The Practice of Archaeology
A Bible atlas is not the place to go into detail about archaeological methods and techniques, but some brief comments are appropriate. Some archaeological work involves the making of surveys, involving predominantly the careful study of surface remains. More often the approach involves excavation, frequently of a ‘tell’. A tell is an artificial mound, built up often over many centuries as a result of successive settlements being built on the same spot. After a town had been destroyed or fallen into ruin, new buildings would be erected above the remains of the former structures. Although stone might be used for foundations, for supporting columns, or in high‐status buildings, much construction would have been of mud brick which would weather into a layer of soil. The successive layers of occupation are known as ‘strata’. The careful digging of trenches or, more frequently recently, square ‘sections’ enables the successive strata of an occupied site to be examined and a relative chronology produced. The careful preservation of the baulks (the soil left between trenches or sections) allows the charting of the vertical ‘wall’ and the checking of the stratigraphy. (The development of this technique is associated particularly with Kathleen Kenyon.) Domestic objects show developments and variations which may be pointers to relative dating. In particular the study of pottery types has proved of immense value for dating purposes. The use of pottery chronology was developed by Flinders Petrie and refined by W. F. Albright. Sometimes a discovery within a stratum will enable it to be dated accurately. Examples include a stele of Seti I found at Beth‐shan, and a statue base of Rameses VI discovered at Megiddo. A cartouche, bearing the name of a pharaoh, or a coin indicating the ruler in whose reign it was minted, may be valuable pointers to the date of a stratum.
Scientific techniques are now available to aid the archaeologist, and archaeology has become a much more multidisciplinary science. For example, Carbon 14 (radiocarbon) dating may be used for estimating the age of ancient organic material, including human remains. Analysis of pollen grains in soil (palynology) can be of value for dating as well as providing information about plant life, crops, etc. (See below on ‘Human, animal, and plant remains’.) There is a method, using thermo‐luminescence, for determining the date of the firing of ceramics. The use of magnetometry can help to locate buildings and objects under the surface of the ground. The availability of high‐quality photography enables the stages of excavation and the location of objects to be recorded, a technique which represents a major advance on the drawings and sketches of earlier excavations. This is very important because archaeology is, of necessity, a destructive science. Once the digging has been done, it cannot be undone.
For the purpose of considering various types of archaeological discovery, it is convenient to divide them into several broad categories; buildings and artefacts; tombs and burial practices; human, animal, and plant remains; and written documents.
Buildings and artefacts
Archaeology can shed light on the nature of ancient towns and cities, revealing the types of fortification, wall, and gateway constructed to defend a city. Different types of wall, such as the ‘casemate’ and the ‘offset‐inset’ were used. Walls of the ‘casemate’ type have sometimes been associated in particular with the early monarchic period in Israel. A variety of types of city gate were developed, including the six‐room gates which have been thought to be evidence of Solomon's building activity at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo. Major buildings on a site, often in prominent positions, may be, for example, palaces, official residences, administrative headquarters, or sanctuaries. Sometimes their function will not be clear, while at other times there may a clue to the nature of the building. The presence of an altar for sacrifice (perhaps with animal bones in the vicinity, as in the circular ‘high place’ at Megiddo) or an incense altar (such as that from Taanach, decorated with animals and sphinxes) will suggest a cultic usage. Or jars with official stamps on their handles (such as those stamped lmlk, ‘to/for the king’, at Lachish), probably used for the collection of taxes in kind, may suggest an administrative building.
Archaeology also reveals the types of dwelling in which people lived. One which deserves particular mention is the so‐called ‘four‐roomed’ house which became popular in the Iron Age and has often been thought to be typically Israelite. A ‘standard’ house of this type would have a doorway leading into a room (which has sometimes been thought to be a courtyard) on either side of which and parallel to it, separated by pillars or walls, were two more rooms, with a fourth room running along behind the other three. There was probably more than one storey. There were variations on this basic pattern, and the actual number of rooms might differ. Sometimes, where convenient, the house would abut the city wall, using it as the rear wall of the house.
In addition to dwellings, other structures or installations may shed light on the way of life of the people, for example, storehouses, grain silos, and places for the production of olive oil. Sometimes methods of securing a water supply are revealed, such as the digging and plastering of cisterns. At Qumran water was preserved in a system of cisterns, some of which were stepped, raising the question whether they were simply intended for water storage or whether they might have been used for ritual washing. More elaborate provisions might include the construction of aqueducts, such as that which brought water into Caesarea Maritima. Access to water from within a city's fortifications was important in times of siege, and in some places, such as Hazor and Megiddo, this involved the hewing of tunnels through solid rock to gain access to a spring. A remarkable example is ‘Hezekieh's Tunnel’ in Jerusalem (see ‘Jerusalem in the 1st Millennium BCE’ ).
But the function of a building may not always be certain, as witnessed by the debate which continues to surround the identification of certain structures at Megiddo, originally suggested to be Solomon's Stables. (See on ‘Megiddo’.)
Archaeology has also revealed numerous smaller artefacts which help to build up a picture of the way of life of the people. These include pottery vessels of various shapes, sizes, and quality and, as already noted, these may be of considerable importance for dating purposes. Among other types of find are tools and weapons, jewellery, ornaments, statuettes, and coins.
Tombs and burial practices
Archaeology has revealed a great variety of types of burial, from simple interments or cave burials to elaborate tombs, with evidence from right across the historical and indeed prehistorical spectrum. The presence of various objects placed alongside the bodies suggests a belief in the necessity of making some sort of provision for the dead, though the extent to which such funerary goods provide evidence for a belief in an afterlife is uncertain. Burials from the Middle Paleolithic period were in pits, with the body in a contracted position. From the Natufian culture come contracted burials but also burials involving just the skull. In the Neolithic period, burials were sometimes made beneath the floors of houses. From this period come the famous plastered skulls from Jericho (see below on ‘Human, animal, and plant remains’). A remarkable feature of burials from the Chalcolithic period was the use of clay ossuaries. These boxes were often in the shape of houses and were used for the storage of bones after the decomposition of the flesh. In the Early Bronze Age, many tombs comprised a shaft leading into a burial chamber, but there is also evidence of the construction of megalithic tombs. Stone‐built tombs, sometimes inside towns and close to houses, are known from the Middle Bronze Age. In the Negeb, the construction of tumuli, covering stone cists in which the body would have been placed, was widespread. Shaft tombs were widely used in the Late Bronze Age.
The Iron Age saw the development of multi‐chamber tombs, with benches along the walls on which the bodies would be laid, and sometimes with places for the collection together of disconnected bones. Thereafter, a variety of types of tomb continued to be used, ranging from small individual graves to rock‐hewn structures and extensive catacombs. Examples of some differing styles of tomb construction are to be found in the Kidron valley. Many Roman period tombs comprised a corridor leading from a forecourt into one or more chambers in whose walls were burial recesses (loculi). From Jerusalem come some elaborate examples such as the so‐called ‘Tombs of the Kings’ and the tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene. The outer doors of some such tombs would be blocked by a rectangular stone slab, but others would have been closed by a large circular stone which would be rolled in a groove. In the 1st century CE, a new type of tomb was developed, involving benches inside arched recesses (arcosolia). The use of ossuaries was widespread in the early Roman period.
Human, animal, and plant remains
The discovery of human and animal remains has always been a feature of archaeology. Cemeteries and tombs have yielded human bones, and the discovery of animal bones has sometimes been a pointer to the identification of a site as a place of sacrifice. At Lachish, for example, a tomb in a large cave contained the remains of about 2,000 bodies, some of which showed signs of charring, suggesting the possibility that they were deposited there after some attack on the city, perhaps at the time of Sennacherib's campaign in 701 or when it fell to the Babylonians c.597. A feature of some of the skulls found at Lachish is that they may show evidence of trepanning, the surgical removal of a segment of bone to relieve pressure on the brain. A somewhat different example of the discovery of human remains is that of the plastered skulls found at Jericho and a number of other sites, dating from the Pre‐Pottery Neolithic B period (that is, from the late 8th millennium to the early 6th millennium BCE) and perhaps reflecting some form of ancestor cult.
In recent years, the application of archaeozoology (the study of animal remains) and palaeoethnobotany (the study of botanical remains – including palynology, the analysis of pollen grains in soil) has begun to make an increasing impact on the study of the ancient Near East in general and the Levant in particular. They shed light, for example, on the ancient environments, the domestication of plants and animals, diet, various cultural practices, and even such things as trade (showing, for example, whether wood used for building was local or imported). Of particular interest for the study of the Bible has been evidence for the domestication of and the eating of the pig, in view of the biblical prohibitions (for example, Lev. 11: 7 ). Evidence suggests that, after the Middle Bronze Age, apart from its use by the Philistines, the eating of the pig was not common until the Hellenistic period. The date of the domestication of the camel has been an issue in the context of the discussion of the dating of certain biblical traditions and whether references to camels are anachronistic. Evidence suggests the presence of camels in the Levant in the 3rd millennium, though it is not clear whether these were wild or domestic. After the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE, camel bones begin to appear in a number of places, although they are still relatively rare. From Tell Jemme, south of Gaza, there is evidence of significant use of the camel from the 8th to the 7th centuries, perhaps reflecting its position close to major trade routes, and that camel numbers increased in the Persian period. More generally, the use of the camel seems to have become more widespread in the Levant during the Persian period.
Written documents revealed by archaeology are of a great variety of types and what follows is illustrative – in no sense exhaustive – and only attempts to deal with the principal types. Particular mention will be made of some examples of documents relevant to the study of the Bible.
Inscriptions were carved on the walls of buildings and other structures, or even into the rock of a cliff or a tunnel or a tomb. The ‘Behistun Inscription’ (see on ‘Writing Systems’) was carved high on a rock face. In Egypt, carvings on the walls and columns of temples and other buildings, and texts painted on the inner walls of pyramids and burial chambers have provided a major source of information about Egyptian history and religion. Inside ‘Hezekiah's Tunnel’ in Jerusalem was the famous ‘Siloam Inscription’ describing the tunnel's construction (see ‘Jerusalem in the 1st Millennium BCE’ ). Approximately contemporary was the inscription carved into the lintel of a rock‐cut tomb at Silwan (Siloam), overlooking the Kidron valley and Jerusalem. The damaged inscription suggested that the tomb was that of someone whose name ended ‐yahu (usually anglicized as ‐iah in personal names) and who was (literally) ‘over the house’, that is, a steward. In Isaiah 22: 15–16 , this precise description (NRSV ‘master of the household’) is used of the royal steward Shebna, who is criticized for ‘cutting a tomb on the height’. Although the form of the name used in Isaiah does not have the ending preserved on the inscription, it is likely that it is an abbreviated form of the fuller name Shebaniah, and it is therefore possible that the tomb inscription refers to the person mentioned in Isaiah. From the theatre at Caesarea comes an inscription carved on stone which, although damaged and incomplete, almost certainly mentions Pontius Pilate. An inscription from Herod's Temple in Jerusalem, written in Greek, warns Gentiles not to enter the court of Israel on pain of death. (See Acts 21: 27–9 , which record that Paul was accused of having introduced a Gentile into the Temple, thereby defiling it.)
A number of important inscriptions take the form of stelae or obelisks, inscribed standing stones set up to record, for example, the deeds of a king. The earliest mention of a people ‘Israel’ is to be found on the Stele of Merneptah, set up in Egypt towards the end of the 13th century BCE and claiming to record the victories of the pharaoh. From the 9th century comes the stele of Mesha, king of Moab, sometimes known as the ‘Moabite Stone’. This inscription, found at Dibon in Moab, mentions the Israelite king Omri, and gives a contemporary account from a Moabite perspective of events recounted in 2 Kings 3 . King Jehu is mentioned on the ‘Black Obelisk’ of Shalmaneser III, which was erected by the Assyrian king at Calah early in the second half of the 9th century. Not only is Jehu mentioned, there is even a picture of him prostrating himself before Shalmaneser and bringing tribute – an event not mentioned in the biblical narrative. From Tel Dan come fragments of a victory stele, dating from the 9th century and written in Aramaic, which mentions the ‘king of Israel’ and the ‘house of David’. The interpretation of the phrase translated as ‘house of David’ has been a matter of considerable debate, but it is possible that this inscription contains the first piece of extrabiblical evidence for the existence of King David. A stele which does include some account of the deeds of a king, but whose primary purpose was somewhat different, is the Stele of Hammurabi. This was set up by the great king of Babylon who reigned in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE, and contains his famous Law Code, one of a number of ancient Near Eastern law codes with which the biblical laws can be compared.
A great many ancient documents take the form of clay tablets which provided a convenient surface for the writing of the cuneiform script (see on ‘Writing Systems’). Mention can only be made of a limited number of examples here. Before turning to tablets of what might be termed ‘conventional shape’, that is, square or rectangular with writing on the obverse and reverse, it should be noted that clay was also used for documents of other shapes. For example, the six‐sided clay ‘Prism of Sennacherib’ contains annals which report his early military campaigns, including that of 701 BCE in which he claims to have besieged 46 fortified cities of Judah and surrounded King Hezekiah in Jerusalem (see 2 Kgs. 18: 13–19: 36 ). Interestingly he does not specifically mention his siege of Lachish (see on ‘Lachish’). The ‘Cyrus Cylinder’, also made of clay, contains an account by the Persian king of his conquest of Babylon in 539. This document does not specifically mention the Jewish exiles, but it does refer to Cyrus' policy of returning captive peoples to their homelands.
The numerous clay tablets found in the course of archaeological excavations in the ancient Near East contain a great variety of types of material, including administrative texts, legal documents, letters, ritual texts, myths, and epics. One advantage of conventionally shaped tablets was that they could be ‘filed’ in sequence and stored in archives. At Ebla, for example, tablets were discovered still in the rows in which they had been stored despite the collapse of the shelving on which they were presumably placed. Other major archives have been found in such places as the Amorite city of Mari on the Euphrates and the Hurrian city of Nuzi, east of the Tigris. The majority of the Mari texts probably date from the 18th century BCE and shed light on events and the way of life at that time. Of particular interest is the fact that the texts refer to a number of types of person and activity which might appropriately be described as ‘prophetic’. The texts from Nuzi date from the 16th and 15th centuries and provide evidence of Hurrian culture. Both the Mari and Nuzi texts have been used in discussions about the extent to which the stories of the Patriarchs in the Bible reflect any historical reality. In particular, apparent similarities were noticed between practices mentioned in legal texts from Nuzi and in the biblical narrative. But the extent of such parallels has been overstated, and the importance of the Mari and Nuzi texts lies in the evidence they provide of life in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE.
At Ugarit were found numerous clay tablets, in archives in the royal palace, in business premises, and private houses, and from what may perhaps appropriately be described as a temple library (see on ‘Ugarit’). From Emar, on the Euphrates south east of Aleppo, come tablets from the 13th century, including a number, found in the ruins of a temple, which describe religious rituals. From the library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, dating from the 7th century BCE, are tablets containing copies of the Babylonian account of creation, Enuma Elish, and of the Epic of Gilgamesh. These stories, which go back to much earlier originals, have been thought to contain some parallels with the creation and flood stories in Genesis.
Another medium for writing was the ostracon, or potsherd. A piece of broken pot could provide a suitable flat surface on which to write, using perhaps a brush, or a pen made from a sharpened stick, and soot mixed with water and gum arabic for ink. Pieces of pot might be used for recording deliveries of produce, such as was the case with the 8th‐century ostraca from Samaria which provide useful information about personal and place names of the period. Or they might be used for writing letters. Particularly noteworthy are the Lachish Letters (see on ‘Lachish’).
It is perhaps appropriate to mention here that sometimes inscriptions are found as part of the decoration on storage jars (pithoi). A particularly important example comes from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, dating from the end of the 9th or beginning of the 8th century. The jar was decorated with depictions of various animals and a stylized tree and also two standing figures and a seated figure playing a lyre. There is also an inscription, close to the standing figures, which contains the phrase, ‘I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah’. Another storage jar from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud bears an inscription which mentions ‘Yahweh of Teman and his asherah’. (A roughly contemporary inscription from Khirbet el‐Qom, carved in stone and originally in a burial cave, contains the request that a certain Uriyahu may be blessed by Yahweh, and saved from his enemies by ‘his asherah’.) The significance of these inscription has been much debated, in particular whether the term asherah refers to a cult object or to the goddess of that name and, if the latter, whether this is evidence for the belief that Yahweh had a consort. Such inscriptions are very important for the study of the religious beliefs of the time.
Another important writing material is associated particularly with Egypt: papyrus, prepared from strips of the pith of an aquatic reed. This produced an excellent surface for writing or illustrations. An advantage of papyrus was that it could be folded. Examples of papyrus documents relevant to the study of the Bible include the following: the Egyptian text ‘The Wisdom of Amenemope’ which has close parallels with parts of the Book of Proverbs; the papyri from Elephantine on the Nile, dating from the 5th century BCE and written in Aramaic, which shed light on the life and religion of the Jewish colony that established itself there; and the papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from the early part of the 2nd century CE and probably the earliest known New Testament manuscript.
The use of parchment was an important development in the production of written manuscripts. It was made from the skins of sheep and goats, tanned and cut into sheets. These might in turn be sewn together to produce scrolls. Especially noteworthy among parchment documents are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the library of the Jewish group (probably Essenes) based at Qumran, close to the shore of the Dead Sea, from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. They include not only important community documents but the earliest known manuscripts of considerable sections of the Hebrew Bible. These scrolls have been of immense value for the study of the biblical text and of the beliefs and practices of a branch of Judaism which flourished at the turn of the millennia. Parchment came to be used for the production of the codex, that is, sheets bound together in book form. The Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th century CE, was so‐called because it was found at the Monastery of St Catharine in the Sinai peninsula in 1844. It was written on parchment in Greek uncial (capital) letters. The codex originally contained the text of the Septuagint, the New Testament, and a number of Deutero‐canonical works, though now some 300 pages are missing from the Septuagint section. It has made an important contribution to the study of the text of the Bible.
Mention has been made above of inscriptions in tombs, and it also appropriate to mention that on some ossuaries (boxes carved out of stone, in which bones would be stored after the flesh had decayed) were inscriptions usually indicating the name or names of those whose bones were inside. These seem to have been used in and around Jerusalem from the latter part of the 1st century BCE until the early 2nd century CE. The suggestion that some of them bear Christian symbols, particularly crosses, is no longer thought to be a likely explanation of the marks. Excitement over the apparent discovery of an ossuary bearing an inscription mentioning ‘James the brother of Jesus’ is widely held to have been misplaced because the inscription was a hoax.
Extra‐biblical texts and the Bible
The rich variety of types of written material from the ancient Near East enables the world from which the Bible emerged and in which the Bible is set to be seen in clearer focus. Much attention has been paid to the myths and legends of the Mesopotamians and the Canaanites, not least because of the Bible's own suggestion that the people of Israel and Judah emerged from Mesopotamian ancestry, settled among Canaanites, and were exiled in Babylon. But the mythology of other ancient peoples such as the Egyptians and the Hittites, now known as a result of archaeological activity, have also been welcomed as shedding light on the religious beliefs of the ancient Near East. Light has been shed on religious practices thanks to the discovery of ritual texts, sacrifice lists, divinatory texts, prayers, and incantations. There are texts which refer to the practice of prophecy, and others which belong to the Wisdom tradition. Ancient law codes reveal that sophisticated legal systems had developed, and that it was believed that the law had divine sanction. The discovery of ancient Near Eastern treaties and the analysis of their form has given rise to the suggestion that this treaty‐form is reflected in some passages which present one of the profoundest of the Bible's religious themes, that of covenant.
It is not only in what might broadly be termed the field of religion that ancient textual material is relevant to the study of the Bible. Annals and lists of rulers can help with the establishing of chronology and shed light on the political world. Administrative documents, even the most mundane, provide clues as to the way of life of those who produced them. Lexical texts contribute to the study of the languages of the biblical world and, from time to time, on the languages of the Bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.