaded the Land of Israel around the year 925 BCE, and kindly recorded the event for us on the walls of the Temple of Amon in Karnak, Egypt. Amongst the dozens of cities he conquered along his merry way, Megiddo is listed. In the Tanach (2 Chronicles 12 and 1 Kings 14), we have a record of the invasion of the Pharaoh Shishak during the reign of King Rehoboam, and if we examine the biblical chronology, we can also place it at about this time. So, accepting that Shoshenq and Shishak are one and the same (spelling differences can be attributed to dialects), we have a firm marker for this biblical/extra-biblical correspondence. Rehoboam reigned in 925 BCE, and he was, biblically speaking, the son of Solomon. We can therefore also date the Stele to the time of his conquest, perhaps erected to lord it over the remnant population.

Now, one of the main scientific methods applied by archaeologists is stratigraphy, borrowed from geology. This method looks at each layer of an excavation as relating to a single time period, piled up one over the other through time as a site was demolished and rebuilt. (At Tel Megiddo, there are about 30 layers, or strata, as they are known). Anything discovered in a particular strata has “context”. But how do they know the time period of a particular strata? Well, if they are lucky they’ll find a document, an inscription, a coin, or a piece of index pottery (pottery styles whose manufacturing dates are known, perhaps from another site) that can be used to assign a date.  Otherwise they may have to rely on historical accounts, like those of the  invasion of Shoshenq/Shishak.  

So the discovery of the Stele fragment at Megiddo in 1926 by archaeologists from the Chicago School of Oriental studies should have been a big thing. It would have let them date the stratum in which it was discovered to 925 BCE, which in turn would have let us know if the palaces in question were built before that date – by Solomon, perhaps (if the stele stratum was above it), or after that date, by Ahab, perhaps (if the stele stratum was below it). Unfortunately, the fragment was found in a pile of tailings from a previous excavation conducted at the turn of the 20th century by one Gottlieb Schumacher. It was not found “in-situ”, so apart from showing that Shoshenq/Shishak did indeed pass this way, it could not help us date the strata and answer the burning questions. But let’s not get too angry at Mr. Schumacher for this fashlah, as the stratigraphical method was new to the world of archaeology at the time, and this isn’t the only case of lost opportunities.  

Another minor example is the case of the Uzziah inscription we saw on display during the tour of the Israel Museum. This small tablet purports to mark the grave of King Uzziah, who ruled the Kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE.  Had it been discovered in-situ, it too would have helped us locate the tombs of the kings of Judah, and possibly even the tombs of David and Solomon. Alas, it was found in the 1930’s by the archaeologist Eliezer Sukenik (father of the Israeli politician and archaeologist Yigal Yadin) on a shelf in a store room of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives.

Today, archaeologists are somewhat more humble in their methodology.  They generally dig in loci of 5 x 5 meters, leaving a 1-meter wall between each, so that future generations of diggers, who may have better tools at their disposal, can return to the site for a better understanding by excavating that untouched 1-meter wall.

Archaeology provides fascinating insight to the past, but so far, it cannot provide many conclusions. It all makes you suspect that some higher power doesn’t want us to discover “truths”, but would prefer we continue to dig, consider and wonder.

What is left to each of us is to judge to what extent – if at all – biblical episodes (stories) are historical, whether they have been embellished, whether they reflect events that are strictly the acts of man, or involve a Deity, or perhaps even little green aliens (though I have a sneaking suspicion they may in fact be purple).  

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Ian Brown is a Jerusalem-based licensed tour guide. Born in Perth, Australia, Ian received a degree in Mechanical Engineering and then an M.B.A from The University of Melbourne, before moving to Israel in 1992. In May, he led members of his synagogue, Shir Hadash in Jerusalem, on a guided tour of the Israel Museum).

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