Saturday, April 6, 2013

Foreign Archaeologists Return To A Site Near Ur

It's the first major excavation in the area in over a half-century.

Now, because Ur is mentioned in Genesis as the original home of Abraham, there have been all sorts of headlines about the dig hinting that the archaeologists are looking for or have even found artifacts directly related to Abraham. And these misleading headlines have in turn led to a brouhaha, with fundamentalists arguing with New Atheists and others chiming in about the Bible, religion, science and such. There's been relatively little discussion about the actual excavation and what's been found and what it means. I wonder how many editors have known that such headlines were misleading, but put them out anyway because they're bound to generate more interest, more clicks and ad impressions, than something like Foreign Archaeologists Return To A Site Near Ur -- because fundamentalists and New Atheists a feudin' on yr website with other chiming in equals ka-CHINNG! and ka-CHINNG! is more important to them than their outlets' reputations for solid journalism and editing. I wonder how many journalists wrote solid articles about the excavation and then were somewhere between annoyed and outraged to see them published under sensationalistic yellow-journalism headlines about Abraham.

I wonder what the actual archaeologists involved think of the brouhaha. I'm sure that for most of them it's at least not a surprise, that such brouhahas have accompanied their entire careers.

I myself have gotten used to such manufactured sensations and welcome the opportunity to chat with people about history, archaeology and such. I must confess that my outrage over the sensationalism is wearing thin. Perhaps I'm growing cynical. Or perhaps I'm just getting accustomed to how certain topics are treated by the media.

In the course of this brouhaha I happened to chat with someone who remarked that the very mention of "Biblical archaeology" makes him cross. I jumped to the profession's defense and mentioned a prominent Biblical archaeologist whose findings are impeccably stringent even when they have upset traditional notions of the history of the Old Testament era. My discussion partner, a staunch secularist, replied that he wanted nothing to do with this archaeologist's work, because the archaeologist celebrates a certain holiday of religious origin. We went back and forth for a while, I was unable to persuade the other person that this archaeologist's work, or Biblical archaeology in general, was worthwhile.

Which is quite ironic. Because, for one thing, this particular archaeologist is much more secular than many of his colleagues. It seems clear to me that he celebrates the holiday in question in a secular way. But even if he didn't, even if he were a religious believer: if we were to discount the work of, not even all scientists with religious faith, but only those who were unusually religious for their time, we would have to disregard the work of Charles Darwin,who came close to being a degree-wielding theologian and Protestant minister, and Isaac Newton,whose secret writings on the Apocalypse were weird even by the standards of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, to name only two. But of course we judge scientists' work on its own merits and not according to what they do in their spare time, nor according to careers their considered when they were young.

But of course, the main cause of the increase of general knowledge whereby a few centuries ago educated people, whether they believed in God or not, whether they believed that people lived longer several thousand years ago or not, whatever they thought of the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah and the Flood and so forth, all assumed that some sort of Abraham had actually existed, and that a perfectly real Moses had led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, although not necessarily by means of prophesied plagues and so forth, and that King David's realm extended from the edges of Egypt to the edges of Syria, whereas educated people today consider David to have been no more a king than Arthur, and assume that Moses is a mythological character and that no such Exodus anything like that described in the Bible ever took place, and that there is no evidence whatsoever to corroborate the Bible concerning Abraham's existence -- the main cause of this increase of knowledge has been Biblical archaeology. People looking for Abraham and the Exodus, and finding quite other people and things, and forthrightly saying so. So that it is downright strange to reject the entire field of study due to the knowledge one owes to that field of study.

But of course, that's obvious. So obvious that my discussion partner must be a very rare bird. Or so one hopes.

By the way, in case you haven't noticed, the headline of this blog post is completely misleading, because the post contains no information about the excavation other than that contained in the title and the first sentence of the post. That's because that's all I know about the dig. Because for several days, the brouhaha caused by the misleading headlines mentioning Abraham has kept me busy.

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