Friday, November 26, 2010

Archeologists and Historians at Work

Randall Stephens

What do historians do? How do they go about their work?

The work of a historian is not entirely unlike that of an archeologist. Both see through a glass darkly. (Maybe that's more "darkly" for an archeologist.) They look at primary source materials (material culture and texts), make comparisons to corroborate evidence, think about the context of one era compared to that of another, and use secondary literature to give them a bigger picture.

A great deal of interpretation and analysis informs the work of archeologists and historians. What's more, archeologists often disagree with each other just as historians do. Questions still remain open for debate. And debates can easily become politicized, tied into issues of national identity, or personal.

The hard work of archeology is spelled out clearly in a wonderful piece in the latest issue of National Geographic: Robert Draper, "Kings of Controversy: Was the Kingdom of David and Solomon a Glorious Empire—or Just a Little Cow Town?" National Geographic (December 2010)

See, for instance, how Draper sets up the nature of controversies:

In no other part of the world does archaeology so closely resemble a contact sport. Eilat Mazar is one of the reasons why. Her announcement in 2005 that she believed she had unearthed the palace of King David amounted to a ringing defense of an old-school proposition under assault for more than a quarter century—namely, that the Bible's depiction of the empire established under David and continued by his son Solomon is historically accurate. Mazar's claim has emboldened those Christians and Jews throughout the world who maintain that the Old Testament can and should be taken literally. Her purported discovery carries particular resonance in Israel, where the story of David and Solomon is interwoven with the Jews' historical claims to biblical Zion.

Draper also sheds light on how texts are used (or misused) to ground the material evidence. Pieces of the puzzle are put together slowly over decades:

The books of the Old Testament outlining the story of David and Solomon consist of scriptures probably written at least 300 years after the fact, by not-so-objective authors. No contemporaneous texts exist to validate their claims. Since the dawn of biblical archaeology, scholars have sought in vain to verify that there really was an Abraham, a Moses, an Exodus, a conquest of Jericho. At the same time, says Amihai Mazar, Eilat's cousin and among Israel's most highly regarded archaeologists, "Almost everyone agrees that the Bible is an ancient text relating to the history of this country during the Iron Age. You can look at it critically, as many scholars do. But you can't ignore the text—you must relate to it."

Of course, historians don't use hard science or equipment in the same ways that archeologists do--carbon dating, chemical analysis, shock-proof computers that can handle intense heat and dirt. Historians don't typically study prehistorical cultures. And, historians spend their time digging, mostly, in the comfort of air-conditioned archives.

Still the similarities and points of contact between the two fields is quite interesting. We read evidence, whether that be in the form of pottery shards and olive pits stuck in the side of a Palestinian hill or 18th-century English newspapers and court records.

Does the ambiguity of the archeological record produce controversies that burn hotter than historical controversies? After reading the National Geographic article, I could not think of historical debates that rage with the same intensity.


hcr said...

Try anything in American history that touches on either the federal government, religion, or race, Randall! (Texas history curriculum standards, anyone?)

Randall said...

The Texas curriculum change stirred up a hornet's nest. The whole thing was heavily weighed down by ideology.

But I would still say that such matters don't carry the same heavy ideological freight that the national and religious debates around ancient middle eastern archeology do.