Digging into The Past

With Ferrell Jenkins

Temple Terrace, Florida

Uncovering Buried Worlds

In 1799, Napoleon's soldiers found a black basalt slab with a tri-lingual inscription at a village named Rosetta in the Nile delta of Egypt. This was to become the famous. Rosetta Stone, which

23 years later, was deciphered by Champollion, thereby unlocking Egyptian hieroglyphics (picture writing). This was actually the first archaeological find of significance. Edward Robinson, an American theologian, spent three months in Palestine doing surface exploration in 1838. He correctly identified scores of Biblical places for the first time. By the second half of the

19th century some serious work was being done. The first really scientific excavation was made by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1890. From that point modern Biblical archaeology is dated. Petrie, who called pottery the "essential alphabet of archaeology," '  stated its importance this way: "Once settle the pottery of a country, and the key is in our hands for all future explorations." 1

From those days of early beginnings till now have come such famous discoveries as the Moabite Stone, the Tell-el-Amarna tablets, Hezekiab's tunnel, the Code of Hammurabi, the Elephantine Papyri and King Tutankhamens tomb. The discovery of the Hittite empire, the Ras Shanira literature, the Lachish Letters, and the Dead Sea Scrolls would only add to the growing list of important finds.

Revision Necessary

With a new science like Biblical archae0109Y it is important to remember that, with growing information, some revisions will be necessary. This makes it imperative that we keep alert to new developments. The Bible teacher should be careful not to show his ignorance by citing out-of-date information as "Proof" of some point.

Sources of Information

Archaeological information comes from material objects left behind by the ancient people. This information may be found in ruined towns, graves and inscriptions. Some structures, such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, and the ziggurats, are completely ex posed. Others are partially covered, with some being completely covered. These require great skill and many years of patient effort to excavate. How did these remains come to be covered? There are several possibilities. Buildings in a valley, like the forum at Rome or the agora at Athens, might be covered by silt brought down from the hills around. Pompeii was overwhelmed by volcanic ash in 79 A. D. This is rare. As Wooley: said: "It is with a green jealousy that the worker on other sites visits Pompeii and sees the marvelous preservation of its buildings, the houses standing up to the second floor, the frescoes on the wall, and all the furniture and household objects still in their places as the owners left them when they fled from the disaster." 2

Some valuable objects are covered in tombs and graves. Many of the ancient people placed objects they believed would be of value to their departed friends in the grave with them. Thus we have the magnificent treasures from the tomb of King Tut and the golden ornaments from Ur's sepulchers.

The most important covered remains are the tells or mounds of Bible Lands. The word "tell" is the Arabic word for "hill" and is used to describe a mound where one city has been built upon another thru many civilizations. Some of these tells have 10, 15, or even 20 different layers or strata. The mound of Bethshan, where Saul's body was fastened to the wall by the Philistines (I Sam. 31:10), is 79 feet high and has 18 layers covering 4,000 years of history. Megiddo has 20 layers. Most of the towns in Palestine that were known in Biblical times are of this type: Bethel, Jericho, Samaria, Hazor, to mention a few.

This chart clearly illustrates the position of the eighteen levels at Bethshan, a typical Palestinian tell. The chart is reproduced by permission of Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History.

How came one city to be built atop another? Many of these cities were built atop a natural mound to begin with. When the city fell because of plague, famine or attack, another people would come and use some of the material in rebuilding. Most of it was simply leveled and the new buildings and wall stood a foot or so above the level of the previous city. The outline of the houses, streets and walls would still be there. Sometimes unbroken storage pots would hold treasuries for future generations. Tools, ivory, coins and inscribed material might be hidden under tons of debris. Repeat this 15 or 20 times and you have some idea of what a tell is. The uncovering of these tells is tedious work and requires many seasons of effort.

The story of the capture and burning of Hazor by Joshua is recorded in Joshua 11. The King James Version says that some of the cities that "stood still in their strength" (v. 13) were not burned. Later translations have correctly rendered this as "stood on their mounds." This illustrates the fact that many Palestinian cities, even at the time of the Conquest, were built on mounds or tells.

How Much Work Done

Dr. Paul Lapp, who has served as director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, wrote on "Palestine: Known and Mostly Unknown." He estimates that there are about 5,000 recorded antiquities, sites, and monuments in Palestine and Transjordan and says that this number "will be steadily, though not rapidly, increased from year to year." Of these 5,000, he reports that about 150 have been excavated or at least some soundings made. Only one of each 200 has been adequately explored. Lapp says: "To be sure many of the sites on record would not merit extensive excavations, but if only one in four were promising, major excavations have till now been carried out at only two percent of the potential sites."3 This shows that there is plenty of work for several generations of skilled archaeologists. And who knows what treasuries their picks will unearth!


1G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology (2d ed. rev.; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), p. 24.

2Sir Leonard Wooley, Digging Up The Past. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1956), p. 25.

3Paul W. Lapp, "Palestine: Known and Mostly Unknown," The Biblical Archaeologist, XXVI (Dec. 1963).

March 1969