“Known but mostly unknown”

The late Paul W. Lapp is well known among students of archaeology for his 1963 article saying that the archaeology of Palestine (West Bank and Israel) is “known but mostly unknown.” Lapp died in a swimming accident in Cyprus in April, 1970) a few months prior to his 40th birthday.

Lapp’s article in Biblical Archaeologist (Vol. 26) begins this way:

Palestine (West Bank Jordan and Israel today) is perhaps the most excavated land in the world. Certainly the archaeological history of no country is better known. Since the beginning of archaeological work in Palestine at Tell el-Ḥesī in 1890 there have been few periods when there were not several expeditions in the field.

He continues by asking,

How Much Do We Know?

With some knowledge of the scope of archaeological activity in Palestine visitors in Jerusalem frequently ask: Are there still new sites to dig? Are there still exciting finds to be made in Palestine? One might go on to ask: Isn’t our knowledge of biblical times fairly complete? Don’t we have a picture of daily life at the time of Jesus which can be modified only in detail by future discoveries? The confidence with which archaeological conclusions are frequently drawn and the long books devoted to daily life in Palestine at the time of Jesus might suggest an affirmative answer.

My viewpoint here is that such a tiny fraction of the archaeological material has been excavated, and such a small fraction of that satisfactorily published, that even the most assured archaeological conclusions must still be considered far from final. This does not mean that all archaeological conclusions must be basically vague and noncommittal. Our knowledge of Palestinian archaeology has been built step by step, from the best hypothesis explaining evidence available at an early stage of exploration to the best hypothesis to explain evidence currently at hand. Without the discipline of continuous updating of hypotheses as new evidence comes to light chaos would prevail. The nonspecialist would find it much more difficult to judge among interpretations than is now the case. All that is stressed here is that in view of the vast amount of unknown material, archaeologists will be forced to modify or reformulate many, if not all, their hypotheses regarding the development of Palestine as the flood of new evidence continues to grow. Palestinian archaeology may be past infancy but has hardly gotten beyond childhood.

I have no current figures about the percentage of known sites that have been excavated. Often in speaking about the archaeology of Israel and the West Bank I say that the surface has hardly been scratched.

What got me to thinking about Lapp’s article was this aerial photo of Tel Dan that I made in May. Prof. Avraham Biran began the excavations at Tel Dan in 1966 and worked at the site for more than 30 years. Others have continued the work. If you have been to Tel Dan you will recognize the three main areas that have received attention (1) the Middle Bronze city gate, (2) the Iron Age gate complex, and (3) the High Place (bama). Would you agree that there may still be some work to be done at the site?

Aerial view of Tel Dan. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins. 2011.

Aerial view of Tel Dan. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins. 2011.

Is there still much archaeological work to be done? Is it still mostly unknown? Are you kidding? Extend this thought to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Turkey, et al.  This is why we must sometimes be satisfied with a limited amount of evidence.

Got to go. Today is Grandson Day prior to school beginning tomorrow.

One response to ““Known but mostly unknown”

  1. Pingback: The Bet Qama discovery | Ferrell's Travel Blog

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