Archaeologist Matthew Adams discusses his journey from volunteer to project co-director
Matthew Adams, who heads the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, began digging at the famous archaeological site of Megiddo in 1998 while he was a sophomore at the University of Southern California (USC). Although he began his career as a volunteer, today Adams is co-director of the Tel Aviv University Megiddo Expedition with Israel Finkelstein and Mario Martin. He also co-directs the Jezreel Valley Regional Project excavations at the nearby Roman military base of Legio with Yotam Tepper and Susan Cohen.
In September 2021, Biblical Archaeology Review contributing editor Nathan Steinmeyer met with Adams to discuss his journey from volunteer to dig director. In their conversation, they discussed Adams’s early start at Megiddo, how he rose through the ranks, and the ways that archaeology has changed over the past 20 years. The conversation has been edited and modified for clarity and readability. All images are courtesy of Matthew Adams unless otherwise noted.
STEINMEYER: You’ve been digging at Megiddo for 20 years, which is a long time for anyone to be digging anywhere. How did you get your start?
ADAMS: I first went to Megiddo in 1998. I had just finished my freshman year at USC. I wanted to go into archaeology, but I didn’t know what aspect of the field. I had a special interest in Egypt at the time, so I went to my archaeology professor and asked him where I should go. He said, “You should go to Megiddo,” as USC had a relationship with the then relatively young Megiddo excavation. I got connected with the USC archaeology lab and they sent me to Megiddo. I had no prior knowledge of Megiddo, and I just went on a volunteer program, the same volunteer program we continue to run today.
STEINMEYER: You started as a student and are now the person taking students [to the field]. Do you think about how you are now the person getting students interested in archaeology?
ADAMS: I don’t think about it every day, of course, but I am aware, especially in the field and when recruiting students. I am aware of what that experience is like coming as an eager undergraduate student, not really knowing what to expect. Having gone through the experience myself, especially at the same site, helps me understand the [volunteer] experience a little better.
STEINMEYER: What was your first impression of Megiddo and being on an archaeological dig?
ADAMS: I loved it. I was so excited to be there and so gung-ho. Before I left [for the field], I went to Home Depot and bought all my own tools and made my own dig bag. I was the nerdiest and most enthusiastic kid of the bunch. So the feeling to actually get on the site was very exciting. It was the fulfillment of a dream that I had had for a long time.
STEINMEYER: How did your first season go? What was it like being on site and how did you decide this was something you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
ADAMS: I would say there is always a sense of adventure, a bit of excitement like you are going away to camp. But I think what really grabbed me was just getting into the excavation square and starting to move earth. It was exciting to use big tools and move buckets of dirt, but also to find things and, as we started to dig down, realize that a puzzle was emerging. We started to find a piece of a wall here and a piece of a wall there. That is where the click happened for me. You had to really think about the logical progression of how things accumulated at this place in order to tease them apart. So I was really attracted to the puzzle.
STEINMEYER: What advice would you give to a college student thinking about going on a dig? Was there anything you learned in those first couple of years that really stuck with you?
ADAMS: The opportunity to go abroad and be on my own. I was a freshman in college, so I already had the whole dorm experience, but this was kind of my next step on that road to adulthood. When I get students saying, “I don’t really want to be an archaeologist. Should I go on the dig?” I always point out that this is a really unique opportunity to do something different that will have an effect on the rest of your life, even if it is just a few weeks.
STEINMEYER: Can you tell me a little bit about Megiddo? Why has the site played such an important role in the archaeology of the Bible and the archaeology of Israel?
ADAMS: Megiddo is one of those sites that, just by chance, was right there from the beginning. A key moment for archaeology as a discipline was the 1920s and 30s. This was a period in which lots of sites were being excavated and new methods were being developed. Even as Megiddo was first being excavated by the University of Chicago, William F. Albright (the famous American biblical archaeologist) was roaming around the country visiting sites, looking at finds, and starting to formulate the archaeological periods we call the Early Bronze, the Middle Bronze, the Late Bronze—all these terms we still use today were being developed as the Megiddo excavation was getting going. So Megiddo really got in on the ground floor with influencing the region’s archaeology.
STEINMEYER: What do you think keeps Megiddo relevant? Why do archaeologists come back year after year to learn more?
ADAMS: There are several things that we could point to. First, the extensive excavations that Chicago carried out have left opportunities for investigating a wide variety of periods at the same site. So any period that we are interested in—Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, all the Iron Age phases—we can access it because Chicago has already exposed it in one place or another. Megiddo is also more than just the tell itself. We have excavations of Roman, Islamic, and medieval phases, all based at Megiddo. Second, Megiddo pushes the envelope for research and scientific methodology. Especially in the 2000s, Megiddo was the main place in which the archaeological sciences were born in the region.
STEINMEYER: What are some of the things that you think Megiddo has given the field of biblical archaeology?
ADAMS: I would say the main thing is the ubiquitous use of radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon has been around for 75 years but it was used sporadically. It wasn’t until Israel Finkelstein [co-director of the Megiddo excavation] really made it a mission of the expedition to start doing high-resolution sampling through the entire strata of the tell that it became something that everybody did. It’s now standard, and Megiddo introduced the idea.
STEINMEYER: In your 20 years at Megiddo, how has the approach to the site changed?
ADAMS: Obviously, technology has changed dramatically. When I first arrived in 1998, we were using dumpy levels and hand measurements and things like that. Now we’re using photogrammetry, total stations, drones, and real-time GPS, all of which have increased the resolution and accuracy of the spatial data that we’re recording.
The radiocarbon stuff is also key. We started to really look at the layers of the site and how we were taking samples in a new way. We were looking so closely at the minute details that we also started to study metallurgy and the remains of metallurgy inside soils, things that we couldn’t see with our eyes. By applying scientific analyses to the soils, we began to change the way that we understood the archaeological remains.
STEINMEYER: What is the importance of getting down to those tiny details?
ADAMS: Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources. Every time that we take a shovel of dirt out—and there’s a certain amount of data inside that shovel of dirt—we have a moral obligation to take out every scrap of data. I think that the development of these technologies and scientific approaches allows us to wring out exponentially more data than we have before. That’s the key part—finding new ways to take more information out of the stuff that we’re destroying.
STEINMEYER: On the flip side, how much is left to “destroy” at Megiddo?
ADAMS: There’s more left to destroy at Megiddo than has been destroyed so far. It’s a huge tell. Between the Chicago, Hebrew University, and Tel Aviv University excavations, the site has arguably been excavated more extensively than most other sites in the region. And yet, there’s far more that could be done.
STEINMEYER: What has been the biggest shift in the way that you view what you find at Megiddo?
ADAMS: Thinking about the biblical period illustrates the point best. Megiddo has always had the special advantage of being just a little bit connected to the Bible, but not really all that connected. It stands outside the Bible, because it’s really only referenced a couple of times. So right from the very beginning, there was some excitement, of course, because it’s sort of connected to the Bible. We have Armageddon, if you want to get into the New Testament (Revelation 16:16). It’s mentioned in Kings, and so there’s the automatic connection to Solomon (1 Kings 9:15). And later, of course, Pharaoh Neco kills Josiah in the vicinity (2 Kings 23:29). The site is just there, on the fringe of the biblical world.
So Megiddo had the advantage of not being trapped in the biblical world. When scholars go to excavate in Jerusalem or other places in Judah that have a much stronger biblical significance, they get trapped in the biblical narrative in ways that, I would argue, are not good historical methodology. Megiddo never really suffered from that, except for [Yigael] Yadin’s [identification of] Solomon’s stables or Solomon’s palace.
STEINMEYER: Looking back at your time at Megiddo, what has been the thing that has most surprised you?
ADAMS: My time at Megiddo has afforded me a far more intimate perspective on a single place than I ever would have imagined. I feel like I know Megiddo like the back of my hand. Yet there’s always something new to learn, new discoveries that always change that perception. The time that I’ve spent there has also given me an opportunity to look outside of the site. I’ve spent 20 plus years at Megiddo and in the surrounding [Jezreel] Valley, trying to understand how the environment and the geography and the geology inform the site, and vice versa. I think it’s been a really unique advantage to being here for so long.
STEINMEYER: And has your own personal view of Megiddo changed?
ADAMS: That’s easy, because I knew nothing when I arrived. For the first couple of seasons, I was really green. It took me a long time to get up to speed. For the first two seasons, I was working in the Early Bronze Age area, first as a volunteer and then as a supervisor. So my understanding of the site was very, very narrow. I knew lots of stuff about this one stratum in this one square, but I barely knew what was going on in the square next to me. Over time, increasing my knowledge of what was going on in other parts of the site was the training ground and the road to becoming a director. Because it was such a long time, I had that opportunity to take things in slowly. It takes a long time to really understand a site.
STEINMEYER: I assume it’s given you an interesting perspective on archaeology. So, let me ask you, what good is archaeology? What good is archaeology at Megiddo?
ADAMS: Take [an archaeology] textbook that was published in 1990—which was about the time the Megiddo expedition started—and then take a current textbook that shows the state of the field today. If you compared [the books], you would see how dramatically the field of Levantine archaeology has changed in 30 years, both in terms of method, what we know, and how we understand things. And in each of these textbooks, Megiddo would feature prominently. Megiddo has changed the Early Bronze Age incredibly, not only with some of our radiocarbon contributions, but with our discovery of an Early Bronze Age I temple. [That discovery] turned the Early Bronze Age I from just a prehistoric era that people hardly cared about into something like, “These [Levantine] people were serious, and had abilities that Mesopotamians or Egyptians had at the same time.” That’s just a complete change of mindset.
I’ll give you another example. The stratigraphy of the Iron Age has been known for 70 years and we know the basic progression. Yet with our excavations at Megiddo, we’ve been able to add so much to the story of the Iron Age, on the social, archaeological, and political level. So Megiddo has clearly changed the way that we think of and understand the past, even if we might still argue over the details and conclusions.
Then the question really becomes what is the point of knowing about the past? That’s always the hard question. Maybe it’s not a hard question, because I think it’s something that’s inherently human. The very fact that we’re interested in our own personal history—you want to talk to your grandma and know where you came from. Also, for a lot of people, the past is an essential part of what’s going on today, especially in the Middle East. There are things like that in which archaeology influences modern policy.
STEINMEYER: Thinking back to the things that you personally have pulled out of the ground, what has been your favorite find?
ADAMS: The first, which I’ve already mentioned, is the Early Bronze Age I temple. I was the supervisor for most of the seasons during which that was excavated. That [find] changed how we understand the southern Levant and its role in the broader state-forming period of the late fourth millennium. That was truly exciting, along with the stuff that came with it and all the interesting architectural features. We eventually discovered that the architects of the building had used a very specific unit of measurement to design the entire structure.
The second is more mundane. In 2010, we excavated a small, Middle Bronze Age I house, and at the time, my wife was pregnant with our first son. Under the floor of the house were the burials of seven or eight infants in jars, which in the Middle Bronze Age I was a common way of burying stillborn children or young infants. So excavating those bodies at the same time that I was coming into fatherhood had a very poignant, personal impact on me. So, on one hand, there was the great temple. Then, on the other, there was just this snapshot of life that allowed me to connect [to the archaeology] in a way I wouldn’t have connected prior to that.
STEINMEYER: What is your approach to fitting archaeological finds into your interpretations and reconstructions of the past?
ADAMS: Archaeologists have to be extremely flexible in their interpretations. You have to realize that, at any moment, a find can overturn the current hypothesis. If you are rigid in your interpretation, you’re going to be a bad archaeologist and you’re going to mess things up. [Flexibility] allows us to fit every new find into a broader interpretation, being ready to overturn that interpretation or rework it on the fly at any given moment. Now, someone could say, “If any interpretation can be overturned at a moment’s notice, how can we ever know anything?” Of course, these things are cumulative. Our understanding of history isn’t binary. It changes and morphs, but is still on a trajectory toward accuracy.
STEINMEYER: What do you envision as the future of Megiddo? What are some of the questions that you are interested in at the moment?
ADAMS: We have lots of different things going on, which makes it very exciting. We’re gearing up for our 2022 excavation season. Our research questions are informing what we’re going to do—kind of a mixture of the old and the new. As I mentioned earlier, it’s been the goal since the beginning to have higher resolution radiocarbon samples from the entire stratigraphy of the site, from the later Iron Age [phases] down, and from the earliest Early Bronze Age [phases] up. We’re almost at a position in two of our excavation areas where we’re going to see the full sequence line up for the first time. So that’s kind of the fulfillment of one of the main goals of the expedition from the very beginning.
There are also lots of new questions. We’re opening a new area that’s right in the center of the tell. We are picking up where the University of Chicago team left off with the Assyrian and Persian levels and going down from there. What led us to this particular location was [trying to figure out] what’s going on in the middle of the city during all these periods, especially when in the other areas of the site we have found gates and palaces and temples. In recent years, we’ve focused on the main gate area and realized that, especially in the Iron Age, the gate leads into some sort of large plaza with other adjacent elements. Our new drone work and LIDAR scans have suggested that there’s massive architecture underneath these Persian and Assyrian levels. So we’re anticipating seeing perhaps one of the main administrative buildings connected to the Iron Age.
Watch the full conversation with Matthew Adams, which was recorded in September 2021.
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