Of all the magnets that have drawn the West to probe man's past, none has had the ever-growing pull of the Bible lands. It began centuries ago. Pilgrims carried off artifacts to be revered as sacred relics. The lust for symbols of faith grew into a pious compulsion to give the Scriptures a clear historical base.
But toward the end of the 19th century this compulsion was debased by national rivalries and submerged in imperialist aspirations. At the same time archaeological practice was changing from the mere hunt for ancient fragments into a systematic and scientific inquiry into buried trash and treasure to try to trace the sources of early civilizations. The 3,000 or so man-made mounds began to be seen as thick history books, the pages of which could be read by planned digging down from the last to the first.
This book is a comprehensive knitting together of events and trends in this transitional period, starting with Napoleon's campaign in the Middle East, to which he attached French scholars, and ending with the British conquest of Ottoman Palestine in 1917.
Dramatic discoveries star the story, because one of the teasing constants of exploration in the Holy land is the prospect of finds by chance. For all the scientific approaches, which started with the reading of stratification of tells by Flinders Petrie in 1890, it is sudden revelation that has stirred and sustained public interest: such as the German missionary on a pastoral journey in 1868 finding the Moabite stone that confirmed the Bible account of warfare with the Israelites.
Chance finds will no doubt continue to lead scholars to confirm or revise earlier interpretations. In our time the most sensational have been the Dead Sea Scrolls and the subsequent finding by Yigael Yadin of the letters of Israel's last prince, Bar Kokba, turning a hitherto legendary figure as impersonal as Jason into the flesh-and-blood resistance leader in Israel's last revolt against its Roman overlords.
Author Neil Asher Silberman has a somewhat tedious habit of closing each section of his survey with a payoff and linkup line, as in a series of magazine articles. It is a small fault, but it can lead him to strike a false note, as when he declares - for example - that with the death of Moses Shapira, ''the affair of the Moabite Deuteronomy was over.'' It was not. It is an example of the chance discovery that can switch the course of archaeological scholarship, and a poignant coincidence, that a stone thrown into a cave by an Arab shepherd boy in 1947, revealing the hiding place of the Dead Sea Scrolls, should, 63 years late, give Shapira's claims to the authenticity of his strips of blackened parchment of the Ten Commandments more formidable backing than emerged from all the scholarly debates that drove him to suicide in 1884.