December 15, 2018

Archaeology, truth, Jerusalem

Archaeology is more than a science when it comes to Jerusalem, a place where the turn of the spade may reveal an artifact that has political and theological overtones. Katharina Galor and Hanswulf Bloedhorn, authors of “The Archeology of Jerusalem: From the Origins to the Ottomans” (Yale University Press, $50), are mindful of these pitfalls.

“[S]omething beyond the material and written remains has contributed to the long-lasting effects of Jerusalem’s cultural and religious development,” they acknowledge. “Whether guided by the desire to prove or disprove a certain spiritual presence and its physical manifestations, and regardless of whether one is a religiously inspired or scientifically trained scholar, the goal is always to reconstruct ‘the truth.’ ”

Their goal here is to provide a comprehensive survey of the work that has been carried by several generations of scholars. Galor is a professor of Judaic studies at Brown University, and Bloedhorn is an expert in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine architecture. Both of them have lived, worked and taught in Jerusalem, and their scholarship is informed by their first-hand experience of what is surely the most consequential archaeological site in the world. 

For all of its importance, however, or perhaps because of it, some of the first excavations were “methodologically deficient and unsatisfactorily documented.” The problem begins, of course, with the distorting role that religion plays in what used to be called “biblical archaeology,” which invoked the fanciful notion of archaeologists who carried a shovel in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. Even today, it is impossible to excavate on the very site where tradition holds that the Temple once stood.

The physical evidence of the history of Jerusalem is considerable. The city is mentioned in Egyptian “execration” texts on ceramic bowls and figurines dating back to the 19th century B.C.E.: “It was believed,” they explain, “that the power of the enemy whose name was inscribed on the bowls and figurines could be destroyed by smashing them.” The remains of two buildings survive from the Early Bronze Age. But the narratives that are preserved in the Bible are of only “limited chronological value,” as the authors delicately put it, and they suggest the Temple of Solomon, if it existed at all, was something different from what is described in the Tanakh.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that numerous contemporary sanctuaries existed and that monotheism did not develop until after 622 B.C.E.,” they point out. “All attempts to locate the First Temple, whether by trying to locate the Temple itself (or specific parts of it, such as the Holy of Holies or the sacrificial altar) or, alternatively, by locating the substructure that possibly supported the Temple, remain conjectural.”

By contrast, animal and human figurines fashioned of clay are among the most common archaeological finds from the Late Iron Age. While the authors do not use the term, we might wonder if these figurines are better described as idols. “These figurines can be understood as an expression of popular beliefs whose traditions were rooted in the political and cultural development of Judah,” they write, “a reality that stands in contrast to the biblical injunction against the making of graven images.” 

Of necessity, much of the book is devoted to the period that began with the end of the Babylonian Exile starting in the sixth century B.C.E. Here, too, the evidence for the biblical account is sparse or non-existent. “Despite the fundamental role of the postexilic Second Temple,” the writers point out, “archaeological remains of this edifice are lacking.” Only the Temple as reconstructed by Herod — and only the retaining walls for this structure — testify to the existence of the ancient Temple. But much more attests to the urban landscape of ancient Jerusalem, including architecture, mosaics, sculpture, inscriptions, vessels, coins, jewelry and even board games incised on stone pavers, all of which are illustrated in fascinating detail. 

Most abundant of all, of course, are the constructions undertaken in Jerusalem by its various Islamic, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman conquerors. It is only the last of these, for example, who constructed the walls that circumscribe the Old City. The accumulation of archaeological remnants over a period of 5,000 years, as the author points out, represents only a fragment of its rich history. “No one discipline — history, archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, art history, and more — presumes to capture the full scope of Jerusalem’s heritage.”

But it is also true that no other city of the ancient world is quite so compelling, and not only to archaeologists. The followers of three religions regard Jerusalem as the starting point (and, for some, the endpoint) of the divine enterprise. But theology does not enter into “The Archaeology of Jerusalem.” To their credit, Galor and Bloedhorn have encapsulated the work of many generations of their fellow scholars by showing us, quite literally, the facts on the ground.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”