Eric H. Cline on the excitement of archaeology and the Bible
In this exclusive interview, archaeologist Eric H. Cline sits down with Bible History Daily to discuss his new book, Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology (Princeton Univ. Press, 2017). Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology and Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at the George Washington University and Co-director of the Tel Kabri excavations in Israel.
Tell us about the title of your book, Three Stones Make a Wall. What does it mean and why did you choose it?
EHC: For me, the title epitomizes the excitement of discovery when you’re out digging on an excavation. It comes from a saying that we have in archaeology, because you never just want to pick something up and throw it away before you’re sure it isn’t important. For example, if you come across a single medium- or large-sized stone while you’re digging, it’s just a stone, but you still don’t want to move it just yet, because there might be more. If you then uncover a second stone that is aligned with the first one, it might be something, but since you’re probably not quite sure what it is yet, you just call it a “feature,” meaning that it might be something made by humans. But, when three stones are found in a row, it’s usually pretty clear that you’re looking at an ancient wall (in which case additional stones will soon be found, continuing the line of the wall). As I say in the book, it’s an amazing feeling to start uncovering a line of rocks in an excavation that were clearly set there deliberately by someone long ago, but it’s also a great feeling to know that you didn’t accidentally throw away part of an ancient wall by mistake!
What inspired you to become an archaeologist?
EHC: When I was seven years old, my mother gave me a book called The Walls of Windy Troy. It was about Heinrich Schliemann and his search for the ruins of ancient Troy, written just for children. After reading it, I announced that I was going to be an archaeologist. Later, when I was in junior high and high school, I read John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatán and C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, and Scholars, which cemented my desire—the stories of finding lost cities in the jungle and uncovering ancient civilizations were mesmerizing. In college, I declared my major in archaeology just as soon as I could and, when I graduated, my mother again gave me the book about Schliemann that had started it all fourteen years earlier. I still have it in my office at George Washington University today.
Is archaeology really like the Indiana Jones movies?
EHC: No, not at all. He is more of a treasure hunter than an archaeologist. But, the movies did create a tremendous interest in archaeology among the general public, for which I am grateful. I do wish that they would call me to be a consultant for the next movie, so that I could get them to make him into a bit more of a real archaeologist.
Did aliens really build the pyramids?
EHC: Only in Hollywood; not in real life. (But Stargate was a great movie.)
Is Biblical archaeology about proving the events of the Bible?
EHC: No, not at all. I’ve written about this in previous books as well. Biblical archaeology is not about either proving or disproving the Bible. It’s about investigating what life was like in the lands and time periods covered by the Bible, i.e., mostly the second and first millennia B.C. as well as the first few centuries A.D. in what is now Egypt and much of the Middle East.
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
What can the dig at Megiddo tell us about Biblical Armageddon?
EHC: Well, it depends upon what you mean by Biblical Armageddon, but there’s a lot to be found at the site, because there are at least twenty cities there, situated one on top of another. They date from about 3000 B.C. to 300 B.C., give or take. I was part of the most recent series of excavations there, spending every other summer at the site from 1994 to 2014. Megiddo is actually the topic of the book that I am working on now. It is tentatively entitled Digging Up Armageddon: The Story of Biblical Megiddo from Canaanites to Christians and will be published by Princeton University Press as soon as I’m done writing it.
How do you choose where to start digging? And, on an excavation, how do you know how old something is?
EHC: Those are great questions, but the answers are long, so I will only say that I devote entire chapters in the book to each of these questions. I also devote chapters to discussing how we actually excavate and who gets to keep what we find, as well as looking ahead to what I call “future archaeology.”
You highlight numerous pioneering, brilliant, intrepid and sometimes eccentric characters in your book. If you could name just one, which archaeologist do you think has had the greatest influence on shaping the discipline of modern archaeology?
EHC: Ah, this is a tough question, and I think it depends upon what area of the world you are talking about, but I would choose Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie. He dug in Egypt and what is now Israel, in the late 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s. Not only does he have the absolutely best name of any archaeologist, in my opinion, but he popularized a number of concepts that are now central to modern archaeology. One is the idea of stratigraphy—that there are layers, including entire cities, one on top of each other at an ancient site, like at Megiddo, and that the lowermost will be earlier in time than the ones closer to the top. Another is the idea of pottery seriation—that in antiquity, specific types of pottery went in and out of fashion, just like shoes, clothes and cell phones today. This can be a crucial element in trying to date the levels of a site in which you are digging and in determining which levels at different sites were inhabited at the same time; if they both have levels containing the same type of pottery, for instance, there is a good chance that those levels were contemporary in antiquity.
If you could have been a part of any archaeological expedition from any time (excluding the modern excavations in which you have actually participated), which would you pick? Why?
EHC: This is a great question. I have to admit that I’ve never thought about it before. Wow. There are so many to choose from. I’d give anything to have been present when Howard Carter opened up Tut’s tomb. But, I’d also love to have been there when Leonard Woolley and Max Mallowan were excavating the so-called Death Pits of Ur. I’d also have loved to dig with Yigael Yadin at Masada and in the Cave of Letters, as some of my senior colleagues were privileged to do. But, perhaps most of all, I wish that I could have been with Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, so that I could have stopped him from digging right through the levels of Troy VI and VII, much of which his men destroyed in their haste to get down quickly to what they thought was the level of Homeric Troy. In the process, they basically destroyed the very city that they had come to find. We lost so much information because of Schliemann’s ineptitude at the time.
Biblical Archaeology: Whither and Whence
Looking Back with Eric and Carol Meyers
Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
Lawrence of Arabia as Archaeologist
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today