Destruction levels

One of the (many!) misunderstandings between biblical scholars and archaeologists seems to be over destruction levels. On many sites that have been occupied for a significant amount of time there will probably be evidence, sooner or later, of at least one major destruction of the site. This is usually a layer of burning which may cover the whole, or a significant proportion of the site. Often, the layer after it can show a significant difference in the material culture of the site.

And this is where it gets problematic! One interpretation of those facts is, obviously, a conquest of the city, its destruction as part of that conquest, and the settlement of the conquerors, bringing with them their own artefacts. The temptation to make this link gets even stronger if you have a text (such as the Bible!) telling you that a conquest of a certain city actually happened. So, it’s still not uncommon to read this, particularly in more popular accounts, or to hear site guides state this as fact.

But, the destruction layer could be from an internal revolution, or even an accident. It’s worth bearing in mind that one of the most famous destructions of London (the Great Fire in 1666) was started accidentally! Even changes in material culture after the event can be explained as part of this; people choosing to update their goods, or the survivors too impoverished or shocked after a major disaster to be able to create artefacts in the same way (assuming those specialists survived).

I think that Amélie Kuhrt had this pretty much right in her two volume The Ancient Near East (1995:430) when she wrote: “an analysis of destruction levels is rarely, if ever, going to be specific enough to provide a detailed explanation of who or what destroyed a particular site.”

One specific example of this is Sharon Zuckerman’s analysis of the destruction of Hazor at the end of the Bronze Age (2007, Anatomy of a Destruction, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology vol. 20). This is the period of the Israelite conquest, and so this has been a significant interpretation of the destruction. Zuckerman reanalysed the destruction and argued that only public buildings were destroyed, and there was no evidence of warfare. Consequently, she interpreted this as an internal revolt trigged by the widespread breakdown in society that we see at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Equally, though, the absence of destruction levels does not prove the non-existence of a conquest! Historically, many battles were fought outside cities. The conquerors may not have wanted or needed to destroy the site. The evidence might have been lost. The destruction we see might not be related to the conquest anyway. I’m also rather sceptical of Zuckerman’s conclusions – the absence of evidence for warfare shows there (probably) wasn’t a battle in the city, not that there wasn’t a battle at all. The ideologically-motivated destruction of public buildings could equally have been conducted by an external force as by an internal revolution.

In an earlier study, Isserlin (1983 The Israelite conquest of Canaan, Palestine Exploration Quarterly vol.115) examined the possible lines of evidence for a conquest, by comparing three other (better documented) conquests with evidence for the Israelite conquest. He concluded that there were six potential lines of evidence: destructions and changes in the settlement pattern and economy, in the material culture, in the political organisation, in the language,  and in the religion. However, he also concluded that the three most marked changes were always in the latter three categories, which are also the categories which leave the least amount of archaeological evidence.

I think that this is all another example of needing to realise that things are never quite as straightforward as we would like them to be…! Attempting to relate archaeological data to historical evidence is difficult as they are designed to answer different questions using different methods. Another good reason why biblical scholars should go on a dig (and archaeologists should read some commentaries!)!


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