‘Digging Up Armageddon,’ Takes An Archaeological Look At Where The End Begins

May 7, 2020

Har-Megiddo, a Hebrew place name that translates as the Mount of Megiddo, is mentioned a dozen times in the Tanakh, but it is better known in Western tradition as Armageddon. Starting in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian scriptures, Armageddon is understood to be the site of the final battle between the forces of good and evil that will take place at the end of the world.

For that reason, the site is a favorite destination of Christian tourists, who “frequently burst into hymns or prayers, especially if they are on their way to Nazareth,” explains Eric H. Cline in “Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon” (Princeton University Press). However, Cline is quick to point out that Megiddo, located about 18 miles southeast of Haifa in the Jezreel Valley, has been the site of at least 25 ancient cities, and holds different meanings to many different peoples throughout different periods of history, “from the Canaanites to the Israelites, and then the neo-Assyrians, neo-Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, followed in turn by the Muslims, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamlukes, Ottomans, and, most recently, World War I and the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.”

Cline is a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University and director of its Capitol Archaeological Institute. His previous books include “Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology” and “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.” For more than two decades, he has participated in the diggings at Megiddo, and his latest book is an account of the early and crucial era in the archaeological work that first started there more than a century ago.

Commanding in its scope and scholarship, and both chatty and charming in the stories Cline tells and the personalities whom we meet, “Digging Up Armageddon” is, itself, a treasured find.

Ironically, we discover Megiddo may be among the most misinterpreted and misunderstood archeological sites in history. In 1926, the field director of the dig insisted he had validated an account in the Book of Kings by finding the remains of King Solomon’s stables. Since then, Cline reports, “suspicions emerged that Solomon may not have built them and that they might not even be stables.” But, thanks to the “sales pitch” shopped around to various benefactors by renowned American archaeologist James Henry Breasted, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. agreed to fund the project in its entirety.

Then, too, the archaeologists who joined the dig were at odds with one another about more than the origins and significance of the artifacts they were finding. They argued about when to eat breakfast, when to start work, and whether to hold services every Sunday. One of them “grumbled quite specifically that they were there to do archaeology, not to run a religious mission.” Indeed, the remark reflects one of the great points of friction in what, until recently, has been called “biblical archaeology.” Archaeologists seek to find and understand what they dig out of the ground; by contrast, “biblical archaeologists” are inspired by what they read in the Bible and understandably aspire to corroborate the scriptures. Faith and science make uncomfortable bedfellows when it comes to archaeology.

Thus began what is known as the “Chicago Expedition,” a term referring to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, whose founder and director was Breasted himself. For example, Breasted rejoiced when he translated the Egyptian hieroglyphics on a fragment of stone found at the site precisely because they seemed to confirm “the familiar words of the Old Testament historian” he first read “as a lad in a country Sunday school” about the conquest of Megiddo by an Egyptian pharaoh in 930 B.C. But, as Breasted himself pointed out, the stone had been mishandled by the workmen who first dug it up, making it impossible to know when or when it was deposited at the site. “There were literally hordes of … local workmen, vastly outnumbering the members of the archaeological team, sometimes at a ratio of 100:1,” Cline reports. “The archaeologists and architects came around only when something exciting had been found.”

Still, there is something distinctly biblical about the afflictions the diggers endured – an infestation of mosquitoes, plagues of malaria and sand-fly fever, an earthquake in Jericho that caused jars to fall from shelves in Megiddo. One of the leading archaeologists was reported to suffer from “suicidal homosexual yearnings”; the 37-year-old woman who served as registrar was accused of making advances toward three younger staff members, who happened to be “the only single and available men at the dig during the spring of 1928.” The director told his staff “a story of intrigue, hintings and devious dealing which causes me to tell you that that I do not want Miss Woodley to remain at Megiddo any longer than can be helped.”

While the archaeological work continued, Jews and Arabs in Palestine were engaged in an ongoing and often violent struggle against each other. “Anti-Semitism had always been present at Megiddo to some degree,” Cline writes, and some of the administrators who came from abroad were quick to assert that “the Jew is to blame” while dismissing Arab violence against Jews as “all Jewish propaganda.” When P. L. O. (Philip Langstaffe Ord) Guy resumed the field directorship of Megiddo after a period of leave, however, “all anti-Jewish conversation … ceased,” and Guy’s Jewish wife was credited for the change of tone.

“Faith and science make uncomfortable bedfellows when it comes to archaeology.

One Jewish member of the archaeological staff, as it turns out, also was serving as a secret intelligence officer for the Haganah and after leaving the dig, went on to found its Arab department. “Archaeology, in general, has served, and is serving, as an excellent preparation for intelligence work,” Ukrainian-born architect and engineer Emmanuel Wilensky observed. “In both archaeology and intelligence, the researcher has to acquire an image of a distant reality, by piercing together patiently and slowly bits of information and hints, classifying and sifting them, and trying to bring them into an orderly system.”

The same description applies to Cline’s compelling book. He gives us more than one “image of a distant reality,” some dating back to distant antiquity, others focusing on the recent past, and a few that focus on Megiddo in the here and now.  “Digging Up Armageddon” perhaps is best summed up as a book about the time and place where all these realities can be seen at once.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Journal, is the author of “A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization.”

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