Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Further Thoughts On Cline and "Biblical" Archaeology

I have been posting individual chapter reviews of Eric Cline’s book, From Eden to Exile, albeit at a snail’s pace. I have actually finished reading the book, enjoying Eric’s call to rescue the serious science of archaeology from the faux archaeologists claiming to have discovered Noah’s Ark and other bible mysteries. I am relieved that a professional archaeologist is finally arguing that much of what we hear of “biblical” archaeology in the media is driven by people with no professional standing in the field and that those with professional backgrounds must no longer sit on the sidelines. I will return to my ongoing review of Eric’s book in the days to come.

In the meantime, I want to address Eric’s recent article in the Boston Globe. Eric was kind enough to send me a heads-up that it was coming and I eagerly read through the piece when it appeared. Although the article reiterated many of the central themes of his book, for some reason the Boston Globe piece highlighted an issue of concern I have regarding the nature of “biblical” archaeology that I think Eric is overlooking. Certainly the big media names like Cornuke and Jacobovici reach a large audience with their misleading (and frequently false) characterizations of the method, theory and data of archaeology. But move past the more popular purveyors of archaeological myth and we are left with a professional archaeology in the Middle East (at least that connected with biblical studies) that still flirts with an issue of credibility. This is not derived from the work conducted by professionals in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology – their academic publications and research still stand the test of peer review, so important to maintaining the scientific integrity of a field (by the way, something intelligent design advocates want to bypass). The professional credibility problem comes from other groups who frequently co-opt the professional archaeologist in disseminating public information on archaeology: the fundamentalist Christian organizations, ministers, pastors, and individuals who seem to descend on the Holy Land every year to participate in archaeological projects, only to return to the United States to inform an ill-educated audience how archaeology “proves the Bible”. Eric has mentioned concern with “overzealous biblical maximalists” and their tendency to invoke archaeological conclusions where there are no archaeological data for support. Unfortunately, I remain of the belief that 1) this is a significant problem adversely affecting the public perception of Syro-Palestinian archaeology; 2) it is a problem unique to Syro-Palestinian archaeology (as opposed to archaeological research conducted elsewhere) and is largely the result of this area’s historic ties to major religious texts; 3) professionals in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology are at least partially culpable; and 4) it is an issue largely ignored by professionals in the field.

This is a subject I have discussed before, specifically with regard to creationist Carl Baugh’s visit to Lassen County and his false claim of professional credentials in the field. Individuals with a theological agenda, like Baugh, are using their experiences working on archaeological sites in the Middle East to legitimize their faux credentials in archaeology. Carl Baugh is not as famous as Bob Cornuke (and Eric was unfamiliar with the name when I relayed part of the story to him) but he gives hundreds of lectures each year and reaches a large audience. And there are many others who do the same. These individuals pose as much of a threat to the integrity of archaeology as Cornuke and Jacobovici.

This would not be an issue were professionals in Syro-Palestinian archaeology taking an active role in distancing themselves professionally from such pseudo-archaeologists as Baugh and others. But such distancing does not seem to be occurring. One gets the distinct feeling that many Syro-Palestinian archaeologists are comfortable with fundamentalist Christians misrepresenting archaeological research to further the populist notion here in the U.S. that “archaeology proves the bible”. Eric is certainly an exception in this regard, but I wonder if even he understands the extent to which faux archaeology being presented at the local level. My local paper editorial corrections to the contrary, many people in Lassen County are still under the impression that the Israeli Antiquity Authority recognizes Carl Baugh as a legitimate archaeologist, and that he (not Ronny Reich) directed excavations at the Pool of Siloam.

There were a number of blog reactions to Eric’s article, all of which rightly praised Eric for raising issues regarding the faux archaeology often presented by self-anointed “archaeologists” such as Cornuke. Only one post, however, raised the possibility that there may be other issues remaining beneath the professional veneer of “biblical” archaeology even after the more popular sensationalists are stripped away. Duane at Abnormal Interests writes:

But I am afraid that underlying the last of these reasons, "scientific findings may challenge religious dogma," is more than the issue of concerns for religious sensitivities. Much of the funding, at least in the US, for legitimate archaeological research in the southern Levant, comes from those whose religious dogma might be challenged.

So let me ask the hanging questions: To what extent are the results of “biblical” archaeology dictated by fundamentalist Christian funding sources? Is there an adverse effect on the integrity of “biblical” archaeology when so many of those who have a theological stake in the outcome are both participating in and funding the excavations? And where is the IAA in reprimanding those who misrepresent their experiences (and credentials) in archaeology elsewhere?

Duane also raises the issue of using archaeology in the “propaganda wars” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Archaeology’s use as a political weapon has a long history, but it has always been tempered by professionals in the field who countered such illegitimate use of science to further political goals. Unfortunately, “biblical” archaeology is so laced with faux archaeologists, political propaganda and theological apologetics that it is difficult to separate the science from the advocacy. Eric has started the ball rolling….but it has a ways to travel.


James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for keeping Cline's work in general, and his latest book in particular, in the attention of your readers. It is an extremely helpful corrective to the ideologically-driven pseudo-archaeology that, alas, my students frequently come up with.


ehcline said...

Good point, Chris. How prevalent do you think these people are -- the ones who misrepresent their importance, or simply disseminate false or misleading information, upon returning home after a dig? I hadn't even taken them into account; as you point out, I had not heard of Carl Baugh previously. I wonder if such people are more pervasive than the more-obvious folks who appear on the History Channel...

Christopher O'Brien said...

That's a good question. Of course, my own perception of their prevalence may be tainted by the fact that my community experienced a "close encounter" with one of these folks (actually two: Carl Baugh and Willie Dye). However, I did a quick web check and easily found several I haden't heard of before. Bear in mind, I was looking strictly for those who discussed "biblical" archaeology and either gave the appearance that they had professional credentials/experience, or they claimed professional credentials that were non-existent. I tried not to count those who simply portrayed the field disingenuously for a (usually theological) cause. Those people are a dime a dozen in most fields. Sitll, I bet people who portray themselves as professionals in the field but who lack any professional credentials or experience are probably more prevalent than we would care to admit. But the larger question is why seemingly professional organizations like the IAA have a hard time distancing themselves from such folks?

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Anonymous said...

Actually, archaeology needs to be rescued from Cline and his elitist ways.

Anonymous said...

Please post books for Armchair Archeologists who are sick and tired of dogma tainted history. Thank you!
K. Masse