Archaeology, history, religion, and politics

Cox. Box!

Box. Cox! (About to embrace – BOX stops, seizes COX’s hand, and looks eagerly in his face.) You’ll excuse the apparent insanity of the remark, but the more I gaze on your features, the more I’m convinced that you’re my long lost brother.

Cox. The very observation I was going to make to you!

Box. Ah – tell me – in mercy tell me – have you such a thing as a strawberry mark on your left arm?

Cox. No!

Box. Then it is he! [They rush into each other’s arms.

From the farce Box and Cox

I’d meant to get around to commenting about this week’s non-Council winning post, Elder of Ziyon’s plaint about the removal of archaeological artifacts from the vicinity of the Al-Aqsa mosque, but somehow time just slipped away. The nexus of archaeology, history, religion, and politics is a subject I’ve touched on here from time to time and this particular issue is Exhibit 1. Here’s a good post on the subject to which I’ve linked before.

If you should travel to Egypt, the handiwork of the ancient Egyptians is not hard to find—it’s everywhere, in fact, it fills the world’s museums. The ruins of Greece and the hundreds of thousands or millions of works of ancient art bear witness to the civilization that the ancient Greeks built there. Nearly every week there are announcements of 2,000 and 3,000 year old discoveries of the ancient Britons, French, Chinese, Amerindians, and so on.

By comparison the archaeological and historical evidence of the ancient Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel is extremely scanty. A relative handful of fragments and inscriptions. Ancient Greek historians do not mention the Jews. Practically all of the evidence is from the Bible and authors who used the Bible as a source.

There are all sorts of possible explanations for this. Most of the ancient Jews were rural. The society did not lend itself to the creation of artifacts. The land has been occupied for more than 2,500 years by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Franks, and Arabs who have looted and destroyed ancient works and replaced whatever might have been there with their own works.

And there’s the explanation presented by this post: Arabs have systematically removed the evidence.

The problem with this explanation is that it’s circular. Once the provenance of an artifact has been lost it has been lost. Unless there’s some way unambiguously and definitively to associate a particular artifact with a particular location, no conclusion about where it might have originally been found can be drawn. You cannot draw a conclusion about the source of an artifact from its presumed use.

In an attempt to discover presumed artifacts from their past Israeli scientists, scholars, and others are sifting the sands of the wilderness, citing their finds as proof of their historical (and political) claims.

I have no idea of the historicity of the claims of either the Israelis nor the Palestinians nor do I have a stake in the claims of either side. I think there’s every likelihood that the truth is, at this point, not discoverable.

The land of Israel is important to three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam whose adherents in total account for more than half of the world’s people. Under the circumstances I believe it behooves anyone undertaking remodeling, refurbishment, or renovation of any location of religious significance to proceed very, very cautiously and with the participation of representatives of the other faiths.

Do I think this is likely or even possible? No.

Archaeology is not a science; it is a vendetta.

11 comments… add one
  • I didn’t quite follow this. Someone actually proposes “Arabs” have removed archaelogical evidence of Jews in Israeli in a systematic manner …. ?

  • Basically. The claim in the linked post (which, in turn, cites an article in Haaretz) is that material has been removed from areas near the Al-Aqsa mosque and distributed out in a wilderness area.

  • They’re all bloody nuts, the whole bloody lot of them.

  • Fletcher Christian Link

    This is actually a comparatively mild claim, compared to the documented proof for their co-religionists’ dynamiting of 1500-year old Buddhas.

    Moslems don’t know how to build or create anything. Killing and destroying, however…

    And don’t come back with Islamic architecture from the Middle Ages. They haven’t done anything since.

    If every Moslem on the face of the earth vanished tomorrow, the only result would be a sigh of relief from just about everyone else.

  • And so the Religious Bigots pipe in with more irrational hate filled bigotry complaining about others irrational hate filled bigotry. How charming.

    Like I said, bloody nuts, the whole bloody lot of them. Them being the fanatics of all sides, as in Mr. Xian supra.

    Into the sea with them all.

  • I’d thought of writing a post featuring the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, and the mosque of Qairawan, none of which FC has apparently heard.

  • Fletcher Christian Link


    Alhambra: 1338-1390. Middle Ages. Late middle ages, I grant you, but certainly before the Renaissance.

    Qairawan: Good point. I hadn’t heard of it. However, 8th Century, normally thought of as Dark Ages, never mind Middle.

    Taj Mahal: Maybe. However, checking up, there appears to be some doubt, and the architect may have been Italian. All sources, however, claim Hindu influence in the design.

    Your point was?

    Building bombs; now that’s something they know how to do. But creating the industrial infrastructure required to build the components, including the explosives – do me a favour.

  • My point, Fletcher Christian, is that while I agree that criticism of Muslims and even Islam itself is completely appropriate, any criticism must be rooted in facts and observations that ring true with Muslims themselves. Otherwise the criticisms will inevitably fall on deaf ears as reflexive Islamophobia.

    There are plenty of reasonable criticisms. Too many Muslim societies continue to practice pre-Islamic customs and call them “Islam”. I, personally, find the despotism that continues to prevail in too much of the Muslim world more conducive to the worship of false gods than a few statues or pictures.

    I certainly think it would be better to attempt to enlist some of the billion-plus Muslims as allies rather than condemn them all as adversaries.

  • diana Link

    “Practically all of the evidence (for ancient Israel) is from the Bible and authors who used the Bible as a source.”


    without opening a Bible, we have extensive lists of the names of kthe kings of ancient Israel and Judea on stele and chancery tablets form Egypt, assyria, Moab and other ancient kingdoms inthe region. ditto for documentation of conquests. A vast library of local to the land of Israel writings, mostly ostraca, document the daily like of the land and people – contracts fo sale, court battles over inheritance, mundane letters and the like. In addition, we can map the geography of those kingdoms via such methods as the occurence of clayseal impressions bearing the names and titles of royal officials, and the ubiquitous l’melech on the large jugs and jars of official provisions in royal storehouses or dritributed from royal storehouses. As to architecture, this was not as large or wealthy a kingdom as Egypt – no one has ever claimed that it was. And the Israelite royal cities were razed. But we do have some idea of their architecture and location without opening a Bible by looking at the proto Aeolic column capitals that have been dug form dated strata.

    Without opening a Bible, we would know about the ancient Jewish kingdoms more-or-less what we know about the ancient Minoan, Hittite, Etruscan, or Nubian kingdoms – quite a lot, actually.

    And you might want to take a serious look at the marterial actually coing out of the project sifting the material that the WAQF dug up and threw out when it expanded the mosques on the temple Mount. the last find that I saw was a tablet with the name of the Roman commander written exactly as we have itn Josephus.

    You musn’t let yourself be blinded to th artifacts by your personal anti-Semitism.

  • Diana, there’s no need for name-calling and the charge of anti-Semitism is absurd.

    I would very much appreciate any references you can give me. I know of no “extensive lists of the name” you mention. What Egyptian inscriptions? Those that I know of refer to the habiru, speculatively the Hebrews. No kings’ names there. To the best of my knowledge the Moabite inscription has the name of a single Israelite king: Omri. I know mentions of phelesti (presumably Philistines) in Assyrian inscriptions. Are there mentions of Israelite kings? Documentation, please.

    Give me some actual references and I’ll be happy to correct this post with a brand, spanking new post. But, again, there’s no need to fling insults or accusations.

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