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Raiders of the faux ark

Biblical archeology is too important to leave to crackpots and ideologues. It's time to fight back.


NOAH'S ARK. The Ark of the Covenant. The Garden of Eden. Sodom and Gomorrah. The Exodus. The Lost Tomb of Jesus. All have been "found" in the last 10 years, including one within the past six months. The discoverers: a former SWAT team member; an investigator of ghosts, telepathy, and parapsychology; a filmmaker who calls himself "The Naked Archeologist"; and others, none of whom has any professional training in archeology.

We are living in a time of exciting discoveries in biblical archeology. We are also living in a time of widespread biblical fraud, dubious science, and crackpot theorizing. Some of the highest-profile discoveries of the past several years are shadowed by accusations of forgery, such as the James Ossuary, which may or may not be the burial box of Jesus' brother, as well as other supposed Bible-era findings such as the Jehoash Tablet and a small ivory pomegranate said to be from the time of Solomon. Every year "scientific" expeditions embark to look for Noah's Ark, raising untold amounts of money from gullible believers who eagerly listen to tales spun by sincere amateurs or rapacious con men; it is not always easy to tell the two apart.

The tools of modern archeology, from magnetometers to precise excavation methods, offer a growing opportunity to illuminate some of the intriguing mysteries surrounding the Bible, one of the foundations of western civilization. Yet the amateurs are taking in the public's money to support ventures that offer little chance of furthering the cause of knowledge. With their grand claims, and all the ensuing attention, they divert the public's attention from the scientific study of the Holy Land - and bring confusion, and even discredit, to biblical archeology.

Unfortunately, when fantastic claims are made, they largely go unchallenged by academics. There have been some obvious exceptions, such as the recent film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which inspired an outcry from scholars by claiming that archeologists had found, but not recognized, the tomb of Jesus more than 20 years ago. But much more common is a vast and echoing silence reminiscent of the early days of the debate over "intelligent design," when biologists were reluctant to respond to the neocreationist challenge. Archeologists, too, are often reluctant to be seen as challenging deeply held religious beliefs. And so the professionals are allowing a PR disaster to slowly unfold: yielding a field of tremendous importance to pseudoscientists, amateur enthusiasts, and irresponsible documentary filmmakers.

At a time when the world is increasingly divided by religion, both domestically and internationally, and when many people are biblically illiterate, legitimate inquiries into the common origins of religions have never been more important. I believe that the public deserves - and wants - better. We have an obligation to challenge the lies and the hype, to share the real data, so that the public discussion can be an informed one.

It is time we take back our field.

. . .

The first archeological endeavors in the Holy Land were conducted not by archeologists, but rather by theologians primarily interested in locating places mentioned in the Bible. Pride of place goes to the American minister Edward Robinson, who toured the Holy Land in 1838, accompanied by an American missionary named Eli Smith who was fluent in Arabic, in order to identify as many sites mentioned in the Bible as possible - in other words, to create a historical (and biblical) geography of Palestine. Others soon followed, including Sir Charles Warren, a British general who explored and recorded the features of Jerusalem in the 1860s. None of these men were archeologists, but they made important contributions to the field.

Throughout much of the 19th century, the field of biblical archeology was dominated by men said to have been working with a Bible in one hand and a trowel in the other. The field soon became more scientific, thanks to the efforts of men like Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who introduced into archeology the dual concepts of stratigraphy (when two succeeding cities are built one on top of the other, the lower one will always be earlier in time) and pottery seriation (pottery types go in and out of style, just like today's clothes, and can be used to help date the stratigraphic levels observable at ancient sites).

By the time Dame Kathleen Kenyon was excavating in Jericho and Jerusalem during the mid-20th century, archeology was in the hands of professionals trained not just in proper excavation techniques, but in the scientific method, and with years of schooling in ancient languages, cultures, and history. They also mastered bodies of literature and theory and spent years practicing their craft and being subjected to peer review. Theological motivation became less important.

Today there are strict standards concerning excavations in every country in the Middle East. Permission to excavate must be obtained from the proper authorities, with presentation of a detailed research plan, good reasons given for the questions being examined, evidence of sufficient funding, and often a strategy for conservation of the site upon completion of the excavation. Peer review of any large funding proposals is obligatory. In short, it is a serious and highly competitive field.

As a result, however, we have seen a rise of two cultures - the scientists and the amateur enthusiasts. Lacking the proper training and credentials, the amateurs are sustained by vanity presses, television, and now the Internet.

For example, in 2006, Bob Cornuke, a former SWAT team member turned biblical investigator - and now president of the Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration (BASE) Institute in Colorado - led an expedition searching for Noah's Ark. Media reports breathlessly announced that Cornuke's team had discovered boat-shaped rocks at an altitude of 13,000 feet on Mount Suleiman in Iran's Elburz mountain range. Cornuke said the rocks look "uncannily like wood. . . .We have had [cut] thin sections of the rock made, and we can see [wood] cell structures."

But peer review would have quickly debunked these findings. Kevin Pickering, a geologist at University College London who specializes in sedimentary rocks, said, "The photos appear to show iron-stained sedimentary rocks, probably thin beds of silicified sandstones and shales, which were most likely laid down in a marine environment a long time ago."

Then there is Michael Sanders, who has made a habit of using NASA satellite photographs to search for biblical locations and objects. From 1998 to 2001, Sanders announced that he had not only located the lost cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also the Garden of Eden, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Tower of Babel.

Sanders describes himself on his website as a "Biblical Scholar of Archaeology, Egyptology and Assyriology," but according to the Los Angeles Times, he "concedes that he has no formal archeological training." Other newspaper accounts describe him as a "self-made scholar" who did research in parapsychology at Duke University.

And we must not forget documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. He bills himself as "The Naked Archeologist" in a television series on the History Channel, but has repeatedly stated during media interviews that he is an investigative journalist rather than an archeologist. Jacobovici is perhaps best known for "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which first aired in March 2007 and which has been described by professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as making "a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support."

In short, the amateur arena is full of deeply flawed junk science. Important issues are cloaked in legitimate-sounding terminology, little attention is paid to the investigative process, and contrary evidence is ignored.

Biblical archeologists are suddenly finding themselves in a position similar to the evolutionary biologists fighting intelligent design - an entire parallel version of their field is being driven by religious belief, not research principles. The biologists' situation makes the risk clear - they did not deign to mount a public refutation of the "science" of intelligent design for years, until it was almost too late, and thus anti-evolutionary science began making its way into the public schools.

Why are we sitting the battle out?

Partly, this is a matter of a strain of snobbery that runs through many academic fields: a suspicion of colleagues who venture too far from "serious" topics or appear in the popular media too often.

Partly it is a matter of the uncertainty of the stories themselves: many biblical questions are so shrouded in uncertainty as to be inherently unsolvable. For example, even if the Garden of Eden once were a real place, and even if we knew the general location where it might have been, how would we know when we had found it? When most archeologists and biblical scholars hear that someone has (yet again) discovered Noah's Ark, they roll their eyes and get on with their business. This can leave the impression that the report might be true.

And partly it is because scientific findings may challenge religious dogma. Biblical scholarship is highly charged because the Bible is a religious book and any research carries the prospect of "proving" or "disproving" treasured beliefs. What if the Exodus might not have taken place as described in the Bible? Similarly, what will people do when told that there are identical stories to Noah and the Ark, but they were recorded between 500 and 1,000 years earlier sans Noah? And that the flood was sent because the people were too noisy and the Gods couldn't sleep, not because people were evil and sinning? Or when you tell them that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was a concept expressed in Hammurabi's Law Code nearly 1,000 years before the Bible?

This is where it can get daunting for academics, for it is at this point that the ideologues frequently weigh in. And these pundits are often sophisticated and convincing debaters, which can make them intimidating opponents for a scholar.

But we don't need to go looking for Noah's Ark to find confirmation of details found in the Bible. During the past century or so, archeologists have found the first mention of Israel outside the Bible, in an Egyptian inscription carved by the Pharaoh Merneptah in the year 1207 BC. They have found mentions of Israelite kings, including Omri, Ahab, and Jehu, in neo-Assyrian inscriptions from the early first millennium BC. And they have found, most recently, a mention of the House of David in an inscription from northern Israel dating to the ninth century BC. These are conclusive pieces of evidence that these people and places once existed and that at least parts of the Bible are historically accurate. Perhaps none of these is as attention-getting as finding Noah's Ark, but they serve to deepen our understanding of, and appreciation for, the Bible.

Religious archeologists and secular archeologists frequently work side by side in the Holy Land. Among the top ranks of researchers, there are evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, and people of many denominations. It is not religious views that are the issue here; it is whether good science is being done. Biblical archeology is a field in which people of good will, and all religions, can join under the banner of the scientific process.

Most archeological organizations, including the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Society for American Archaeology, state that it is one of the obligations of professional archeologists to make their findings and discoveries generally available. But we need to do more than simply publish research if we are to successfully counter junk science. We need to take our information to the public not only via writing but also via radio, television, film, and any other available media.

Remember that biblical mysteries are not just ancient history. For example, did Joshua really fight the Battle of Jericho and drive the Canaanites out of the land, as stated in the biblical account of the Israelite conquest of Canaan? If so, who was there first and to whom does the land really belong today? Does it matter? It does to many Palestinians, who exert a (dubious) claim as descendants of the Canaanites and Jebusites, and to many Israelis, who exert a similar claim based on their own understanding of their ancestors' history.

Remember, too, that archeologists who speak out can make a difference. "Disclaimer statements" have recently been posted on Bob Cornuke's Web pages concerning the Ark of the Covenant, Noah's Ark, and the location of Mount Sinai. Now, for instance, we find the statement that the BASE Institute "does not make the claim that we have found Noah's Ark. We'll let you draw your own conclusions. In our opinion, it's a candidate. The research continues."

Even when our own investigations come up empty - we can't solve all the mysteries in the Bible - we can present the current state of our evidence. And we can promote a shared methodology, and a shared body of facts, that can be used by everyone. The data and opinions that we provide may not end any debates, but they will introduce genuine archeological and historical data and considerations into the mix. We owe it to the ancient world, and to the people who inhabited it, to do no less.

Eric H. Cline is the author of "From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible." He is chair of the department of classical and Semitic languages and literature at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is also associate director (USA) of the ongoing excavations at Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) in Israel. He can be reached at ehcline@gwu.edu.

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