The Making of Stones & Stories: An Introduction to Archaeology & the Bible

I wanted Stones & Stories to be a clear and grateful celebration of what archaeologists and biblical scholars have learned about the world of the Bible and the Bible itself during the last century.

By Don C. Benjamin

School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies,

Arizona State University

September 2009

July 16, 2009 was part of the hottest two week period on record in Phoenix. I stepped out of the door of our home loading the car for a two- week vacation in Oregon. And there it was – the box. UPS had tucked my first copies of Stones & Stories: an introduction to archaeology & the Bible (Fortress Press) behind a pot of geraniums.

I looked at the striking cover design by Brad Norr. The background is a wall facing -- opus reticulatum. Masons set small pyramid shaped blocks of tufa travertine so that the square bases form a diagonal pattern resembling a fish net (Latin: reticulum). Here the fish net pattern is accented with five or six courses of thin bricks ( The opus reticulatum technique was developed by the Romans after 100 B.C.E. and was popular until 193. Herod made lavish use of these Roman styles in his winter palace near Jericho (West Bank).

On the cover foreground is a statue of a figure kneading bread dough. The statue -- only three inches high -- was a grave well buried in the Tel Achzib cemetery, tomb 3, grave 4 (James B. Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East in Pictures relating to the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton University, 1969: # 152) Immanuel Ben Dor recovered the statue in 1941. It is preserved today in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum Jerusalem (East Jerusalem).

The bread maker was an old friend. I had used her as an illustration of the woman who delivers Thebez from Abimelech (Judg 9:50-57) in my chapter on Household Archaeology (Benjamin 2010: 262-273). However, it was the first time I had seen the complete cover. I was pleased. I thought about slipping a copy into my bag, but I decided to treat myself to that first read when we got home. It would ease my return from vacation to work.

Stones & Stories is a guide to understanding how archaeologists romance the stones – the artifacts which make up the material heritage of now extinct cultures – in order to get them to tell their stories – to talk about their maker cultures. The book describes the schools or theories of archaeology used by popular and professional archaeologists to persuade the stones in the world of the Bible to talk to us.

Technically, theory is a perfectly good word which basically means “knowing what you are doing.” Popular use, however, makes theory a synonym for “boring.” Popular use also considers theory to be ultimately out of touch – impractical in the real world. Actually without a theory or a strategy, success in the real world of archaeology or anything else is impossible. Theory is the strategy for getting where you want to go. One book I did bring along on vacation was Being Strategic: plan for success, out-think your competitors; stay ahead of change (2009), a self-help book by Erika Anderson.

I wanted Stones & Stories to be as helpful to teachers, students, and general readers as Old Testament Parallels: laws and stories from the ancient Near East -- which Victor H. Matthews and I first published in 1991 – has been. The goal of Old Testament Parallels is to encourage instructors to use more Near Eastern traditions in their courses. Old Testament Parallels is being widely used. In addition to the original edition (1991), there have been two revised and enlarged editions (2000, 2007). Teachers, students, and general readers are enjoying the fascinating world which these laws and stories from the Near East reveal. The goal of Stones & Stories is to encourage instructors to use more Near Eastern artifacts in their course. Old Testament Parallels is a book about texts; Stones & Stories is a book about tells.

I wrote Stones & Stories for at least three reasons. First, I wanted readers to realize how productive the last one hundred years of fieldwork in the world of the Bible has been. Second, I wanted to encourage archaeologists working in the world of the Bible to put at least as much effort into thinking about what they were doing in the field – theory, as they have put into how they are doing fieldwork -- practice. Third, I wanted to encourage archaeologists working in the world of the Bible to make a more concerted effort to collaborate more often with archaeologists working in other parts of the world.

Celebrating the Legacy of Archaeology in the World of the Bible

Archaeology in the world of Bible is a host to one spectacular debate after the other. The media and the public at large are both fascinated and scandalized by the debates involving archaeology and the Bible. These debates have become something of a sport.

There was the Biblical Archaeology versus Near Eastern Archaeology debate. Archaeologists and biblical scholars argued whether Biblical Archaeology was truly an academic discipline or simply biblical proof texting. The close relationship that had existed between archaeology and biblical studies in the United States since the time of William F. Albright was repeatedly challenged by William G. Dever. Dever argued that biblical archaeologists were so committed to proving that the Bible was historically reliable that they completely ignored the developments that processual archaeologists brought to the discipline. Dever further alleged that biblical archaeologists ignored processual archaeology because they assumed that ancient Israel did not evolve in the same ways as other cultures in Syria-Palestine.

For biblical archaeologists, ancient Israel was unique and could not be studied using the scientific method. By the 1980s, Dever had prevailed, and archaeology in Syria-Palestine came of age. It was no longer an amateur enterprise of biblical scholars but a separate, professional, processual discipline (William G. Dever, Archaeology and Biblical Studies: retrospects and prospects. Evanston: Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1973).

There was the Minimalists versus Maximalists debate. After almost 75 years of fieldwork, biblical archaeologists had yet to demonstrate that the biblical traditions about Israel’s ancestors in the book of Genesis and the appearance of the Hebrews in Syria-Palestine, for example, were historically reliable. Nonetheless, maximalist scholars like Dever continued to regard the Bible as the heritage of a Hebrew culture that first appeared in the hills north of Jerusalem after 1200 B.C.E. Minimalist scholars like Niels Peter Lemche, however, began to argue that, lacking clear evidence to the contrary, scholars should consider the possibility that the Bible was an ingenious strategy of an elite community of Jews who were trying to prevent the assimilation of Judaism into the dominant Greco-Roman culture after 333 B.C.E. (William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel, Eerdmans 2001;

Today there is the Jerusalem Debate. Did Solomon (970-930 B.C.E.) turn Jerusalem into a stunning state capital complete with monumental architecture – walls, gates, a temple, and a palace? Or was Jerusalem no more than regional marketplace until after 900 B.C.E.?

Tel Gezer (Benjamin 2010: 214-225) is one focus of the debate. Until recently the Gezer excavations were considered evidence that Solomon was the first monarch of ancient Israel. David was not so much a monarch as a chief – a temporary warlord elected to lead a tribe of warriors into battle. Solomon was considered a permanent ruler and commander of a full-time professional army of soldiers who constructed monumental public works and fortifications such as the gates and casemate walls at Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo.

Now a closer look at the material remains along the Coast Highway reveals that neither David (1000-970 B.C.E.) not Solomon (910-930 B.C.E.) had much political or economic control over the Philistines. As the Philistine threat to Egyptian trade along the Coast Highway increased, it was Pharaoh Siamun (978-959 B.C.E.) who attacked Gaza, Gath, Ekron (Stratum IV), Ashdod (Stratum X) and Tel Qasile (Stratum X). He also attacked Gezer to keep the Philistines from expanding farther inland (Startum IX). He ceded the city to the Hebrews to clearly identify the border of Philistia and to guard the Coast Highway for Egypt.

The actual construction of Gezer may have been done by Hiram of Tyre (1 Kgs 5:1). Both David and Solomon took advantage of Tyre’s skill in business and building (1 Kgs 9:10-25). Solomon may have paid Hiram by ceding land north of the Carmel Mountains to Tyre (K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament: 112-115. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003).

If the renewed excavations at Gezer by a consortium of institutions under the direction of Steven M. Ortiz and Sam Wolff cannot connect the construction of the city with Solomon, then what Solomon may have brought to Israel was not so much political power and economic wealth as the genius of knowing how to negotiate successfully the survival of the Hebrews in a world dominated by powerful and often hostile neighbors (

The Biblical Archaeology vs Near Eastern ArchaeologyMinimalists vs Maximalists, and the Jerusalem debates are constructive engines for refining the assumptions which govern both archaeology and biblical studies. Such debates initiate paradigm shifts in the way scholars understand their disciplines. They are a necessary and healthy part of the learning process.

Generally academic debates are civil. Universities, since their development during the Middle Ages, have been committed to civility -- politeness and courtesy from those of differing opinions on their faculties. In debates about archaeology and the Bible, however, civility is often more the exception rather than the rule.

Although within the guild of archaeologists and biblical scholars debates usually produce good results for the fields as a whole, there are certainly negative impacts. Scholars who are suddenly caught up in firestorms of controversy over their work are often temporarily or even permanently distracted from their research and teaching depriving their colleagues and their students of the good work they would, otherwise, be doing.

Likewise the general public becomes impatient with scholars who only report on their research and fieldwork and do not attack their colleagues. The public also becomes cynical and assumes that neither biblical scholars nor archaeologists can contribute anything to the understanding of world of the Bible or the Bible itself. They are simply muckrakers who mock the good faith of ordinary people.

The negative results of the debates threaten to obscure the good work of more than a century of archaeology in the world of the Bible. I wanted Stones & Stories to be a clear and grateful celebration of what archaeologists and biblical scholars have learned about the world of the Bible and the Bible itself during the last century.

Developing Archaeological Theory as well as Methods of Fieldwork

During the 20th century, archaeologists working in the world of the Bible have concentrated on developing and improving methods of doing fieldwork. Two singular accomplishments from the period are the Wheeler-Kenyon method of recovering and recording artifacts and the ceramic calendar used for dating them.

Regardless of what school of archaeology is used to interpret artifacts today, all archaeologists -- not just those working in the world of the Bible -- follow some variation of the Wheeler-Kenyon Method to excavate a site (Benjamin 2010: 112-125). The method is named for British archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and Kathleen Kenyon. Although Wheeler and Kenyon codified the various parts of the system into a coherent process, the method was the end result of the work of a number of archaeologists like William M. Petrie, Augustus H. Pitt-Rivers, William F. Bade, and George A. Reisner.

Prior to the work of Wheeler and Kenyon archaeologists used sondage or horizontal methods to excavate sites. Sondage archaeologists dug long deep trenches through tells. These vertical trenches prevented archaeologists from accurately drawing top plans of the strata cut by the trenches. Other archaeologists excavated horizontally across the entire surface of a site. Layers of occupation were simply peeled off. While horizontal excavations gave maximum exposure to a site, they destroyed the chronology of the site’s development.

The ceramic calendar developed by archaeologists working in the world of the Bible is also a standard tool for archaeologists working around the world. The creative genius behind the calendar was Petrie. Most of Petrie’s predecessors were simply interested in salvaging museum quality antiquities. He was much more interested in ordinary objects that helped reconstruct the history of a site. He considered small objects, like pottery, to be more useful than museum objects in interpreting a site.

Petrie realized that without a context artifacts are meaningless. Therefore, he stressed the importance of carefully recording the context from which artifacts were removed. Curiously, however, he was unfortunately selective in his own excavations. He did not record all the artifacts, but only those he identified as important to his pottery chronology (Thomas W. Davis, Shifting Sands: the rise and fall of biblical archaeology. New York: Oxford University, 2004: 29). The first archaeologist to meticulously record his excavations was Pitt Rivers (Mortimer Wheeler, Archaeology from the Earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954:15-28).

Using different styles of pottery, Petrie developed a ceramic calendar that allowed him to date the various levels of occupation at a site using changes in the clay used for pottery, in the shapes, in the decoration, and in the firing. This pioneering work done by Petrie in understanding the ceramic typology was perfected and put by use throughout Syria-Palestine by Louis-Hugues Vincent, William F. Albright, and Nelson Glueck.

Nonetheless, Biblical archaeology still needs “…a deliberate and profound intellectual reorientation -- the development of a systematic body of theory as this was understood in other branches of archaeology or in the social sciences generally…” (William G. Dever “Archaeology.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Edited by Eric M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1 (1997): 316). Theory determines practice, and there really is no such thing as just digging and letting …the pots speak ( Ian Hodder, Ian and Scott Hutson, Reading the Past: current approaches to interpretation in archaeology. 3rd edition; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2003: 16). Artifacts speak only when they are questioned (Stager, Lawrence E. Stager, “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel.” Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental Research 260 (1985) :1; Paul Ricoeur, The contribution of French Historiography to the Theory of History. The Zaharoff Lecture for 1978-1979. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980:17). The answers that archaeologists get are shaped by the questions they ask. Biblical archaeologists all make assumptions about their sites and have implicit research designs for their excavations. The task today is to clearly organize what is taken for granted into a theory of Biblical archaeology that can be easily understood and applied consistently to the material remains.

Academic disciplines like archaeology are paradigms based on research which both solves problems and raises new problems and proposes new theories (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970). Paradigms are not only theories, but also a consensus about what works among those in any discipline. When paradigms no longer evaluate evidence accurately, nor produce effective solutions, they shift.

Schools of archaeology are created by the questions that archaeologists ask to interpret the significance of the artifacts they recover (Hodder 2003: 20). Each school is a blend of material and ideal questions. Material questions are about the ritual of making things – about what the peoples of the past did with their raw materials. Ideal questions are about the world views of the people who make things – about how the peoples of the past explained their experiences in their artifacts.

Enlarging the community of learning

For a long time, Biblical archaeologists also built too few networks with their colleagues excavating other cultures in other parts of the world. Therefore, Stones & Stories also emphasizes the importance of integrating archaeology into the world of the Bible with archaeology throughout the world. The work of Fernand Braudel, Lewis R. Binford, and Ian Hodder needs to be as familiar to students of archaeology and the Bible as the work of Albright, Kenyon, and Dever.

Archaeology in the world of the Bible during the twentieth century repeatedly divided and separated. Assyriologists specialized in the study of Mesopotamian cultures, and many had little or no interest in the relationship of those cultures with ancient Israel. Egyptologists specialized in the study of Egypt and its neighbors in Africa, and many likewise ignored the implications of their work for understanding the Bible. Even Biblical Archaeologists began referring to their field as Levantine Studies, Middle Eastern Archaeology, Syro-Palestinian Archaeology, or Archaeology of Palestine in the Iron Age. Now, however, there is a growing realization that the problem was not with the term Biblical archaeology, but with the way in which archaeologists working in Syria-Palestine were designing their excavations and using their material remains. Consequently, Biblical archaeology is being reinstated as the title for the field (Ziony Zevit, “Three Debates about Bible and Archaeology.” Bib 83 (2002):1-27).

The isolation of Assyriology, Egyptology, and even Biblical Studies from Biblical archaeology may have been necessary for each discipline to better define its own identity and to achieve adequate confidence in its own area. The competition and the hostility are not gone, but there is likely to be less fragmentation in the community of learning where new graduates will be pursuing their careers. Biblical Studies now increasingly recognizes that it needs the resources and the enrichment which Assyriology, Egyptology, and Archaeology bring to it. Fortunately, the number of scholars who actively participate in multiple specialties is increasing and will continue to increase during the twenty-first century.

Archaeologists working in the world of the Bible not only need to resume their collaboration with Assyriologists, Egyptologists, and Biblical Scholars but also commit equally serious time and energy to collaborating with the larger guild of archaeologists working around the world. By its inclusion of research from archaeologists like Lewis R. Binford, Ian Hodder, Roderick McIntosh, and Susan K. McIntosh, Stones & Stories: an introduction to archaeology & the Bible hopes to inspire more archaeologists working in the world of the Bible and biblical scholars to create a larger community of learning than has been in place during the twentieth century.

The beginning of the twenty-first century is a significant moment for archaeology and for the Bible: perhaps for the first time since the traditions which the Bible preserves were written, but no longer told; perhaps for the first time since the world where those traditions developed came to an end; perhaps there is now a possibility to hear those traditions again and to return to that ancient and fascinating world. The extraordinary achievements of archaeologists and biblical scholars working together continues to reveal the world of the Bible, and the Bible itself in ways that are not only intriguing but also inspiring. They have created a way back that will define a new way forward in understanding what these ancient and remarkable people had to say, and why they said it.

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