Category Archives: archaeology

New Radiocarbon Method for Dating the Past*

by Donald Collier

The commonest and usually the first question asked by visitors to archaeological digs and museums is “How old is it?” This general curiosity about the age of things made by man in the past is shared by archaeologists, for it is impossible to reconstruct the history of ancient civilizations without chronology. In the absence of written records, like those left by the ancient Egyptians and Mayas, archaeologists have had to depend on indirect methods for determining time sequences in the past. The single exception is that of the American Southwest where, thanks to the tree-ring method of dating, it has been possible to trace with great accuracy the history of Indian cultures during the past 2,000 years. The indirect methods, such as stratigraphy, typological cross-dating, and correlation of human remains and artifacts with geological events and climatic changes, are laborious and inaccurate and do not yield dates in years but only relative sequences.

The new method of radiocarbon dating, developed by Dr. Willard F. Libby at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, promises to revolutionize dating problems in archaeology. This method determines the age of things that lived during the past 20,000 years by measuring the amount of carbon 14 they contain.

Carbon 14 is an unstable (radioactive) heavy form of carbon with an atomic weight of 14. Normal, stable carbon has an atomic weight of 12. The half-life of carbon 14 is about 5,500 years. This means that an ounce of carbon 14 is reduced by decay to half an ounce in 5,500 years, that half the remainder decays during the next 5,500 years, leaving a quarter of an ounce, and so on.

Carbon 14 is constantly being formed in the earth’s upper atmosphere as the result of the bombardment of nitrogen-14 atoms by cosmic rays (neutrons). The carbon-14 atoms thus created combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which becomes mixed in the earth’s atmosphere with the vastly greater proportion of carbon dioxide containing ordinary carbon atoms. The carbon 14 then enters all living things, which, through the life process, are in exchange with the atmosphere. This exchange is carried out through photosynthesis in plants. Dr. Libby has shown experimentally that all living matter contains a constant proportion of carbon 14, which is about one trillionth of a gram of carbon 14 to each gram of carbon 12. This constant proportion results from the equilibrium between the rate of formation of carbon 14 and the rate of disintegration of the carbon 14 contained in the atmosphere, in the ocean, and in all living things.

When a plant or an animal dies, it ceases to be in exchange with the atmosphere and hence there is no further intake of carbon 14. But the carbon 14 contained at death goes on disintegrating at a constant rate, so that the amount of carbon 14 remaining is proportional to the time elapsed since death. Given the carbon-14 content of contemporary living matter and the disintegration rate of carbon 14 (the half-life), it is possible to calculate the age of an ancient organic sample from the amount of carbon 14 it contains.

Samples are Burned

The laboratory procedure consists of burning the sample to be dated, reducing it to pure carbon, and measuring its radioactivity (rate of atomic disintegration) in a specially constructed, extremely sensitive radiation counter (a form of Geiger counter). The measurement is expressed in terms of the number of carbon-14 disintegrations per minute per gram of carbon. This value is 15.3 for contemporary living samples, 7.65 for samples 5,568 years old, and 3.83 for samples 11,136 years old. Very old samples contain such a small amount of carbon 14 that the error in counting becomes very large, so that the effective range of the method with present techniques is something less than 20,000 years. But there exists a method for enriching or concentrating the carbon 14 in a sample that may make it possible to obtain useful dates back to 30,000 years. At present the year error in dating samples ranges from 5 to 10 per cent.

Although carbon 14 is present in all organic matter, certain kinds of material have been found to be most useful for dating. These are plant material and wood, charcoal, shell, antler, burned bone, dung, and peat. Unburned bone appears to be unreliable because it is more easily altered chemically than these other materials and hence may lose or gain carbon-14 atoms by exchange during the time between death of the animal and the present.

This method has the disadvantage that the sample to be dated must be destroyed by burning. However, in most cases this is not serious because the size of the sample needed is relatively small. The minimum amount of pure carbon necessary for a single counting run (the amount of carbon placed in the Geiger counter) is 8 grams (about a third of an ounce). Since the carbon content of different organic materials varies, the size of the sample needed to yield this much pure carbon also varies. In general, it is necessary to have about 2 ounces of plant material or wood, 1 to 3 ounces of charcoal, 4 ounces of shell, 5 to 10 ounces of dung or peat, and one to several pounds of antler or burned bone. For the greater accuracy obtained by making two independent counting runs these quantities would need to be doubled.

History of Process

A brief review of the history of the development of radiocarbon dating will help to make clear the nature of the method. In 1934 shortly after the discovery of artificial radioactivity, Dr. A. V. Grosse predicted the possible existence of radioactive elements produced by cosmic rays. In 1946 Dr. Libby predicted that natural or “cosmic” carbon 14 would be found in living matter. The following year he and Grosse checked this hypothesis by testing methane gas derived from sewage (an organic product) and found carbon 14 to be present in the expected amount.

The next step was to test the assumption that carbon 14 was present in the same concentration in all living matter. This research, called by Dr. Libby a “world-wide assay of natural radiocarbon,” consisted of measuring the carbon-14 content of contemporary living material from various parts of the world, various latitudes, altitudes, and geographical situations. This Museum contributed to this part of the research by furnishing from the botanical and anthropological collections wood samples from the Pacific Ocean, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Near East. These measurements, made by Dr. E. C. Anderson, confirmed the assumption and established the value for the carbon-14 content of present-day living matter.

Egyptian Boat Plank Used

The next phase, carried out by Dr. J. R. Arnold and Dr. Libby, consisted of testing the dating method by measuring some ancient samples of relatively accurately known age. These were wood from Egypt and Syria, a sample of wood dated by tree-rings, and a piece of old redwood. They ranged in known age from 1,300 to 4,600 years. One of the Egyptian samples, which was supplied by this Museum, was a piece of deck plank from the mortuary boat of King Sesostris III; who died about 1849 B.C. The dates obtained on this and the other samples agreed with the known ages within the calculated error of the method.

The final phase of this research has consisted of further checking of the method by dating selected archaeological and geological samples of unknown age. An effort was made to obtain from various parts of the world samples whose relative age had been established by the usual archaeological and geological methods. In some instances it was possible to secure several samples coming from different layers of a single stratified deposit. These stratified series were particularly valuable in testing the consistency of the carbon-14 dates obtained. Up to the present more than 150 samples of unknown age from North and South America, Europe, and the Near East have been dated. These range in age from a few centuries to more than 20,000 years, and relate to the problems of dating early man in North and South America; the Archaic Indian cultures of the eastern United States; the early cultures of the Southwest, Mexico, and Peru; the Late Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods in Europe and the Near East; and the last glaciation in North America and Europe.

Test Museum Specimens

Among these samples were several furnished by this Museum. Two were portions of wooden implements from the Early Nazca culture on the south coast of Peru, excavated by a Museum expedition in 1926. Dr. Libby’s results show them to be about 2,000 years old, which is consistent with other carbon-14 dates obtained from Peruvian samples. Two other samples were charcoal from hearths belonging to the Chiricahua stage of the Cochise culture in western New Mexico. These hearths were discovered by the Museum’s 1950 Southwest Archaeological Expedition. The carbon-14 date indicates that these hearths were in use about 2500 B.C. This date is consistent with one obtained from a site of the Chiricahua stage in Arizona. Samples of charcoal, bark, and wood from the Hopewell culture of Ohio were also given to Dr. Libby. These turned out to be considerably older than archaeologists had believed.

Full assessment of the results of the final phase of Dr. Libby’s research on radiocarbon dating has not been made. But the general consistency of the results, including the dates on samples from periods older than 5,000 years, for which there are no absolute dates for checking, leaves little room for doubt that the method is sound and that dates accurate within the experimental error of the method can be obtained. Radiocarbon dating is destined to have a very important role in archaeology, both in increasing the accuracy of its findings and in reducing the amount of time and effort devoted to problems of dating. This will mean that, in the future, archaeologists can move on with greater facility to the syntheses and generalizations that are the ultimate aim of their work.

The method will be extremely useful also in the aspects of geology, paleontology, and paleobotany dealing with events and processes that occurred during the past 80,000 years. Dr. Libby has already obtained dates relating to the time of the last glaciation in North America and Europe. These dates indicate that the last glaciation was considerably more recent than accepted geological estimates. It will be possible with additional work to date the retreat of the glaciers quite accurately, and this information will have a crucial bearing on time estimates for the whole Pleistocene period, which is variously estimated to have lasted from 400,000 to 1,000,000 years. Radiocarbon dating will also give more reliable information on the time required for the formation of new species among plants and animals. In these and many other ways carbon-14 dating promises to be an extremely important scientific tool

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 14(electronic ed.).


Biblical Archaeology Today*

by G. Ernest Wright

Before attempting to say a few things about the present state of Biblical archaeology, it might be well to define what we mean by it. The term is often used in almost synonymous parallelism with Palestinian archaeology, but it is obvious that much with which the latter deals has little to do with the Bible, nor have all Palestinian archaeologists been primarily interested in Biblical matters. In the past, and occasionally even in the present, the term has been used by some to include virtually the whole of pre-Mohammedan archaeology in Biblical lands. Yet here again it is obvious that Biblical archaeology is something more definite and confined, since Near Eastern archaeology has long since thrown off any primary interest in the Bible, while classical archaeology has rarely had such an interest.


In evaluating the present state of this subject perhaps one should begin by saying that it is laboring under several handicaps. The first and obvious handicap is the scarcity of workers. Among the younger scholars in Britain today there appear to be no outstanding scholars in this field. In America the scholars who control the sources and labor intensively in this area can be numbered on the fingers of one hand.

The Oriental Institute, which can be said to be the outstanding center of Near Eastern archaeology in this country, to my knowledge has never had a Biblical archaeologist on its staff. The one figure who looms head and shoulders above all others, not only on this side of the Atlantic but on the other as well, is W. F. Albright. The revolutionary implications of archaeology for Biblical studies have been seen by him as by no other with the result that the real range and importance of the subject are often regarded as nothing more than the individual views of one scholar. Yet discerning scholars who do not always agree with Albright’s conclusions understand that such a situation is not the fault of the facts; it is due to the scarcity of trained workers. As a consequence of this handicap, we may say that the true significance and meaning of archaeology has been slow in affecting Biblical studies…

A second handicap under which Biblical archaeology labors is occasioned by the confusion which exists within and between many of the reports of the excavations, by the inadequacy of many of the publications, and in the past by the lack of competence on the part of a surprising number of excavators. Yet the fact remains that a vast amount of labor now needs to be expended on complete restudies of the original data, both published and unpublished, from such sites as Gezer, Sharuhen (Tell el-Far˓ah), Jericho, and Megiddo. More money has probably been expended in the excavation of the last mentioned site than in any other in Palestine; the published reports ought to have made it the type-site for Palestinian archaeology. Thus far, however, this end has not been accomplished. Instead the type-site is Tell Beit Mirsim (a comparatively small and relatively unimportant mound southwest of Hebron), because the quality of excavation and of publication has made it so.

A third handicap to the Biblical archaeologist is the fact that some of the professional archaeologists and of the scholars who interpret their findings are lacking in broad cultural interest and training. Specialists in architecture, pottery, and linguistics are necessary and extremely important. Yet archaeology is a branch of the humanities; its aim is the interpretation of the life and culture of ancient civilization in the perspective of the whole history of man. This requires a broader as well as a more intensive training than our graduate schools have in the past been providing.

This pragmatic and rather self-centered aim has succeeded in making too many of our journals and books little more than repositories of odds and ends of pedantic research, some of which is good and stands the test of time, but most of which is of little significance and is “like the chaff which the wind driveth away.” Because the Bible is the type of literature that it is, and because its intensive study today is largely carried on by those interested in prospering the life of Church and Synagogue, Biblical archaeology cannot remain content with the mere pedantics of scholarship.. Thus far, however, it has received far too little help from the specialists in contiguous fields, because too many of the scholars have failed to keep in focus the primary end for which they and their disciplines exist.


Turning from these negative considerations to a more positive evaluation of the present state of our subject, we shall pass all too quickly the areas of topographical, textual and linguistic research in order to concentrate on certain historical and religious issues, the significance of which is not yet widely appreciated.

One of the most satisfying areas to survey today is Biblical topography and geography. There are still many knotty problems which defy solution; yet within the last twenty years progress has been so striking that the preparation of Biblical maps can be carried on with much more assurance than before the first World War when the basic work for the Smith and Guthe Atlases was done.*

The American school was the first to make careful use of the pottery criterion which is of obvious importance since there is no use in discussing a particular site as a candidate for a Biblical place if it was unoccupied at the time the latter was supposed to have been inhabited. Abel’s work suffers its greatest limitation at this point, though it is now the basic source for the study of Biblical geography and topography

Progress in the field of linguistic research has been so rapid, particularly since the first war, that Biblical lexicons are woefully out of date. A new dictionary of New Testament Greek which utilizes the papyri and the Septuagint together with a controlled and inductively established theological treatment, is sorely needed. A complete lexicon of the Greek of the Septuagint in modern language has never been compiled and is now desperately needed. Old Testament lexicography is in a much worse state than that of the New Testament…The basic Hebrew lexicons on which we are dependent represent for the most part the state of research prior to the First World War. Since that time the progress of discovery and research has been so rapid that what is needed today is a complete restudy of the whole vocabulary of the Old Testament.

What has been said for lexicography is equally true for grammar. Likewise, the majority of our basic commentaries, particularly in the Old Testament field, were either produced before the First World War or reflect the state of research and the point of view of that period. ..The greatest single task of the Post-War era must be the preparation of new lexicons, grammars, and commentaries which not only endeavor to deal adequately with the wealth of new factual data now at hand, but which also reflect the new points of view and perspective which archaeology necessitates.


As we turn to matters of historical interpretation, we are on much more debatable ground. In general, however, the discoveries have demonstrated that far more trust in the substantial reliability of the narratives is now in order, and that lateness of a written record does not necessarily mean complete unreliability. When the basic attitudes of higher criticism were being formed in the last century, there was an insufficient amount of extra-Biblical data to serve as a check to hyperskepticism. Consequently, passage after passage was challenged as being a literary forgery, and the possibility of “pious fraud” in the compilation of written documents was exaggerated. When such a critical attitude is established, constructive work becomes increasingly difficult since emotional as well as rational factors are involved in the general negativism. The shift in attitude which is now taking place is difficult to assess, but it is perhaps the most important change which archaeology has forced upon Biblical scholarship. Attitude is a subtle factor, not easily described, but it certainly plays a major role in the determination of the use to which the tools of scholarship are put.

There are numerous illustrations of the service which archaeology has rendered along this line. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the partial “recovery” of the Patriarchal period of Biblical history. Our written sources for this period, dating as they do between the tenth and fifth centuries B.C., necessitate the supposition of a long period of oral transmission of the Patriarchal traditions before they were partially and then wholly committed to writing

Archaeological discoveries have changed this attitude to no small degree. While no evidence has been, or probably ever will be, found of the actual Patriarchs themselves, many of their names are now seen to fit squarely within the onomasticon (compiled from several sources in Northern Syria and Mesopotamia, and even in Egypt) which dates from the first half of the second millennium B.C. but not in the corpus of names of any later period.* Several of the names of Patriarchal ancestors have been recognized as names of towns in the Haran (Harran) area.* The Nuzi tablets elucidate many a custom typical of the Patriarchal age in the second millennium, but not of Israelite life in the first.* Analogy suggests that the traditions regarding the God of the Fathers are not completely secondary in origin.

A second major illustration of the conservative trend which archaeology is bringing about has to do with the conquest and settlement of Israel in Palestine. Not all the problems are solved or ever will be. The actual events were undoubtedly of a very complex nature, and we shall never know all of the details. Yet archaeology has provided data which leads us to more conservative views regarding the true nature of the events. Heretofore, the Conquest has been regarded as a gradual one by osmosis, wherein Israelites and Canaanites were gradually amalgamated.

That there is much truth in this belief can be easily shown. However, the violent destruction which occurred at such sites as Bethel, Lachish, and Debir during the thirteenth century indicates that we must take seriously the Biblical claims for a storming of at least central and southern Palestine with such violence and such contempt for the inhabitants that there was small opportunity or desire for amalgamation on a large scale.

A great deal has been written on the date of the Exodus and the Conquest. In the past three main theories have been held: (1) that the Exodus was the Hebrew echo of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, c. 1550 B.C.; (2) that it occurred during the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty, c. 1440 B.C.; and (3) that it took place during the reign of Merenptah in the Nineteenth Dynasty, c. 1230 B.C. None of these theories now appears entirely adequate. Albright’s study of the Amarna tablets indicates that there were four main city-states in Southern Palestine during the first part of the fourteenth century.*

Letters from the kings in Northern Gilead and Bashan indicate that this area was likewise organized within a city-state system, while the silence of the Amarna correspondence concerning Southern Transjordan together with the results of Glueck’s survey, indicates that this area was still inhabited by a nomadic people. In the Book of Joshua, however, we encounter nine city-states in Southern Palestine in addition to those at Jericho, Bethel, and the Hivite tetrapolis, while from the Book of Numbers we learn that an entirely new system of affairs existed in Transjordan, for the area is divided into four kingdoms (those of Og, Sihon, Moab, and Edom) and a fifth, the Ammonite, had come into being by the time of the Judges.

The problems of Jericho and Ai, however, remain, and prevent us from oversimplifying the picture. The final history of Jericho is still obscure. That it was abandoned by the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century, however, seems certain. Consequently, we must assume that behind the present narratives of the Conquest there was a more complex situation than first meets the eye.* Yet this fact cannot obscure the substantial historicity and violence of the main wave of the Conquest in the thirteenth century.

There is an equally large amount of evidence bearing on the settlement of Israel in Palestine. For the first time, the hill country became dotted with newly established towns, the ruins of which can be distinguished from those of the great Canaanite centers left standing and from the towns under the political and economic control of the Philistines…The excavations also indicate the change which began with the United Monarchy of David and Solomon. A far greater degree of stability was achieved; the general prosperity and rise in population and standard of living are witnessed; the last centers of Philistine and Canaanite culture (except, of course, those along the coast to the north of Mt. Carmel) were either destroyed, as was Beth-shan, or brought under the political and economic control of the hill country for the first time in the country’s history.*

The combined linguistic, historical and archaeological treatment of the list of levitical cities in Josh. 21 by Albright indicates that this list is almost certainly from a tenth century compilation of still older material, and that the establishment of these cities can scarcely be an idealization of the Post-Exilic Priestly school, a view which has been commonly held

When it is sometimes said that recent study has done little to disturb the basic tenets of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, we should not fail to observe that the statement is confined to the continued recognition of the basic documents and the acceptance of certain dates for their completion. There is more, however, to Wellhausenism than this. It is primarily a reconstruction of the whole institutional history of Israel, based upon the assumption that the material within a given document is more of a reflection of the age in which the document was written than of the age which it purports to describe. Archaeological discoveries and the new perspective which they are bringing about make it increasingly difficult to hold this view without serious qualification…

The excavations certainly bear clear witness to the gradual decline in the material prosperity of Palestine during the second half of the eighth century and throughout the seventh century when the country was controlled and repeatedly ravaged by the great powers. Even more vivid witness is born to the devastating havoc wrought by the Babylonian conquest of Judah, in which town after town was destroyed, many never to be reoccupied. It was three centuries before the country again attained something of its former prosperity.*

No discoveries for the period of the New Testament compare in importance with those for the Old. This is inevitable since the New Testament covers little more than a century in time, while the Old carries us through more than fifteen hundred years. The most spectacular event in New Testament archaeology has been the publication of newly found manuscripts dating from the second and third centuries A.D. These together with those manuscripts long known provide more evidence for the text of the New Testament than for any other book from antiquity. The recent discoveries, by and large, have supported the text of our best Greek versions, and few new readings of much significance have been discovered. Aramaic inscriptions, especially on Jewish ossuaries, keep coming to light; but until more of them have been discovered and until all the evidence has been assembled, the vexing question of the Aramaic origin of the Gospels will not be settled to the satisfaction of many scholars.

Except for the work of Glueck and others in the exploration of Nabataea, archaeological work in Palestine has dealt primarily either with pre-Christian or with post-first century monuments.*

Accordingly, archaeology has not had the same historical implications for New. Testament scholarship as it has had for Old Testament studies.


As we turn to a brief consideration of the effect which archaeology has had upon the study of Biblical religion, we are immediately plunged into an area in which heated disputes have been taking place. The conservative trends to be observed in German scholarship between the two wars have been drawn together, greatly amplified, and focussed with erudition and a large compilation of the relevant archaeological data in the writings of Albright.* A majority of the scholars in England and America have not been convinced by such an assertion as that of Mosaic monotheism;* yet even so the discussion is having a healthy effect. Issues are being clarified, and a new perspective is being achieved, so that future writing by up to date scholars on the question of Old Testament religion, at least, will be very different from that in the past. What are the issues in this discussion?

The Graf-Wellhausen reconstruction of the history of Israel’s religion was in effect an assertion that within the pages of the Old Testament we have a perfect example of the evolution of a religion from animism in Patriarchal times, through henotheism, to monotheism, the latter first achieved in pure form during the sixth-fifth centuries. The Patriarchs worshipped the spirits in trees, stones, springs, mountains, etc. The God of pre-prophetic Israel was a tribal Deity, limited in his power to the land of Palestine, a mountain-God and a war-God who showed unpredictable favoritism and who lacked many basic moral qualities later attributed to him by the prophets.

Under the influence of Canaanite religion he even became a fertility God and sufficiently tolerant to allow the early religion of Israel to be distinguished little from that of Canaan. It was the prophets who were the true innovators and who produced most, if not all, of that which was truly distinctive in Israel, the grand culmination coming with the universalism of Second Isaiah. Thus we have animism, or polydemonism, a limited tribal Deity, implicit ethical monotheism, and finally explicit and universal monotheism. The second and third stages have been variously grouped by scholars under polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism, depending upon the particular emphasis of the individual scholar.

Now it should be noted that this view was first established between 1850 and 1880, when the archaeological recovery of the ancient world was barely in its swaddling clothes. No synthesis of Near Eastern cultural history was possible, and inability to understand Israel’s background would inevitably make it difficult to place Israel’s religion in its proper evolutionary background.

Only in the last ten years has a real archaeological synthesis become possible; small wonder, therefore, that its revolutionary effects on Biblical study are only beginning to be felt. In any event, we can assert with confidence that by the time of the Patriarchs the religion of all parts of the Near East was a long distance removed from animism, if the latter in any approved textbook form ever existed at all. As early as the Neolithic period, before the appearance of pottery, we find a building at Jericho, which is almost certainly a temple with remarkable statues of deities in the triad of man, woman, and child.*

The Ghassulian paintings of the Chalcolithic period in the Jordan valley bear witness to an exceedingly complex religious imagination with indications of a belief in high gods.

At least three temples of the third millennium are known from Palestine,* while both the fourth and third millennia bear witness to a highly developed cultus in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and probably in Syria.

Thus it can confidently be said that when Oesterley and Robinson in their Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development take more than one fourth of their book to describe the animistic and magical background of Israel’s religion, they are dealing neither with pagan nor with Patriarchal religion, but chiefly with Stone Age survivals or relics, the true importance of which either in Israel or in contemporary polytheism is inadequately understood and over-emphasized. It cannot be objected that Patriarchal nomadism would naturally be more “primitive” than the inhabitants of contemporary Palestine. While this may have been true relatively, a study of the evidences for Amorite religion, particularly in the Amorite onomasticon, and the indications of such sources as the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, lead us a long, long way from the picture which Oesterley and Robinson have painted. The details of Patriarchal religion we shall never know. That it was a branch from Semitic “El” religion seems probable, but we have no clear evidence as to its exact nature.*

It seems to me quite probable that these remarks would find general agreement today among a majority of informed scholars. A far greater degree of disagreement exists regarding the nature of early Israelite religion. With what assured facts does archaeology confront us? Perhaps the fairly obvious one which should be mentioned is that each of the great polytheisms, we now know, was a cosmic system, of which the gods were the personified natural forces, phenomena, and the like. The gods had no geographical limitation other than the limitation of that portion of nature they personified.* Accordingly, when the earliest poetry and documents of Israel speak of Yahweh’s complete charge of nature and all its substance, we are warned against assuming a geographical limitation on his power which not even the polytheists imposed on their deities. In fact, it seems quite obvious that since divinity in the Old Testament was one and not many,* the designation of Yahweh as a fertility-God, or as a mountain-God, or by any other such term derived from polytheism is misleading. In our earliest, pre-prophetic sources he is all these and more, because he is no personification of nature. He transcends nature and is nature’s God.

In view of the archaeological evidence, therefore, it seems to me that Albright is quite justified in raising his questions about henotheism.* It is extremely difficult to put one’s finger on any parallel phenomenon in the conceptual life of Israel’s neighbors, and while there are several verses in the Old Testament which appear to indicate certain tendencies toward it, the weight of the evidence appears to point away from a dominating henotheism known thus far from the textbook definitions, at least within the official Yahwism of early Israel. An illuminating source of study is the attitude taken toward the holy sites, Tabernacle, and Temple in the pre-prophetic literature. Yahweh used them all, even former Canaanite sacred sites, as places where he revealed himself without in any way being bound or geographically limited by them.* Consequently, those who still wish to retain the term “henotheism” will have to define it somewhat differently than has been the custom in the past.

It has been frequently asserted that the early religion of Israel had little to distinguish it from the religion of Canaan. Today such a view is most difficult. Certainly that portion of the long lost Canaanite literature which has been found at Ugarit sounds very different from anything we have in the Old Testament. According to the Deuteronomic editor of Judges and Kings great numbers of people did “play the harlot” after other gods. Even here, however we may perhaps be in danger of assuming too much, for though statues of male deities are frequently found in Canaanite sites, not a single clear example has thus far been found within the tons and tons of debris removed from Israelite sites. The evidence in this case is so striking that it cannot be dismissed as a questionable argument from silence.

The basic character and antiquity of the second commandment thus receives as strong a support as archaeology will probably ever be able to provide for it. At the same time, however, large numbers of figurines, representing probably the Canaanite mother-goddess and fertility-goddess, have been found in Israelite sites, furnishing unquestioning evidence of syncretism among the common people. These two pieces of evidence suggest that the syncretism did not go so far as to displace, however, Yahweh as Israel’s national and all-controlling God. Possibly the real source of danger in early Israelite theology lay not so much in an equating of Yahweh with a pagan deity* as in the comparative freedom which angelology might allow for the importation of many pagan notions.*

The absence of typical mythology of polytheistic type and the concentration instead upon the will of God as expressed in election and covenant is another fundamental element in pre-prophetic as well as in prophetic religion. The absence of a dominant theriomorphism* and the apodictic as distinguished from the casuistic type of law* are further evidence that even in early Israel there was a distinct cultural and religious point-of-view which was never lost but held to tenaciously and which was not invented but clarified by the prophets.* Thus the more information which archaeology has provided for an understanding of the contemporary polytheisms, the more we are forced to emphasize the distinctive, the revolutionary mutation, which was Israel’s true significance among the ancient religions. In fact, the break in continuity with these religions is becoming increasingly easy to describe, while the evolutionary process between the one and the other is increasingly obscured. Relation, dependence, and influence in many conceptual items and practices are clear, but the organic wholeness of the Israelite point-of-view (as expressed in God, man, covenant, law) cannot be delineated entirely by evolutionary criteria.

The purpose of this brief discussion is not to list all the evidence which archaeology presents for the study of Biblical religion but to point out its most significant contributions: namely, the presentation of evidence which proves that the Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen reconstruction of the history of Israel’s religion was an over-simplification, and inevitably so. For this reason the Old Testament is a more open field for research and study today than it has been for fifty years.


The limitations of space have made it necessary to leave many subjects untouched. The attempt has been to deal with matters of perspective rather than to catalogue discoveries irrespective of their relative importance. The New Testament field particularly has been slighted; yet when the Bible is taken as a whole, it is obvious that archaeology, while extremely important for all phases of study, has played the most significant role in the exposition of the Old Testament.

What are the urgent tasks of the future?

1. The first and foremost task is the recruiting and training of able men and women, particularly those who have a broad background, a great fund of the indispensible common sense, and a good personality, so that they can be placed in teaching positions throughout the country and at the same time encouraged to continue their study.

2. Next in importance is the preparation of new Biblical lexicons, grammars, and commentaries which will repair the tremendous lag which now exists between such handbooks and the present state of our knowledge. This is perhaps the major task of the post-War era, though its successful completion is dependent upon the rearing and training of young scholars adequately prepared for the task.

3. Money must be found in this country both for publications and for excavations. As a result of the devastating effect of the War upon England and the Continent, America must take the lead in furnishing the resources which our discipline requires; and this places a rather heavy burden of responsibility upon us. The undisputed leadership of Germany in our fields of study is a thing of the past. The question, however, is whether we here possess the qualifications necessary to carry on that leadership without a serious drop in quality of output.

4. Perhaps more than anything else today, the Biblical student needs an understanding of the conceptual life of the ancient world, particularly among the lines staked out by the volume, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, by Frankfort, Wilson, Jacobsen, and Irwin.

5. New compilations of the archaeological data which bear on the Bible are badly needed, Burrows’ What Mean These Stones? (1941) and Galling’s Biblisches Reallexikon (1937) are excellent as far as they go; but what is especially imperative are up to date works along the line of Barton’s Archaeology and the Bible (7th ed., 1937), and Gressmann’s Altorientalische Texte and Bilder zum Alten Testament (2nd ed. 1927).

6. The continued study of the Ugaritic, Sumerian, and Accadian literature will undoubtedly throw much more light on literary forms in the Old Testament.

7. Many new excavations are desirable, since archaeological techniques and control have vastly improved within the last twenty years. Specifically New Testament sites have rarely been dug in Palestine, and more attention should be paid to them. Further excavations in Syria and Lebanon, particularly in Iron age sites, are sorely needed. In Palestine the areas of Galilee, Transjordan, and Samaria have scarcely been more than touched.

This list of things to be done could be indefinitely expanded: e.g., the renewed study of personal names in the light of the whole corpus of ancient names, the collection and study of all Aramaic documents, the study of Israelite cultic objects and practices, the attempt to identify the tools and weapons mentioned in the Bible with those found in the excavations in order that more accurate translations of the terms in question may be made, continued research on Israelite institutions in the light of their background, etc. The discovery of the Ugaritie, Mari, Lachish, and Aufa el-Hafir documents certainly whet our appetites for more, and lead us to hope that even the impossible may be possible! Perhaps enough has been said, however, to indicate that Biblical archaeology, far from being a stale subject which has reached the state of diminishing returns, has barely outgrown its adolescence. Its revolutionary contributions and implications are only now being clarified, and no one can predict just how disturbing it may become in the future!

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 10(electronic ed.).

The Babylonian Scientist and His Hebrew Colleague

by George G. Cameron

The overwhelming advance of knowledge in our own “Age of Science” often blinds us to the significant achievements made long since; and if we would attain proper perspective, we must frequently go back to man’s beginnings. This is not to say that we shall always be well tutored, at least if we endeavor to learn about the attitude of the Babylonian or Hebrew toward what we call Science. For the student of the Bible knows that the book with which he deals is primarily a religious book which only incidentally reveals certain aspects of the Hebrew knowledge of the sciences. The archaeologist finds not the processes but merely the finished products, often in a sad state of preservation.

The poor Assyriologist, from whom we expect the most information, and whose task it is to explain plainly and simply the results he has secured from an examination of the thousands upon thousands of clay documentary sources, is perhaps the least well-equipped to be our teacher; for he must embody within himself the knowledge of a hundred disciplines. Though he may be working today with tablets expounding the theory of quadratic equations as it was understood by the Babylonians, next week he may be intent on a medical series presupposing an intimate acquaintance with the functions, the appearance, and the diseases of the liver, and the week after he may be involved in tablets dealing with the precession of the equinoxes or the determination of the moon-sun perigee!

In other words, his knowledge is expected to be encyclopedic, and if only too often he has failed to explain his results in a way the layman can understand, it is also true that students of the modern sciences have frequently failed to take advantage of such of his results as were available—or, when called for help, have neglected to give it. The modern student of the social sciences, engrossed in the strides man has taken in the last two thousand years, is sometimes only too willing to ignore man’s hesitant gropings and first steps, made two or three thousand years before; the modern astronomer, poring over the star catalogues and classification systems compiled since the founding of the Greenwich Observatory one hundred and eighty years ago, is seldom even made aware of the fact that the Babylonian astronomer catalogued and classified with meticulous care for over three hundred years and that many of his classifications are ready for study.

But, after all, we must plead also some tolerance for the modern scientist. Neither he nor we can be too sympathetic with a civilization in which there was so little diversification of professions, where the scribes and their philological cohorts, as well as the botanists, were priests, and where the student of internal medicine is actually an exorciser, a reciter of incantations—or, among the Hebrews, a prophet (II Kings 5:3; 8:7 ff.).

We may go further: the modern student of the sciences cannot be expected to be overly tolerant with a civilization whose approach to the individual sciences appears so diametrically opposed to his own, to a civilization in which only magic and divination, the foretelling of the future, would be considered Science, while jurisprudence, medicine, philology, mathematics, and astronomy served practical aims.

Of course the contrast is really not so glaring as at first it seems to be. Especially in wartime no one can assert that the pursuit of truth for its own sake is the sole object of the sciences. When we subordinate the study of the cosmic rays to the usages of the stratosphere plane or analyze the content of rubber merely to produce its substitute through butadiene, we are in perfect agreement with the Babylonian scientist, and ultimately with his Hebrew colleagues, to whom only wisdom, the knowledge that produced a practical result, was of paramount value. Thus, the practical aspects of calendar-making led the Babylonian to examine the phases of the moon (on which he based his months), or to an interest in the sun (which gave him his year) and its satellites (many of which were his everyday gods): that is, into astronomy. The surveying of fields and the computation of interest led to his geometry and mathematics; the many tongues of the racial melting pot Babylon, Tower of Babel of Biblical fame, induced a sincere interest in philology and linguistics.

And so at this point we meet him on common ground. We know his aims; to a certain extent we share his goal. When and how did he achieve it?

The First Scientific Records

It is an amazing fact that among the earliest inscribed documents of man, documents which come from a building level dated to about 3500 B.C. and constituting one of a long series of strata which represent the remains of ancient Erech (see Gen. 10:10 and Fig. 1), there is a small collection of scientific records, the earliest known to man to date. Now it is extremely unlikely that records of a similar nature, but of still greater antiquity, will ever be found either in or outside of Babylonia. For from the evidence now at hand, we are compelled to conclude that the compilation of these scientific notes went hand in hand with the very introduction of writing. Writing, from all the other ancient centers of civilization, is clearly of later date. Therefore, these notes, or scientific documents, bear witness both to the first sign of intellectual activity in Babylonia and to the oldest effort of this kind on record from anywhere in the world.

What is the nature of these documents that they permit us to apply to them the term “scientific”? They are lists of related entries: groupings of birds, fish, domestic animals, plants, vases, professional titles, personal names, and the like. But as such they have little relationship with the administrative documents or inventories in the economic field so well known to us in later times. These serve an intellectual rather than a material purpose. We know today that they were intended to aid in the preservation of the knowledge of writing. We may assume, with a great degree of probability on our side, that they were intended to be the teacher’s handbooks from which he drew the materials for the instruction of his students in writing.

But regardless of their original purpose, these same compilations —of birds, fish, and so on—presuppose careful observation and imply an ability to organize and to analyze the materials at hand, to catalogue and classify materials botanical, zoological, geological, astronomical, and the like. Further, these types of documents are destined to continue and to spread over the neighboring countries in a fashion that will set them off sharply from the usual run of business records which can claim only a transitory and local importance. They will be copied and recopied for many centuries and in more shall one city or country. Samples of such copies, often modified and expanded—but still in a clear line of descent from the very first prototypes—have been dug up in Babylonian, Elamite Syrian, and Hittite sites of much later age (Fig. 2 ). In these texts, then, we have the beginning of a family of scholarly notes that is significant at once for its continuity distribution, and purposeful adherence to an established tradition, in spite of the fact that each successive compilation is subject to expansion and revision.

From all this we may therefore draw two important conclusions: First, in this recording of accumulated experience, and in the ability to apply such records to centers separated by time and space, we have the essential ingredients of scientific performance. Second, and more important, such groupings of birds or plants or rocks lead in course of time to the independent study of the subject matter involved.

A list of plants, drawn up to remember how to write the names of plants, leads in its turn to a study of the plants themselves. Although these texts started out as an aid in the preservation of the knowledge of writing (that is, they were primarily philological—and philology is itself a science, of course), they led directly to the examination of things zoological, chemical, and so on Thus the first recognition of all these subjects as so many separate disciplines may be traced back to the oldest inscribed records of Babylonia. And that recognition was due ultimately to the fact that man had just discovered in writing a way to halt the relentless flow of time and was bending all his effort and ingenuity to the task of keeping this way alive.*

It is well known that Babylonia, like Palestine, was primarily the site of agricultural and trading communities (Fig. 3 ). The individual Babylonian or Hebrew was above all a practical minded man. His life was not an easy one; his climate, running from the dreadful heat of summer with its inevitable parched ground and dust storms to the dreary rain and cold of winter, was not a particularly pleasant one. Climate, as well as the kind of life he lived, brought about the practical minded individual whose primary objective was the turning of newly acquired information into effective use in everyday life. His whole experience was empirical and pragmatical: because a thing worked with little or no error then it was so and there was no arguing about it. His adoption into the accepted medical treatises of homemade, time-tested remedies for various ills is a case in point.

The Babylonian Calendar

The example of Babylonian empiric mentality is visible in his calendar making.* After the day (based, of course, on the sun), we come to his first calendaric unit, the month, dependent on the wanderings of the moon-god. Twelve moon months make the year, beginning at the time of the spring equinox; but the sun-god ruled the day as well as the year: the Babylonian himself said, “The sun-god Shamash reigns over the way of heaven and earth.” A year of twelve lunar months, each consisting of only 293/2 days, as we know, totals up to merely 354 days and does not agree with the solar year, based on the earth’s orbit around the sun and comprising 365 and about 1/4 days. Something was wrong, he knew; how could the discrepancy be solved?

The Egyptians (who were to this point in close agreement) cut the Gordian knot by having a year of 12 months (each of 30 days) and by adding (to the 360 days thus secured) five additional days at the end of the year which were not assignable to any month. This gave the Egyptians a year of 365 days but, as we now see, the nearly 1/4 day left out of the reckoning produced a calendar which slipped out of place one day every four years until, in 1,460 years, New Year’s day had appeared on every day of the solar year and was only then back to its starting point.

The practical Babylonian had no desire to see his seasons thus shifting through all the months. His solution may not have been “scientific,” but at least it did bring the months to their proper—if approximate— seasons. However it was discovered that a month, for example the month of plowing (Figs. 4 -5 ), was close to 30 days off from the regular agricultural and seasonal calendar, he added an extra thirteenth month, making that particular year not 354 but 384 days long. This added month we call the “intercalated” month, and henceforth his system of intercalation was followed not only in Babylonia but in the surrounding countries as well. It was the basis of the Hebrew calendar (for the early Canaanite month names gave place, after the exile, to those from Babylonia), as well as that of the Greeks and Romans before the calendar reform of Julius Caesar; it is weakly present in our own calendar, in February 29, when it occurs and—amazingly enough—it still determines many of our church feasts—thus the determination of Easter, which governs all movable feasts, is an affair of considerable nicety and complication.

Change and Resistance to It

But what we must here stress is the empirical procedure of the Babylonian’s mind. And once a matter had been decided on, the conservatism, innate in a predominantly agricultural community, produced a resistance to change, a desire to maintain the status quo. He maintained it in his language and in the way it was written—and this in spite of the fact that he was aware of new systems of writing which were far easier than his complicated cuneiform. He maintained it in the way he compiled his dictionaries, remarkably similar in form from the earliest to the latest edition; in the way he penned his prayers to his gods and wrote his historical records; in the way he revered his gods and honored his rulers. For his was a hybrid civilization: in him met at least two peoples: the Sumerian and the Semite. In the mingling of the one with the other new social outlooks had been brought in, and with them a means of stabilizing the result—that is, writing. But the disturbance of the traditional modes of life, the result of this intermingling, merely intensified the emotional attachments to the old and contemporary social outlooks. The new rendering of the fundamental tradition embodying these effects had a resistance to further change which made almost certain its persistence.

Furthermore, this innate, stubborn resistance to change meant in both the Babylonian and the Hebrew (see Fig. 6 ) far greater scientific advance than would have been the case had he been merely a fancy adopter of fashions, an obsequious follower of new ideas. For inevitably such a plodding spirit is subject to change, but it is not the adopting but the adapting which emerges; there is no going “all out” for this new fad or that radical theory, but the assimilation of the important elements of truth within the new theory into the older long established body of knowledge.

Diseases and Their Remedy

This is why the practical Babylonian mind added to the traditional incantation, as a remedy for hardness, the equivalent of alcohol massages and oil shampoos, and, for earache, added to the eating of hot stew the application of warm sweet oil. In similar fashion the Hebrew counseled a poultice of figs in addition to the customary prayer as a remedy for the plague boil (II Kings 20), and we are even told that, just as in Babylonia, the Hebrew king had recourse to the near and mundane physician rather than to the distant and heavenly God for his healing (II Chron. 16:12). Regarding the Babylonian prescription, we may object to the eating of the stew—but, after all, it hurt the patient not a whit. We may object to the incantation and question why a prayer to a god should be mixed up with purely scientific effort, but our own practice differs only slightly. We first call the doctor and secure his prescription, shall we call the minister to pray for the sick, simply because we want our science and religion to be administered by different persons. In ancient times, one and the same individual attended to both.

Naturally, in such a field as medicine the early physician made a number of mistakes. When he observed that a sick man sometimes recovered but that someone else in the family came down with the same illness, he concluded that the demon of the disease had passed from the one to the other and devoted all his effort toward casting it out in fashions similar to those related in the four Gospels. We differ from him in that we call the cause of the illness not a demon but a germ, but just because he spoke of it as a demon (and sometimes portrayed it as we see in Fig. 7 ) does not justify our viewing it always as some sort of a little Mephistopheles with horns and a barbed tail, for the difference between our “germ” and a tiny “demon” who can go everywhere, through waste water and walls, is a little difficult to see.

Progress was made; the Babylonian physicians came a long way from the view that toothache is caused by a demon or worm that gets in between the tooth and the gum. One Assyrian doctor, brought into consultation in regard to a patient, writes as follows:

“The ‘burning’ of his head, hands, and feet, wherefrom he has suffered, was on account of his teeth; his teeth were falling out; on account of them he burned’.”

Like Hippocrates, reputed founder of the medical tradition, our physician has noticed through a long experience that bad teeth were sometimes accompanied by painful conditions in other parts of the body. Although he may have had no theory as to the relationship between the two, we should at least give him ample credit for a sound clinical observation whether the real condition was represented by a referred (or sympathetic) pain or by an actual focal infection. The long eulogy of the physician in Ecclesiasticus (38:1–15) is indicative of the position he attained in later Jewish thinking.

Part of his progress was attributable to his empiric method—for there is no doubt but that many of the herbs and drugs he administered were effective even if we cannot always tell just what the “serpent’s ear” or the “horned alkali” was in terms of our own pharmacopeia (although we have identified such medicaments as the oil from the castor bean). Of course  ancient medicine was empirical; if a remedy worked it was good. But modern medicine advanced along exactly the same lines until a few years ago, and it is still taking lessons. The modern Arab baby is never washed until it is four weeks old, for, say the Arabs, washing is not good for a baby; the natural skin covering with which it comes into the world is better than anything man can apply. Although this is in contrast to the ancient Biblical practice (see Ezek. 16:3), it conforms to the recent “discovery” that only oil and not water should be applied to an infant if a postnatal rash is to be avoided.

Much of that progress effected by the Babylonian arose also from the fact that the remedies he applied, by the empirical method of trial and error, were specifically named in his written textbooks which had been compiled down through the ages and which therefore represented an enormous body of recorded experience. It matters little to us whether bitter or pungent herbs were, according to the religious rites, supposed to drive out the demon of illness because of their unpleasantness, while milk, honey, and butter, because of their pleasant properties, coaxed it out. What does matter is that our scientist had learned that fumigation, the application of poultices, powders, and lotions containing saffron, mustard, cassia, and dozens of other identifiable ingredients were effective, and had recorded that fact for future use. Prescriptions of Assyrian physicians, known to us by texts from their capital which are certainly no later than-the eighth century B.C., have only a secondary interest in magic, but take the form: “If a man has such and such a disease, then apply (or give to drink) such and such drugs and he may recover.” This form was retained in later Jewish medicine. Diseases and ailments of every part of the body are dealt with in these texts, from the crown of the head (wherein the “itch” is treated with sulphur) to feet which cannot walk.

The tabulations of the plants adopted into the medical literature adhere to a definite botanical order of their own, but quite interesting are the botanist’s comments interspersed amid the columns, such as that opium (in its narcotic effect) is like mandrake (a word that comes to us from the Babylonian), and that it is gathered by women and children, as it is to this day: that a poppy is called a rose by the common people, as it is by the modern Arab; that hemp (marijuana) is an antidote for sorrow and, in his own words, a “robber of the minds”; or that sumach is a dye for leather.

In the light of these remarks botanists will not be surprised to learn that many of the terms which they use today have sprung from the Babylonian names: thus cassia, sesame, chicory, crocus, saffron, hyssop, nard, and myrrh, to mention but a few.* Most of these have become familiar chiefly through the pages of the Bible, although the materia medica themselves are still in use. In the Old Testament these are mentioned only as ingredients of incense, oils for anointment, and perfumes for embalming, but Talmudical writings (post-Biblical) give adequate proof of their medicinal uses.

From what has so far been written it should be quite obvious that the utmost elasticity must be conceded to him who would attempt the delimitation of the ancient scientific frontier. That this is no unfair postulate should be clear also from the astonishing results shown in the field of ancient Oriental history during the last hundred years. With every advance in our discovery of the capacity and resources of the old peoples we have held up our hands metaphorically in wonder at their unexpected knowledge. A century ago, when cuneiform was still in its infancy and winged bulls were still below ground, we could see only the dawn breaking in Babylonian and Hebrew archaeology. Then, even after the nineteenth century had blazoned forth its archaeological wonders, it remained for the twentieth century to reveal the truth behind the Old Testament references to the Hittites, who wrote a dialect in cuneiform bearing close analogies to Greek and Latin near a land which knew the Indian gods in the middle of the second millennium, and it devolved upon the same twentieth century to prove that a thousand years before, and more, there had been traffic between the merchants of India and those of Babylonia.

Therefore it would not befit us to set any arbitrary limitation to the forgotten labyrinth of old discoveries in the natural sciences, for even though time has left but little record of the technical processes in which the old guilds of craftsmen excelled, this lack of record will by no means permit that tyrannic extreme of the modern world which could arrogate to itself and to recent times the credit for this or that advance along a path which has been so slowly built up on the experiments of unknown predecessors. Clearly, we must in many cases admit our ignorance of the actual processes, partly because the records themselves are still too scanty, partly because it has always been the outrageous custom of certain learned circles to conceal their knowledge from the lay world, and partly because the knowledge of technical methods by one guild has always been closely guarded from all other guilds. We find instructions for this secrecy as far back as the middle of the second millennium when a scribe-scientist added this colophon to an explanatory text:

“Let the learned man instruct the learned man, but let the unlearned not hear about it, for that is taboo.”

Ancient Metallurgy

The latest discovery in ancient chemistry a Babylonian tablet of the seventeenth pre-Christian century, gives a formula for making a lead glaze colored with copper (Fig. 8 ), but it is written in just the same cryptographic method which was so beloved by the secretive alchemists of our only Middle Ages. And let it be noted that such a palisade of concealment is not confined to antiquity but has persisted to the present day, particularly among the glass makers, who preserve not only the tradition of their ancestors’ skill but also their secretiveness.*

We cannot say at what period the Babylonian began to work gold and silver, for these are precious metals and as such are the first forms of booty which an invader takes. But he had learned how to treat both most artistically by the time of the burials in the so-called “royal” tombs at “Ur of the Chaldees”. From a very early time we have evidence for copper, then bronze, and finally iron—not only meteoric, but also iron free from nickel. It was through experimenting with fire, accidentally or intentionally (note that Noah offered burnt-offerings), that prehistoric man learned so much about the properties of these and other minerals. In the latest periods the Assyrian method of producing fire was by flint and steel, although the properties of pyrites were also known and it is even possible that a sulphur match was used. The persistent tests with fire on various substances showed the Babylonian its effects on the alkaline plants, which gave him potash from wood ashes for washing; on rocks, which gave plaster and lime in addition to the glaze mentioned before to both him and the Hebrews (cf. Isa. 27:9; Amos 2:1). While we have no date for the smelting of ores, it was a familiar practice, and we now know that Solomon had not only his own workmen in the Lebanons who hewed cut stone and prepared timber for his buildings (I Kings 5:13–18) but also his own mines and smelting factories south of the Dead Sea, the workings of which are described rather technically in Job, Chapter 28, and Ezekiel, Chapter 22.

We can, indeed, set an approximate period to the mixing of ingredients for bronze casting in Babylonia, and the damaged “blue prints” of Solomon’s temple in the book of I Kings (cf. also Exod. 25 ff.) provide ample evidence that bronze casting, the hammering of metal, soldering, welding, polishing, and overlaying were all well known practices in Hebrew times (Fig. 9 ). The Babylonian knew that copper would give black and red oxides for glass, that white lead would produce red lead, that green vitriol or copperas would give sulphuric acid. Sal ammoniac, secured from dung fires, paved the way for the discovery of mercury from cinnabar; by leaching the soil he obtained various salts, and he possessed a wide knowledge of vegetable acids such as vinegar. He surely had a test for the relative hardness of rocks; he certainly had one to inquire into the degree of purity and impurity of his coins. A document from the reign of Darius the Great dated, fortuitously enough, on December 30, 502 B.C., revaluates the money submitted as taxes in terms of a pure and undebased coinage.

Sumerian, the “Dead” Language

Many of the formulas at the disposal of the Babylonian were clothed in secrecy, as we have already discovered, and a potent factor which contributed to his ability to write thus cryptographically in his Middle Ages (that is, around 1500 B.C.) was the employment of two languages, Sumerian and Semitic. True enough, to all intents and purposes Sumerian was dead by that time, but most of the literary masterpieces were composed in it, the legal and administrative terminology was based upon it, and—somewhat like Latin in our Medieval Period—a barbarized form of it was still the medium for scientific writing, not understood by the average citizen. Practical mindedness demanded that the lists of birds, plants, stars and so on, once conceived as a means of maintaining the knowledge of script, now be brought up to date. The signs by which the names of these objects had been written had long since undergone great change, and now there must be included Semitic translations, equivalents, or loan words, for with the study of script there was linked perforce the study of vocabulary, and this in its turn led to the study of language. Thus, although memory of certain rare synonymous Sumerian meanings for some signs permitted the scientist to hide his newly-won information in a cloud of obscurity, the process itself led to the master philologist. There is scarcely a single branch of philology which was not subsequently attacked in and for itself; morphology, syntax, vocabulary, each came in for its full share of attention.

Omens and Astronomy

This was not foresightedness; it was but practical necessity. Foresightedness was left to the omens and the many means of divination, whether it be by examination of the liver of the sacrificial sheep, by interpretation of dreams, my observation of the troubled patterns (to rephrase an old saw) assumed by oil when it is poured upon water, or by observation of the heavenly bodies whose movements (as indeed the whole of the natural world) were supposed to exert an influence over the fate of mankind. In a discussion of the Babylonian or Hebrew scientist we are not concerned with the details of his omen literature more than to indicate how great a part it played in the education of observation. Wrong-headed and illogical as the omen literature may have been (through primitive inability to distinguish cause and effect—or, more accurately, between post hoc and propter hoc), nevertheless it played a significant part in the training of observers, and shows, even at its worst, no more retrogressive bearing on the normal rate of human progress than the gypsy fortune teller, or the articles entitled “Your Horoscope” in our daily papers.

We cannot cite the precedent of the early Babylonians in the field of astrology—despite the attention given to “Chaldean astrologers” both in and outside of the Bible—to disprove our picture of the scientist’s mind as one saturated with both practical mindedness and reverence for, as well as use of, the past. For there is little witness to astrology in our earlier sources, it never held the favor of kings, as did divination by means of the liver; the common people much preferred divination by observing animals or insects, the misbirths of animals or women, and the like. It was only in the last few centuries B.C. that astrology began to be considered in the lives of ordinary men and women. This was likewise true among the Hebrews, as may be adequately seen from the many references in the book of Daniel, although Amos 5:26 introduces us to the subject of star-worship, and II Kings, Chapter 23, relates the measures taken in 621 to root out this “heathenish” practice. As has been well said, although astrology did contribute to astronomical terminology, it is a question whether it did not actually delay investigation of the scientific aspects of astronomy. On the contrary; Babylonian astronomy developed particularly from the need of adjusting the calendar, and we have already observed how practical was this consideration.*

But we must disabuse our minds of certain widely held ideas about the Babylonians in this scientific field. In spite of numerous assertions to the contrary, astronomy was not a science at a fabulously early time, for its beginnings as a science date back only to the late Assyrian period, merely 2,700 years ago, while its greatest triumphs were some 500 years later. But even so we should never be afraid to admit the fact, or to fear that the glory that was Greece will rob us of the just fame of the Babylonian astronomers, for whom the Greeks had the warmest admiration. And now with the recognition that there was a Babylonian in the Academy of Plato, we have perhaps not far to seek for him who could explain in astronomical terms the results of the Babylonians named Naburianus and Cidenas, both of whom were so well known to the Greeks themselves. It was Cidenas who discovered the difference in the length of the year as measured from equinox to equinox and as measured between two successive arrivals of the earth at its nearest point to the sun. This, then, is the discovery of the slow change in the obliquity of the earth’s axis, like the wobbling of a spinning top, which causes the precession of the equinoxes. It was the other Babylonian we have named, Naburianus, who endeavored to determine the true date of the new or full moon, with which was connected, of course, the determination of lunar or solar eclipses. It is amazing to discover that his calculations on the apparent diameter of the moon’s face are far more accurate than were the estimates of Ptolemy, Copernicus, or even Kepler before the latter employed the telescope.

Mathematics and Geometry

But it is in the fields of mathematics and geometry that the psychological bent of our scientist is perhaps best exemplified. The one was developed in the elaborate inventories and administrative documents which bulk so large in the total number of tablets excavated—assisted, naturally enough, by the calculations essential to astronomy. The other, geometry, originated in the necessity of measuring and surveying the fields and estates sold in a predominantly agricultural community.*

Like all the other Semites, the Hebrews, so far as we know, used only the decimal system for their computations—that is, their basic unit was ten, like ours. But when we turn to Babylonia we are at first appalled by the basic unit with which we must deal; it is not ten, but sixty, and we find ourselves in the throes of a sexagesimal numerical system which seems to have no counterpart in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters under the earth. Our first feeling of irritation is somewhat mollified when we discover that in the business documents proper a decimal system is employed as an assistant or adjunct to the sexagesimal, that there are the units up through nine, then a symbol for ten, another for 100 and another for 1,000. But in the pure mathematical texts, in the astronomical and geometrical calculations, the decimal system has been discarded almost altogether. Here sixty, or a multiple of it, is the unit. Our astonishment grows apace, and with it our wonder at its origin.

From time to time there have been numerous explanations put forth as to the source of this curious and apparently senseless system. Most of them are in themselves irrational, or presuppose philosophical or astronomical premises far beyond the capacity of our primitive ancestors. If we can but divest ourselves of the professorial atmosphere and project ourselves into the mental pattern of the early practical-minded Babylonian accountant, we shall doubtless find the real explanation for this sexagesimal system in its effectiveness: the unit of 60 worked better for him than any other he could devise.

Modern professional mathematicians tell us that to be supremely effective the basic unit of a numerical system should permit, without a continuing fraction or decimal, the factoring of all or as many as possible of the smaller numbers comprising that unit. In other words, that unit, whatever it may be, should be evenly divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. Our vaunted unit, 10, may be factored in this manner by only 1, 2, 5, and itself. Sixty, the Babylonian unit, is evenly factored by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and itself. The Babylonian accountant had doubtless discovered, by his use of what we call fractions but what are more properly individual units or parts of a larger whole, that the unit of 60, better than any other number, permitted him to express this “fraction” as a whole number: 1/3 in terms of 60 being 20; 1/6 being 10; and so on. Sixty worked admirably; his empiric logic demanded that it be adopted as his basic unit, and so it was.

Once a symbol for the unit 60 had been accepted, two 60’s would of course be indicated by writing the symbol twice, three 60’s by writing it three times, and so on up to 59. The next largest unit is, then, according to our thinking, 60×60. But this next largest is only a multiple of 60, and can therefore be written by exactly the same symbol as the first unit, 1; it is but a new order of 60.

Already, therefore, we comprehend a fundamental Babylonian discovery: it is the position of any individual integer or number within the whole number that determines its value. When we write 111, the first figure indicates hundreds, the second tens, the third units. When the Babylonian wrote 111, each figure represented merely a different order or value of the unit 60; nevertheless, there is no “absolute” position: any particular number, such as 30, may mean 30 units of 60, 30 units of 60×60, 30 units of 60x60x60, or even the number 30 in its relation to 60, our fraction 1/2. Practical mindedness has produced an almost perfect system of enumeration which permits every number, whole or fractional, to be interpreted in terms of a whole number.

Obviously it would be impossible to explain in these few pages the achievements of the Babylonian in the realm of mathematics, to demonstrate how he worked with numbers which at first sight cannot be divided evenly by 60, or how he multiplied, divided, subtracted, squared, cubed, performed quadratic equations, or solved geometrical problems. Suffice to say that he who would understand the operations will at his peril express them in terms of modern mathematics, such as xy—x+y=43.

Likewise it will not do to discard the Babylonian expression of a number and interpret it in terms of our own fractions units, hundreds, or thousands; if we accept his figures and deal only with his whole numbers, when we attempt to follow one of his mathematical problems, we shall discover not only that the process is faster, more direct, and simpler, but also that because we are performing the operation his way we are securing a much clearer picture of his mental set and psychological bent.

The fields of mathematics and geometry provide us with one further insight into the Babylonian character which may not be disregarded. The surveying of estates demanded that the irregular contours be divided into such squares, rectangles, parallelograms, and especially, triangles whose areas and sides could easily be computed. The Babylonian was familiar with the rudiments of the Pythagorean theorem that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides; there is even some evidence to show that certain applications of this theorem, which were supposed to originate with Leonard of Pisa in the thirteenth Century A.D., were known to him and that he had transmitted them to the Arabs, from whom Leonard himself drew.

Unfortunately, the Babylonian did not take full advantage of this theorem. Usually he solved the triangle problem by a different method, but he was not satisfied with this solution and found still another method which produced a slightly different result. His reasoning was sound: the two formulas are capable of giving better results according to the relationships between the two sides of the triangle. When this relationship is close to 1 to 3, one formula is more correct; when it is as much as 1 to 7, the other formula is better. Thus we are continuously in the presence of an empirical type of logic, one which consists in the orderliness of the results, in the system with which the problem is solved and one which has been acquired by the pure and simple method of trial and error. We may well question why he should bother to calculate the diagonal when, with the small numbers which he generally uses, measuring would be a simple task. The answer to our question makes clear the real point in common between our scientist and Galileo, for in both we see at work disinterested curiosity, pure science as we ourselves have known it.

An important difference between our method and that of the Babylonian is this: we attempt to prove, to verify, the correctness of our results; we justify the answer we have secured. There is no trace of such proof in his mathematical texts; there is merely the explanation. We have already discovered, however, that he is constantly changing his geometrical formulas, or giving a second or third method of solution; and although he makes his astronomical calculations and affirms that the New Moon should appear on the twenty-ninth day of the month, he then adds: “Watch for it and see!” We must, therefore, doubt if a Babylonian scientist ever put down a formula, discovered by himself or handed down by tradition, without his tongue in his cheek. We must assume that he tacitly declared, “This method should work, but if it does not, then try another!” Here speaks the empirical scientist, the pragmatist, the man who knows his past and yet looks toward the future.

In these pages we have entered not so much into the laboratory of an old scientist as into his library; we have observed not how he solved problems but how he was prepared to solve them. Our cursory treatment has admittedly been decidedly unfair, both to him and to ourselves; for, like an ancient religion, the subject should be treated by periods, chronologically—that is, historically—although an over-all view, like an aerial survey, has some value. We may decry the static character of his mental pattern, but by and large it was no more static than the idea that the last two thousand years have shown man how to live and that he may with impunity forget or ignore the two thousand years before that. Those who search in the records of the past are not endeavoring to present the past on its own merits, to make it live in and for itself, to show, for example, that socialism will not work simply because it was once tried and found wanting—in other words, to offer merely a “New Past.” Rather are they interested in the future and in how that past fits into the eternal scheme of universal things. The old Babylonian or Hebrew scientist, for whom the past had an inordinate charm, fitted his past into his present to the best of his abilities, and one can ask for little more.

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 7(electronic ed.).


How Archaeology Helps the Student of the Bible

by Millar Burrows

Every serious student of the Bible in these days knows that he cannot afford to ignore archaeology. As regards the kind of help which archaeology gives, however, narrow and quite inadequate ideas are all too prevalent. From many recent books and articles one might infer that all archaeology could do for biblical studies was to “confirm” this or that statement in Scriptures. Readers of The Biblical Archaeologist hardly need to be told that the results of excavation are far richer and more varied than that. The purpose of the present article is to recall briefly the principle ways in which archaeology helps us to understand and appreciate the Bible. Every point which will be stated might be developed at great length.*

To understand the Bible we must first of all know, as nearly as possible, exactly what its authors wrote; that is, we must try to establish the correct text. The oldest manuscripts we have were written generations or even in many cases centuries after the death of the sacred historians, prophets, and apostles. The scribes who copied them made many mistakes, so that again and again the manuscripts differ—not to such an extent, to be sure, as to affect any vital religious teaching, but often to a degree which makes it impossible to tell what was originally written in particular passages. It is doubtless too much to hope that the excavator’s spade or, rather, hoe—will ever turn up the original ‘autograph’ of one of Paul’s letters, or the roll written by Baruch at the dictation of Jeremiah. The discovery of older manuscripts than those preserved in monasteries or libraries, however, not only is possible but has occurred repeatedly. In Egypt, where the dry climate preserves materials that are elsewhere perishable, rolls of papyrus have been discovered in great quantities, and some of them contain portions of the Old and New Testaments. Being much older than the most ancient manuscripts hitherto known, these are obviously very important for the establishment of the text. No sensational new readings or corrections have been demonstrated, but the choice between variant readings in the later manuscripts is facilitated and placed on a firmer basis.

Assuming that the wording of the text has been established as accurately as possible, our next task is to interpret it. This requires a thorough understanding of the languages in which it is written. Here archaeology renders its second important service. The Hebrew language of the Old Testament is much better understood than it was before the related language of the Babylonians and Assyrians became known through the discovery of countless clay tablets and stone monuments. More recently the extensive literary texts found at Ras Shamra* which are written in a language even more closely related to Hebrew, have begun to enrich our knowledge of the language in which most of the Old Testament is written. Inscriptions in the Hebrew language itself, such as the Lachish letters,* have been unearthed also, enabling scholars to trace the development of the language and thus determine its characteristics in any particular period. The Aramaic language also appears in many inscriptions. Not only were parts of the books of Daniel and Ezra written in this tongue, it was also the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples and the earliest Christian records were probably written in Aramaic. One important inscription in the Jewish Aramaic of Jesus’ time has been found.* Especially important is the new understanding of New Testament Greek provided by the countless letters, business records, and other documents of everyday life, written on papyrus, which have been found in Egypt, showing the kind of Greek used by the common people of the Roman empire at the time when the New Testament was written.

But it is not enough to understand the words and the grammar of ancient writings like those of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible was written not only in other languages than ours; it was written by and for people who lived in a world quite different from ours, and it speaks in terms of their life. To understand it rightly, therefore, we must understand the life of its authors and their first readers, the life of the people to whom Jesus spoke and the people to whom Paul wrote. This is by all odds the most important of the contributions of archaeology, giving us the orientation we need to read the Bible as it was meant to be read.

The sacred story unfolds in a particular geographical setting, and archaeology makes this much clearer by identifying important sites named in the record, such as Lachish* or Ezion-geber,* or even particular buildings, like the Praetorium where Jesus appeared before Pilate.* The setting in time as well as in space is brought into sharper focus through the fixing of dates by the records of the Assyrians and other nations. That archaeology cannot always solve at once the problems of biblical chronology is shown by the battle royal still being waged by historians regarding the date of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, but even here successive discoveries gradually reduce the limits within which the solution must be found.

No less important is the cultural setting, including the social customs of Bible times. One of the most conspicuous examples of what archaeology can do for us in this respect is afforded by the Nuzu tablets.* Since the Bible refers often to the houses in which people lived, the fortifications of their cities, the weapons and tools they used, and other material objects of daily life, an accurate acquaintance with these is helpful. Instead of thinking of Abraham or David as dressed in a costume of the Renaissance period and living in a marble palace in a European landscape, as painters used to picture them, we are now able by excavation to uncover the actual buildings and objects themselves, or what is left of them. Gates like that of Ezion-geber,* houses,* dishes and bowls,* lamps,* seals,* slingstones,* and many other things give us a vivid picture of ancient life as it actually was lived. Industry and trade,* education and literature,* art and religion* can all be seen now in a clear and true light.

As a result of all this, not only does the background of the Bible appear in a truer perspective and with greater accuracy of detail. Particular points in the Bible itself are illuminated. In the first place, much is explained which was previously obscure. We know what the cherubim were like,* what the so-called “sun images” really were,* who the Horites were,* and why Laban was anxious to recover his idols from Jacob.* Other items, which do not require such explanation, are vividly illustrated. Many of the items mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs provide illustrations of various passages in the Bible.

It must be frankly admitted that the results of excavation sometimes raise as many problems as they solve. The relation between the Hebrews and the Habiru of whom we read in the Tell el-Amarna tablets and other ancient documents has not yet been exhausted as a topic for discussion. The last word has not been said regarding the capture of Jericho and Ai, or the subsequent progress of the conquest of Canaan. Indeed, much as those who are primarily interested in the confirmation of the Bible may kite to admit it, we must in all honesty recognize the inescapable fact that at some points archaeology has discovered closed errors in the Scriptural record. This should not be a shock to us, for it is well known that the Bible often gives parallel accounts of the same events which differ in details and therefore cannot both be true in every particular. This does not disturb those whose major concern is with the spiritual teachings of the Bible rather than the details of ancient history, and who think of the inscription of the Scriptures as something far more profound and vital than a meticulous and invariable accuracy regarding past events. Consequently we need not be dismayed at what we cannot in any case deny. Our conviction of the religious value of the Bible is not shaken by the discovery that the king of Gerar in the time of Abraham and Isaac could not have been a Philistine, or that Darius came not before but after Cyrus.

As a matter of fact, aside from such occasional items as these, even as a record of ancient history the Bible is supported KJV and archeological evidence again and again. On the whole there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be so often explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeated at specific points names of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods. One of the most striking examples is the recently published mention of Jehoiachim, king of Judah in a list of persons supported at the Babylonian court in the time of the Exile.

This brief sketch may suffice to indicate that the help afforded by archaeology in the study of the Bible is rich and varied. By providing evidence for the establishment of the text and materials for the fuller understanding of the language, by lighting up the whole background so that the figures of biblical history no longer move in solitude across a dark stage, by explaining many details and illustrating others, and by confirming the essential authenticity of the record, though at the same time raising new problems and correcting a detail here and there, archaeology leads the student of the Bible into an incomparably fuller understanding and deeper appreciation than was ever before possible.

Perhaps it is not superfluous to add, however, that such appreciation and understanding are possible only if the students spirit is attuned to the deeper notes which are independent of time and place, because they are universal and eternal. Otherwise he will he like one who would come to the study of a great symphony with a detailed knowledge of musical history and theory, but without any ear for music. Given the primary spiritual climate for the understanding of the Bible, one will find the new knowledge provided by archeology an invaluable aid.

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 3(electronic ed.).

Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 4

Shipwreckecked Plant Remains

Cheryl Ward Haldane

By studying shreds and scraps of plant tissues from archaeological investigations, archaeobotanists learn how people used plants in the past. Such remains are usually waterlogged or desiccated by their environment, or are charred by cooking or burning. Although late-nineteenth-century excavations in Egypt and Scandinavia produced sensational finds of ancient plant remains, archaeobotany’s greatest growth came in the 1960s when excavators like Robert Braidwood sought to learn when animals and plants were domesticated in the Near East. Archaeobotanists followed the pioneering example of Hans Helbaek and began to study plant remains to learn about ancient peoples and how they used the world around them.

The introduction of flotation processes to separate charred organic material from dirt was a revolutionary step in archaeobotany. The larger, more varied samples obtained by flotation allow more exact comparisons with modern and ancient ecological and economic systems, ways of manipulating plant products, and patterns of resource exploitation.

In the Near East, charred seeds are the most common plant remains. Agricultural crops such as wheat, barley, peas, lentils, beans, and flax are often present on land sites. On the other hand, only three charred grains have been identified in more than 600 samples from 10 eastern Mediterranean shipwrecks, although a single sample from a Byzantine wreck yielded more than 600 grape seeds. Shipwreck archaeobotany produces abundant remains of fruits, nuts, and spices seldom found on land sites.

Shipwreck Archaeobotany

In the Mediterranean, shipwrecks usually appear as low mounds of shipping jars (amphoras) on the seabed. Waterlogged and charred plant seeds, twigs, leaves, fruits, wood, and other plant tissues, as well as animal and fish bones, insects, dung, and hairs can be found in samples taken from the site, even if the wreck is exposed.

During the first 15 years of scientific exploration, beginning in the 1950s, serendipitous finds of fruit stones and nuts from many Mediterranean shipwrecks suggested the variety of wares transported by sea and the potential value of archaeobotanical analysis of such remains. It was not until the 1970s, however, that archaeologists attempted to systematically retrieve plant tissues that were not part of the hulls of ships. Between 1974 and 1980, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) sponsored four excavations in which archaeobotanical investigation was standard procedure. In each case, the organic samples proved that the shipping jars had carried wine, but traces of previous cargoes and other materials aboard the ship provided us with additional information about the production and exchange of goods.

In 1984, INA began excavation of the Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey. George F. Bass, director of the excavation, enthusiastically supported the idea of retrieving every possible bit of organic material from the wreck for study. The dedication of the excavation team resulted in a unique assemblage of plant remains that offers a glimpse into a little-known aspect of ancient life. It is interesting to note that all but two of the plants identified so far are among the relatively few plants named in the Bible, where scarcely more than 100 of the 2,300 plant species found in biblical lands are mentioned (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1962: 285).

The ship’s cargo mirrored records of royal tribute exchanged by Late Bronze Age Egyptian and Near Eastern rulers and included the most luxurious and expensive items of the time: copper, tin, and glass ingots; gold and silver jewelry; unworked elephant and hippopotamus ivory; Egyptian ebony logs (Dalbergia melanoxylon); and several small and large stirrup jars that archaeologists believe carried perfume (Bass 1986; Pulak 1988).

As excavators raised more than 100 Canaanite shipping jars, we learned that the ship had also carried about half a ton of terebinth resin from Pistacia terebinthus, identified by John Mills of the National Gallery of London and the Hairfields of Mary Baldwin College (Hairfield and Hairfield 1990). The chunks of resin retain their sharp, pungent, turpentine-like odor today. Although the terebinth, or turpentine tree, is mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 6:13; Hosea 4:13, Revised Standard Version) and other ancient texts, this huge quantity of resin was puzzling at first. But Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets, Egyptian texts, Classical Greek writings, and modern ethnographic evidence provided the clues we needed to understand why the resin was included with the exotic and valuable goods carried on the ship.

A group of Linear B clay tablets, dating to the end of the Bronze Age, lists the names of plants possibly used in perfumery, cooking, and medicine. Among these names is ki-ta-no, translated by Jose Melena (1976: 180) as terebinth nuts. The word occurs rarely, and the Ulu Burun cargo suggests that terebinth resin, rather than its edible nuts, may have been the intended meaning (Bass 1987).

We know from several classical authors that terebinth resin was highly valued. Accordirig to Theophrastus (Enquiry into Plants 9.2.2; see Hort 1916: 223), “There are also differences in the resin obtained from different trees. The best is that of the terebinth, for it sets firm, is the most fragrant, and has the most delicate smell; but the yield is not abundant.” Dioscorides (De Materia Medica I.71.1–6; see Wellmann 1958: 67–70) describes the preparation of terebinth resin for “good smelling” emollients and perfumed oils and notes that, when boiled, terebinth resin was also valued for coloring perfumed oils. Pliny (Natural History 13.2.7–8; see Rackham 1945: 103) notes that terebinth resin was used in perfumes and acted as an astringent to retain scent.

Theophrastus also provides us with a possible source for the resin: a … Around Syrian Damascus it [the terebinth tree] is abundant, large and beautiful; for they say there is a mountain all full of terebinths, but nothing else grows there.” Modern residents of Syria and Turkey collect the resin and prepare it for sale in bazaars and perfumer’s shops (White house 1957). Although terebinth grows elsewhere around the Mediterranean, only in its eastern areas do winter temperatures drop low enough to cause the tree to produce resin.

If not for perfume manufacturing, the resin lost at Ulu Burun may have been intended to be used as incense. Victor Loret interpreted the Egyptian word sntr as terebinth resin. If he is correct, Egyptian texts refer to thousands of liters of the resin being imported each year to Egypt from the Syro-Palestinian coast to be burned in ritual fumigation (Lores 1949).

Like the terebinth resin, fruits of Coriandrum sativum (coriander) are found on the Ulu Burun wreck and mentioned in Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets. The distribution of coriander seeds in shipping jars, dunnage samples, and samples from beneath ingots suggests that the seeds were stored in baskets or woven bags which scattered their contents as they decayed. Linear B documents describe up to 720 liters of coriander seed mixed with wine, honey, and other spices in perfumery, and used in smaller amounts as a condiment (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 221–30). According to Cynthia Shelmerdine (1985), coriander fruits were used to prepare the astringent solution necessary to hold the scent of a perfume with an olive oil base. Melena (1974: 155) has pointed out that coriander fruits were also offered to a local Mycenaean deity. Coriander was regarded by the Mycenaeans as being of Cyprian origin (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 221), but Melena (1974) has suggested that it was grown on Crete. It is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:7), in both instances simply to compare the appearance of manna to its seed. The value placed on coriander by other ancient societies can be seen in the half-liter of seeds that accompanied the pharaoh Tutankhamun in his golden tomb (Derby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977: 798).

A third possible source of astringent for ancient perfume manufacture—pomegranate juice—may be seen in the contents of one of seven large storage jars (pithoi) from the Ulu Burun shipwreck. A preliminary sorting of a sample from this 1.4-meter-tall (about 41/2 feet) pithos produced more than 1,000 seeds, flower parts, and fragments of skin from what were once whole pomegranates.

Pomegranates were so valued in antiquity that they were presented as evidence, along with figs and grapes, when the spies sent to Canaan by Moses reported: “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (Numbers 13:27). Images of the pomegranate used to decorate clothing (Exodus 28:33–34, 39:24–25) and the capitals of the pillars (I Kings 7:18, 20, 42, and others) are further indication of the prominence of this fruit, whose juice was used in a spiced wine (Song of Solomon 8:2).

Although no Linear B word has been translated as pomegranate, the classical writers often refer to its astringent qualities in perfumery and medicine, and to its use as a flavoring for wines as well as its use as an edible fruit and a natural dye.

Pomegranates ripen in late August or September, suggesting that the ship may have sailed late in the season. Until medieval times, sailing in the Mediterranean was restricted to the months between late April and early September because of storms. Although it seems likely that the pomegranates aboard the Ulu Burun ship were fresh, it is possible that the fruits were from the previous autumn. Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella on Agriculture 5.10.16; see Forster and Heffner 1954: 97) provides instructions for preserving whole pomegranates for more than a year, and modern Turkish villagers store pomegranates year-round using similar methods.

Pomegranates are rarely found in Bronze Age archaeological deposits on land, but there are two charred seeds in samples from the early third millennium BCE at Arad (Hopf 1978: 74); seeds and skin fragments from Bronze Age Jericho (Kenyon 1960: 371,392–393, and plate XVII.4; Hopf 1969: 357) and Twelfth Dynasty Egypt (Derby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977: 742); waterlogged seeds at Hala Sultan Tekke on Cyprus about 1200 BCE (Hjelmqvist 1979: 112); and in many finds from the seventh century BCE onward.

Pomegranate trees are mentioned in the funerary texts of Tuthmosis I (around 1530 BCE) and appear in tomb paintings of approximately 100 years later. The tomb of Sebkhotep shows two men carrying pomegranates (Davies 1936: plate XLIV): One carries a basket, the other a string of fruits tied together. A painting from the Late Bronze Age tomb of Menna shows two women, one of whom carries a bouquet that includes crimson pomegranate fruits (Davies 1936: plate LII). Sir Arthur J. Evans described ivory pomegranate buds and flowers from the Middle Minoan III period at the palace of Minos on Knossos (1921: 496).

The Ulu Burun shipwreck also yielded a few safflower (Carthamus tinctoria) seeds, several thousand fig seeds, an amphora full of olive stones, and two charred cereal grains: one wheat and one barley. Linear B texts also record these commodities, and all but safflower are mentioned frequently in the Bible. Several shells of almonds, also mentioned many times in the Bible, sumac (Rhus coriaria) fruits, and grape seeds complete the roster of economic plants; about 15 weed species are also represented.*

A puzzling discovery from other shipwrecks are the seeds, leaves and fruits of thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum), a spiny, knee-high bush best known for its possible use in the thorny wreath of Jesus. The most reasonable suggestion is that it might have been used as dunnage to create a protective cushion between the hull and its load. The Ulu Burun wreck has strengthened this hypothesis: In addition to providing more samples of seeds, entire plants, from branches to roots, were found on the lower surfaces of some of the approximately 200 four-handled copper ingots in the cargo.

Although the evaluation of samples from Ulu Burun is incomplete, some statistical analyses of about half the samples suggest some patterns in the distribution of plant remains. Of some 20 samples of charcoal, most are from scrubby trees of the family Leguminosae that line the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. The distribution of charred wood on the wreck seems to be fairly limited in area and may indicate a shipboard brazier or hearth. Charred seeds are strictly unrelated to the charcoal samples but can be correlated to the presence of an organic conglomerate of terebinth fruits, chips of resin, twigs, leaves, and mud. This conglomerate, found in about one-third of the shipping jars, may be the remains of a previous terebinth resin or fruit cargo. It is also possible that it represents imploded mud stoppers or caps (Pulak 1988). Interestingly, grape seeds found in the conglomerate are of a strikingly different shape from those found lying loosely in the ship’s bilge area. Because grape seed shape varies with the type of grape grown, these two categories probably have different origins.

As more samples from the Ulu Burun shipwreck are analyzed, the number of plant species found on this ship that once sailed along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline will grow. Simply identifying the species represented is not enough, however, and will serve only to tantalize students of ancient trade in the Mediterranean.

Studying other plant remains in jars that carried the resin may help archaeologists locate the port where the aromatic was loaded as well as learn about how jars were sealed and whether they were reused. Bass suspects that the ship traveled a circular route from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Cyprus and Mycenaean Greece or Crete before returning to the Levant via Egypt (1986: 296). If so, its cargoes of terebinth resin, coriander, and pomegranates may be added to the list of luxury items that indicate an established exchange network with markets demanding large-scale availability.


Underwater archaeobotany provides direct evidence of goods traded by sea and often produces botanical remains of plants unlike those found in charred deposits on land. The Ulu Burun shipwreck samples provide the largest Bronze Age collection of pomegranate, fig, olive, and terebinth remains, and the leaves and twigs in dunnage samples are unique representatives of Bronze Age flora used in this way. Ships, the people who sailed them, and the goods they took from port to port in the ancient Mediterranean were vital links between cultures. By studying organic as well as inorganic remains, we enrich our knowledge of humankind’s past.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 3

Anchors of Antiquity

Douglas Haldane

Although anchors are mentioned only twice in the Bible (Acts 27:29–30, 40; Hebrews 6:19), there is no doubt that ships and boats of the Old and New Testament periods carried anchors, sometimes in great numbers. For almost as long as ships have sailed, sailors have relied upon anchors to secure their cargoes, ships, and lives. Integral parts of the shipping industry, anchors reveal more than just how and why they were built; they also reveal general trading environments and technological advances of their time. Seemingly insignificant anchors may reflect the historical developments of empires.

Throughout history there have been only three general types of anchors—stone, wood, and iron. Stone anchors, known to Homeric Greeks as eunai, or “beds,” because of their slab-like shape, are either weight or composite anchors. Weight anchors depended on their mass to hold ships, whereas stakes through the lower holes of composite anchors gripped the seabed. Refinements in stone anchor construction included grooves in anchor tops, to reduce anchor line chafing, and notches in a lower corner for attaching buoyed lines to free anchors wedged between rocks.

Honor Frost (1970) used these notches, inscriptions and other archaeological evidence to identify stone anchors by national type. Egyptian stone anchors have been found all along the Levantine coast from Dor/Tantura (Wachsmann and Raveh 1984: 225) to Ugarit (Frost 1969: 245). Byblian anchors are rarely found outside of Byblos, but two were discovered at Ugarit, and a group of 12 was found recently at Newe-Yam, Israel (Galili 1985). Both weight and composite Ugaritic anchors have been found along the Levantine coast, at Thebes in Upper Egypt (McCaslin 1980), Cyprus (Karageorghis 1976: 878), and most recently on the Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun near Kas, Turkey (Pulak 1988a: 33, 1988b: 15).

The similarity between Ugaritic anchors and those found on Cyprus, on land and underwater, suggests that trade relations between the Syrian mainland and Cyprus were so close that the distinguishing anchor features became blurred. Finds of Ugaritic anchors along the Levantine coast, and a possible fragment at Kommos, Crete (Straw and Blitzer 1983: 99), add to a growing body of evidence for a circular trade route in the eastern Mediterranean (Bass 1986:296).

The distribution of stone anchors yields tangible evidence confirming Egyptian tomb reliefs and literature. The Ugaritic anchor at Thebes acts as a calling card left by Syrian merchants portrayed in the fourteenth-century-BCE tomb of Kenamon (Davies and Faulkner 1947). Egyptian anchors found at Dor, one of the Egyptian emissary Wenamun’s stops around 1100 BCE, confirm that the harbor was used as an Egyptian way station on the route to and from Syria. Anchor finds also yield evidence for anchoring practice.

As with later wooden and iron anchors, sailors probably used several stone anchors simultaneously to moor their ships. Scholars have suggested that a ship’s anchor complement consisted of composite anchors, for sandy sea bottoms, and weight anchors for rocky bottoms (Frost 1969:236–37). However, the only two groups of related stone anchors—the 12 found at Newe-Yam (Galili 1985) and the 23 discovered at Ulu Burun—varied in size, not in type; all are weight anchors. The Newe-Yam anchors range from 60 to 155 kilograms (from around 132 to 342 pounds); the Ulu Burun anchors have yet to be raised and studied.

Dramatic changes in stone anchor shape probably occurred toward the end of the seventh century BCE when the Greek word ankura, “bent,” replaced eunai in textual references (Kapitän 1984: 33–36). Almost as proof of their typological predecessors, early wooden anchors used stone stocks—the heavy crossbars that prevented an anchor from lying flat—to force the ends of its arms to dig into the sea bed. Even after lead stocks replaced those of stone, stocks continued to be known as stones (Durrbach and Roussel 1929: text 443, lines 92, 184).

Before the discovery of a wooden anchor and an iron anchor mooring Caligula’s barges at Lake Nemi in the late 1920s, scholars could only speculate about how wooden anchors were built. Since then, four types of stocks used on wooden anchors have been identified: stone (I); wood with lead cores (II); lead (III) occasionally with wood cores (C); and removable lead stocks (IV). Greco-Roman literature and archaeological remains present a clearer image of wooden and iron anchors than for stone anchors.

Greeks called anchors hanging gear, probably because they hung from bows and sterns (Casson 1971: 265), stays (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, book 3, chapter 99, paragraph d; see Gulick 1927: 428–29), or even hectors (Lucian, Lexiphanes, paragraph 15; see Harmon 1936: 312–13), perhaps alluding to the staying quality of Hector’s courage. Many authors refer to the largest of a ship’s anchor complement as the “sacred anchor,” thrown with the last prayer to the gods to keep the ship off the rocks (Lucian, Zeus Rants, paragraph 51; see Harmon 1960: 164–65).

Roman authors made more specific references to anchors. Arms or even entire anchors were known as “hooks” (Virgil, Aeneid, book 1, line 169; see Lewis 1953). The conical iron or bronze caps that reinforced arm ends were commonly called “teeth” (Livy, book 37, chapter 30, lines 9–10; see Sage 1935: 378–79) because of their tooth-like shape, but Plutarch called them “claws” (Plutarch, Moralia: Bravery of Women, chapter 247, paragraph e; see Babbitt 1961: 500–01).

Archaeological evidence has substantiated literary references that were once thought apocryphal. Pliny credited the anchor’s invention to Eupalamus and the two-armed anchor to Anacharsis (Natural History, book 7, chapter 56, paragraph 209; see Rackham 1942: 646–47). References like Pliny’s, and Strabo’s specific mention of the two-armed anchor (The Geography, book 7, chapter 3, paragraph 9; see Jones 1924: 206–07), were thought strange until a reinforcement collar made especially for a one-armed anchor was found near Brindisi, Italy (Kapitan 1984). A third-century-C.E. Egyptian loan contract also makes mention of a one-armed iron anchor (see Kenyon and Bell 1907, papyrus 1164 (h), volume 3: 49). Evidently Greco-Roman sailors chose from a variety of anchors.

With the discovery of the first Century-C.E. Nemi anchors and a fragmentary anchor on the second-century-BCE Chrètienne ‘C’ wreck (Joncheray 1975a), scholars reamed more about anchor arm construction than Greco-Roman authors could tell them. Arms were fastened to anchor shanks with z-shaped hook joints that were, in turn, secured by mortise-and-tenon joints. Pegs placed perpendicularly through tenons in the lower parts of anchor arms locked the tenons in position. When arm/shank joints loosened with wear, reinforcement collars poured onto anchors held the anchor arms in position (Haldane 1986).

Greco-Roman sailors did not forget the lesson learned from Egyptian stone anchors. Pliny recorded that cork was used on anchor cables (Natural History, book 16, chapter 13, paragraph 34; see Rackham 1945: 410–11) to mark an anchor’s location. These lines, tied to anchor crowns on wooden anchors or crown rings, freed anchors stuck on the sea bed.

But unlike stone anchors, wooden anchors do not readily fit into distinctive cultural subtypes. In general, Greeks used stone-stocked anchors (Type I), whereas Romans used solid lead (Type III) stocks. Types II and IV were transitional. Type II represents a shift from stone to lead stocks, and Type IV represents a more drastic change from wooden anchors to iron anchors. Both transitions were products of historical and technological developments.

Creation of stone stocks often required both a stonemason’s labor and his expertise, but even the most carefully made stocks broke on rocky sea bottoms. Lead-cored wooden stocks were not as fragile, but their number was directly linked to the supply of lead. Lead, a byproduct of silver mining, was dependent on the relative efficiency of silver production. Early silver extraction techniques were so inefficient that the Romans profited by reworking early Greek slag heaps. By the late third century BCE, the Romans gained control of the rich Spanish silver mines. Silver was produced on a grand scale, which caused the price of lead to fall, and Type III solid lead stocks appeared almost simultaneously.

Most Type III stocks have been found in the western Mediterranean, reflecting a predominantly Roman use of this type and the western Mediterranean’s role as the primary Roman trading center. On the other hand, many Type IV removable stocks have been found in the eastern Mediterranean. These stocks, able to be broken down and stored when not in use, belonged to smaller anchors than Type III stocks and suggest the use of smaller ships. The versatility of removable stocked anchors foreshadows a growing dependence on removable-stocked iron anchors.

Herodotus made the earliest recorded reference to iron anchors in the early fifth century BCE (History, book 9, chapter 74; see Godley 1924: 246–47). Wood and iron anchors were used simultaneously at first. Athenaeus mentioned them together on Hieron of Syracuse’s mammoth third-century-BCE ship, the Siracusia (The Deipnosophists, book 5, paragraph 208; see Gulick 1957: 440–41), and, as discovered on several shipwrecks, wood and iron anchors appeared together as late as the first century C.E. As ironworking technology developed in the Mediterranean, however, wooden anchors were used less often.

The first conclusive evidence of manufacturing anchors to predetermined specifications can be seen in iron anchors. Ironworkers inscribed the Nemi iron anchor’s weight in Roman pounds on its shank (Speziale 1931). Ironworkers continually refined anchor forging processes in the Byzantine period. The anchor complement of the seventh-century Yassi Ada Byzantine ship may have ranged from smallest to largest in increments of 50 Roman pounds (Bass and van Doorninck 1982: 134). Anchor forging as well as iron anchor forms show progressive development. The study of anchors provides evidence not only for the anchors and their use on ships but also for perceptions of economic environments in which they were used. Anchors reflect changes in the economic, technological, and social conditions of Mediterranean seafaring nations.

The arms of early iron anchors imitated the sharp V pattern of wooden anchors, such as the fourth-century-BCE Isola di Monte Cristo anchor, but gradually relaxed to the lunate shape of the Nemi iron anchor. Continued arm relaxation from the first to fourth centuries C.E. can be seen in the Dramont D and F anchors. Christianization of the Roman Empire extended to anchors, as seen in the cruciform shape of the seventh-century Yassi Ada anchors. Anchor arm angles relative to shanks grew past cruciform until they reached the Y shape of the eleventh-century Serçe Limani anchors.

Provenance of cruciform and Y-shaped anchors suggests that the center of trade shifted back to the eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Unstable economic and trading conditions in the Mediterranean following the West’s collapse in the fifth century and the Islamic conquest in the seventh century C.E. dictated the use of smaller, faster ships. Deck space was at a premium, and although the Romans had dealt with the lead shortage, bulky wooden anchors were still subject to rot and shipworm damage. Use of durable, removable-stocked iron anchors aboard ships became the rule.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 2

Ships in the Ancient Mediterranean

Steve Vinson

The earliest evidence of travel on the Mediterranean Sea is from

the Mesolithic period, at least 10,000 years ago, when voyagers left the mainland of Greece in watercraft of some kind, traveled to the island of Melos, and returned with obsidian to make sharp-edged implements. Large fish bones, including deep sea fish like tunny, have also been found at Neolithic sites in Greece, further indicating travel on the sea.

Archaeologists have not, however, found actual examples of or depictions of the crafts used by the earliest sailors. Were they reed boats, dugout canoes, skin boats, or simple rafts? Polynesian islanders knew how to make complex planked boats without the use of metal tools, but it is not yet known if that step was taken during the Stone Age in the Mediterranean or at some other time. It is unlikely that the early Mediterranean boats had sails, and they were almost certainly paddled rather than rowed.

Early Shipbuilding

The known history of shipbuilding begins in Egypt around 3500 BCE About that time, in the Predynastic period, Egyptians began painting a peculiar type of boat on finely made pots. These boats, often called sickle-shaped because of their crescent-like form, seem to have been among the earliest wooden boats built with planks. Actual remains of those early boats have not yet been found, but there are a few clues to their construction.*

Planks first appeared in Egypt, usually in graves as parts of primitive coffins or as roofing material, at about the same time the boats were first painted on pottery. The planks were up to 2 inches thick and more than 6 feet long and were usually lashed together with cords of grass or palm fiber. It is likely that the earliest planked boats in Egypt were built in much the same way, with lashings rather than nails.

There is better evidence from a few centuries later. In 1912, several planks that were apparently from boats were discovered in a First Dynasty cemetery in a village near Cairo called Tarkhan. The planks date to around 3000 BCE, only a few years after Egypt was united under the rule of its first pharaoh.

These planks had all the features that were found in intact boats from a few centuries later. The planks were literally sewed to one another by ropes threaded through V-shaped holes cut into the plank faces. In the edges of the planks were mortises, and the boat builder inserted a small, flat piece of wood called a tenon into each of these. A single tenon was inserted into the matching mortises of two adjoining planks, which were set flush against each other to hold them in place while the boat builder sewed them together.

The largest known boats built in this period were about 50 feet long. No boats from this period have been found intact, but several pits that once contained boats have been discovered in royal or noble cemeteries. The best of these was found in the tomb of Den (sometimes called Udimu), the fifth king of the First Egyptian Dynasty.

When it was discovered, Den’s grave contained the remains of a boat, but the remains were in such fragmentary condition that they could not be examined in detail and were eventually lost. The boat seems to have been about 43 feet long, less than 10 feet wide, and no more than 3 feet deep amidships. Walter Emery, the British Egyptologist who discovered the tomb, noted that the boat had a deck and that the wood was covered with white plaster. There was no evidence of a mast or sail, but boat drawings indicate that sails had already been in use for at least a century.

The finest and best preserved ancient boat anywhere belonged to the Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops, for whom the Great Pyramid at Giza was built. It may be seen today in a special museum next to the pyramid of Cheops. (A second boat still lies unexcavated in its pit next to the pyramid.) Like the pyramid, the boat dates to about 2650 BCE, in the period of Egyptian history called the Old Kingdom. It is almost 150 feet long and was built mainly of imported cedar, with its planks held in place by mortise-and-tenon joints and lashing. Its planks are not long strakes running from bow to stem but instead are oddly shaped and fit together almost like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

More than 2,000 years after the Cheops boat was built, the Greek historian Herodotus (see Grene 1987) commented that Egyptian boatbuilders used short lengths of wood to build their boats and that the pattern of the planking was similar to laid bricks. This was necessary because most native Egyptian trees, then as now, do not grow very tall, and long planks could not be made from them. There is a similar pattern in the Cheops boat. It apparently was built by craftsmen who were accustomed to using short pieces of local wood, even though the huge cedars imported from Lebanon or Syria could easily have been cut into long planks.

The Cheops boat has several odd features, however. It was built in the shell-first method, meaning that its planks were lashed together before its ribs, which boatbuilders call frames, were inserted. It had no keel but was built up from a flat bottom of planks. Because it had no keel to stiffen it, two heavy longitudinal beams located at deck level helped prevent the vessel’s bow and stern from drooping. These beams acted much as a bowstring keeps a bow curved. Nevertheless, Egyptian depictions indicate that such heavy beams were often not enough, and a cable that could be continuously tightened ran from bow to stern to keep the ends of a seagoing hull up. The problem of the vessel’s ends drooping is called hogging, and the cable is called a hogging truss.

Advances in Technology

The next major step in Mediterranean shipbuilding was taken no later than the fourteenth century BCE, the middle of the Late Bronze Age. By that time, some shipbuilders ceased using lashings to sew planks to one another and began relying on the mortise-and-tenon joints. It was discovered that simply driving a wooden peg through the tenon on either side of the joint would lock the planks in place, creating an extremely strong joint.

The earliest evidence of such pegged mortise-and-tenon joints was found on a fourteenth-century-BCE shipwreck discovered in 1983 off Ulu Burun on the southwestern coast of Turkey, near the small resort town of Kas. This vessel was built with mortise-and-tenon joints and had a keel. Its construction signaled the arrival of shipbuilding principles that were to prevail in the Eastern Mediterranean until the early Middle Ages.

Interestingly, the earliest examples of this kind of joinery come from Egyptian furniture that was manufactured at about the same time as the Tarkhan boat planks. It is difficult to explain why the early Egyptians didn’t grasp the obvious advantages of using pegged mortise-and-tenon joints in their boats. The lashing method, however, may have made repairs easier or may have enabled the Egyptians to take their boats apart and put them back together with hardly any special tools. Shelley Wachsmann has pointed out that pegged mortise-and-tenon joints were used in furniture at Jericho during the succeeding Middle Bronze Age, suggesting the possibility that similar hull construction began somewhere on the Syro-Canaanite coast.

The Cheops boat had no mast or sail, and no rigging elements of the Kaş shipwreck have yet been found. For now, the only information about rigging during the Bronze Age comes from reliefs, paintings, and boat models. Most of these are Egyptian, although a beautiful Late Bronze Age fresco showing rigging details was found in a house buried beneath volcanic ash at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera).

These early representations present essentially the same picture of single square sails, although the proportions of the sails vary. Throughout most of the Bronze Age, the bottoms of the sails were spread by both upper and lower yards. In the absence of pulleys, lines used to raise and/or support these yards were simply looped through rings at the top of the mast.

As mentioned above, ancient Mediterranean boats were built from the outside in. The framing was inserted only after the hull—or most of it—was completed. We know this is true because, in some cases, the frames were not physically attached to the keel, and components of the frames were not even attached to each other; thus, the frames could not have been erected first. In other instances, frames were found directly over the pegs that were driven, in to lock the tenons in place. This shows that the pegs must have been in place before the frames were installed.

This type of shipbuilding is often called Greco-Roman shipbuilding because it was the method used by the classical Greeks and Romans. One of the best examples is a ship dating to the fourth century BCE excavated off the northern coast of Cyprus in 1968 and 1969 by Michael and Susan Katzev. The vessel was raised and its fragments reassembled by J. Richard Steffy in a museum in the Cypriot town of Kyrenia.

The Kyrenia ship was a beamy merchant vessel, of the type the Greeks called a holkas, and was made principally of Aleppo pine. Like almost all ships of her time, she carried a single square sail (representations of two-masted vessels before Roman times are very rare). The wreck featured one of the earliest examples of a block for a pulley. Also found on the ship were numerous small brailing rings, or lead rings sewn into the sail. These guided the lines that ran from the bottom to the top of the sail and over the yard aft and were used to raise, lower, or shape the sail.

The Kyrenia ship’s hull was covered with thin lead sheets tacked over a layer of agave leaves in thick resin. Lead sheathing was common throughout classical antiquity, but in this case the sheets were later additions to the hull and were used as waterproofing and to keep marine worms from boring into the wood.

As a joint project, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) and the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Traditions commissioned Greek shipwrights to build a replica of the Kyrenia ship using ancient methods. Although the techniques of Greco-Roman construction had been lost for more than a millennium, the shipwrights agreed to try to duplicate them. The resulting ship was strong enough to weather the full gale that she was caught in while sailing from Cyprus to Greece after tracing the vessel’s original route in the opposite direction.

Increases in Dimension

The political and military chaos following Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE, as Alexander’s generals apportioned the empire, caused warships to be constructed on an unprecedented scale. This activity spilled over into merchant ship construction, particularly with the advent of the Roman Imperial period. The Mediterranean Sea had become a Roman lake, and enormous trade opportunities were available.

Roman ships could be quite large and elaborate. The wine carrier that wrecked at La Madrague de Giens near Toulon, France, had two layers of planking, close-set frames, and was more than 130 feet (40 meters) long. Ships of this size are believed to have been relatively common, though most seagoing craft were from 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 meters) long.

As for earlier times, art is the principal source of information about Roman sails and rigging. Reliefs, paintings, mosaics, and graffiti show numerous elements, including small steering sails called artemons slung out over the bow, as well as triangular topsails on mainmasts. Fore-and-aft sails appeared in about the second century C.E.

By the time of Jesus, ship construction that utilized pegged mortise-and-tenon joints had reached its zenith. In the early Byzantine period these joints were no longer used to provide most of the strength of a hull and instead served, as they had in Predynastic Egypt, only to align planks. As late as the seventh century C.E., hulls were still built in the shell-first method, but their joints were no longer pegged together, and their principal structural strength came from their internal framing. By the eleventh century, the shell-first method had died out in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the modern era of shipbuilding had been born, as rudimentary pre-erected frames first made their appearance.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.

%d bloggers like this: