Interpretation in Archaeology

William Dever:

There are few “facts” in archaeology. There are artifacts which can become “data,” but only when they are properly excavated in context, interpreted in relation to a pertinent question, and published (i.e., “given”) in full. The notion that the archaeologist is an “objective” scientist, who approaches a site with a mind that is a tabula rasa, is incredibly naïve—and dangerous. We see in the dirt only what we are sensitized to see; and unfortunately, we unwittingly destroy the rest of the evidence in getting it.

Source: William G. Dever, “Archaeology, Syro-Palestinian and Biblical,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary 1: 362-63.

Megiddo excavation of Solomonic palace, db6704060512

Excavations of Megiddo under Yigael Yadin, April 1967 Source: Views That Have Vanished

8 thoughts on “Interpretation in Archaeology

  1. Artifacts that have been properly excavated in context and interpreted in relation to a pertinent question and published in full have provided "data" that shows the historical claims made in the Bible are reliable. Why then is it considered unacceptable for the archaeologist to use information found in the Bible to influence his interpretation? Proper methodology, yes. Science, yes, but a little faith seems somehow necessary too.

  2. @AB Chrysler … well said!

    I've held the very same position myself. I mean, the practice is called 'biblical archaeology' for a reason, right? And clearly, that reason IS the Bible itself. Obviously one doesn't look for remains of kings David and Solomon in Omaha, Nebraska! The Bible has indeed pointed the way to Jerusalem. No archaeologist can honestly say that the biblical record has not informed their work. Clearly techniques and methodologies have improved over the decades, and a more rigorous level of discipline in interpretation has produced better, more-defensible analysis. But, this idea that the Bible has nothing to do with initially locating a dig-site or the interpretation of what is uncovered is ridiculous.

    On a similar point, there's also this notion that because 'very little' gets found (for example) in the ongoing City of David excavations, the bib-arch-community feels compelled to adopt a rigid minimalist perspective; ie 'King David and Solomon actually possessed nothing and were insignificant.' Is that really the case? Would it be a surprise to modern archaeologists to learn that they probably aren't the first people to dig their respective sites?

    Is it not plausible that after the 586 BCE destruction of Jerusalem, surviving or even uninvolved (transient) peoples would have combed through the burned-out wreckage for days, weeks, or even months or years to come? I'm talking about nomads, passers-by, curious boys; even committed 'diggers' would have had repeated opportunities to pick that sight over and over … searching for (what we call) artifacts. Simply because they were practical or valuable! Clearly, people at the time KNEW who's city and homes had been there before the Babylonian destruction. They knew the site was worthy of repeated searches to find trinkets, valuables, gold, silver, etc. and all of this going on LONG before the sod was as deep as we find it. The ruined Jerusalem site was easy pickings for anyone! And archaeologists that criticize the Bible seem to smugly imagine that … oh, right after King David and Solomon died, a dust storm buried everything perfectly intact, so we could turn a spade in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries to prove or dis-prove their existence. There are reasons why a lot of 'stuff' isn't there. We moderns are the last ones to look.

  3. Comment by Uri Hurwitz

    An interesting subject in this context involves the bones or other remains of individuals who lived in the Iron age in the region that is generally considered ancient Israel, before and during Monarchic period. Surely it would be easy to count the number of such individuals. The methodological question then arises whether such a number equals the total population which existed at the time in the region. Would those who reject such a conclusion agree that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?

  4. Todd,

    This is interesting, albeit, problematic. Let me see if I am understanding you. Are you suggesting that the (low) 'numbers' of known Iron Age burial remains in 'the Land' validate a scenario for lower numbers of the "Israelite" population that would counter the biblical accounts?

    You wrote, "Surely it would be easy to count the number of such individuals."

    Easy? I don't think so. Does the arch-community have a complete 'census' of every burial site that ever existed in the Israelite/trans-Jordan territory? No. Even if in the thousands, they only have a handful. But … we keep finding them, no? And, certainly, there are many who lived and were buried there that remain unknown and/or un-recoverable. Many. Not every burial site from the Iron Age forward, can be located and counted – only a fraction, I'd say. Bodies were not all placed in neat, hewn tombs or situations that would preserve them down to today. Not every burial was designed to last for 3+ millennia. the Nobles? the Kings? the Wealthy? Sure. But, every set of bones from this time period are not likely to have survived since final circumstances would have varied from person to person. Many died on hillsides, alone, far from home and loved-ones who would bury them. In war, some were burned along with their towns. Wild animals/vultures would have taken their share of corpses scattered across battle sites.

    Am I missing something? What do you think?

  5. Uri Hurwitz presents a scenario in which we all must agree with the statement that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The leap of faith is the ability to apply the statement to every scenario.

  6. Daniel – that comment was written by Uri Hurwitz, not me. And I think you're agreeing with his point, not countering it. The counting pertains to the preserved remains, which surely do not equal the number of those that died.

  7. Todd … I see what you mean. I was hasty … and I did miss the intent of his comment. I appreciate you pointing it out. I was beginning to think that all common sense had fled from the scientific community. Oyyy vay!

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