Archaeology and the Bible

Why archaeologists are not out to destroy your faith.

Archaeology, what’s the point?

We’ve all heard a little something about archaeology and archaeologists at one time or another. So, what’s the point? Why bother recovering the scattered remains of peoples long gone, the trash and rubble of a bygone age? After all, everything important has been written by some historian or other, hasn’t it?

Actually not. Most of the way people live their lives, the daily routine that says so much about who we are, what we believe, and why we do what we do is never recorded.

In fact it’s amazing how fast information no longer in use slips away from us. For instance, who remembers what all the F keys on the computer did? Going back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, gentlemen, who do you tip your hat to and what does the angle you tip that hat on your head (or don’t tip it) tell others of that day and age about you? Get either of those wrong and you’ve got potential trouble. Worse, guys, in the early nineteenth century, why did the cane wielding lady just smack your shins while you were walking along minding your own business? I’ll give you a hint about that last one. You were walking beside the buildings, forcing the irate lady to walk near the street. Back in the days of horse traffic and dirt roads there was so much filth in the streets some people had not seen the actual road surface, such as it was, in their lifetime. Basically, our passing lady is angry because you’ve left her near the road under imminent threat of being splashed by passing carriages.

And customs become less familiar as you slip into the past. For instance, in the early 1800s and before in much of what was then America, the average family ate their meals communally out of a single wooden trencher set in the middle of the table and the menu staple was stew from a big pot constantly on the fire. Every day new items were added to the never-ending stew. It was a pretty bland diet and lead to some serious drinking. That communal nature permeated society. The traveling man could expect to sleep communally at Inns on the road as well with at least one stranger as a bedfellow at night. Individual anything was a mid-nineteenth century invention.

How many of you have traveled 25 or more miles from the town where you were born? In the 1700s and before that would make you an unusual and interesting person many would seek out to hear the news from elsewhere in the wide world. In Lord of the Rings, when Sam stops at the edge of a field and says if he takes one step further he’ll be farther from home than he’d ever been … that was the common experience of the average person living in a small village or on a farm.

Archaeology recovers the unwritten past. It gives voice to the peoples who never had their history recorded. And in the process it tells us much about ourselves, about where we came from and who we are.

What is Archaeology?

Now there you have one dry definition of archaeology, the kind of thing you might find in your standard archaeological report. Let’s liven it up a bit. Archaeology is exploration. It is the search for humanity’s past, the study of where we came from, what we did, how we lived, what we believed, where we’ve been, how we survived, and what it all means for us today. It is the study of the unrecorded stories of our ancestors’ lives, the details that no rising civilization or conquering heroes ever thought to record.

Archaeologists pursue these explorations all around the globe, wherever people live or once lived. Archaeology has been undertaken on every continent and inhabited island, in climates ranging from Arctic to tropical, and even under the water along shipping lanes in coastal waters, up rivers, and in the Great Lakes.

Who are archaeologists?

Yes! It’s true. Every archaeologist is exactly like Indiana Jones! Can’t you see the resemblance? Ah well, actually if archaeology sites were anything like those Indy dealt with, archaeologists would all be dead! But we do love that image.

To generalize archaeologists are trained professionals who have studied techniques for archaeological excavation, artifact analysis, and interpretation. They tend to be “jacks-of-all-trades” when it comes to what they know and they never stop picking up new information, cross referencing the archaeological sites they work on with other similar sites to see what other professionals have discovered.

For instance, I’ve driven a miniature backhoe to remove debris from a plantation manor house foundation, tramped across hundreds of miles of fields and hillsides on surveys, rummaged through dusty plat and insurance maps in County Courthouse basements, worked with surveying equipment, learned how to properly clean and photograph dirt without casting a shadow, and led a team of fifty professionals through long seasons in a winter excavation (not dissimilar to herding cats … opinionated, educated cats no less), jury rigging PVC pipe, plastic covered huts so we wouldn’t freeze, all before lifting a trowel and moving a single trowel-full of dirt.

They are also ardent puzzle solvers, picking up the long lost bits and pieces of past civilizations … both long past and recent past depending on their specialty … in an attempt to learn about earlier human cultures and the societies that carry culture. Cultures are learned behaviors passed down from one generation to the next. They are the way peoples cope and adapt to an often changing and frequently difficult world. Cultures are the habits and customs of a people, the ways they view and respond to the world and include peoples’ languages, religions, economies, technologies, art, faith, and political structures. Societies, those ways humans organize themselves into groups, carry culture. Okay, let’s back up a bit.

Who are archaeologists? What do you think? What have you read?

They are men and women, trained in the profession, of all races and all faiths. They can be found everywhere around the globe, rummaging through the discarded trash, scattered remains, and burial sites of anybody who has ever lived. A very democratic bunch you might say!

Archaeology and archaeologists come in many types with many interests. There are historical archaeologists (that was my profession) who deal with cultures with recorded histories. In the United States, historical archaeology covers the period from first European contact with Native Americans up to the nineteenth century. When I was working the nineteenth century was considered too recent to be worthy of attention … but that’s changing. There are prehistoric archaeologists. As might be expected, they deal with societies and peoples who have yet to develop writing. Then there are your marine archaeologists, Biblical archaeologists, and specialists in just about every society you can think of from Egyptologists to Mayanologists. They work for museums, universities, and private Cultural Resources Management firms (which is where I spent my years).

What is an archaeology site?

What comes to mind when you think of archaeology sites?

To expand on the definitions, archaeology sites include cemeteries adjacent to or within communities, hunting sites, camping sites, ceremonial and religious sites, quarries, large plantations or tiny farmsteads, businesses, garbage heaps and shell middens … any site where human activity has left its mark in the earth. There is ongoing debate in the archaeological community over how small is too small for something to be considered an archaeological site. For instance, if a very small family group of nomads moving from one place to another stop for one night and camp, leaving behind only the remains of that night’s fire, is that enough to qualify as an archaeology site?

How are sites found?

Historical archaeology sites are sought first through record searches, pouring over old maps, deeds, insurance records, anything that provides clues as to the location of a site. Prehistoric and historic sites are also found during field surveys, which have been conducted on foot (I once tramped across part of upstate New York to the center of the state with a large crew checking for sites along the intended path of a pipeline to be dug by the state’s power company), in cars, on horseback, in small planes, and with magnetometers under the sea. In likely areas, where either there are artifacts found on the surface or where the geography suggests this would be a good place to live or work, test pits are dug down to through the earth until sterile clay is reached. The dirt is run through portable sieves and checked for artifacts. When artifacts are recovered, more pits are dug further out to find out how big a site is. Once the site is recorded, and the artifacts carefully identified and stored for future study, and the survey is finished, the archaeologists return for excavation. Archaeology sites are also found by accident … usually to the chagrin on construction companies, at least in the United States. During construction sites may be uncovered. When this happens archaeologists are called in for “emergency excavations”. This is very fast work, not nearly as methodical as usual field work, but designed to recover at least a portion of the damaged site and the record of human activity and life it contains before construction work continues and the site is destroyed.


Surface mapping, gridding, careful excavation in either natural layers or small units.

Once a site is found, a detailed map of the surface of the area is made, a point is established that is permanent and can be found by future archaeologists and marked on the map, and the site is laid out in ten foot grids to help identify where everything removed from the site came from.

Stratigraphy … the chronology of archaeology.

When digging begins, archaeologists dig down one layer of dirt at a time. Over time, many layers of dirt build up over abandoned sites of former human activity. Some sites are buried by people. Others are covered by the natural actions of wind bringing in eroded topsoil from somewhere else or shifting sand over a site or the slow steady process of fallen rotting leaves and dead grass gradually creating new layers of earth to cover the remains. These layers are removed one at a time and any artifacts recovered are recorded in place once the entire layer is removed from the excavation area. This is repeated until the site one seeks is reached and exposed. In the walls at the edges of the excavation pit, these layers may be seen in detail. They are mapped and they represent the chronology of the site. Every layer you descend takes you back to an earlier age.

Once the site is completely exposed, all its features (these may include postholes from wood houses or fence lines, stone or brick building foundations, burial or storage pits, or any other habitation or work site) and all the artifacts, both fragmentary and complete are mapped in and photographed. The artifacts and associated features are the whispered words of forgotten history and the layer they are discovered in is the page they are written on. Everything is recorded in place so that the words may be read in their proper order and in association with all the other words from the site. An individual artifact all by itself and unassociated with its site doesn’t tell you much. It’s like taking a single word from a book and trying to understand the book from that word. You don’t get far. But when you read all the words together you have a better chance of understanding the meaning.

Once they have been properly recorded, artifacts are removed for reconstruction and interpretation, when archaeologists try hard to understand what the site is telling them.

Artifacts, what are they?

Now we need to stop and discuss what artifacts, or for the British they would be “finds”, actually are. Artifacts are extremely important. They are the objects people leave behind that are sturdy enough to survive the ravages of time (the single most persistent destructive force in the natural world). Artifacts range from pots, stone arrowheads (projectile points in the trade), shattered glass from bottles to windows, buttons, tools of stone and metal, metal or stone weapons, anything really of human manufacture that was once used or enjoyed by people that do not rot. Artifacts help to date archaeology sites, determine how advanced people were, what their preferences and beliefs were, who they traded with, and who was rich or poor in a particular community … just to name a few. Artifacts are the words of unrecorded history waiting to be recovered and interpreted, much as scripture is interpreted, using a wide variety of methods and hypotheses as lenses through which to view the objects and try to determine what they are really trying to tell us.

Just to make things interesting, most of the artifacts recovered are broken into many fragments. Colonial Williamsburg’s chief archaeologist once wrote that in the past 300 years, 90 percent of everything made by man has been destroyed! All those things have become artifacts for archaeologists to recover. And the rate of destruction increases the further back you go.

Here’s an example of what artifacts can tell you about both a site and the people who lived there. I worked for several years on a large plantation site, first inhabited in 1680 and finally abandoned in 1895. The extraordinary thing is that only two families had owned the place and no one had used it since. The first family was the Addisons. First they build a post in the ground small wooden house to get started on what was then the colonial frontier in Prince Georges County, Maryland. John Addison was the county’s first Colonel, in charge of keeping order on the wild frontier. The governor sent him and the local men who formed his militia out to check on rumors of pirates in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or to try to talk an Indian tribe into moving back on the eastern face of the mountains where they could be checked on periodically. And there was always the threat that the French or Spanish would get up to no good out there in the semi-wilds. And all this was within sight of today’s Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. It was a different world.

When we worked on this site in the 1980s, the site of the first house consisted of posthole stains showing where the support posts for the wooden house once stood, which was usual. But then there was a basement, which was very unusual for this kind of structure. More unusual was the tunnel that exited one corner of the basement. We couldn’t believe this when we started uncovering it. You see in Northern Virginia the standard joke is that every Southern plantation had a tunnel that went down to the Potomac River and that would be used to secretly carry away a kidnapped Abraham Lincoln and bring and end to the Civil War. Well, our tunnel went a mere 27 feet and the Potomac was a mile away. There were steps leading up at the far end to the ground surface and there had been a large wooden door at the basement end. We were mystified … until several artifacts showed up. This house had burned down in 1730, which was not uncommon at all. The fire had been so hot, it tempered any metal objects in that basement and kept them from rusting over the years they were buried. We found gun parts, lots of them. This made sense. The Colonel of the militia had to make sure each of his men had one gun they could use when called up by the governor. One of the Colonel’s jobs was to keep replacement parts for the weapons so that when someone’s gun broke, Colonel Addison could have his blacksmith replace the piece. We found those parts, flintlock mechanisms, pistol and rifle butt plates, and the rings that held ramrods in place, in the basement. How does that help explain the tunnel? I undertook some research on militias and forts. I found that forts had such tunnels leading out underground storerooms called bomb proofs where they stored arms and gunpowder. If an enemy ship fired on the fort and the ball penetrated the buried arm’s storeroom, the force and fire from the exploding gunpowder would be channeled down the tunnel, away from the troops in the fort, saving many lives. So history and artifacts combined to solve the puzzle of the tunnel. Abraham Lincoln was safe.

What about the people? Well, the parts present and the tunnel showed us John Addison took his duties seriously and felt there was a very real threat of bombardment from the Potomac River when he built his basement bombproof. However, the artifacts themselves told us about his son, who inherited the plantation but only made it to Captain in the militia after Colonel John died in 1710. We uncharitably wrote the son off as one of those rich guys who doesn’t have the ambition of his father. But the recovered gun parts told a different tale. You see, when the building burned down in 1730s, those gun parts were seriously out of date. It had been 15 years since the British had last used parts like these at all, and they’d first been introduced in the 1650s. The British were always pawning off their old stuff on the colonies, especially when an area was no longer in danger. By 1730, the frontier had moved much further West and the Prince Georges County militia was reduced to nothing more than a police force called out when the crowd at the pub got a little too rowdy. For John Addison, being Colonel of the militia, the guy in charge, had been one way to grasp power and influence for himself over those around him. By his son’s day, the position wasn’t nearly so prestigious and his son turned his attentions elsewhere. There’s a very small example of how artifacts can shed light on the people who used them and left them behind. The more artifacts you recover from a single excavation site, the more you learn about the people who left them behind. The biggest challenge for the archaeologist is how to interpret what those artifacts are trying to tell you.

The “New Archaeology”

That’s where the so-called New Archaeology comes in. Archaeology begins as a field of study in nineteenth century France. Early archaeologists had been content to classify the remains they found and attempt to build a chronology from them, just getting events and dates sorted out. It was all pretty straight forward. But it wasn’t enough. You could answer your basic who, what, and where questions this way, but not why. So when archaeologist started asking why things were the way they were on an archaeology site, the “New Archaeology” was born. Nettlesome questions were being asked about why collections of artifacts were located in one place and not another, or what it meant to assume that such a collection implied a group had existed there previously. In short, archaeologists began to realize that a chronological ordering would tell us nothing about the past unless an interpretive step was added. And for interpretation, archaeology, considered a “social science” took a page from the hard sciences and developed guiding hypotheses and principles to help interpret the finds and answer those why questions. It would take weeks to go over all those interpretive strategies. Giving the Sense touches on a few of them. However, none of my sources every refers to any of them as atheistic and I’ve never met a single archaeologist who rubbed his or her hands and chuckled evilly while contemplating using an atheistic hypothesis on some poor, unsuspecting site or artifacts.

The Problem of Interpretation

I’ll use the very last site I worked on to show you the problems faced by archaeologists when trying to interpret a site and the artifacts found there. The site was right downtown in Philadelphia, just north of Chinatown, under what is today the Vine Street Expressway. It was the Vine Street Cemetery Project. The cemetery was discovered by PENDOT when they were excavating. It belonged to the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia from the early 1800s. It had been used for nineteen years and we’d been told to expect about a dozen burials on site. We had a month to excavate. Plenty of time! Until we found that the number of burials was grossly underestimated. Ninety-nine individuals had been buried on a very small site. Imagine your church losing ninety-nine members in nineteen years and being forced to bury them in a very small plot in your church’s back yard. Many of the bodies were buried in a trench four coffins wide and four deep. When the church moved, they took up the headstones, tore down the fence, and left the bodies behind. Houses were built on the cleared land, with all those bodies in the back yards. Later, the original Vine Street covered the abandoned cemetery.

So, what do you make of that? If I were a bigot, I’m sure I could use the direct evidence to support a very negative interpretation of the facts presented in the ground.

Luckily, on this site we could use history to interpret what had happened. First let me reassure you, the members of the First African Baptist Church cared as much for their congregants as anyone did. Before the latter half of the nineteenth century, when travel became easier and people were able to move between city and countryside with ease and begin using rolling countryside for cemeteries, city folks had to bury their dead within the city limits. Plots available were small, church plots especially so. They quickly filled up, especially considering the death toll of the day. Soon, deacons were forced to go out the night before a burial, dig up someone, shift that body and coffin into a multiple burial pit, just to have room for a decent burial the next day. These cemeteries were something straight out of an old horror movie. The ground was forever muddy and bone bits scattered the surface. By the time the congregation moved, after nineteen years of hard use, they were glad to leave that nasty site behind and start over. Coupling history with the facts in the ground gave us a clear reason for why the congregation had acted as they did. With prehistoric sites, you need those scientific hypotheses and interpretive strategies to make sense of the facts presented in the ground. The site may be your book, the stratigraphy your chronology, and the artifacts your words … but the further back you go in time, the more alien the language the story is told in becomes. Frequently to help in interpretation archaeologists call in professionals from other fields to help ranging from geologists and dendrochronologists to anthropologists and theologians.

Of course, being a science, archaeologists argue over their findings. It’s how things get done. Every proposed conclusion an archaeologist comes up with after carefully studying all the data from an excavation, and cross checking against other similar excavations, then comes up for peer review. Archaeologists … and others … who ascribe to differing interpretive theories … who view the world through different lenses one might say … will challenge the conclusions. These challenges go on all the time and may last for many years with arguments going back and forth as additional information is recovered from new digs. Eventually, when some conclusions have endured much scrutiny and survived long enough, they are considered established facts. However, in all the sciences, all facts are considered open for revision when new information comes up. That’s just how the process works and knowledge is advanced. From the outside it looks as it nothing is ever agreed on or certain … but that’s just the scientific process at work. It’s not a pretty process, tempers flare, name-calling is stooped to, but when the dust clears, the surviving evidence is pretty well proved.

Archaeology and Faith … What archaeology can and cannot do. Why the Bible frustrates some archaeologists.

Finally, archaeology can’t prove or disprove God, the patriarchs, the saints, or Jesus. When you were called to ministry, did any of you leave any artifacts behind in the ground for future archaeologists to recover? Of course not. Archaeology can find the evidence left behind that people have faith, the remains of temples and churches, icons, and burial customs related to specific beliefs. But not God. The Bible frustrates some archaeologists because it presents such a broad scope of information, the stories of so many peoples, but it doesn’t tie them down to this or that specific spot. There are no map coordinates provided and the Middle East is a big place. In that sense, archaeologists can’t use the Bible. In most cases, it doesn’t help them find the sites they need to do their jobs and advance knowledge. But that doesn’t mean archaeologists don’t consider the Bible valuable. There are many Christian archaeologists. As for this one-time archaeologist, the Bible is an amazing and invaluable source. Not only does it show the journey God has undertaken with us, but it also provides us with the thoughts, beliefs, and ways of life of peoples spanning back far before written records, back to ages where very little survives the ravages of time. That in itself is miraculous. So, don’t let the rhetoric fool you. Archaeologists are not out to destroy your faith.

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Comments 2 comments

Lance Foster 4 years ago

Nice post! I am going to send my online archaeology students here to read it. Thanks!

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J.S. Brooks 2 years ago Author

Thanks Lance. I hope they enjoy it.

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