November 26, 2010

CONTACT SPORT:

Kings of Controversy: Was the Kingdom of David and Solomon a glorious empire—or just a little cow town? It depends on which archaeologist you ask. (Robert Draper, December 2010, National Geographic)

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.

That narrative is familiar to any student of the Bible. A young shepherd named David from the tribe of Judah slays the giant Goliath from the enemy tribe of the Philistines, is elevated to king of Judah following the death of Saul at the close of the 11th century B.C., conquers Jerusalem, unites the people of Judah with the disparate Israelite tribes to the north, and thereupon amasses a royal dynasty that continues with Solomon well into the tenth century B.C. But while the Bible says David and Solomon built the kingdom of Israel into a powerful and prestigious empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, from Damascus to the Negev, there's a slight problem—namely, that despite decades of searching, archaeologists had found no solid evidence that David or Solomon ever built anything.

Then Mazar sounded her trumpet. "She knew what she was doing," says fellow Israeli archaeologist David Ilan of Hebrew Union College. "She waded into the fray purposefully, wanting to make a statement."

Ilan himself doubts that Mazar has found King David's palace. "My gut tells me this is an eighth- or ninth-century building," he says, constructed a hundred years or more after Solomon died in 930 B.C. More broadly, critics question Mazar's motives. They note that her excavation work was underwritten by two organizations—the City of David Foundation and the Shalem Center—dedicated to the assertion of Israel's territorial rights. And they scoff at Mazar's allegiance to the antiquated methods of her archaeological forebears, such as her grandfather, who unapologetically worked with a trowel in one hand and the Bible in the other.

The once common practice of using the Bible as an archaeological guide has been widely contested as an unscientific case of circular reasoning—and with particular relish by Tel Aviv University's contrarian-in-residence Israel Finkelstein, who has made a career out of merrily demolishing such assumptions. He and other proponents of "low chronology" say that the weight of archaeological evidence in and around Israel suggests that the dates posited by biblical scholars are a century off. The "Solomonic" buildings excavated by biblical archaeologists over the past several decades at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo were not constructed in David and Solomon's time, he says, and so must have been built by kings of the ninth-century B.C.'s Omride dynasty, well after David and Solomon's reign.

During David's time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a "hill-country village," David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like "500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.

"Of course we're not looking at the palace of David!" Finkelstein roars at the very mention of Mazar's discovery. "I mean, come on. I respect her efforts. I like her—very nice lady. But this interpretation is—how to say it?—a bit naive."

Now it is Finkelstein's theory that is under siege. On the heels of Mazar's claim to have discovered King David's palace, two other archaeologists have unveiled remarkable finds. Twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Elah Valley—the very spot where the Bible says the young shepherd David slew Goliath—Hebrew University professor Yosef Garfinkel claims to have unearthed the first corner of a Judaean city dating to the exact time that David reigned. Meanwhile, 30 miles south of the Dead Sea in Jordan, a University of California, San Diego professor named Thomas Levy has spent the past eight years excavating a vast copper-smelting operation at Khirbat en Nahas. Levy dates one of the biggest periods of copper production at the site to the tenth century B.C.—which, according to the biblical narrative, is when David's antagonists the Edomites dwelled in this region. (However, scholars like Finkelstein maintain that Edom did not emerge until two centuries later.) The very existence of a large mining and smelting operation fully two centuries before Finkelstein's camp maintains the Edomites emerged would imply complex economic activity at the exact time that David and Solomon reigned. "It's possible that this belonged to David and Solomon," Levy says of his discovery. "I mean, the scale of metal production here is that of an ancient state or kingdom."

Levy and Garfinkel—both of whom have been awarded grants by the National Geographic Society—support their contentions with a host of scientific data, including pottery remnants and radiocarbon dating of olive and date pits found at the sites. If the evidence from their ongoing excavations holds up, yesteryear's scholars who touted the Bible as a factually accurate account of the David and Solomon story may be vindicated.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 26, 2010 12:02 PM
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