Ancient Texts and Archaeology Revisited-Radiocarbon and Biblical Dating in the Southern Levant

Article excerpt



During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ancient texts such as the Homeric epics in the Aegean, and the ancient Vedic literatures in south Asia, often served as the catalyst for archaeological research. One of the world's 'hot spots' for this kind of historically-led archaeology is still the southern Levant--the region that includes Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, southern Syria and the Sinai Desert. The archaeology of this region, often referred to as the 'Holy Land', has been steeped in debate because of its ties with ancient and sacred texts. Ever since the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund by British researchers in 1865, the reconciliation of archaeology and text was a driving force:

'the accurate and systematic investigation of the archaeology, topography, geology and physical geography, natural history, manners and customs of the Holy Land, for biblical illustration' (Moorey 1991: 4).

This mission statement with its stress on the importance of the ancient (in this case, sacred) Biblical text still characterises much of the archaeology of the region. The fact that sacred texts (the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) are linked to the Iron Age archaeology of the southern Levant has made it an especially acrimonious academic field. There are researchers who minimise the historical reliability of the ancient texts (Davies 1992; Whitelam 1996; Thompson 1999), those who make the most of these texts (Kitchen 2003; Hoffmeier & Millard 2004; Hoffmeier 2008) and others who find themselves somewhere in the middle (Dever 2001; Halpern 2001; Stager 2003).

Debate about the relationship between ancient texts and the archaeological record in the southern Levantine is especially important now, because of the large scale of archaeological research and many publication projects that are currently carried out there. Here we present a case for the independent application of rigorous scientific procedures, in the field and in the laboratory. Exercising our belief that a better framework for the way ahead lies in radiocarbon dating drawn from precisely excavated stratigraphic contexts, we hope to encourage a transformative process in the way that historical archaeology is carried out in this region that may serve as a model for historical archaeologies in other parts of the world.

The application of science-based methods in historical Biblical archaeology research has been a feature of recent years, and reflects a maturity of the field. Our own approach has been influenced by three key factors. First, we have to confront the very high concentrations of material and structures encountered in Levantine Iron Age sites. This means moving to sophisticated digital data handling systems. Second, a radiocarbon date is only as good as its context, so all efforts must be mobilised to provide securely provenanced samples.

And third, we need high precision dates, because, if radiocarbon is to truly complement traditional methods based on pottery typology, it must attempt to match the chronological period intervals--of less than a century--that those traditional methods claim. After a brief review of how these relatively well-known procedures have been introduced and applied in the Levant, we offer a new radiocarbon sequence for southern Jordan (Edom) and show how it alters the perceptions of other recently published chronologies, in particular the 'Low Chronology' espoused by Israel Finkelstein.

Data handling procedures and context definition

As part of an effort to establish a more pragmatic and science-based approach to the Iron Age archaeology of the southern Levant (Levy & Higham 2005a & b; Levy & Smith 2007; Levy in press) our UC San Diego-Department of Antiquities of Jordan Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP) team, and its predecessor the Jabal Hamrat Fidan project, have introduced on-site digital archaeology rooted in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to provide spatial control and data processing over the collection of all archaeological data in the field. …