Digging Up the Past

How were the people of the past similar to us? What changed over the course of time and what remained the same? These sorts of questions are intriguing to archaeology enthusiasts and scholars alike and fill our minds with mystery and possibility. Is it any wonder that our media outlets and streaming services are filled with shows and documentaries about archaeology and the ancient past?

While the headlines are filled with large discoveries—such as pyramids, golden treasures, and royal mummies—it is often the small finds that make the biggest impact on our understanding of the people and places of the past. It is from mundane, everyday items such as cooking pots and drinking vessels that we learn how the majority of the population actually lived. Kitchen and tableware can teach us much about who lived at a site, what they ate, and why and how they prepared and stored their food.

Digging Up the Past: Necklace excavated from a tomb in El-Riqqa, Egypt

This necklace, excavated from a tomb in El-Riqqa, Egypt, dates to the 18th Dynasty (c. 1539–1292 B.C.E.) and is made of steatite, glass, carnelian, and faience. These materials were brought from as far away as India, providing archaeologists with important information about trade and connectivity in the ancient world.
Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt/CC0. 1.0

Ancient jewelry, while beautiful and pleasing to behold, can teach us much about everyday life, including trends in fashion and trade but also aspects of social identity, wealth, and status. A fine necklace, for example, can tell us so much more than just how impressive it might have looked when worn. What was it made of? Were the materials local or were they imported? Was it a locally made piece according to the latest fashions, or did it arrive from some far-off, exotic location? Could it have been an heirloom passed down through generations, or was it a newly acquired gift? Was the necklace simply discarded at some point, or was it carefully deposited for safekeeping by an owner who expected to return one day?

These are the sorts of questions that fuel the archaeological digs of today. In the article “Why We Dig: The Aims of Archaeology,” Carol Meyers addresses these points, with insights and examples gleaned from her decades-long career as a field archaeologist working in the lands of the Bible. She speaks not only of why archaeologists dig, but of what their finds can teach us: “The size of houses, the remnants of certain animal bones and seeds, and the variety and quantity of tools uncovered. These remains indicate the kind of work that the women, men, and even children did to survive in a world without supermarkets.”

To understand more about what drives archaeologists to excavate, read “Why We Dig: The Aims of Archaeology” by Carol Meyers, published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

All-access members: read the full piece, “Why We Dig” by Carol Meyers, published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

All-Access members, read more by Carol Meyers in the BAS Library:

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Read more in Bible History Daily:

Was Biblical Israel an Egalitarian Society?

What Does the Bible Say About Children—and What Does Archaeology Say?

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