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Author's Note: The following was a lecture delivered at the University of California, San Diego, on April 30, 2006, at a conference celebrating the appointment of Professor of Anthropology Thomas E. Levy to the Norma Kershaw Endowed Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands. This written version benefited from suggestions by Ronald S. Hendel, who also contributed a clarifying sentence.

The defining characteristic of modern Western Civilization, and the characteristic we most take for granted, is intellectual optimism. Perched atop an acrobatic tower of past thinkers, we possess the broadest purview and trust that the next generation's will be broader still. True, for both modesty's sake and safety's sake, we claim only to be midgets riding the shoulders of giants. But our confidence in our achievements is unshakable.

All other societies, including the pre-modern West, maintain the opposite view. History is a long, slow decline. We are stupider and less knowledgeable than our ancestors. Learning consists of mastering received wisdom. In the pre-modern Jewish and Christian contexts, elite thought was devoted largely to reconciling seeming contradictions among authorities. An intellectual's job was to study the Bible, study the Church Fathers or the Rabbis, perhaps study Aristotle, and by analytical means fair and foul make the canonical texts all agree.

In our artificial periodization of European culture, the Dark Age was succeeded by the Renaissance, universally hailed as a step forward. But the "Rebirth" agenda of humanism merely meant that there was a broader range of ancient authorities to consult. The basic assumption of Scholasticism, that modernity was decadent, still lingered.

After a few centuries, however, Europe got Enlightened. For the last four hundred years, the children of Francis Bacon's Novum Organon have taken on faith that the road to self-improvement lies in experimentation and exploration, the new wisdom supplanting the old. In many respects — longevity, freedom from pain, the ability to manipulate our environment — the course of Western Civilization has validated Sir Francis's agenda. Only recently have we begun to ask whether this has been wholly good for humanity and for our planet.

What of biblical scholars and biblical archaeologists? We dedicate our lives to the minute study of ancient texts and ancient artifacts. Why? We are not trying to recover for modern application ancient technologies, artistic styles, theories of cosmology, and so on. We say that we pursue the past for its own sake, but we plainly pursue it for our own sake. What is the point of such seemingly pointless behavior? Are we, like ants in a vivarium, running pre-Enlightenment routines and subroutines on pure instinct?

It has been said that, if there is a universal human religion, it is ancestor worship. Like Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias, archaeologists dig trench after trench to learn all they can from the Ancients; textual scholars read the Bible over and over, hoping to find something new in its worn-out pages. Is this ancestor worship? Is it anything else? What would a Martian think? What would an ancient Syro-Palestinian think, were he to behold archaeologists "libating" at the tombs of his ancestors? Would he hoist a convivial glass at the new marzeah?

To me it seems inescapable that biblical archaeology and all other antiquarian pursuits reflect a sociobiological imperative to consult the Shades. I recognize that not everybody is receptive to reductionist, materialist explanations of human behavior, especially of their own. Trust Robert Burns: to see ourselves as others see us can be both illuminating and horrifying. The Greeks knew it too. It is safest to know oneself, but not too well.

What purpose might the archaeological impulse serve? By definition, Anthropology (the study of humans) is a subdiscipline of Zoology (the study of animals). So let us look to our hairier cousins for enlightenment. It is not hard to see that hierarchies based upon seniority and aggressiveness dominate many ape and primate societies. Since filial piety is highly prized around the world — excepting in our own post-Baconian, post-Freudian culture — it is reasonable to assume that such obedience is part of our social programming, both genetic and inculcated. It is only good sense, and good evolutionary sense, to defer to bigger, meaner adults while one is still small. In "traditional" societies, i.e., the majority that esteem ancestral wisdom, the young are gradually indoctrinated and initiated, passing through sequential trials as they gain in strength and knowledge. (Until recently, our own academic environment met most of the criteria for a male secret society.)

If one is both genetically programmed and culturally socialized from an early age to accord respect to one's elders, whom do the elders themselves revere? The only possibility is their deceased parents and the dead generally. We used to obey them when they were alive; their bones lie in the ground; we may still interact with them in dreams and trances. Surely they are with us yet. We fear them, too, because their fate reminds us of mortality. Their mystique can be used by the aged to intimidate the still vigorous young.

With this in mind, let us return to our main question. If we cannot learn useful things from the dead, what do we expect to gain when we dig into the earth? When we dig into a text?

In the ape world, at least, there may come the moment when an adolescent is big and bad enough to expel his decaying seniors. This melodrama of competition, played out in many human families for millennia and which according to Freud premiered in the Primal Horde, achieved its great culmination with Bacon, when he proposed to chuck Aristotelian Scholasticism altogether.

Competition is a word that has occurred routinely in evolutionary discourse ever since Charles Darwin. The peacock's tail should be worse than useless in the survival game. But convince enough peahens that size matters, and the pressure is on to grow bigger and better tails, even at the cost of impaired mobility. That is, attributes that do not obviously contribute to survival, and which even ought to be inimical to survival, can become favored by natural selection.

For us academics, our publications are our tail feathers. We compete by beating our peers and predecessors in the display game. This doesn't necessarily procure us mates (though it has been known to happen), but it does win us food and shelter — i.e., our salaries, royalties and honoraria — and the good that is beyond price, namely, formal deference in academic forums. In the field of biblical archaeology, I tend to see the "minimalist-maximalist" debate in this light, as scholars strive to display before a bemused public the largest incredulity, the most colorful invective, and so on.

To explain the function of scholarship, we must also reckon with the overlap between the realms of competition and play. Competition can be fun; play can be deadly serious. Part of our inbred heritage as Homo sapiens, Man the Wise, is receiving pleasure from solving puzzles. Some people do crosswords to relax; scholars play mind games for their livelihood. Many of us feel that in doing this we are fulfilling a private destiny because we do it so well.

Some puzzles or challenges — making a better tool, locating underground water — are clearly related to survival; many are not. Sometimes the concentration level required to solve a riddle can eliminate all consciousness of one's surroundings, seemingly a Darwinian disadvantage. For fun can be literally transcendent, creating an illusion that time has ceased. Indeed, antiquarian fun doubles the effect, allowing us to clasp hands with the Ancients and so briefly to touch Immortality. How the contemplative trance enhances survival is admittedly not quite clear, but we can at least observe that all mammalian organisms naturally enter a similar state at regular intervals, the interruption of which is detrimental to their physical and mental well-being. And most civilizations acknowledge selected individuals with an aptitude for trance and feel that their work benefits society. Indeed, many cultures exploit the indigenous botanical pharmacopoeia to make trance and vision possible for all.

Apart from fun, problem solving, and transcendence, archaeology also affords the intellectual joy of discovery, possibly originally related to food-procurement and/or the search for shelter. It seems that the specific act of digging is intrinsically pleasurable to humans, since it is a favorite occupation of children worldwide. (It would be interesting to learn whether a disproportionate number of archaeologists had spent long hours in the sandbox.)

Society supports scholars at their play for diverse reasons. A major factor is the inertial impulse of the medieval University and its Scholasticism; we (meaning the elite) still think it is important to know about the past. Though we labor to explain why, somehow it just makes us superior. Another reason for research in general is collective competitive display on a civic, state, or national level: our teams are better, our universities are better, our scholars are better. And lamentably, a notable use of historical, antiquarian knowledge is to justify attempts to set the clock back to the mythic past through violence, that is, warfare. Just as our simian heritage explains rivalry between individuals, it also predicts competition between organized groups.

To explore further the utility of archaeology, I would borrow another Enlightenment metaphor, namely, the state as organism. The civic Leviathan possesses instrumentality — it can do things — and it also reasons and remembers. That is our job as historians and archaeologists: to be humanity's memory. For individuals, memory is identity; an amnesiac doesn't know who he or she is. A healthy human mind preserves, sorts and discards all sorts of memories. A society does the same thing, whether through orally transmitted mythology or through carefully researched historiography. Indeed, a society is constituted by the collective act of contemplating the fictive, common ancestors, as is seen most clearly in multi-cultural nations like our own. The American "tribe" consists of those who recognize the name, iconography, and basic biography or pseudo-biography of George Washington, who at least once in their lives depart from their homes and routines and join other Americans in traveling to his eponymous city and monument, there to learn more about our collective history, and thence to return home the wiser and "more American," transformed by the act of pilgrimage. The archaeological pilgrimage, too, has the same power to revivify, unify, and transform.

I believe that part of the malaise of Western Civilization reflects our conflicted attitude toward the past. We desperately fight our governing instinct to venerate our ancestors — like the adolescent who worships and abhors her parents, like the young ape about to make a move on the alpha male, like the scholar who takes the trouble to debunk his predecessors by careful dissection of their work. Isn't that partly what footnotes are for, to appease and exorcize their ghosts?

Here, then, is my anthropological apologia for biblical archaeology and antiquarian pursuits generally. They offer a solution to the great crisis posed by the Enlightenment. The scientific study of the past satisfies our innate cravings to commune with the ancestors and to transcend time, all the while answering the call of Western Civilization to know more and more, to understand better and better — Excelsior! In other words, the work of revitalizing our collective memory is both atavistic and futuristic.

And even more. As contemporary international collaborations have shown, the archaeological pilgrimage has the potential, at least for brief intervals, to unite the divided nations in a common purpose. A few years ago, Tom Levy led a donkey-train of Jordanian and Israeli archaeologists across modern political boundaries, following an ancient trade route. At that time, down in Sheol among the Rephaim, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, and Esau were surely smiling.

William H. C. Propp, University of California, San Diego

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Citation: William H. C. Propp, " The Anthropology of Biblical Archaeology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2007]. Online:


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