Interviews with Archaeologist Bryant Wood and Professor Todd Bolen
As a character in a series of movies, Indiana Jones has become almost mythical in stature. Not only does he travel to exotic locations in search of history-changing archaeological artifacts—that belong in museums for the benefit of humanity—he outwits the bad guys who wish to use these artifacts for their own evil ends. An expert in biblical, Inca, and medieval history, myth, and archaeology, Indiana Jones is a crackerjack with a bullwhip and fearless in his pursuit of archaeological treasures—fearless, that is, unless snakes are involved.
Because of these movies we’ve come to think of archaeologists as heroic, engaged in derring-do, and always getting the girl. Our interviews with two real life Indiana Jones' reveal a different picture of the popular figure cut by Harrison Ford.
After a career as a mechanical engineer, Dr. Bryant Wood was called by the Lord into professional archaeology. Earning his PhD in Syro-Palestinian archaeology from the University of Toronto, Dr. Wood now serves with the Associates of Biblical Research in Akron, Pennsylvania.
Although Professor Todd Bolen isn’t a professional archaeologist, he is a biblical scholar, having lived and taught in Israel for more than 11 years, with extensive experience in leading students on archaeological excavations. We caught up with both men and asked them questions to help us better understand what archaeologists actually do and why it’s important to the Christian faith.
How did you become an archaeologist?
Bryant Wood (BW): My interest in biblical archaeology began when my mother-in-law gave me a book on archaeology and the Bible the Christmas after I graduated from Syracuse University.
What interests you most about archaeology?
Todd Bolen (TB): Archaeology is fascinating because it gives us another source for the ancient world. Literary texts, including the Bible, are limited in the amount of information that they provide, but archaeology can tell us more about the way that people lived. Archaeology sometimes reveals the, “other side of the story,”; for instance, the Moabite Stone gives the enemy’s [the Moabites’] perspective of the events recorded in 2 Kings 3, and the archaeological material from Qumran1 tells us much about a group of people that the New Testament ignores.
BW: The thing that excites me the most about biblical archaeology is discovering archaeological findings that illuminate and authenticate the biblical text.
What is a typical dig day like?
BW: Because of the warm temperatures encountered in Bible lands, excavation work on a dig site is usually carried out between sun-up and midday. After returning to the dig headquarters, all dig volunteers help wash the pottery recovered in the morning’s digging. While this is going on, the staff archaeologists examine the pottery from the previous day’s digging. They date the pottery and determine which pottery should be saved for further processing. Other dig staff members may be involved in registering objects and saved pottery, drawing pottery, completing dig records, and so on, during this time. The afternoon work period is usually followed by an hour or two of free time until supper. Following supper there is normally a lecture by one of the staff archaeologists. Attendance is required for students obtaining credit for participating in the dig and optional for other volunteers.
TB: You usually are excavating by 6 o'clock in the morning, in order to take advantage of the cooler part of the day and to finish work shortly after noon. You have “first breakfast” before the excavation begins, and a more substantial “second breakfast” mid-morning. Lunch is usually held after the excavation concludes around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. After time for a shower and a short nap, pottery washing and reading occupies the late afternoon. Oftentimes after supper, there is a lecture related to the excavation.
What is the most significant find you’ve made? And why is it important?
BW: The most significant find I have made in my career was the discovery of Joshua’s Ai (Joshua 7– 8) at the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir, 10 miles north of Jerusalem. It is significant because archaeologists had previously claimed that Joshua’s Ai was located at et-Tell, six-tenths of a mile east of Kh. el-Maqatir, where there is no evidence for occupation at the time of Joshua. This led scholars to conclude that the biblical account of the capture of Ai by the Israelites in Joshua 7–8 is not historical. At Kh. el-Maqatir, on the other hand, the Associates for Biblical Research excavation from 1995 to 2000 discovered a small fortress from the time of Joshua which meets all of the biblical requirements to be identified as Joshua’s Ai.
For biblical archaeology, what, in your opinion, is the most important find ever made? Why?
TB: Undoubtedly, the most important archaeological discovery is the Dead Sea Scrolls.
BW: Most scholars agree that the most important discovery related to the Bible is the parchment manuscripts found in the vicinity of Qumran on the west side of the Dead Sea, commonly referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a rare find because parchment would normally not survive the damp conditions in this part of the world. Because the manuscripts were hidden in about AD 68 in caves near the Dead Sea, where it is extremely dry, they survived to be discovered in 1947. The reason this discovery is so important is that many of the scrolls are biblical texts of the Old Testament dating a thousand years before our previously oldest manuscripts. They demonstrate that our Old Testament was accurately transmitted during this thousand-year period.
How do you determine the date of an object?
TB: Most objects are not intrinsically datable, and so we rely on datable objects found in the same context. But since intrinsically datable objects (like inscriptions) are rare, archaeologists have developed a refined pottery typology, which takes advantage of the reality that pottery styles changed over time. Because everyone in the ancient world used pottery vessels, pottery sherds are everywhere, and archaeologists use these to determine all material found in the same context as these pottery sherds.
BW: For areas such as Mesopotamia, Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, where ancient inscriptions are common, inscriptions often provide information that can be used for dating. The most common method for dating objects found in Israel and Jordan, where ancient inscriptions are rare, is to date the pottery found in association with the object. For time periods after the introduction of coinage, coins are an accurate means of determining dates since they are normally inscribed with the year of a ruler. Other less-used, and often less-accurate, methods include carbon 14 dating, dating by style or material of the object, and dating by style or material of other material culture items found in association with the object.
What can archaeology prove or teach us about the Bible? What are its limitations?
BW: Archaeological findings have revolutionized our understanding of the Bible. Through the discoveries of archaeology, we have ancient texts that help us better understand the original languages of the Bible as well as the world of the Bible. The people, places, history, religion, and material culture of the Bible are much better understood as a result of archaeological finds. Many finds are limited in that they are “silent,” and have to be interpreted. This leads to a variety of understandings by various scholars.
TB: Archaeology illuminates the world of the Bible. The Bible was written to a contemporary audience, who didn’t need an explanation of what a house looked like, how a city gate functioned, or what types of tombs people were buried in. Its original readers knew all of this and much more. But today we live in a different world and culture, and archaeology helps to bridge the gap so that we can more properly understand the context in which the Bible was written. Archaeology cannot prove the Bible as a whole, but it can support and confirm the Bible’s records of events. Some people today think that the Bible was a myth written hundreds of years after the events it purports to describe, but archaeological evidence reveals the names of people and places that confirm that the Scriptures were written by first-hand witnesses. Archaeology cannot prove many aspects of the text, such as the faith of the people or the supernatural work of God. Furthermore, archaeology has a significant weakness: All discoveries are subject to a human interpreter, who is fallible. Many archaeological discoveries have been misinterpreted, both by those who believe the Scriptures and by those who deny them. This is the nature of the discipline of archaeology, and believers should not place too much confidence in the discoveries of archaeology per se because of the ambiguity involved in much of the evidence.
What role does faith play within the scientific discipline of archaeology?
TB: Archaeology should not be carried out in order to prove some preconceived idea, whether pro- or anti-Bible. Archaeology is best when it is carried out with the best of scientific methods and interpreted by a range of scholars. Archaeology is ill-served when the interpretation of sites and artifacts is divorced from our knowledge of ancient texts, including the Bible.
BW: Faith plays a significant role in interpreting archaeological finds related to the Bible in that it influences a scholar’s presuppositions. Many scholars approach the Bible with the idea that it is a religious book and therefore contains exaggerated or contrived accounts to support the religious message of the Book. Such an individual will only accept the statements of the Bible if those statements can be backed up by evidence from outside the Bible. Thus, according to this view, the Bible is “guilty until proven innocent.” A person of faith who accepts the validity of the biblical text, on the other hand, will use the Bible as a valid historical source which can be used to interpret the findings of archaeology.
Has archaeology revealed anything that contradicts the Bible? If so, what? And how should Christians respond to such discoveries?
BW: There are a number of supposed disagreements between the findings of archaeology and the Bible. In each case, however, the supposed disagreement involves a scholar’s superficial and erroneous interpretation of an archaeological find rather than an objective fact. When an in-depth analysis is done of the so-called disagreement, it is found that, when properly interpreted, the archaeological find fully supports the accuracy of the Bible.
TB: Archaeology has revealed many things that can be interpreted in a fashion that is not compatible with the biblical record. But those same things can also be interpreted in a way that is consistent with Scripture. This ambiguity is not intrinsic to issues related to faith, but is the nature of the discipline. But those matters related to the Bible are naturally more popular and receive more attention in the press. I do not know of any major issues that conflict with the accuracy of the Bible. There are some issues of a lesser nature that are not yet resolved, but I recognize that that is due to the limited nature of the evidence.
What haven’t we asked that is important for our readers to know?
TB: No archaeologists are unbiased. This is something that the public doesn’t know when an archaeological story is covered. Some archaeologists are able to interpret any discovery in a way that appears to go against the biblical record. A few archaeologists may suggest a biblical connection when such is unlikely. Archaeologists are real people with real pasts. Few of them are people of faith, and some of them work in reaction to the faith of others. But when an archaeologist is interviewed in a magazine or on television, the public usually does not know the personal history of the individual or his or her record of interpretations. But this can be very important in properly assessing the credibility of the archaeologist.
BW: It is important to know how pottery, the basis for dating in Palestinian archaeology, was originally dated. Pottery as a means of dating is especially important for the Old Testament period. For the intertestamental period (the four hundred years between the Testaments) and New Testament period, coins provide the best means of dating. Pottery has several characteristics which make it very useful to the archaeologist.
First is its durability.
Because pottery is kiln-fired, it is rock-hard and virtually indestructible. Although an ancient pottery vessel can be broken into pieces (potsherds or sherds), those pieces will survive to be discovered by the archaeologist thousands of years later.
Second, as with all things man-made, pottery changes through time—its shape, method of manufacture, decoration, and so on.
The Old Testament period is divided into various archaeological periods: Early Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, and Iron Age. These major periods are further divided into subperiods. Each archaeological period has distinctive material cultural traits, including the type of pottery in use. For the pre-kingdom period of Old Testament history (Bronze Age and early part of the Iron Age), the various archaeological phases are dated by means of Egyptian inscriptions containing the names of Egyptian kings that have been found in Palestine. Because a detailed chronology has been worked out for Egyptian history, the archaeological phases, and in turn the pottery associated with each phase, can be dated. For the kingdom period of Old Testament history (later part of the Iron Age), it is possible to correlate the archaeological phases with particular Israelite kings, based on historical information given in the Bible. Because the dates of the Israelite kings are known as a result of synchronisms (connections) with Assyrian and Babylonian history, the kingdom period archaeological phases, and in turn the pottery associated with each phase, can be dated.
We may never thrill at Bryant Wood or Todd Bolen cracking a bullwhip or outrunning a giant boulder in the movies. And though the work they do in the dirt and in the classroom seems tedious, it is more significant than any celluloid archaeologist’s heroics. Because of their dedication to the Bible and the exacting work of archaeology, we gain a better perspective and appreciation of the people, places, and events recorded in God’s Word. Now, what could be more exciting than that?
1 See “Resurrecting Scripture: The Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” page 61