Biblical archaeologists find silver lining in dig shutdowns


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 24th. You’re listening to the The World and Everything in It and we’re so glad to have you along with us today. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next, how archaeology’s been affected by the response to COVID-19.

A watchdog group in Israel reports at least 100 archaeological sites in the Holy Land have been vandalized or plundered. The group cites reduced security as part of the reason. And now many educational programs that conduct archaeological digs are canceled due to travel restrictions. WORLD reporter Paul Butler spoke with a couple of archaeologists to find out what’s at stake.

STRIPLING: My name is Dr. Scott Stripling. I am the director of excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research, currently excavating in ancient Shiloh…

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: ABR’s Scott Stripling’s been an archaeologist for more than 20 years. Since 20-17 he’s managed its excavations at the Biblical site of Shiloh—where the Tabernacle stood before Solomon built the temple. 

STRIPLING: Normally I would be in this role right now and I would have awakened at 3:45 in the morning and had breakfast at four and loaded the bus at 4:45 and arrived at Shiloh. 

Under normal circumstances, Stripling would be overseeing one of the largest archaeological teams in Israel, up to 100 people.

STRIPLING: You know, the day just never ends. We take the excavations through our protocols with a grid, then we take it through a final phase of wet sifting where we wash the material to make sure we’re not missing any small fines. We do pottery reading and object analysis, and then we’ve got team meetings and then lectures in the evening and you get up and do it all again the next day.

But earlier this spring, Stripling had to make a difficult decision. 

STRIPLING: Ultimately we did have to pull the plug on our season. We’ve not had to do this since the Second Intifada many years ago when we had to cancel several seasons. 

Reports of vandalism at dozens of archaeological sites across Israel and Jordan have many concerned. While his site at Shiloh is well guarded, many others are not. It’s one of the unforeseen results of the international pandemic. 

STRIPLING: We have 30,000 archaeological sites in Israel and each one is important in its own way. And so you can’t undo vandalism because it messes up the stratigraphy of the site. 

Stratigraphy is the layered deposits of things like pottery, tools, and bones. Each layer corresponds to a particular time in history. Archaeologists are very careful to not contaminate those strata as they dig. Vandalism disrupts those layers. 

STRIPLING: As an archaeologist, I get one bite at the apple. I can’t go back and replicate the experiment. We’ve got to do it right the first time. And so once the stratigraphy is lost, then you know, there’s not a whole lot we can do with that material. 

Each year, many colleges and universities send their students to do field work. According to Stripling, this summer’s cancelled season may have long reaching effects on these programs.  

SCOTT STRIPLING: In archaeology as a whole, I definitely expect to see some digs that will not start up again, and even some archaeological programs that are possibly not even going to continue. 

While the news is grim, it’s not all bad. 

GIBSON: My name is Shimon Gibson. I’m professor of history and archaeology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

Shimon Gibson has been digging things up in Israel since his childhood. He sees a few silver linings in the summer cancelations. 

SHIMON GIBSON: It means we can get cracking on publications because all our ecological projects, consists of the digging and then there’s the post excavation where we sort all the pottery and all the fines and everything, and we record everything, catalog materials. And then there’s the third part, which is that the publication.

Gibson maintains there’s another benefit of the near complete shut-down of digs and tourism in the Holy Land: It gives Israel and its neighbors a chance to reconsider the level of access granted to valuable cultural sites.

SHIMON GIBSON: There’s a lot of destruction, unfortunately, that, that occurs from masses of tourists visiting these archeological sites such as Massada, or in Jordan, Petra, which has become a kind of sort of ghost city. So maybe this is the time for the local authorities to think about conservation. Looking at, updating, putting in teams conservationists to preserve ancient crumbling walls and that sort of thing. 

ABR’s Scott Stripling has similar feelings about conservation:

STRIPLING: God left us a specific revelation in the Bible. He left us a general revelation in nature, but I think there’s a third witness and that’s the material culture that was left behind. As a believer, to be able to excavate sites that are so important to the biblical record, and then to take on that responsibility of properly, scientifically, doing that and then publishing it properly so that there is a record, for future generations of what God did in history. 

And for Stripling, that record is crucial in the battle for the truth.

STRIPLING: For the skeptic then who maybe has been taught that the Bible is not trustworthy, it also becomes apologetic because they can see that the Bible talks about it. And then we have a material culture that’s very consistent with what we would expect to see. It’s what I call verisimilitude. You read it in the text and then you find what you would expect to find in the material culture. 

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.


(Photo/iStock)

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