What archaeology tells us about the Bible
A contentious dig in Israel delves into the kingdoms of David and Solomon, stirring a debate over the veracity of the biblical record.
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But archaeologists are not. To a certain extent, they are storytellers, who fill in the gaps with interpretation. Many are trained in additional fields, such as history, ancient languages, or religious studies, that allow them to explore and hypothesize well beyond the bounds of artifacts and methodical measurements.Skip to next paragraph
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That's especially true of the early United Monarchy period, before there were coins or seals with people's names on them that could be used to verify dates, says Eric Meyers, a religion professor and biblical archaeologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "There is always an interpretive jump that is made by individuals, and you have to be wary of who's doing it and what they're doing with it."
To be sure, archaeologists working in Israel have developed sophisticated techniques for piecing together ancient history, such as dating certain layers based on pottery shards or on events such as a catastrophic fire.
Picking apart the layers and cataloging the finds is a painstaking process – and carries a note of finality. Once the wheelbarrows of dusty brushes and trowels, the tent stakes and faded canopies have been carted away, and the boxes of discoveries carefully cataloged, there is little recourse if other archaeologists or experts question the findings.
"In experimental science, usually there is a way to rehearse the experiment, to redo it, to rerun it," says Finkelstein. "In archaeology there is no rerun because we destroy our own experiment."
One improvement in recent decades is more-precise carbon dating, which calculates the age of organic matter based on the extent of radioactive decay. But the accuracy of such techniques is still only good to within about 30 years – similar to the gap that remains between Finkelstein's low chronology and the more conservative high chronology.
"The debate around radiocarbon dating, after we invested a lot of money and effort in [it], is whether ... it is refined enough to really resolve such a problem," says Dr. Mazar of Hebrew University, who is widely respected by archaeologists on both sides of the debate. "And that's a big question."
So even after all the painstaking spade work, after all the precise measurements and GPS calibrations, archaeologists are left with only a partial narrative. How they fill in the rest of the story about people who trod the ground here 3,000 years ago is where the interpretation – and controversy – comes in.
"Good scholars, honest scholars, will continue to differ about the interpretations of archaeological remains simply because archaeology is not a science, it is an art," William Dever, a biblical archaeologist, once wrote. "And sometimes it is not even a very good art."
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The dig at Qeiyafa is not likely to be mistaken for an "Indiana Jones" movie. There's no one strutting around with swagger and derring-do. No one is carrying a curled-up bullwhip on the hip, though codirector Saar Ganor does have a pistol tucked in his pants. Instead, the scientists and volunteers from Israel and the United States, trowels, brushes, and shovels in hand, toil patiently among the ancient walls on the last days of an excavation that began in 2007.
And then there's Garfinkel, passionate but unassuming, moving among the ruins in his red baseball cap. The avuncular archaeologist is more accustomed to obscurity than the spotlight. He once worked on a prehistoric dig in the Golan Heights that yielded hundreds of figurines, some of which ended up in the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But "nobody cared," he says.
Qeiyafa is different, however. It taps into the legacies of one of the most revered historical figures in the Israeli mind, King David.