Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Syro-Palestinian Archaeology and Isolated Artifacts

Using isolated artifacts with no associated provenience data seems to be all the rage amongst biblical archaeologists of late. First we have the controversies surrounding the Talpiot, or Jesus Family Tomb – an isolated artifact said to simultaneously verify (because it formally names Jesus and members of his family) and repudiate (because a resurrected body would leave no bones to bury) the authenticity of Jesus. Earlier we had issues regarding the James ossuary as a potential artifact authenticating the existence of James as the brother of Jesus. We also have the Jehoash Inscription describing repairs made to the temple in Jerusalem by Jehoash, son of King Ahaziah of Judah – an artifact authenticating biblical references in 2 Kings. There has also been King Solomon’s Tablet of Stone and more recently online discussions regarding authenticity of the Ivory Pomegranate, said to be a relic from King Solomon’s temple. Much is written evaluating the potential of these items for archaeological interpretation and there seems to be no end to the controversies surrounding their potential meaning for Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Setting aside for the moment the problem that interpretation in Syro-Palestinian archaeology is hamstrung by theological entanglements that inherently force it outside the proper bounds of scientific application (I shall return to that below), the question at hand is just how useful are unprovenienced artifacts in archaeological research?

Here in northeastern California, we maintain a collection of approximately 100,000 items confiscated from a looter caught illegally digging on national forest lands in the mid-nineties (he paid fines and served jail time in addition to having his collection confiscated). As archaeological collections from northern California go, this one is splendid – replete with all those “diagnostic” artifacts we find important for determining chronology, tracking population movements, even understanding ideology, including several classes of projectile points, beads, copper and sandstone pipes, burial goods, and a variety of additional items. In effect, these items were looted from significant assemblages that undoubtedly would address many of the important archaeological questions in California and Great Basin prehistory – questions that are analogous to those asked in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Unfortunately for us, these artifacts are not merely of limited archaeological value, they offer us nothing of interpretive value whatsoever. Without the necessary provenience data (location (both geographic and site), depth, mapped association with other artifacts, etc.) and discussion of excavation methodologies, the only legitimate interpretations given would have to be tagged with the following disclaimer: “trust me”. Oh, some graduate student might get creative and propose an interesting analysis using inherent characteristics of the artifacts themselves (using obsidian hydration, for example, one might date various point styles to assess the consistency of style and chronology) but the best that could be accomplished is descriptive analysis that skirts the larger questions of archaeological importance. The collection has been most useful for public displays and classroom talks. It is one of the few collections I can afford to allow school children to directly handle - an accidently dropped and broken arrowhead results in no net loss to the “interpretive value” it lacked in the first place.

From a strictly archaeological perspective then, isolated artifacts with no associated provenience are simply useless for archaeological interpretation. Information offered on their basis is nothing more than un-testable speculation. I would suggest this goes for Syro-Palestinian archaeology as much as it does for Californian archaeology. The unfortunate difference, of course, is that assemblage interpretation in Syro-Palestinian archaeology is not simply a function of applying archaeological principles and methods as it is elsewhere. It also tainted by religious zealotry that demands “archaeology proves the bible”. Long-proven methods of archaeological analysis are called into question when the results don’t conform to pre-conceived theological interpretations, data are ignored or “explained away” when they contradict biblical passages or stories, or worse…data are outright fabricated to demonstrate the authenticity of sacred texts. The degree to which these efforts occur are subject to debate, but one conclusion cannot be avoided: the potential for archaeological malfeasance of one type or another is extremely high in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Much higher than it is in other areas of archaeology. It is not surprising that controversy surrounds the proliferation of “biblical” artifacts suddenly making the news. Christianity has a long history of miraculously coming up with “sacred artifacts” (none with verifiable provenience) that offer the faithful some history upon which to hang their theological positions. To the faithful, there can be no objective doubt offered regarding such artifacts, and the complexities of scientific knowledge can be sufficiently tweaked to minimally open the possibility of authentication. For a broader public uneducated to such matters this is more than sufficient to ignore or denigrate whatever contradictory science is available. The Shroud of Turin and Juan Diego’s cloak, both “appearing” in the 16th century, can be added to this laundry list of items proving Christianity’s authenticity (and conveniently lacking the history and provenience necessary to confidently address claims of authenticity). The Ivory Pomegranate and Talpiot Ossuary are merely the current extension of such efforts.

Unfortunately, the science of archaeology is being enlisted to aid theological confirmation of these relics and in the process archaeological integrity suffers. In the new issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Editor Hershel Shanks protests use of the words “relics” or “curiosities” to refer such isolated artifacts of mostly dubious history. He writes,

Now I happen to disagree with that. I believe that, if these items are authentic, they have much to teach the scholar…If they are authentic, they connect me emotionally and even spiritually to times and events that give meaning to my life. I don’t like them referred to as mere “curiosities”.

Shanks’ arguments epitomize the problem with much of Syro-Palestinian archaeology: it is too enmeshed in theology to confidently consider it as a historical science. Archaeological research here will always be viewed with theological oversight. Mere possibilities from fragments lacking provenience will be elevated to the level of “proving the bible correct” and textual contradictions backed by solid research will be dismissed. This comes less from the discipline’s primary scholars, many of whom appear to make valiant efforts to separate the archaeological science from the theological implications, than from meddling groups outside the field. As someone who actively works to provide opportunities for non-professionals to participate in archaeological research it pains me to say this: Syro-Palestinian archaeology is far too “public” for its own good. Shanks seems to understand that the “mere curiosities” lack appropriate archaeological information, but he nonetheless wants to give them some sense of respectability. It is ironic that he later bemoans archaeologist Jonathan Reed’s assessment of the intellectual challenges facing Syro-Palestinian scholars:

In a recent book on the historical Jesus, archaeologist Jonathan Reed…tells his fellow scholars how “difficult” it is to “overcome the caricature of Biblical archaeologists seeking relics [there’s that word] or sinking their spades in the ground to find sites listed in the Bible or artifacts mentioned in the New Testament.” To his scholarly audience, Reed is making fun of the Christian pilgrim who comes to the Holy Land to find spiritual nourishment in its stones and antiquities…

I don’t know if Reed is making fun of the Christian pilgrim, but if he is not he should be. It is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will return to tell his home audience how archaeology “proves the bible” without understanding the nature of the archaeological research; it is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will sift the science so that theological implications are justified; it is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will ignore or dismiss contradictory evidence that doesn’t support his belief system; it is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will turn mere rocks into the hull of Noah’s ark. Shanks berates Reed and other professional archaeologists for discussing the relic-seeking caricature of “biblical” archaeology while simultaneously promoting such a caricature by refusing to take the discipline seriously. As long as Syro-Palestinian archaeology remains overshadowed by discussion of isolated artifacts with no provenience its professional respectability will be doubted.


Charles Ellwood Jones said...

I trust you're aware of David Gill's new blog: Looting matters: Discussion of the archaeological ethics surrounding the collecting of antiquities.

-Chuck Jones-

Jim said...

Well said young man!

Duane said...


Very good post. I think you are exactly on target. I will only point out that the Talpiot Ossuary has a proper "scientific" archaeological context. But much of the popular understanding of it has removed it from that context.


Christopher O'Brien said...

Chuck, yes, I actually am aware of David Gill's blog. If I remember correctly he had a post on BAR's "standards" for accepting the authenticity of isolated artifacts (or something along those lines), which thought was a bit hypocritical...

Jim - thanks! I was actually thinking of you as I wrote it - I rather like your insistance on separating the theology from the archaeology...

Duane...thanks for the clarification on the Talpiot Ossuary...for some reason I thought it was also unprovenienced.


David Gill said...

See "Intellectual Consequences for Biblical Archaeology?"

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