The Distortion of Archaeology and What We Can Do About It: A Brief Note on Progress Made and Yet To Be Made

We have to face the reality of the situation, which is that the media are going to keep reporting such stories because they sell newspapers and get people to watch TV or click on Internet links. While they are not nearly as interested in later negative responses, reporters almost always seek immediate reactions which can be used in the original story. So, we have to decide what we are going to do about this and how to turn it to our advantage.

By Eric H. Cline
Chair, Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures
The George Washington University
October 2009

See also: Did David and Solomon Exist?

Politics and Propaganda: The Use and Abuse of Ancient Conflicts in the Modern Battle for Jerusalem

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on a Sunday last March, David Shaywitz described what happened when a group of British researchers linked eating cereal for breakfast with giving birth to sons (rather than to daughters). The attention lavished on the story by the media was immediate and far-flung, including a story in the Economist, which advised women to “skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son.”2 The link between breakfast preferences and gender of newborns was subsequently shown to be incorrect for, as Shaywitz pointed out, “a lot of science…cannot withstand serious scrutiny. … more than half of published scientific research findings can’t be replicated by other researchers.”3 The media, however, paid little attention to the revised findings, for the lack of a link was far less interesting than the original suggestion.

We find similar situations every year in archaeology, for the junk science which is practiced by many pseudo-archaeologists and amateur enthusiasts (against which I have railed elsewhere) not only cannot withstand serious scrutiny, but in many cases the “results” themselves are not really results in the first place. However, when gratuitous claims of amazing finds, especially concerning Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, and Sodom and Gomorrah, are first made, they are featured prominently in the media, but subsequent rebuttals are given little or no attention.

We have to face the reality of the situation, which is that the media are going to keep reporting such stories because they sell newspapers and get people to watch TV or click on Internet links. While they are not nearly as interested in later negative responses, reporters almost always seek immediate reactions which can be used in the original story. So, we have to decide what we are going to do about this and how to turn it to our advantage.

Beginning on a positive note, I would argue that we have, in fact, already taken the first tentative steps toward retaking our field. Back in late September 2007, I published an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe saying that we had to reclaim our field from the pseudo-archaeologists and junk scientists.4 As many already know, I had reached the breaking point after doing research for my book From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible and becoming incensed at the amount of misinformation that was being published by amateur enthusiasts and pseudo-archaeologists on the Internet and elsewhere.5 In part because of that op-ed piece, which was essentially meant as a call to arms, a series of sessions were held between November 2008 and April 2009 at the annual meetings of ASOR, SBL, and AIA, and in a stand-alone conference at Duke University, with the latter having as its stated objective “to outline better methods of communication between archaeologists, media representatives, and non-specialist audiences.”6 To all of this I say “hooray!” but I hope that we are not speaking in an echo chamber and preaching to the choir, although I fear that we might be. Nevertheless, that may be to the good, for it is the members of the choir who need to continue aggressively working on these better methods of communication.

I. Progress Made To Date

a. The Establishment of a “War Room”

At the ASOR session in November 2008, we decided that we needed to set up a “war room” in order to respond immediately to false claims by pseudo-archaeologists, amateur enthusiasts, and junk scientists. Jodi Magness pioneered this approach in March 2007 when, after being called numerous times by different journalists seeking her reaction to the Talpiot Tomb fiasco, she wrote a lengthy response, posted it on the web, and thereafter directed reporters to that response, from which they were able to quote.7

To that end, we set up a blog linked to the ASOR website which we are using, in part, as a means to respond to, and combat, erroneous and extravagant claims reported by the media. We have already utilized it three times in less than a year in order to help combat outlandish claims involving Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden, and the Copper Scroll.

For instance, Robert Cargill of UCLA and I both called out Randall Price of Liberty University after articles appearing in print and on the web in February 2009 widely reported that he claimed to know where Noah’s Ark is and that he would be involved in an excavation to uncover it during the summer of 2009.8 Price responded immediately to our blog postings, justifying and clarifying his statements. Interestingly, at the same time as Price was using the media to promote his expedition and agenda, he also complained—via the ASOR blog—that the media had seized upon one small portion of his overall interview and that it went viral without him intending it to do so.9 This did not stop him from recently posting an online note upon returning from the expedition, in early September 2009, noting that while they had little to show for their efforts so far, apart from lost toenails and a “mysterious situation” whose details cannot be divulged, they needed still more monetary donations so that they could return to the alleged site.10

A similar episode took place when media sources first reported in late February and early March 2009 that Klaus Schmidt, a German archaeologist, had claimed a link between the site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey and the Garden of Eden.11 While Göbekli Tepe is indeed a site with perhaps all sorts of profound implications and information concerning the Neolithic Revolution ca. 10,000 BCE, to link it to the Garden of Eden is both unnecessary and unscientific. As the story broke, Michael Homan, ASOR Co-Vice President for Programs and the moving force behind the ASOR blog, posted an entry there entitled “Please Stop Finding the Garden of Eden.” In it he concluded, “While it [Göbekli Tepe] is truly an amazing site with great implications for understanding the Neolithic Revolution, it’s not Paradise.”12

As it turned out, research on our part quickly revealed that all of the published stories could be traced back to a single account written by Tom Cox, which appeared in the Daily Mail on February 28th. However, that same story was subsequently re-released on March 5th, with the only change being in the name of the author—Tom Cox was now Tom Knox—except that a little blurb in italics at the end of the article now also said that Tom Knox’s novel on a similar topic was being published by Harper Collins that same week. In other words, the so-called newspaper account appeared to be nothing more than hype for a new book.13 And yet, a similar story written much earlier by a journalist named Sean Thomas had appeared in October 2006.14 The mystery was quickly solved when our additional research revealed that Sean Thomas, Tom Cox, and Tom Knox were all one and the same person—“Tom Knox” being a pseudonym for Sean Thomas—so that the earlier 2006 article, the more recent 2009 article, and the just-published novel (which is based in part on Thomas’ experiences in reporting on Gobekli Tepe) were all written by the same enterprising journalist seeking publicity.15 Our detective work and suspicions were confirmed when the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut issued a press release on 18 March 2009, which read in part: “"Tom Cox" or "Tom Knox" is a pseudonym of the British journalist Sean Thomas, who used the article to get publicity for his thriller "Genesis Secret," which is due to appear in March in English and simultaneously in German. Since Sean Thomas is using a falsified version of an interview with Klaus Schmidt made in fall 2006, he presents a distortion of the scientific work of the German Archaeological Institute. The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) distances itself from these statements and reserves the right to take legal action against further dissemination of the story in connection with the work of the DAI at Göbekli Tepe. Klaus Schmidt neither in an interview nor on any other occasion made the above mentioned statements.”16

And finally, the most recent emergency response—but undoubtedly not the last by a long shot—has been to claims made by Jimmy Barfield, a retired fire marshal from Oklahoma, who says that he has cracked the “code” on the Copper Scroll found in Qumran Cave #3 and that he knows where the 64 treasures listed on that scroll are located.17 Here, Robert Cargill once again took the lead in responding forcefully to Barfield’s claims.18 I will say no more about this episode, since it is still ongoing, with Barfield continuing his attempts to locate the treasures and to raise funds in order to do so.

b. Working with the Media

At the AIA session in January 2009, we decided that there needed to be better communication between professional archaeologists and the media, in an effort to get better, or more accurate, stories written and produced. I and others of a similar mindset have now begun to do this by cultivating our contacts at various media outlets, in addition to the above efforts at countering the claims ourselves. To this end, we have recently formed the ASOR “Archaeology and the Media” Committee, chaired by me and Robert Cargill, with leading biblical archaeologists and other scholars participating; we hope that the AIA and SBL will follow suit with similar committees.

A prime example of our efforts behind the scenes came most recently in the case of Raphael Golb, son of Norman Golb, the Dead Sea Scroll scholar at the University of Chicago. After initial reports that the District Attorney’s office in New York had arrested the younger Golb on 5 March 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a long and detailed front-page story using all of the evidence which had been previously amassed by Robert Cargill.19 The story most likely would not have appeared, at least not there and then, were it not for the active cultivation of our personal contacts in the media.

However, in the months since the AIA session, we’ve seen the same things continue on, namely the media seizing upon the parts of a story that they liked and ignoring the rest. In such cases, it behooves archaeologists to respond in the best possible manner, working with the media rather than simply wringing their hands about being misunderstood and misquoted. The best recent example comes from someone who was at the AIA session as a member of the audience, but who contributed during the Q & A portion afterwards—Simon James of the University of Leicester in England. At the AIA meetings, in a different session than ours, he gave a paper on the Sasanian Persian siege of the Roman fortress city of Dura-Europos, Syria, in 256 CE. As part of his paper, he described the possible use of poison gas, which he hypothesized had been used against the Roman defenders during mining operations conducted by the Persians as part of their siege tactics. Upon his return home to England he found that, although the poison gas episode was but one part of his presented paper, the media had seized upon this; as he said later, with characteristic understatement: “This generated considerable media interest.”20

The good news is that James immediately utilized what he had just heard at our AIA session, in particular Jodi Magness’ discussion of creating a web page, and did exactly that, presenting his data there in more detail. In a general email sent out by James on 15 January 2009, just days after the AIA session, he wrote: “I have been somewhat taken aback by the media interest in my AIA presentation on the Dura siege, which has made the national newspapers here. … Much of the coverage has been somewhat garbled, so following the discussion at another AIA session on the media, I have quickly created a web-page with the press release text, pictures, captions and credits so people can get a more direct and accurate version of what I actually said.”21 Indeed, the subsequent stories reported in the media were more accurate than those which first appeared, indicating that taking a pro-active approach certainly works, even if one is at first caught unaware by the media picking up on a minor, albeit interesting, point.


II. Progress Yet To Be Made: Where Do We Go From Here?

In late November 2008, a light-hearted piece that I had written years before about archaeology and the media appeared in ASOR’s semi-popular journal, Near Eastern Archaeology. The piece had originally been written in 2005, well before I had become outraged during the process of writing my From Eden to Exile book—and was originally meant to run simply as a side-bar to a larger story on archaeology and Hollywood. In the end, it appeared on its own, as a stand-alone piece in the “Forum” section of the magazine, with responses from Neil Asher Silberman and Cornelius Holtorf and a final statement by Ann Killebrew.22

Along with a few broad suggestions about working together with television producers on topics of real interest and value, I pointed out that the various Code of Ethics written for the Archaeology Institute of America, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the Society for American Archaeology all state that we should be bringing our knowledge and expertise to the public. Moreover, I agreed with Holtorf that archaeology is a brand, but I went farther and declared that we should be working together to protect that brand, just as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg fiercely protect the Indiana Jones franchise and Microsoft and Coca-Cola protect their brands.23 I am now thinking, as others at the Duke conference also suggested, that perhaps we should create something like the “Archaeological Seal of Approval,” which we award to TV shows, newspaper articles, and Internet blogs and postings.

In April 2009, Paul Flesher, Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Wyoming, published a long response to our combined NEA “Forum” articles. Posting it on the Bible and Interpretation website, Flesher suggested that we might look to team-building, utilizing the various experts found at universities, including in departments of English, Theater, Journalism, and Communication, in order to work together on creating our own “interesting and filmable story.”24 He also suggested using the Internet as a means of communicating archaeology to the interested public, saying that excavations could bring bloggers with them or film their work. In fact, I have already successfully used both approaches: in 2008, my students at Megiddo were requested to each post one blog per week on our website, in 2009, I asked the same thing of the volunteers at our Kabri excavations, and earlier, in 2006, I had brought a filmmaker —Jesse Krinsky—with me to Megiddo to capture our activities 24/7 for three weeks; we have since posted a five-minute trailer on our Megiddo website, in addition to the 30-minute movie that he created and is now screening.25 Other digs also maintain an active web presence, including Aren Maeier’s excavation at Tel Safi in Israel and Betsy Bryan’s project in Egypt.

Flesher ended his published response by stating that the question which we should be asking is: “How does archaeology communicate its message to the public and what are the best media forms for that task?” Along those lines, I would invoke the words of Seth Kahan, a consultant for visionary leadership in the Washington DC area, whose seminar I attended some time ago.26 Among other advice that Kahan gave was, first and foremost, the necessity of capturing one’s idea in a compelling, easy-to-communicate statement—what is called by some the “elevator pitch” (i.e., can one convey the idea to a listener in the time it takes to ride an elevator from the ground floor to the top floor?)—because that is what is going to take to answer a question in a sound bite or to pitch and explain an idea to the media, whether a newspaper reporter or a television show. The second most important thing to do is to identify our most valuable players, i.e., the people who can make or break our vision, ranging from our own leaders within ASOR, SBL, and AIA, to the practical visionaries, front line executers, strategic partners, and alliances that are necessary to make things happen.

So, I end here with a simple statement and a leading question since, as David Shaywitz said in his op-ed in the Washington Post last March, “Researchers are unlikely to become less self-serving—just as reporters are unlikely to become less opportunistic in their hunt for news.”27 What we have been doing in the past year or so has worked to a certain extent and we can already see tangible results. But so far we have been reactive, not proactive. We need to do more, much more, including making the ASOR website more accessible to the public, perhaps crafting an online “ASOR-pedia” with reliable postings by trustworthy scholars on the most frequently asked questions in biblical archaeology, creating a list posted online of archaeologists and their specialties who are willing to work with the media, and so on. Most universities have such a media-friendly webpage with lists of scholarly experts and their areas of specialty; why not ASOR? In short, we need to decide where we go from here and what we do next. It is time for the choir to sing…and I am all ears.


1 This article is adapted by permission from an essay that will appear in the forthcoming book edited by Eric Meyers and Carol Meyers with the tentative title, Archaeology and the Media. Proceedings of the Conference on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media, held at Duke University, April 23-24, 2009 (Winona Lake, IND: Eisenbrauns).

2 David A. Shaywitz, “When Science is a Siren Song,” Washington Post, 14 March 2009, A15.

3 Ibid.

4 Eric H. Cline, “Raiders of the Faux Ark,” Boston Globe, 30 Sept 2007, Opinion section, E1-2.

5 Eric H. Cline, From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible (Washington DC: National Geographic Books, 2007), esp. ix-xv.

6 See now for mp3 audio files of the presentations at the conference, which may be downloaded. The proceedings of the Duke conference will be published soon, as noted above.

7 See, e.g., a later version posted at

13 Tom Knox, The Genesis Secret (New York: Harper Collins, 2009). Others had noticed this as well; see

17 with links to additional resources and interviews.

18, with links to additional online postings, including See also my own brief post on the ASOR blog: .

19 The Chronicle of Higher Education 55/28 (20 March 2009), page A1; see (subscription required for access), but see also

21 Email received 15 January 2009.

22 Eric H. Cline, Neil A. Silberman, and Cornelius Holtorf, “Forum: Archaeologists and the Media,” Near Eastern Archaeology 71/3 (2008) 172-180.

23 Ibid 179.

24 Paul Flesher, “How Should Archaeology Reach its Public?” The Bible and Interpretation website ( ).

25 See for the 2008 blog entries; for the 2009 blog entries (with links to photographs and short videos); and for the 2006 five-minute-long trailer from the movie.

27 David A. Shaywitz, “When Science is a Siren Song,” Washington Post, 14 March 2009, A15.

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