I was pleased to read John Byron’s recent blogpost on Why Biblical Scholars Should Participate in at Least One Dig. He talks about the experience giving him new ways to think about history and how we construct it, about the skills of observation and interpretation (as well as hard work!) required, and about how it allows you to critique what you read and particularly see on the TV more effectively. He also talks about the fact that it makes him, as a biblical scholar, less insular.
That’s one of the differences, I think, between archaeology and theology; in archaeology, particularly archaeological science, you are frequently interacting with different disciplines. To understand a site properly you need a pottery expert, a stone expert, experts on bone (animal and human), experts on pollen, experts on metal, and anything else you dig up. In order to have found the site in the first place you might have used aerial photography, or satellite imaging, or even just looked at a map…! To get the information about the site you’ll have to survey it, draw it, photograph it, probably digitise the data; you’ll want to date things, and analyse others (that lump of metal might want an X-ray or an MRI scan), you’ll want to quantify what you’ve got, probably using multivariate statistics. So, as you probably don’t have all of those skills (and even if you did, you wouldn’t have the time), you’ll have to get other people to give you their interpretation of what was going on, based on their evidence. Then, if you’re writing up the excavation, you need to synthesis all that data into something that approaches a coherent whole. This may explain why it takes so long to write up an excavation, and why so many excavations never get fully written up….
On the other side, I’d also argue that archaeologists writing about biblical topics really need to do what they usually do on most topics – consult the experts! A recent example is the otherwise very good book ‘The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating’, which (as far as I can see) fails to reference any critical scholarship on the passages they’re talking about. I’ll blog more on this book, hopefully fairly soon.
So, if you’re a biblical scholar – do take John’s advice and go on a dig! It doesn’t even have to be in the biblical lands; your own country will do to at least give you a taste. At the very least, it will be worth your while to read an introductory textbook: Greene and Moore’s ‘Archaeology: An Introduction’ is very good. Renfrew and Bahn’s ‘Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice’ is a standard university one, although it is a bit long…
And, if you’re an archaeologist doing biblical stuff – at least read a recent commentary…! The six volumes Exploring the Old/New Testament (published by SPCK) are also well worth a read.