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Albright, William Foxwell

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

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Albright, William Foxwell


the acknowledged “dean of biblical archaeology.” Born to self-supporting missionary parents in Chile, Albright grew up in a strict, frugal Methodist family as the oldest of four boys and two girls. At the age of five, on furlough with his parents at his grandmother's Iowa farm, the nearsighted William caught hold of a machine rope that drew his left hand up into a pulley, injuring it severely. Thus handicapped, the boy, on returning to Chile, and unable to engage in sports, devoured his father's history and theology books. By age eleven he wanted to become an archaeologist but feared that by the time he was old enough everything would have been discovered.

The family returned to Iowa In 1903, and William attended a regular school instead of being tutored at home. In 1912 he was graduated from Upper Iowa University and spent the next year as a teacher in and principal of a high school in Menno, South Dakota, a Volga-German farming community. Realizing that he had no gift for teaching young pupils, he sent an application to Paul Haupt at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He enclosed proofs of an article of his that had been accepted by a German scholarly journal. The article dealt with an Akkadian word—he had in college taught himself Akkadian as well as Hebrew, and knew Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Greek. Haupt granted him a modest scholarship that enabled him to begin four years of study in Baltimore that he was to pass with brilliance.

Albright won the Thayer Fellowship for study in Jerusalem but was unable to use it until the end of World War I. In 1916, after earning his Ph.D., he received research grants and taught in Haupt's Oriental Seminary at Johns Hopkins. Late In 1918, he endured six painful months as a clerk in the army. Returned at last to his beloved books and teaching, he met his future wife, Ruth Norton, who subsequently earned her Ph.D. in Sanskrit literature in the Classical Seminary at Hopkins.

Albright arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of 1920 for a decade of fruitful study, teaching, exploration, and excavation. He made his home at the American School of Oriental Research, now the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, where he and Ruth Norton were married In 1921. His three boyhood years spent living in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile were excellent preparation for life in the Near East, the place that had so early become the focus of his interest, study, and lifework.

Under Paul Haupt, Albright had been trained in higher criticism and a mythological approach to biblical subjects. The impact of being in the land of the Bible, as he led his students on walking and horseback tours, convinced him of the Bible's basic historicity, changing his focus and his writing. The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) was begun the same month he arrived, and for years its main content was his reports of his explorations and excavations, written in a popular style to generate interest and support. He was its editor from 1930 to 1968.

Albright first excavated at Tell el-Ful, the palace of King Saul at Gibeah. He also excavated at Tell Beit Mirsim for four seasons (1926–1932), which he believed to be biblical Debir (Israeli and other scholars prefer nearby Khirbet Rabud). Tell Beit Mirsim proved ideal for ascertaining a pottery chronology for western Palestine, as its layers of occupation were clearly separated by destruction levels. Albright's chronology is still standard. From 1929 to 1935, he also conducted “shoestring” excavations at Bethel and Beth-Zur—while commuting half-yearly between Baltimore and Jerusalem—and later excavated in South Arabia. He was chairman of the Oriental Seminary at Hopkins from 1929 until his retirement In 1958. At Hopkins he produced a cadre of scholars who became specialists in the numerous fields in which this giant had pioneered and made himself expert.

Albright published prolifically—his lifetime bibliographic total is more than eleven hundred books and articles. He received medals and other awards, and about thirty honorary doctorates in the United States and in many European countries. In 1969, on his last visit, he was given the honorary title of “Worthy [One] of Jerusalem,” which had never before been given to a non-Jew. He had played a part in such “revolutionary” (his word) discoveries as the Ugaritic tablets (1929) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning In 1947) and was founding coeditor, with David Noel Freedman, of the Anchor Bible project.

Albright died from multiple strokes just a few months after celebrating his eightieth birthday and receiving his final Festschrift. He had been a legend in his own time, a pioneer archaeologist, and a historian of ideas, especially of religion, in the ancient Near East, and truly a genius.

[See also American Schools of Oriental Research; Beit Mirsim, Tell; Beth-Zur; Dead Sea Scrolls; Historical Geography; Rabud, Khirbet; and Ugarit Inscriptions.]


  • Albright, William Foxwell. The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible (1932). Cambridge, Mass., 1974.
  • Albright, William Foxwell. From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process. Baltimore, 1940.
  • Albright, William Foxwell. Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. Baltimore, 1942.
  • Albright, William Foxwell. History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism. New York, 1964.
  • Albright, William Foxwell. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths. Garden City, N.Y., 1968.
  • Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 122 (April 1951): In Honor of William Foxwell Albright on His Sixtieth Birthday, May 24, 1951 (guest editor: Ephraim Avigdor Speiser).
  • Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Published Works of William Foxwell Albright: A Comprehensive Bibliography. Cambridge, Mass., 1975.
  • Goedicke, Hans, ed. Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright. Baltimore, 1971.
  • Malamat, Abraham, ed. W. F. Albright Volume. Eretz-Israel, vol. 9. Jerusalem, 1969.
  • Running, Leona Glidden, and David Noel Freedman. William Foxwell Albright: A Twentieth-Century Genius. New York, 1975; centennial ed., Berrien Springs, Mich., 1991.
  • Van Beek, Gus W. The Scholarship of William Foxwell Albright: An Appraisal. Atlanta, 1989.
  • Wright, G. Ernest, ed. The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of William Foxwell Albright. Garden City, N.Y., 1961.

Leona Glidden Running and David Noel Freedman

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