Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Biblical Scholars Should Participate in at Least One Dig

I landed in Israel Friday and today we begin five weeks of digging at Tel-Gezer. This is my second time here and I was not sure that I would be here again. But circumstances made it possible and I am here with eight of my students. I am excited to be here with them and looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.

I must confess, however, that working on a dig was never high on my priority. Although I had been to the sites in Israel several times (including a year that we lived here), I did not want to participate in archaeology. The truth is I hate working in the dirt. I would rather show up to a site once it has been excavated and labeled so I can learn about it and then get back into my air conditioned bus. I am fairly convinced that my aversion to digging in the dirt is from the days when I worked for my fathers construction business. He had my brother and I dig many a hole and I learned to despise it.

When people ask me about my experience on the dig I tell them that it is hard work and not unlike a construction job site. I usually finish by telling them I am glad I didn't choose to be an archaeologist.

But in spite of my aversion I am glad for the experience becasue I learn new ways to think about history and how we construct it. Biblical scholars like myself excavate texts, not a tel. Therefore, we rarely need to leave the comfort of our office and as a result our experience can be very insular. Although we are in "conversation" with a number of people on any given topic, it is often done by reading what other people have to say.

I am convinced that there is no substitute for getting dirty and discovering the history and material culture of the ancient world by digging. A Tel does not have its information nicely cataloged and analysed for us with a stack of relevant footnotes. Artifacts tend to be broken, mixed with other artifacts and in need of interpretation. And while skills of observation and interpretation are important in the excavating of either texts or tels, the fact is it is not as easy when looking at a bunch of broken pottery laying in the dirt. It forces you to develop new skills.

Another reason to dig at least once is to gain an appreciation for the hard work it takes. Reading about a site or watching an excavation on the Discovery channel is like arm chair quarter-backing. One needs to experience it to discuss it from an informed point-of-view. Furthermore, when you have some experience it allows you to question and/or critique what is on some of these sensationalist television shows. While you certainly may not be an expert, you will find that your answers are more informed and perhaps seasoned with the type of appropriate caution that is necessary in any situation that requires interpretation.

So if you are a biblical scholar I think you owe it to yourself and the students you teach to participate in at least one dig. It will change your perspective on many things.


  1. Yeah, but someone might break a nail.

  2. this is awesoem and i agree it could open my eyes as i miss intrupret scripture and get it all wrong most of the time waht a brillent idea thanks

  3. Thanks for this post; I hope that you're enjoying the dig! As an archaeologist turned aspiring biblical scholar I think that understanding how archaeologists get their data an important thing to highlight.
    I've responded to your post on my own blog: