History of Archaeology

Early History

We could perhaps say that the history of archaeological research began when the first man picked up a broken piece of pottery or worked stone from before his time and wondered about it. Mankind has always had a fascination of the unknown, and it was this fascination that brought us to where we are today.

Speculative Phase

In our modern times, the first archaeological explorations in the Holy Land were done by theologians, biblical scholars, and engineers. These early explorers were interested in looking for biblical places and mapping the land, rather than what we today would consider true archaeology (Cline 2009: 13). Thus, the first excavations and explorations were naturally directed at famously named sites (Bartlett 1997: 5).

The most prominent of the first explorers of Syro-Palestinian archaeology was Edward Robinson who toured Palestine in 1838 with Eli Smith (Stiebing 1994: 87). Together, their goal was to identify as many sites mentioned in the Bible as possible, and thus to create a historical/biblical geography of Palestine. They did this by matching modern Arabic names of sites to ancient Hebrew names in the Scriptures (Cline 2009: 13).

Robinson and Smith successfully identified around one hundred biblical sites using very few tools, namely a compass, telescope, measuring tapes, and copies of the Bible in English and Hebrew, publishing the work in three volumes (Laughlin 2002: 5; Cline 2009: 13). Robinson returned to Palestine in 1852 and published the fourth volume of his series. Of course, Robinson had his flaws; he did not recognize the nature of the city-mounds dotted across the landscape (Bartlett 1997: 4). Beyond identifying sites, Robinson discovered several important architectural features including an arch at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is still called Robinson’s Arch.

Soon after Robsinson, the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) hired Charles Warren to explore features in Jerusalem. He spent several years studying the water system and other underground aspects of early Jerusalem (Fagan 2003: 61). One particular feature bears his name. This shaft was thought to had been David’s entry point into Jerusalem, but it is now known that it did not come into use until the eighth century BC, long after David.

Later, British surveys of the 1870s were conducted by the Royal Engineers under Captain Charles Wilson, Lieutenant Claude Conder, and Lieutenant Horatio H. Kitchener, resulting in the mapping of virtually all of Palestine (Cline 2009: 16; Moscrop 2000: 109). Their work was published as twenty-six volumes of Memoirs, a huge map, architectural plans, and photographs.

Charles Clermont-Ganaeu worked for the French consulate and was interested in ancient writings (Moscrop 2000: 86). As an epigrapher, his primary contribution was the identification of items such as the Mesha Stele/Moabite Stone, dating to the ninth century and discovered at Dibon (Cline 2009: 16). The Mesha Stele was written in 35-lines on a black basalt stone which described a victory by the Moabite king, and it is extremely significant for biblical archaeology as it mentions “Omri, king of Israel” (Dearman and Mattingly 1992: 4:708). This is the first known extra biblical inscription that names a person or place mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. In 1868, FA Klein was the first to identify the inscription. A year later, an attempt was made by an Arab servant of Charles Clermont-Ganaeu to make a copy of the inscription, but his wet paper tore into several pieces as he left hastily, fearing for his life when a fight broke out among the Bedouins (Bartlett 2000: 88). When the authorities attempted to seize the stone, the Bedouins threw the stele into a bed of hot coals and then poured cold water on it, shattering it into thousands of pieces. Clermont-Ganneau and Charles Warren bought some of the pieces, and a German scholar named Konstantin Schlottmann bought more after. Approximately two-thirds of the original inscription was reconstructed. The Mesha stele not only mentioned Omri, but the inscription may also contain a mention of the House of David.

Some years later, Charles Clermont-Ganneau was involved with an inscription written in early Hebrew. Now called the Siloam inscription, it was found chiseled into the stone roof of a tunnel in Jerusalem. The tunnel had been dug in antiquity through nearly 1,800 feet of solid rock, from the Gihon Spring outside of the city to a location inside called the Siloam Pool (Cline 2009: 18).

George Adam Smith was the last of the early explorers. Smith wrote The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1894), and it was here that Smith updated and sometimes corrected the earlier works of Robinson and the other explorers (Cline 2009: 20). In fact, Smith was able to identify some sites that Robinson could not, including Tell el-Mutesellium as Megido. Smith visited the Holy Land in 1880 when he journeyed through the lands of “Judea, Samaria, Esdraelon, and Galilee,” and again in 1891 explored more of the country, including as far north as Damascus. Standing upon the shoulders of Robinson, Conder, and Kitchener, all of whom he cited admiringly, Smith ignored a number of their interpretations and contested a number more. Smith’s work was a success and was republished in a new edition every year until 1931. Because of Smith’s publication of a clay tablet from Nineveh, interest in Mesopotamian archaeology was revived (Trigger 2006: 103).

Scientific Archaeology

The Beginnings of Archaeology

Though not excavating in the Near East, Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers developed the modern principles of excavating, recording, and publishing (Stiebing 1994: 51). An avid gun collector, this retired General had displayed his gun collection according to typology, and when later he began excavating barrows and earthworks on his property, Pitt Rivers used these same methods of typology upon the objects that he discovered, realizing the chronological value that even so-called worthless objects carried (Stiebing 1994: 51).

Gustav Oscar Montelius furthered chronological understanding when he carefully studied large amounts of European objects, noting those that appeared together and those that never appeared together; through these efforts, Montelius was able to piece together a working chronology of European Bronze and Iron Age cultures (Stiebing 1994: 52).

Working contemporaneously with the two above, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was the first “real” archaeologist in the Holy Land. Though Petrie had little formal education (Stiebing 1994: 79), it was primarily through Petrie that biblical archaeology evolved into a real discipline (Cline 2009: 21). One aspect that separated Petrie from others was his emphasis on knowledge rather than museum pieces; he wanted to answer questions about the past (Stiebing 1994: 79). In 1890, he began excavating at the site of Tell el-Hesi under the auspices of the PEF. Petrie was the first person in the Holy Land to use the methodology of stratigraphy, based on the geological principle of superposition, basically the lower, or deeper, cities will always be earlier in time (Lucas 2002: 38). Petrie also introduced pottery typology and seriation (Cline 2009: 22). He extended this to other sites reasoning that similar types of pottery found at different sites means that the level in which they are found are likely to be contemporary with each other. The results of his excavation at Tell el-Hesi were published in collaboration with Frederick J Bliss as a book titled A Mound of Many Cities (1894).

It was Petrie who in February 1896 discovered an inscription dating to the fifth year of the Pharaoh Merneptah’s reign (Fagan 2003: 81). This inscription is the earliest textual mention of Israel outside of the Bible and is one of the most important discoveries ever made in biblical archaeology (Cline 2009: 23).

Gottlieb Schumacher was a German railway engineer who, in 1884, surveyed the area from Lake Tiberius and Hule east of the Jordan; in 1885, he extended this survey to south of the Yarmuk River, publishing his map in 1886 (Moscrop 2000: 150). On behalf of the Deutsher Verein zur Erforschung Palastinas (DPV), Schumacher excavated at Megiddo from 1903-05. Though his methods were lacking, he made a number of important discoveries, including an inscribed seal belonging to a servant of Jeroboam (Cline 2009: 25). Schumacher decided the best way to excavate the mound of Megiddo was to use hundreds of local workmen to dig a trench across the entire mound. Because of this, he missed a lot at Megiddo, including a fragment from an inscription erected at the site by Pharaoh Sheshonq after his capture of Megiddo ca. 925 BC. Though lacking in some aspects, Schumacher was a skilled draftsman in terms of stratigraphy, and he created good plans at Megiddo (Cline 2009: 25).

Around the same time, Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister excavated at Gezer (1902-05 and 1907-09), which was one of the largest in Palestine at the time. Likely due to the ever increasing nature of nationalist excavations (Moscrop 2000: 220), he was careless in excavating, failing to record the precise find spots of most of the objects that he recovered. He did understand stratigraphy, which had been introduced only a decade earlier by Petrie, but he was more interested in ancient daily life (Cline 2009: 26). With all that he missed, Macalister’ did excavate a Canaanite “High Place” at the site, which consisted of ten large standing stones with possible evidence of animal sacrifice (Davis 2004: 34). He also found the so-called Gezer Calendar at the site which described the agricultural activities conducted during the year.

George Reisner of Harvard University, who started his archaeological career in 1902 in Egypt and Sudan (Fagan 2003: 126), was appointed to lead the excavation of Samaria in Palestine in 1908-10, though Schumacher directed the team during the 1908 season. Reisner did a much better job than Schumacher, as Reisner kept meticulous records (Cline 2009: 28). His excavations were much more thorough that those of even Petrie (Fagan 2003: 126). He was one of the first to note that in excavating a site, the archaeologist also destroys it.

Just before WW1, the PEF hired TE Lawrence to conduct survey work in southern Palestine who had previously excavated at Byblos, Carchemish, and with Petrie in Egypt (Moscrop 2000: 204). Lawrence and Leonard Wooley surveyed and recorded remains from all periods visible in the Negev and Wadi Arabah, along with searching for biblical sites and tracing old caravan routes in the Wilderness of Zin. Of course, some believe that all of this was a cover for a British military mapping operation (Cline 2009: 29).

The Interwar Period

After WW1, Petrie left Egypt and continued excavating in Palestine until the 1920s (Moscrop 2000: 153). This was the period of the British Mandate, and the British authorities created the first Department of Antiquities in Palestine. The British also organized the first Department of Antiquities in Jordan, and in the final years of the Mandate, constructed the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem (Cline 2009: 30). It was at this time that universities began to replace national organizations in the sponsorship of excavations in the Holy Land. The site directors taught during the school year, so year-round excavations were replaced by excavations conducted during the summers, with some exceptions such as Megiddo.

William Foxwell Albright came to prominence in the 1920s and became the dominant biblical archaeologist for very many years (Dever 1993: 14). During his tenure, Albright trained leading scholars of the following generation. The “Dean of Biblical Archaeology” wrote extensively, and he insisted that the Bible was essentially historical and that archaeology could be used to prove it (Cline 2009: 31).

Significantly, Albright gave us the first true attempt to divide the history of the Levant into archaeological periods, one that took advantage of the so-called Three Age System (Cline 2009: 31). His excavations at the site of Tell Beit Mirsim employed Petrie’s ideas of stratigraphy and pottery typology in a way unknown before his time (Stiebing 1994: 253), and eventually the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem was renamed the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research .

In the 1930s and 40s, Nelson Glueck, a student of Albright (Dever 1993: 18), alternated with Albright as the director of the American School. He excavated with Albright at Tell Beit Miriam, eventually becoming an expert in both pottery and stratigraphy. Glueck is best known for a series of surveys and explorations in Transjordan which was archaeologically almost unknown at the time, identifying hundreds of ancient sites in this region (Cline 2009: 35). Glueck also surveyed in the Sinai, the Negev, and the Jordan Valley. Like Albright before him, Glueck trained a number of archaeologists.

During the interwar period, James Henry Breasted and archaeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago began a major series of excavations at the site of Megiddo. The excavation ran continuously from 1925 until WW2 began. The team used a new technique known as horizontal excavation, in which the stratigraphical layers of the tell were “peeled off” one by one, from the top down (Cline 2009: 36). Unfortunately, after removing the top two layers of occupation, and revealing the third layer dating to the Neo-Assyrian period, the excavators switched to the then conventional vertical excavation technique. At Megiddo, Chicago uncovered what they thought were stables belonging to Solomon as described in the book of Kings (Cline 2009: 37). Though they were eventually shown to actually be stables, to say that they belonged to Solomon is outside of the scope of research.

About the same time that the Chicago archaeologists were excavating at Megiddo, a group known as the Joint Expedition renewed excavations at Samaria. Kathleen Kenyon joined the group (Fagan 2003: 141)—her first excavation in Palestine. Kenyon brought with her the revolutionary method of excavating developed by Mortimer Wheeler in which careful attention was paid to differences in the color, texture, and other characteristics of the soil and of the ancient remains. Buckets for pottery are changed every time a difference is noted, allowing the recording of observable stratigraphy. Additionally, squares measuring exactly five by five meters, with one meter wide balks left standing between the squares are excavated and used to show the history of the excavated area in the section. This became known as the Kenyon-Wheeler method of excavation (Cline 2009: 39; Cohen 2006: 529).

Biblical Veracity and Nationalism

After the Israeli War of Independence of 1948, major changes were made within Biblical archaeology. Kathleen Kenyon was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in 1951 (Cohen 2006: 526), and she began work at Jericho soon after. From 1952-58, Kenyon used the Kenyon-Wheeler method of vertical excavation. After John Garstang made certain claims at Jericho, Kenyon was asked to excavate there (Cline 2009: 41). Charles Warren dated the Jericho destruction to 1550 BC, but Garstang suggested 1400 BC. He based his date for the destruction of Jericho in part upon an absence of imported Mycenaean pottery from Greece, which was commonly found at Canaanite sites in the 14th and 13th centuries; that there were none meant that the city must have been destroyed before this period. Kenyon, though, established the date as 1550 BC was thought before. Due to a lack of LBI pottery, she suggested that the site was destroyed before that period. She argued that the city wall that may have been destroyed by an earthquake did not belong to City IV as Garstang suggested but a city dating to 2400BC. According to Kenyon, Jericho was deserted for the rest of LBI and into the early parts of the IA and was therefore uninhabited at the time of Joshua (Scheller 1994: 133). This debate continues today under Bryant Wood, who scrutinized the work done by Kenyon (Kaiser 2017: 152).

Another well-known biblical archaeologist active during this immediate postwar period was Yigael Yadin. Yadin was a tripartite archaeologist: military leader, politician, and archaeologist (Pasachoff 1997: 222). Like Albright, Yadin taught an entire generation of future archaeologists. He began or restarted excavations at quite a few sites, including Megiddo. As with many of the early archaeologists, Yadin had a purposeful bias (Dever 1993: 48). He wanted to establish an Israeli national identity and to show that archaeology could help prove the accuracy and authenticity of the Bible (Cline 2009: 42-43).

His first substantial excavation took place at Hazor, whose excavations from 1955-58 brought the site to life. The excavations there became a national effort (Pasachoff 1997: 221). He uncovered the remains of a huge Canaanite city that had flourished during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, and especially during the second millennium BC (Yadin 1975). His conclusion was that the city was a major metropolis, a city mentioned in texts from Mari during the 18th century (Cline 2009: 43-44). He uncovered the remains of a city dating to the LBA, which was destroyed by fire, and therefore contributed this destruction to invading Israelites.

Yadin also excavated at Megiddo. Following the work of Gottlieb Schumacher, Yadin headed the third expedition to the site in the 1960s and 70s. Here, he uncovered the ruins of buildings and other constructions, including a city gate and palace. The architecture of the palace was identified as a specific type related to those found in northern Syria at the time of Solomon. The nearby city gate with six chambers was attached to a casemate wall (Cline 2009: 44).

Yadin had located part of a casemate wall and a city gate at Hazor which was very similar to those which he had found at Megiddo (Ortiz 2005: 61). He dated all of these structures to the time of Solomon in the 10th century in part because the book of Kings describes building projects at Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, and Jerusalem. He decided to attempt to find a similar gate at Gezer and so looked through Macalister’s notes and found what he was looking for (Finkelstein and Silberman 2002: 137), a city gate strikingly similar to those at Megiddo and Hazor. Macalister only found half and identified it as a fortress from much later, but Yadin contacted Hebrew Union College and Harvard about finding the other half, which they did.

Yadin’s excavation at Masada brought him worldwide attention. The excavation lasted from 1963-65, but involved an international team of archaeologists and volunteers on a scale never previously seen in Israel. Masada has been a symbol of Israeli nationalistic identity and debate since its excavation (Magness 2019: 198).


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