August 3, 2021

Why Archaeology?

He didn’t see his own change coming, or where it would lead.

Efraín Velazquez

I had heard about the “importance” of archaeology for the study of the Bible, but had never given it much thought.

During what should have been my last year at the Theological Seminary, an Andrews University professor sent us a survey that inquired about the interest of seminarians in archaeology and the relevance of investing funds in archaeological research. I had never been on an archaeological dig or had a particular interest in that area. My assessment of the importance of archaeology was low, in relation to mission objectives.

Their voices haunted me, and I wanted to learn more from those who had lived in the biblical lands.

On the other hand, I had been fascinated by the stories of my beloved professor David Merling. He could make you want to be part of a dig. He enjoyed sharing experiences about places that I had only heard of in Bible stories. But my interest was more in youth ministry and working with at-risk teens; no time to be pottering about in the dirt. Still, that last semester before graduation, I pondered the challenging questions that the survey raised, and began to reflect on archaeology at another level. Why archaeology? Was it worth the effort?

Then a scholarship was announced: it would enable the winner to participate in a dig that following summer. I applied. And I got it! It granted me the opportunity to work at an archaeological site with Andrews University in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The fact that I had not had serious training in archaeology was not a problem. I went as a volunteer, like many others on that group at Tal Jalul, Madaba. I am not sure what the odds were of getting that scholarship and becoming the roommate of the author of that survey, but there I was. Now I could question the inquisitive professor: the tables were turned, and he would have to show me why it was essential to search for what others had left behind.

Searching What’s Left Behind

Before dawn the silence was broken by calls to prayer rising from dozens of muezzins crying out from minarets across the city. It was surreal for this youthful Puertorriqeño to be so suddenly and dramatically immersed in the sounds of a culture so different from my own.

I was an early bird, full of energy at 4:30 a.m., as the team headed out to hard work at a site that promised new experiences. I learned that archaeologists focus on whatever people have left behind. Their research recovers and documents anything used by humans (“artifacts”). Still, I could not hear any “voice” in the stones we moved or all the dirt we sifted. In a process that now seems to play in slow motion in my mind, but was moving at fast-forward speeds before my eyes, archaeology began to make sense. The small finds we recovered included pottery pieces, broken figurines, tools, beads, and hundreds of animal bones. None of these was unearthed with accompanying labels or signs. Trained archaeologists—Randall Younker, Paul Ray, others—dated the ceramics according to their historical periods in a daily process called “reading” pottery. At Jalul we did not find great kings or priests; only the belongings of ordinary people: farmers, sheepherders, etc. I was surprised at how much information could be recovered from the trash that humans had left behind.

The day came, though, when I was startled by the voices from the past shouting at me. It was the day diggers uncovered a cave full of bodies. Call it Tal Jalul’s “Cave of Horror”: more than a dozen disarticulated bodies, representing a mass burial; perhaps the result of warfare or a pandemic. Some years later a piece of pottery with writing on it (called an ostracon) was recovered close to the spot. Roy Gane deciphered it and associated it with the Ammonites. We wonder: were all those bodies part of the population massacred during Neo-Babylonian invasions? Did they die as a result of disease? There are questions to which we still have no final answers. But their voices haunted me, and I wanted to learn more from those who had lived in the biblical lands.

Adventists have been excavating in Jordan for more than 50 years, and are partly responsible for rewriting the history of a tribal kingdom, Ammon, in northern Jordan. We have uncovered seals with kings’ names at periods where previous scholarship had suggested a gap in habitation in that area. Our work has exposed layers of habitation at periods once thought dark or depopulated. The contributions have been so many that some have suggested with humor that SDA stands for “Seventh-day Ammonites.” Adventists have given a voice to the tribe the Bible identifies as descendants of Lot’s sleeping with one of his daughters (Gen. 19, particularly verses 30-38).

It made me feel part of something big. I was in my early 20s, and some of my natural skepticism was melting away. Archaeology was more than just looking at scraps left behind. We were allowing the people of the past to speak to us by the artifacts we were recovering. The material culture, and long conversations with the local Jordanian workers, made the work hours fly. Everything that we could find was significant—the color of the dirt, the number of pebbles, seeds, traces of walls, pieces of broken vessels, animal remains, and even coprolites (“fossilized feces”). All that had been “left behind.”

Wilderness Dragons

The scale of what archaeology does did not strike me, though, until the weekend that we visited the cove of the “dragons of the wilderness.” I had learned about the Ammonites in northern Jordan but was not impressed by the remains that have survived. No wonder Nelson Glueck and others insisted that the Ammonites had disappeared after the Neo-Babylonian invasions. On the other hand, the capital of another kingdom, “lost” to Western eyes, was impressive. It was the Nabatean metropolis, Petra.

The Edomites had established their kingdom in the region of Seir before Israel conquered the land of Canaan. Today that region is in the southern part of Jordan. But the children of Esau/Edom had been expelled from the mountains where they had first established themselves millennia before. In the book of Malachi we read that the Lord condemned Edom and “laid waste his mountains and his heritage” (Mal. 1:3).

That destruction has been associated with the incursions of Nabonidus in the sixth century B.C. on his way to Teima (in the Arabian Peninsula). The damage described by Malachi, writing during the early fifth century B.C., could be evidenced in the archaeological record. Levels at the sites of Busayra and Tell el-Kheleifeh have been documented, and I was able to explore the difficult-to-reach site where Nabonidus celebrated his victory over Edom (Sela’).

Pottery reading is a key daily activity at any excavation. Seated (from right to left) are codirectors Michael Hasel, Yossi Garfinkel, and Martin Klingbeil of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish during excavations in 2014.

Nevertheless, with an allusion to the “dragons of the wilderness” (Mal. 1:3, KJV), Malachi warned that future destruction would occur. Lest you think that this reference is about flame-throwing reptiles, note that the Hebrew word is literally a reference to “jackals.” It seems that the prophet used that term for the nomadic Qedarite tribes whom the Neo-Babylonians left in control of that territory. These tribes oversaw the lucrative incense trade from the East and dominated the caravan routes that continued toward the Mediterranean Sea and Africa. Any effort from the Edomites to recover their land, claiming, “We have been impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places” (verse 4), was crushed by another clan from the Arabian Peninsula.

The Nabateans took over the former Edomite territory and literally carved their kingdom out of the reddish mountains formed of sandstone with myriad colorful tones. The amazing city of Petra gives a monumental impression of the scale and splendor of some archaeological discoveries. I was awestruck by the large tombs, such as the iconic Al-Khazneh (“The Treasury”) at the end of the mountain gorge that protected the impressive city. The rock-cut theater and dozens of tombs and temples fueled my imagination as I rode a camel for fun along the colonnaded street Cardo Maximus.

The Road Ahead

That short camel ride was the beginning of a much longer journey: I am still not able to get off the dromedary’s back. Impressed by how much we could learn from the past on an archaeological dig, I chose to sign up for a doctoral program in archaeology. My passion for biblical stories was fueled by the actual context where they transpired. The landscape, the people, the food, and the material culture brought specific dimensions to my study of Scripture.

It took me longer than most to adjust to the discipline of archaeology. My background was in mission for troubled teenagers. But the discipline was not inaccessible or beyond the reach of any person with determination—even someone with no history of outstanding academic accomplishments or scholarly traditions. You may lack the background information on history, have never done technical work at a dig, and be unfamiliar with biblical languages. Like me, you may have only planted gardens with your shovel, have only superficial knowledge of the historical context of your digging, and never have counted biblical languages as your favorite topic.

But once I realized how thrilling it was to listen to the voices of the people of the past, I could memorize those dates, names, and languages in short order.

I had been less than enthusiastic about the entertainment strategies proposed for helping youth to “stay” in church. I was searching for a challenge, one that made youth think as much as they are able to “feel.” With archaeology I saw stories come alive, and I was ready to transmit them with energy and passion, as well with accuracy and precision. The reality may be far removed from the romantic adventures so popular on the big screen. But there is plenty of excitement on every archaeological dig or exploration.

Everyone will not need all the skills required for an academic doctorate in order to participate in an archaeological dig. What is required is a willingness to learn and a determination to finish what you begin. My dad was no academic, but his work ethic and resolve equipped me to make the most of archaeological work. I have been able to hear the ancient voices and give a face and personality to people and peoples of biblical history. I may not have answers to all the questions raised by that long-ago survey, but I do have the best to one of my own: Why archaeology? Why not?

Archaeology is hard work. Volunteers work carefully to remove the dirt covering architectural remains in a square during the excavation of Lachish by the Fourth Expedition to Lachish in 2014.

Efraín Velazquez is president of the Inter-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Coral Gables, in the state of Florida, United States.