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UC San Diego Archaeologist Featured in NOVA/National Geographic Documentary

Related scholarly works advocate for a "new pragmatism" in ancient historical archaeology

Nov. 23, 2010

By Tiffany Fox

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UCSD Archaeologist Tom Levy and his research are featured in a new documentary by National Geographic/NOVA, "Quest for Solomon's Mines."

A new television documentary featuring the work of University of California, San Diego, archaeologist Thomas E. Levy proves that extensive copper production took place in Jordan during what is believed to be the Biblical era of David and Solomon — suggesting that there is some historical veracity to the Hebrew Bible’s (Old Testament) portrayal of their kingdom and that of neighboring Edom in southern Jordan.

A related and newly edited book by Levy — as well as a scholarly paper that appeared last month in a British journal — also advocate for a new high-tech “pragmatic” approach for carrying out historical archaeology in the Levant region of the Middle East, coupled with high precision radiocarbon dating, to ensure objectivity in a discipline fraught with emotional prejudice.

Levy, who holds the Norma Kershaw Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands at the UC San Diego Department of Anthropology, conducts his own research using the latest cyber-archaeology tools in the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), where he is associate director. CISA3 is based at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).
The NOVA/National Geographic documentary, “Quest for Solomon’s Mines,” recounts Levy’s multi-year digs at the Iron Age site of Khirbat en-Nahas in southern Jordan. Located in what was then Edom, the site has yielded artifacts that date to the 10th c. BCE – several hundred years earlier than previously believed. Traditional scholarship has linked the 10th century to the reigns of David, Solomon and neighboring Edom, which the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) portrays as important local kingdoms. 

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"Quest for Solomon's Mines," recounts Levy's multi-year digs at the Iron Age site of Khirbat en-Nahas in southern Jordan. Located in what was then Edom, the site has yielded artifacts that date to the 10th c. BCE – several hundred years earlier than previously believed.

The new data contradicts the very vocal school of Biblical ‘minimalist’ scholarship that has dominated scholarly discourse for the past 10 years and argues these Iron Age kingdoms were nothing more than petty cow-towns — a far cry from the accounts in the Hebrew Bible.

“Quest for Solomon’s Mines” airs nationwide. In San Diego, the program can be seen tonight at 8 p.m. on KPBS-TV.

“With this research, we’ve set up a challenge to some traditional Biblical archaeologists,” says Levy, referring in particular to the work of Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, a professor at Tel Aviv University, who argues that the region associated with David and Solomon and neighboring Edom were at the time mere 'villages' or small tribal centers and not the site of a complex society.

This conclusion is based on Levy’s work carried out with Jordanian archaeologist Dr. Mohammad Najjar, who serves as co-director of the UC San Diego archaeology expedition that has worked in Jordan for more than 13 years.  This social evolutionary project focuses on the role of copper mining and metallurgy from the beginnings of village life in the Neolithic period, around 7,500 years ago to Islamic times. 
 

Says Levy: “When we began to study Iron Age metallurgy in Jordan’s Faynan district, which is around 50 kilometers southeast of the Dead Sea and the largest copper ore resource zone in the Holy Land, we expected that our dates would conform to the accepted chronology where the Iron Age began very late — in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. This meant that any allusions to an Edomite kingdom in 10th c. BCE — ancient Israel’s neighbor — were pure myth.  Now we know this was not the case.  We have demonstrated the presence of complex societies — some kind of kingdom — in the 10th century BCE in this part of Jordan.”

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Levy and his colleagues have proven that there was industrial-scale metal production in what was then Edom (as shown in the above artist's rendering) precisely at the time David and Solomon were supposed to have existed.

“While we don’t prove that David and Solomon were in control of ancient mining and metallurgy in this important copper ore district, our research shows that there was industrial-scale metal production precisely at the time they were supposed to have existed and at the time Edomite kings were supposed to have existed. Our work is putting this debate back on the table.”

In related news, Levy recently published two scholarly works in support of his research in the Levant and in support of what he calls a “pragmatic” approach to ancient historical archaeology that stresses the use of digital data in the field and in the laboratory to control for context.

 He advocates the use of digital data handling systems and radiocarbon dating samples drawn from precisely excavated and digitally recorded sites to “encourage a transformative process in the way that historical archaeology is carried out” in the Levant and around the world.  

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Levy advocates the use of digital data handling systems and radiocarbon dating samples drawn from precisely excavated and digitally recorded sites.

According to Levy, “the methods we are developing for the Biblical periods are valid for any place in the world where ancient texts interface with archaeology, whether one is dealing with the Icelandic Sagas and Scandinavian archaeology, Homeric texts and Aegean archaeology, or the Mahabarata and the archaeological record of India.”

 Levy’s new book,“Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism” (London: Equinox Publishing),” was released this month following the publication in September of his collaborative paper “Ancient texts and archaeology revisited -- radiocarbon and Biblical dating in the southern Levant” in the leading archaeological publication “Antiquity.”

“We show through high-precision radiocarbon dating to control for time, as well as new methods of on-site digital archaeology linked to cyberinfrastructure, that there’s no question that there were local kingdoms during the Iron Age 10th century BCE in Jordan,” he adds. 

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In his book, Levy borrows some of the ideas of public opinion analyst and social scientist David Yankelovich to create "a new pragmatism" for archaeology.

Accordingly, Levy is working closely with Calit2 computer scientists such as Falko Kuester, Tom DeFanti and graduate students from the departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Anthropology to harness powerful scientific visualization tools to interrogate the archaeological record of the Middle East.

Levy says that both of his new works “help raise the bar in how we do historical archaeology in the Middle East, in particular during the Iron Age” from 1200-500 BCE.

In his book, Levy borrows some of the ideas of public opinion analyst and social scientist David Yankelovich to create “a new pragmatism” for archaeology.  At a meeting held by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at UC San Diego late in 2008, Yankelovich presented his pragmatism model as a potential way for America to restore its world leadership status based on a long tradition of pragmatic, non-partisan problem solving.  For Levy, these ideas provide a way forward for the social sciences (where archaeology is taught in the USA) to move away from subjectivism to what he describes as, “a more objective method of investigation that is open to using any science-based method to interrogate the past.”

Such an approach, he says, “will help develop new and innovative ways of more objectively tackling the problem of investigating sacred and other historical texts and the archaeological record.

“Emotions and passions often overtake the ultimate goal of investigating the relationship between sacred and other texts and the archaeological record,” Levy notes. “We’re creating a pragmatic way of dealing with highly contentious issues, not only in philosophy and political science, but also in scholarly endeavors that have been clouded by assumptions.” 

Levy said his ultimate goal is to encourage international peace and promote mutual respect by enlisting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) help the Department of Antiquities in Jordan protect the Faynan region and make it a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

Media Contact: Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu


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