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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Basic Archaeological Practice

1. Field Surveying

Archaeological observation began with observation and recording of ancient monuments and with the surveying and mapping of the surface of the land. In the nineteenth century it moved into excavation, but excavation has the serious disadvantage that it destroys the evidence as fast as it produces it. In the later twentieth century, archaeologists, before contemplating any excavation, developed the practice of surveying systematically the complete surface of the land and recording everything visible on the surface—small sites of human activity, settlements, monuments, artefacts, types of soil, and vegetation—primarily to assess the historical development of the area. Smaller areas might be studied intensively by use of a marked-out grid. Features below the surface may be revealed by ground shadows observed at low sunlight, by crop marks and soil marks (often seen with the help of aerial photography), and in particular by modern geophysical surveying: magnetometers detect magnetic variations in the subsoil, indicating previous human activity; resistivity surveying reveals different levels of conductivity, so locating buried walls and ditches; ground penetrating radar (GPR) can reveal the shape and position of underground objects. The content of soil or buried containers—phosphates, foodstuffs, organic wastes, all indicative of the nature of local human activity—can be analysed chemically. Mapping of areas and location of sites has been revolutionized by the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the databases of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). With GPS the archaeologist can position a site almost immediately on the map within a metre, without the need for the old systems of ground measurement and triangulation; with GIS the archaeologist can store, analyse, and manipulate archaeological and environmental data in order to answer a variety of questions about the ‘environmental signature’ of a site. Thus the modern archaeologist, in Israel/Palestine, as elsewhere, can amass an enormous amount of information about an area or site before contemplating the labour and expense of excavation.

Field surveys of recent decades have made important contributions in particular to the major historical question of the settlement of early Israel. Nelson Glueck's early surveys of Transjordan and the Negeb in the 1930s revealed the presence of Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, and Iron Age settlements and the comparative absence of Late Bronze settlements in southern Transjordan, and initiated historical research on ancient Edom, Moab, and Ammon. Y. Aharoni's surveys in Galilee and the Negev revealed new unwalled Early Iron I settlements which, coupled with the lack of evidence for destruction at Late Bronze Age sites, led him to support Alt's theory of a peaceful Israelite infiltration of Canaan (Aharoni 1957). From his survey of the land of Ephraim (1980–6) Israel Finkelstein (1988) argued for the peaceful settlement of the central hill country at the end of the Late Bronze Age by settlers from a pastoral background within Canaan. Such surveys provide a large new database for investigating historical and environmental issues. Large areas (including Jerusalem, Judah and Samaria, and the Negeb) have been surveyed in great detail by the Israel Antiquities Authority; east of the Jordan, recent surveys have covered the east Jordan valley, the Hesban region, the Kerak plateau, the Wadi el-Hasa, and other areas.

2. Excavation

Surveys are non-invasive, non-destructive, and relatively inexpensive means of acquiring information; excavation is invasive, destructive of the stratigraphical evidence it seeks, and relatively expensive. Excavation, therefore, is reserved for the investigation of particular problems for which survey work is inadequate, such as the detailed history of a particular site. Such sites are chosen with care, for their importance for current research purposes or their particular public interest; some sites are excavated because threatened with total destruction by building programmes (‘rescue digs’). In recent years excavation has taken place at well-known ‘biblical’ sites such as Tel Dan, Hazor, Lachish, Gezer, and et-Tell (Bethsaida), but there has been particular interest in some lesser-known Persian period sites (e.g. Tel Megadim, ‘Ein Hofez, Shoham, Yavneh Yam), in Philistine sites (T. Miqne/Ekron, T. Batash/Timnah), and in Phoenician sites (Horvat Rosh Zayit/Cabul). Recently excavated sites of the biblical period in Jordan include T. es-Sa'idiyeh, T. Deir ‘Alla, the Amman citadel, Hesban, ‘Umeiri, Sahab, Balu’, and Tell Mudeibhi.

Excavation methods have developed over the last century. The earliest archaeologists were primarily interested in finding and recording interesting artefacts, and their successors in revealing the architecture. The developing understanding of stratigraphy through the nineteenth century led to improved excavation techniques. Mortimer Wheeler developed a disciplined, systematic method of excavation that would mitigate the destructive aspect of digging and extract the utmost information from the ground. Seeing stratigraphy as the key to interpreting the site, Wheeler used a box-pattern of excavated squares, leaving the baulks between the squares as a record of the stratigraphy. These baulks were accurately drawn; the relationships between walls, floors, foundation trenches, pits, collapse-debris, and so on, were fully recorded; similarly, the pottery and individual artefacts were located and recorded within the stratigraphical framework. Thus a full vertical picture of the site could be put together, though this system was less suitable for recording the horizontal dimension. Wheeler's pupil Kathleen Kenyon developed this system at Jericho and Jerusalem, and it became known as the Wheeler-Kenyon system. However, the need to reveal the full horizontal extent of a site or stratum of a site could not be denied, especially where there was much public interest in biblical sites, and American and Israeli archaeologists modified the Wheeler-Kenyon methods to allow for this, dispensing with baulks where necessary after appropriate recording, or even sometimes adopting total open-area excavation (which is, as Wheeler knew, sometimes completely appropriate). Also important in American-Israeli practice is the ‘locus’, which is a definable unit such as a wall, a floor, an oven, or a pit. Whatever method is used, the recording of relationships between walls, floors, foundations, pits, etc., and the successive strata, in vertical ‘section drawings’ as well as horizontal plans, remains vital for the overall comprehension of the site, and the early twentieth century system, by which a complete tell might be removed stratum by stratum (as attempted at Megiddo in the 1920s and achieved at Tell el-Kheleifeh in 1938), leaving nothing by which a later excavator can check the findings of predecessors, is a thing of the past.

3. Methods of Dating

For early archaeologists of Palestine, the dating framework was provided primarily by the Bible, assisted by Josephus and by the classical writings. Later, as scholars learned to translate hieroglyphic and cuneiform texts, cross-reference could be made to historical writings from Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. Written texts, seen as the prime source of historical knowledge and reconstruction, were used to date archaeological findings. However, appreciation of the importance of stratigraphy made it possible for archaeologists to date their findings at least relatively, if not absolutely. At Tell el-Hesi, Flinders Petrie developed ‘sequence dating’, relating groups of material to strata on the site, and at Tell Beit Mirsim W. F. Albright (1926–32) established a ‘ceramic index’ and a pottery chronology for Palestine that still stands virtually unaltered; these tools reduced the archaeologist's total dependence on biblical dating, establishing the possibility of an independent source for chronology. Comparison of pottery from successive strata and different sites allowed archaeologists to observe the development of shapes and forms, and so to establish ‘typologies’, from which in turn other pottery could be identified. Such typologies can be subjective or over-refined, not allowing sufficiently for the whim of an ancient potter, but the modern technique of thermoluminescence can date pottery, from a few decades to a nearly a million years old, basically by measuring the amount of radioactivity absorbed by the pot from trace minerals present in it and from its surrounding soil since it was first fired (see Greene 2002: 171–3).

The age of pottery in a particular stratum can also be checked by the use of radio-carbon dating on organic material found in the same stratum; in this technique, first developed by William Libby in 1948, one can calculate the time that has elapsed since the material died (i.e. ceased to absorb radio-active carbon 14 from the atmosphere) by comparing the strength of the remaining 14C with the assumed original strength, given that 14C has a half-life of 5,730 years (i.e. a piece of wood 5,730 years old has a concentration of 14C which is half its value at formation) (Greene 2002: 161–8; Aitken 1997: 113–14). Subsequent research has adjusted upwards dates previously set pre-6000 b.p. (before present); radio-carbon dates are converted into calendar dates by the use of a calibration curve.

Another potentially important dating tool for archaeology in Israel/Palestine is dendrochronology (tree-ring dating)(Greene 2002: 156–9). The age of a tree when felled is known from the annual growth rings, whose thickness varies with the climatic conditions experienced. The sequence of annual weather change can be seen in the sequence of tree-rings. Specimens taken from bristle-cone pines in California give a sequence going back to c.4000 BCE; evidence from oak-trees in Europe yields a sequence extending beyond 8000 BCE. Ring sequences in trees over about 50 years old can be identified in the longer sequences, and so dated precisely. Dendrochronology can also, within its chronological limits, provide a check on radio-carbon dating.

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