What Do Old, Dirty, Broken Pieces Of Pottery Have To Do With The Bible?

Robbing tombs is illegal. Most of the “museum pieces” found in Israel are rather homely and plain. Yes, you will dig up hundreds of potsherds if you do an excavation (along with bones, metal objects, and perhaps glass, among other things). And if you find “anything good,” you will not get to take it home.

See Also: Insights from Archaeology (Reading the Bible in the Twenty-First Century: Insights) (Fortress Press, 2017).

By David A. Fiensy
Dean, Graduate School
Kentucky Christian University
April 2017

Archaeology! The very word sounds exciting. If you grew up watching the Indiana Jones films, you picture him in his dashing outfit (inexplicably carrying a bullwhip!), robbing tombs of priceless museum pieces and enduring threats to his life in the process. How exciting! Many of us dream of such a career.

If, on the other hand, you did not watch those films, chances are you find archaeology rather boring and arcane. You may be like some of my students when I pass around potsherds from the Middle East and invite them to take a piece as a keep-sake: “But these are just dirty, old pieces of pottery! Who would want one of them?” What does this ugly relic have to do with studying the Bible?

In reality, the archaeological process involves slow, painstaking, and hot labor. It may take years before archaeologists find “anything good” at a site. I have never met anyone in the field that even remotely reminded me of Harrison Ford (except for myself, of course). Robbing tombs is illegal. Most of the “museum pieces” found in Israel are rather homely and plain. Yes, you will dig up hundreds of potsherds if you do an excavation (along with bones, metal objects, and perhaps glass, among other things). And if you find “anything good,” you will not get to take it home.

Yet archaeology can be exciting if the excitement is about the people whose lives we come to know through the remains. If you expect to see your picture in the New York Times standing with a serious and scholarly expression on your face, surrounded by smiling “locals,” while you modestly point toward your sensational discovery under the screaming headlines: “HOW I FOUND THE ARK OF THE COVENANT!”—you may want to explore another career or at least another venue for your career. That will almost never happen in Israel.

If, however, meeting ancient folk through “their stuff” excites you, you might want to consider archaeology as a career or hobby. If you can hold a broken cooking pot, reflect on the ancient hands that fashioned it from wet clay, imagine the persons that handled the pot repeatedly to cook meals, and finally picture in your mind’s eye the many hands—large and small—that dipped into the pot to eat, then you will love archaeology. The artifacts tell us about the people who used them. That is where the “excitement” lies.

This is what my new book, Insights from Archaeology, is about (Fortress Press, due out in August of this year). It is about what life was like for the common person in both the Old Testament and New Testament periods. These are the persons who wrote nothing. They never visited the royal palace, never conquered foreign foes, and did not leave behind monumental landmarks. So, how did they live? What was their daily life like? What sort of houses did they inhabit? How did they interact with one another in community? Were they happy?

Some of these questions (“Were they happy?”) cannot be answered, at least not by archaeology. One can only guess. But we can make inroads into answering the others. We will in this monograph use not just archaeology and the biblical text but cultural anthropology as well. Answering some of these questions may not be as sensational for some readers as were the previous generations’ archaeological finds, but the answers get us to the real-life situations for most people of the ancient Israelite world, the world of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

A word about using cultural anthropology for understanding ancient societies (a discipline called ethnoarchaeology). One can certainly abuse or misuse ethnographies of contemporary traditional societies in understanding cultures from three thousand years ago. Naturally, great caution should be the rule. Yet, many archaeologists (mostly those studying the Old Testament; New Testament archaeology has lagged behind in this) now appeal to such studies—ethnographies of premodern (e.g. Dalman) Middle Eastern societies—to help reconstruct what was going on in the society that left behind the ruins they have excavated. I will, in this monograph, freely compare such ethnographies with the archaeological data.

In other words, when we view the ruins and scratch our heads wondering how they were used, we might look at traditional societies that have been documented by modern anthropologists/ethnographers for clues. One example is the ground floor of the two-story house. It appears that the animals were kept on the first floor of the house based on a few archaeological hints (appearance of mangers and sometimes very low ceilings) and this conclusion is confirmed by appeal to ethnographic studies of the region where keeping animals on the lower floor of the house is common.[1] The ethnographic studies help the archaeologist decide on the function of the first floor (or ground floor) of the dwelling. It seems most unsanitary and smelly for us westerners to keep your farm animals (sheep, goats, donkeys, oxen, perhaps horses) on the first floor of your house—in other words, for the family to be living on the second floor of an animal barn—and thus obviously (to us) was not done. But the presence of such houses in traditional societies in the Middle East causes us to reconsider. We are better able to take the archaeological evidence for what it seems to be indicating. We will, therefore, cite similar studies in this monograph where it seems appropriate to do so.

But our task may require not only the appeal to archaeology, ethnography, and text but to the imagination as well. Being a good historian sometimes forces us to use creative imagination. We need to feel a bit of empathy for the ancient persons. For example, Jennie R. Ebeling constructs a fictional life of a character of her imagination called Orah. She takes Orah from birth to death and explains many things about her life as an adult. Along the way, Ebeling appeals to archaeology, to the biblical text, and to ethnographies to shape an integrated story. She seeks to clarify what life was like for a typical Israelite woman. This is more or less my project in one chapter of the monograph, though on a more limited basis. I sketch one day in the life of a fictional couple using texts, archaeological remains, ethnographical studies, and our imagination. We will begin with a look at a typical house; outline the basic form of the kinship features of Israelite society; construct an ideal village type based on a composite of several villages from this period; and finally, we will describe the last meal of the day, the large meal where all the family gathered.

In another chapter we will ask about the personal lives of individuals using the scientific examination of the skeletal remains. In our quest to get to know the common man and woman we wonder: What did they eat? How did they treat each other? Where did they live? What diseases did they suffer from? How long did they live? Was their life a misery? In learning about the personal history of individuals, the osteoarchaeological evidence (the study of ancient bones) is indispensable.

As I indicated above, the common people wrote nothing. (For that matter, most of the elites wrote nothing.) Thus we cannot read their literary works; we cannot even read their (nonliterary) diaries. But they did leave some of themselves behind: their physical remains. We can, therefore, meet these people in their skeletal remains and learn a great deal about the kind of lives they lived. Scientists skilled in the study of bones can find out: how tall they were, if they suffered from chronic illnesses, how long they lived, if they were well nourished, to what ethnic group they belonged, whether they died of natural causes or violently, genetic affinities, the state of bodily development, wear and tear from labor, and social conditions. The bones tell us many things (see Eakins, Grmek, and Smith).

We will collect osteoarchaeological information from over twenty tombs from late Second Temple Israel to form a data base of around 1,500 individuals. These are tombs whose skeletal remains have been analyzed by physical anthropologists and whose results have been published in the standard journals. From this data base, we will ask and answer questions such as stature (how tall were those people?) and mortality, specifically childhood mortality and adult life expectancy. If your family had five children, how many, on average, would live until their fifth birthday? How many would make it to age twenty? If you somehow managed to live to age twenty, how much longer could you expect, on average, to live?

Once we have looked at the data and answered those questions, we then will attempt to piece together family life. How many single parent families were there (because one of the parents had died young)? How many orphans were there? Who was around to mentor the young people? How many families had experienced the death of a child? The answers to all of these questions help us construct the family dynamic in the late Second Temple period and this construction, in turn, leads us to ponder some interesting questions about the ministry of Jesus.

But the monograph is not only about the common people or low class people. It also deals with Egyptian pharaohs, Assyrian kings, Israelite kings, famous battles and sieges, large cities such as Ephesus, and pivotal (and controversial) events such as the exodus. It will show figures being impaled just outside the gates of Lachish, the only Israelite king ever depicted in Ancient Near Eastern art, and a reconstruction of a large estate (the Downton Abbey of its day) in ancient Israel reminiscent of those described by Jesus in his parables.

But no one monograph can do it all. The field of archaeology as it relates to the Bible is too vast today. In particular, this is not a “how-to” book. It does not attempt to give instruction on how to do an excavation. Rather, the monograph attempts to show how scholars—some of them archaeologists who also interpret the Bible and others biblical scholars who read archaeological reports—try to wed the ruins to the texts to result in a satisfying interpretation. Although there have been a few false starts over the years and some persons have misused archaeology for political or apologetic purposes, there has emerged from the many publications a rather consistent approach to utilizing archaeology in the service of biblical interpretation: to clarify a text, to supplement a text, to confirm the historicity of a text, and, alas, to contradict a text (for some finds do seem to do just that). The monograph will give examples of each of these applications.

One observation I hope will be clear by the end of your reading this monograph: to ignore the results of archaeology is unwise. Old Testament scholars have known this for a century or more; New Testament interpreters are beginning to understand this as well. The old excuse—“I am a text woman/text man, I don’t do archaeology”—will no longer hold. Everyone needs to “do archaeology” in the sense that the material remains are considered. While actual excavation experience is not yet a requisite to become a good biblical interpreter, some reading about the results of archaeology should be required of everyone earning a degree in Biblical Studies.



Dalman, Gustaf. Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina: Band VII, Das Haus, Hühnerzucht, Taubenzucht, Bienenzucht. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1942.

Eakins, J. Kenneth. “Human Osteology and Archeology.” BA 43, no. 2 (1980): 89–96.

Ebeling, Jennie R. Women’s Lives in Biblical Times. New York: T & T Clark, 2010.

Grmek, Mirko D. Diseases in the Ancient Greek World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Patricia Smith, “Skeletal Analysis.” OEANE, 5.51–56.


[1] 1 Actually most of the traditional Arab houses had a multi-tiered ground floor with the animals on a lower level and the family on the upper level of the same floor.

Comments (1)

About your Note 1: until 50 years ago, it was very common, in portuguese and spanish village houses (usually made of stone), to keep the animals in the ground floor, because they provided heat and were secure.

#1 - António Silva - 08/15/2017 - 07:14

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.