Stalemate: Archaeological Research, The Public, and Our Responsibility

By Jim West

Quartz Hill School of Theology

September 2009

See also: Academics, Biblical Studies, and "The Man on the Street" - By Jim West

In April of this year a conference on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media was held at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.2 Many of the ‘big names’ in ‘biblical archaeology’ (though the term is inappropriate, it is well enough known to communicate the point) took part and the proceedings were duly blogged3 and noted4. Recordings of the sessions were even made available for those unable to attend. Similarly, a number of essays in Bible and Interpretation on archaeology have appeared including, but not limited to those by Paul Flesher5, Robert Cargill6, and many others7.

Yet in spite of these efforts, the media remains fixated on absurd and ridiculous theories and propositions. Unfortunately, this is partly our fault for speaking so softly.

Most recently, for example, Jim Barfield’s absolutely impossible ‘theories’ about the Copper Scroll have appeared in the Jerusalem Post8. And though Barfield’s ideas have been rebuked9 and refuted10 on this very site, the media seems not to have taken notice and Barfield continues to this very moment seeking funding11 for his ‘project’.

In short, we are in a stalemate. At several meetings of the SBL, ASOR, and AIA, at Duke, and elsewhere in online discussions, the need to break free from this impasse and move forward with a media savvy academic presence has been discussed ad infinitum; and perhaps even ad nauseum and yet forward momentum is stifled.

It seems to me, then, that it’s time for archaeologists in particular and biblical scholars in general to take their case to the public in a more forceful, visible, accessible, intelligible, and media-savvy way. We’ve talked about it enough. It’s time for action. Otherwise, I fear that our field will be overrun by people like Barfield and Vendyl Jones and Simcha Jacobovici and others who know essentially nothing about real archaeology but who, because they are visible, garner the lion’s share of the audience, if this is not already the case.

To be sure, someone may object or interject that the public has access to reliable and sensible information in the pages of the Biblical Archaeology Review. So I must point out that BAR is a for-profit business, and the product they offer comes with a price. We must think beyond the boundaries of the profit motive that drives BAR and make information available to everyone who wishes to have it, either via the web or through news or opinion media. The public doesn’t need another BAR (if it needs one at all). The public needs academics and field archaeologists who care about their subject and are willing to share their knowledge freely.

So how do we move forward? What’s the next step? I offer the following thoughts on the subject and I conclude with a plea to the leadership and membership of the American Schools of Oriental Research to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and put into practice some form of the following suggestions. Otherwise this stalemate will become an impasse, the impasse will become a cul-de-sac, and the cul-de-sac will become our field’s undoing so far as public discourse is concerned. Scholars will become the marginalized minority while amateurs and dilettantes will become the talking heads and ‘experts’ sought out by documentarians and news reporters. So, then, what can be done?

1- Empower the already existing ASOR Archaeology and Media Committee to adopt concrete guidelines and goals. By this I mean that the persons elected to the Committee be charged to compile a series of guidelines and achievable goals and that those guidelines and goals be presented to the assembly in New Orleans in November for adoption.

2- Encourage members to publish short articles in newspapers and other media outlets. The public is genuinely curious about archaeology. Short reports and varia from digs will whet their appetite even more for the kind of information only trained archaeologists and biblical scholars can provide. And while we might wish it were otherwise, the general public simply is not going to read credible, peer-reviewed journals like Near Eastern Archaeology. They simply, by and large, don’t have the tools to do so. But they will read materials freely offered.12

3- Publish rejoinders when ridiculous and absurd claims are made in the public arena. The piece by Eric Cline in the Boston Globe13 is a perfect example of this. Too often scholars close their eyes or turn a deaf ear to the ridiculous remarks appearing on TV and in the press. But the public isn’t closing its eyes or stopping its ears, it’s listening. And what it’s hearing is far too often un-academic, un-scholarly, and inappropriate falsehood.

4- Develop an authentic concern for the public. Sometimes scholars are content to discuss with one another a particular discovery or fact at some conference and ignore the larger public. But, I would suggest that there are important reasons to take the public into consideration as you do your work. First, the public pays your salary (in one way or another if you teach somewhere) and you owe it to them to give them their money’s worth. Second, as teachers it is your duty to inform and correct- even if those you inform and correct are not sitting on seats in your classroom or passing along buckets at your dig site. And third, the public is worthy of your attention. This latter point may be widely forgotten, so it’s important for scholars to remember that people matter and what people are taught matters because falsehood is of no benefit to anyone.

5- Become proactive rather than reactive. For too long, any time some ridiculous theory has raised its ugly head, it has been our custom to respond to it. For instance, Barfield asserts his bogus nonsense about the Copper Scroll and Cargill responds. What I’m suggesting is that we publicize correct information in the very media now dominated by Barfield and Jacobovici and the others who are undermining responsible research. ASOR and its Archaeology and Media Committee need to partner with responsible documentarians and start producing excellent programming for networks such as Discovery and the National Geographic Channel. With 300 or more channels on cable and satellite TV, it isn’t too difficult to imagine that there are producers searching for materials to fill the hours. And with hundreds and hundreds of gifted scholars, ASOR certainly can lay hands on someone with the necessary expertise to address any issue that arises and for which documentarians need commentators. But the ASOR Archaeology and Media Committee doesn’t need to focus only on television documentaries. They need to improve their web presence as well. To put it rather bluntly, the ASOR Blog14, a fine site, is far too inactive to garner meaningful attention. ASOR needs to engage websurfers consistently and regularly with excellent and accurate materials. Further, YouTube could be put to use bringing small segments of dig activities15 and archaeology related discussions16 and lectures to a very eager public. Further, why not develop an ‘asorpedia’, where ASOR members can contribute their specialized knowledge to articles on archaeological sites and which could not be edited by anyone but ASOR members.

In sum, TV, documentaries, op-ed pieces in newspapers, YouTube, the ASOR Blog, and of course sites like Bible and Interpretation could be used more widely, more regularly, and more fully by archaeologists and biblical scholars. The public will listen. We must speak. ASOR must speak loudly. ASOR must stop whispering. Or the public will only be able to hear the blasting noise of dilettantism.


1 My thanks to Robert Cargill and Eric Cline for reading an early draft of this brief essay and making important suggestions.

15 As an example, Eric Cline posted a series of videos from the Tel Kabri dig this year on his Facebook page. If Eric can do it there, ASOR can do it anywhere.

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