Where “Indiana Jones” Gets Archaeology Wrong

When you imagine an archaeological site, do you see white tents, pith helmets, and sand dunes? Is the dig director a middle-aged man with a thick British accent, bossing around his local workers and charging into newly opened tombs with abandon? That image isn’t too far from the truth of the late-19th- and early-20th-century excavations that sought to find ancient, beautiful objects for national museums and personal collections.

Those first archaeologists were romanticized by writers and inspired some great film characters (Boris Karloff’s The Mummy and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones leap to mind). They popularized the field, inspired Halloween costumes, and had children like me answering “archaeologist” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Unfortunately, the linen-clad men and women were mere treasure hunters. Their methods of extraction disconnected their finds from the historical calendar and left spectators to marvel at the items instead of understand who had created them and why.

Archaeology means “the study of ancient history.” It is a branch of anthropology that attempts to reconstruct the lives of ancient people based on what they left behind. The further one goes back in time, the fewer written records remain, so archaeologists study mundane objects and architectural ruins to discover who people were, how they lived, and why they died.

Archaeology has become increasingly scientific in the last century. In the 1930s, William F. Albright invented the first method of dating ancient sites based on the shapes and colors of the ceramics excavated. He found that cities throughout a region could be connected to one another in time based on their styles of pottery. Today archaeologists still do their primary dating based on the pottery, but they can learn even more about artifacts with technological tools such as radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, GPS location, and microbiology.

Within the field of archaeology is biblical archaeology, which was also “created” by William F. Albright. It exists to contextualize Scripture—to come alongside God’s Word and help us better understand it.

Read this description of the water-basin stands that Hiram created for Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7:27-30:

And he made ten bases of brass; four cubits was the length of one base, and four cubits the breadth thereof, and three cubits the height of it. And the work of the bases was on this manner: they had borders, and the borders were between the ledges: And on the borders that were between the ledges were lions, oxen, and cherubims: and upon the ledges there was a base above: and beneath the lions and oxen were certain additions made of thin work. And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass: and the four corners thereof had undersetters: under the laver were undersetters molten, at the side of every addition (KJV).

Based on those words, artists and theologians and Sunday School children would draw wildly different versions of the stands because that description is unintelligible unless the object has been seen in real life. But in the 1980s, such a stand was found in Ekron. Informed by that discovery, read how a more recent Bible translation describes the stands:

Each water stand was 6 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 4½ feet high. The stands had side panels and panels between the crossbars. On the panels between the crossbars there were lions, oxen, and winged creatures. There was a pedestal over the crossbars that would support the basin, and there were garlands of ornaments below the lions and oxen. There were 4 bronze wheels and 4 bronze axles for each stand. The 4 legs of each stand also had 4 bases. There were bases with garlands on all sides below the basin (The Voice).

What Trude Dothan and her team found at Ekron helps us to envision what Scripture is describing. Her find may not be exciting, but it helps us to imagine ourselves worshiping at Solomon’s Temple among God’s other followers.

Neither Albright nor Dothan were adventure-seeking, artifact-stealing rogues wearing leather jackets and escaping rivals (or authorities) on motorcycle. They didn’t find the ark of the covenant, but they and their successors have helped Bible readers understand God’s Word just a bit better.

Originally published on the Harvest House Publishers Blog.

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Series

cover.pngIn February 2019, I was sitting in a Eugene, Oregon-coffee shop with my editor. Mary Mag was moving smoothly through editing and heading toward the printer, so Kathleen and I were reviewing a rough proposal for my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist: Digging Israel (as it was titled at that time).

I had spent the previous two days in high-energy, encouraging meetings with almost everyone who worked at Harvest House, so I was ready to start my next project ASAP. Squinting at a complex-looking calendar-matrix of all her acquisitions, she told me, “It looks like my next slot is in Winter 2021.”

I went quiet, thinking about how far away that date seemed to be. Kathleen quickly assured me that the years would fly and the project would benefit from the extra time. Of course she was right. (Kathleen is always right!)

In February 2019, my next book was planned to be your typical 250-page black-and-white nonfiction paperback. I intended to write about archaeological discoveries and how they can impact our readings of Scripture.

In February 2021, I will present to you a still-pretty-typical 250-page black-and-white paperback; but this one has original photographs, history lessons, travel adventures, and cultural encounters…in addition to explaining how archaeology can illuminate Scripture!

The change in the book’s tone from scholarly to conversational and the expansion of its content from artifact-focused to culture-conscious are the direct results of the time I spent digging and traveling in Israel last summer. Fifteen years had passed since the last time I’d been similarly immersed in Israeli(te) history and culture, and I realized quickly that the book I had planned–which was initially based on what I had learned and experienced in my last years at Harvard–would not accurately reflect today’s practice of archaeology or the current inhabitants of the Land.

In Israel, ancient history and modernity coexist in ways they do not in Western nations, largely because the struggle for control of the land has never ceased. Thousands of years of wars and regime changes gave us the ancient tels we excavate, and they continue to define political boundaries and spheres of influence today.

All of this is simply too much to contain in one black-and-white book. Therefore, I’ve been working during our mutual COVID-containment time to develop a website. On February 23, 2021, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel will release and https://redhairedarchaeologist.com will launch. There you will find color photographs and “deleted scenes” that didn’t fit into the book and links to Season 2 of The Red-Haired Archaeologist Podcast, all of which will enhance your reading experience. In the future, it will also be the home of all things RHA, including future adult titles, children’s books, and more!

We are still five months away from my long-awaited Launch Day, but I can’t wait to share my love of ancient and modern Israel with you. Visit https://redhairedarchaeologist.com today, and sign-up to receive my monthly “journal entries,” publishing updates, and early access to the book’s online supplements.

The RHA Podcast: Digitally Remastered!

Most of my work time these days is not spent writing my next manuscript. (Don’t tell my editor that!) It’s taken up with multimedia promotion such as book signings, radio interviews, guest blogging,  contact development, meme-making, and social media.

Knowing this would be the case–and that my next book is due January 1 no matter how many interviews I schedule–I attempted to get a jump-start on promoting Mary Mag by recording the first season of my new podcast back in the Spring. It was fine. A fine attempt at do-it-myself audio editing, that is.

Now that people are hearing a bit about Mary Mag and me, I’ve been told it is time to get a professional working on my podcast so my publisher won’t be too embarrassed to share the episodes with potential readers and buyers. Through an old church friend, I found Nicholas Allaire, audio editor-extraordinaire! Check him out here: http://nickallaire.com/. I can’t recommend him highly enough.

Season 1 has 7 episodes, and most are under half an hour. You should be able to find it wherever you usually listen to your podcasts, and I’ve put direct links on the Podcast page of my website. Each will teach you a little bit about archaeological discoveries pertaining to the Old Testament and influencing our understandings of Scripture. (Nick seems to like them, and he’s a pro!)

It is an exciting time here in my home office as I write, edit, and promote books. If you don’t want to miss anything, make sure you’ve signed up to receive email updates HERE. This will take you to the forthcoming Red-Haired Archaeologist website that will launch February 23, 2021. Sign-up to receive a monthly newsletter about all things RHA there!

Now back to my regularly scheduled book deadline…

Exploring Mary’s Magdala

Magdala1This summer I had the opportunity to spend several weeks in Israel digging at Tel Shimron and then touring the rest of the country. My husband and parents joined me for the second less-dusty part of the trip, but I still managed to wear them out traipsing to tel after tel in the blazing sun.

Toward the end of our trip, we stayed 4 days in Tiberias, on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee. About 20 minutes north of our hotel sits Magdala, a city most famous as the hometown of Mary Magdalene.

Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee next to a replica of a first-century fishing boat, it is easy to imagine Jesus and His disciples docking at Magdala’s port (Matthew 15:39) before taking a short walk to the synagogue to preach as He had throughout Galilee (Matthew 4:23).

Archaeologists have discovered that Magdala first became a city around 200 B.C.E. By the time Mary was born, it had grown into a prosperous fishing village with a distinctly Jewish culture. It boasts the oldest synagogue discovered in Galilee to date, and the frescoed walls and mosaic floors preserved in several buildings survived flooding, conquest, and a major earthquake. Four high-quality groundwater-fed ritual baths further indicate both the importance of the Jewish religion to daily life and the city’s great wealth.

Magdala2The current excavation of Magdala began in 2009 when contractors preparing the foundation of a new building stumbled on the remains of a 1st-century synagogue. The dig is now jointly sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Mexican universities, Universidad Anáhuac México Sur and Universidad Autónoma de Mexico. It was seen by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and is visited by more and more Jewish and Christian tourists each year.

Once excavation and restoration are complete, Magdala will be a dazzling example of maritime society in the ancient world. Today visitors can enjoy a mostly do-it-yourself tour thanks to helpful diagrams and historic facts presented throughout the site. We spent about 2 hours there–which is probably twice as long as was needed–and only paid about $5 per person. Tour guides are sometimes available at no additional cost, if your timing is just right.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how dedicated Magdala’s scholars are to “rehabilitating” Mary Magdalene’s reputation. Since naming my next book after her, I find myself increasingly aware that too many Christians–myself included–grew up believing Mary was a castanet-playing, blue-eye-shadow-wearing prostitute. The Bible actually describes her as a wealthy woman who was among Jesus’ most devoted followers:

[Jesus] went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons. . . and many others who provided for Him from their substance (Luke 8:1-3 NKJV).

Alongside Magdala’s dig site is the Magdalena Institute, a nonprofit inspired by the figure of Mary Magdalene that seeks “to highlight issues of human dignity–with an emphasis on the dignity of women–and contributions of the feminine genius in both religious history and facets of life today.” Many scholars would argue that the denigration of Mary by Pope Gregory the Great (and the subsequent fifteen centuries’ teachers and preachers who solidified her identification as a prostitute) is the result of historic misogyny in the church; the Institute works from the same place where Mary walked and Jesus may have preached to make sure no woman is marginalized because of her gender.

Women are smart and capable of studying and understanding Scripture, but too often we are offered emotion-based ministries seeking to make us feel good about our relationships with God and others instead of Scripture-based lessons that can actually help us know God better.

Revealing how history and traditions can (and too often have) incorrectly influenced the reading of the Bible is my goal in Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow and future books. I want to strip away the Sunday school stories and dig into Scripture itself, for only in Scripture can we meet the risen Jesus, as did Mary Magdalene before us.

Knights of Acre

Have you ever watched the History Channel’s drama Knightfall (now also on Netflix)? The series opener is inspired by the failure of the European Christians to defend against the Mamluks during the Siege of Acre in 1291. The story itself is quite soapy (thanks to courtly love, palace intrigue, and a corrupt pope) as the show describes the romanticized lives of the Knights Templar in 14th-century France.

The last episode of season 2 aired just before I left for my summer in Israel, and the well-advertised highlight of the season was Mark Hamill’s role as an elder Templar knight. He is the knights’ iron-wielding “Yoda” in this largely fictitious Crusader story.

As I watched the season finale, I had no idea that I’d soon be standing on the shores of Acre, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One Saturday, all of Tel Shimron‘s volunteers and staff members were invited on a “field trip” to that Mediterranean city. We hopped off the bus at the Old City’s gates, and each went his or her own way. I paired off with one of my square-mates, Avie, and we toured the Crusader City together for a couple of hours.

Much of what we toured has been underground since the 18th century when an Ottoman citadel was built over it. It is strange to walk along streets once busy with commerce but now completely encased in the stone foundations of the citadel. Most places only have artificial light, and ancient graffiti remains on buildings now filled only with curious tourists.

Before our trip, I was familiar with the Knights Templar and their simultaneously historic and fantastic quest for the Holy Grail. The “cup of Christ,” from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and/or into which His blood flowed at the Cross, was thought to have magical healing powers and could propel armies of God to certain victory. (And, thanks to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we know it was wooden, not gold!)

CoverBut I learned that the Templars weren’t the only knights at Acre, and any healing in the city was done by their brothers and rivals, the Hospitallers. During the Crusades, both the Templars and Hospitallers were warriors, but their spiritual fathers and daily activities put them in fierce opposition with each other. The Templars were Benedictine knights who were sworn to protect pilgrims (and accumulated great wealth); the Hospitallers were Augustinians who cared for the sick and wounded. The Templars were disbanded and executed by 1312; the Hospitallers remain active healers today.

After a few hours underground, Avie and I decided to walk along the coast (she had never seen the Mediterranean, and I was happy to take her first pictures!) and eat some lunch. We found a wonderful seafood restaurant called Mina and ordered fresh fish, mussels, and assorted salads to eat on a deck built into the sea. It was lovely–until the sunshade collapsed on our table just as we were trying to leave.

Rarely, it seems, am I capable of enjoying an uneventful outing. Fellow travelers beware!

Summer in Shimron

I write to you today from Israel, where I am volunteering for a dig at Tel Shimron. (That’s Shim-RONE, like the Rhone River in France, not Shim-RON as I mispronounced it for the last year!)

There are almost-countless famous archaeological sites in Israel, but the name of this one probably doesn’t ring a bell. In the Bible, Shimron the city is only mentioned in the Book of Joshua, first as part of a Canaanite coalition against Israel:

When King Jabin of Hazor heard what Israel had done to the central and southern cities of Canaan, he sent messengers to King Jobab of Madon, the king of Shimron, the king of Achshaph, and the kings who were in the northern hill country, in the Arabah south of Chinneroth, in the lowland, and in the heights of Dor on the west; to the Canaanites in the east and the west; the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites in the hill country; the Hivites in the foothills of Mount Hermon in the land of Mizpeh, and to all those who could still fight the invaders. They banded together and came out to fight—so many warriors that you could no more count them than you could count the grains of sand on a beach—and leading them was a vast number of horses and chariots. All of these kings pooled their forces, and they camped together by the waters of Merom, ready to make war on Israel (Joshua 11:1-5).

And then as a conquered city belonging to the Israelite tribe of Zebulun (after that coalition failed and Israel took over the land of Canaan):

The third lot fell to the people of Zebulun, clan by clan. The boundary of its inheritance stretched as far as Sarid, then it climbed up westward to Maralah and brushed Dabbesheth, then on to the wadi that is east of Jokneam. From Sarid it turned in the other direction eastward toward the sunrise to the frontier of Chisloth-tabor; and from there it went to Daberath, then up to Japhia. From there it went eastward to Gath-hepher, then Eth-kazin, and going on to Rimmon, it curved toward Neah. Then on the north, the boundary curved toward Hannathon and ended at the valley of Iphtahel with Kattah, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah, and Bethlehem—12 cities with their surrounding villages (Joshua 19:10-15).

This season I have been stationed in a square where we are excavating remains from the Middle Bronze Age occupation of the city. What that means is, we are in dirt that last saw daylight long before David or Saul were kings in Israel.

CoverI can’t tell you much about the dig itself–scholars will publish our finds in the years to come–but I will say that the disciple of archaeology has changed drastically in the 15 years since the last time I dug. After less than a week in the field, I am amazed by how much has modernized. Satellites help triangulate the exact positions of artifacts; laptops are onsite doing I-don’t-know-what-all; tags are now bar-coded instead of handwritten. Technology has improved and hastened the excavation process (and, sadly, made my beloved plumb bob obsolete).

When the dig is over, I’ll be touring the rest of the country and writing my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel. It will be part archaeological survey / part biblical exegesis / part travel memoir with photographs I’ll take myself this summer.

I am so thankful to God and Harvest House Publishers for the opportunity to re-immerse myself in my first love–biblical archaeology–and share that love with you.

Who Cares about “Blue Eye Shadow”?

The title of my next book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow, is not so much a statement of fact as it is an acknowledgement of how easy it is to mischaracterize biblical figures.

Technically, Mary could have worn eye shadow, as it has existed for thousands of years. In Egypt and Babylonia, where many cosmetics originated, eye shadow had not only a decorative purpose but was also thought to protect sensitive eyelids from the sun and insects. Minerals such as malachite would be ground into a powder like today’s popular “mineral makeup” and smeared directly on the skin with rigid spatulas.

Archaeologists have found makeup containers and tools in Israel, so it was used by God’s own people. But the Bible suggests that makeup was not worn by everyone as it may have been in other cultures. When makeup is mentioned in the Bible, it is associated with evil and sexually immoral women. For example, Jezebel–another biblical character whose name is synonymous with prostitution–wore makeup (2 Kings 9:30).

The association of makeup with prostitution is ancient and enduring. As recently as the twentieth century, polite Western society equated actresses, dancers, and even opera singers with loose morals. To this day I worry that I might “look cheap” when I wear heavier makeup for an evening out or in front of a camera.

The Bible never says that Mary Magdalene “painted her face” (KJV) as Jezebel did, so why did popular culture lump her in with immoral women for so long? (Yes, if you read or watched The DaVinci Code, then you already know the answer.) In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I was bothered by the fact that the “sinner” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 was unnamed. So he tried to “fix” God’s Holy Scripture by assigning her story to the next female named in the text. Since Gregory was the church’s supreme authority on earth at the time (and Protestantism was still a century away), no one questioned his word.  And then the rumor grew, as they tend to do, and the sinner became an adulteress who became a prostitute.

MaryMagLeonardodaVinci.jpg
Her artistic portrayal as a sexually immoral woman was common by the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci skipped the makeup in his c. 1515 topless, red-haired portrait of her, but I suppose no one is looking at her face in this particular masterpiece.

Mary Magdalene has endured centuries of slander simply because her story begins in Luke 8:2, a mere two verses after Jesus’ highly aromatic pedicure.

Many traditional artistic depictions of Mary Magdalene imply that she was a prostitute by “painting” her face with garish makeup. Our 1980s Sunday School felt boards were among the worst offenders; the Mary Magdalene paper doll was always the prettiest one, thanks to her bright clothes, heavy jewelry, dark tan, and dreamy batting eyes. I remember a  golden castanet in each hand too. But that Mary would have fit better seducing the shah in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights than visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

Such false traditions are incorrect and can undermine our interpretations of Scripture. They need to be recognized, debunked, and shelved under Fiction; but that is difficult to do when untruth is “common knowledge” that has been immortalized by artists and is believed by Bible teachers themselves.

If Mary wore eye shadow–and I doubt that she did–it was to repel insects and UV rays, not to attract men.