Archaeology in Israel (1)

Jerusalem, “Large Stone Structure”

The study of the ancient world is so fascinating because all those cultures, nations, tribes, states, and civilizations share one characteristic: a great shortage of data. If you want to study an aspect of Antiquity, you need every bit of information you can get: texts, archaeological finds, parallels from other cultures. Antiquity, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the largest and most interesting puzzle the world has ever seen.

Unfortunately, the available information is often inconsistent. Herodotus tells us that Ecbatana was a big city with seven walls, but archaeologists found nothing. Caesar claims to have visited Britain, but not a single camp has been excavated.

In situations like these, when information obtained from texts and excavations is asymmetrical, it’s up to the historian to decide what to do next. He might say: “I prefer to believe the written sources. If the archaeologists continue to dig, they will find what we’re looking for.” In other words, as long as archaeological data are absent, you lend maximum credence to your written sources. This approach is called maximalism. The alternative would be to argue “The sources may not be literally true. Unless the archaeologists find something, I must reconsider my way of reading the texts.” If you think you should not believe your source unless it is confirmed archaeologically, that’s called minimalism.

Usually, the choice between maximalism and minimalism contains an element of subjectivity. Few people will believe that a city with seven walls will ever be found in western Iran, because it is obviously a fairy tale motif. Here, a minimalist approach, in which we take Herodotus with a pinch of salt, seems best. On the other hand, most scholars will accept Caesar’s account, because in most countries archaeologists have confirmed his claims.

If there are two approaches, we should look for some kind of decisive test, which brings us to Israel, where this debate has some urgency. While the Iranians and English won’t worry too much about the value of the stories of Herodotus and Caesar, at least some Israelis have some concern about the reliability of the Bible. After all, many Jews decided to settle in Mandatory Palestine because the Bible said it was the homeland of their ancestors; thus doubt about the literal truth of the Bible can be used as a weapon in the hands of Israel’s enemies. (To prevent any misunderstandings: Israel is an internationally recognized state and archaeology tells something about the past, not about the ways things should or should not be in the present.)

The most famous asymmetry in our evidence involves the first Iron Age monumental building in Israel, which is associated with a type of ceramics called ‘Iron Age IIa’. One of these monuments is the ‘large stone structure’ in Jerusalem, which is shown to tourists as part of the ‘city of David’. Maximalists will nod (this name can be found in the Bible and there is no archaeological find that contradicts the identification) while minimalists disagree (there’s no archaeological find that confirms the identification).

If these large monuments date to the middle of the tenth century BC, they must have been built by a powerful king, and the Bible offers clues to identify this ruler: that would be Solomon, who ruled from about 970 to about 930. However, if these buildings turn out to be younger, they must have been built by a later ruler. We will have to read the stories about the Golden Age of king Solomon in a different way.

As you already expected, there are two schools. Recently, the Israelite archaeologists decided to perform some kind of decisive test: in Megiddo, they would look for strata with Iron IIa ceramics and would focus on organic remains, which can be dated with the radiocarbon method. If the Iron IIa ceramics date from 970 or earlier, monumental building started early, and we can assume that there’s a nucleus of truth in the Biblical account of Solomon; if Iron IIa started after 930, the monumental building phase started later, and we must accept that Solomon is a partly legendary figure.

More about the results later.

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