Biblical Archaeology for the People

BAR Editor Glenn J. Corbett talks with distinguished archaeologists Eric H. Cline, Melissa Cradic, and Jodi Magness.

Hershel Shanks

Hershel Shanks

Hershel Shanks founded the Biblical Archaeology Society in 1974 and published his first issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) in 1975. From the beginning, his aim was “to make available in understandable language the current insights of professional archaeology as they relate to the Bible.” This founding mission has guided the society since that time.

In April 2021, BAR Editor Glenn J. Corbett interviewed three leading scholars who share the same commitment to engaging public interest in biblical archaeology: Eric H. Cline of the George Washington University who co-directs excavations at Tel Kabri, Melissa Cradic of the Badè Museum in Berkeley, California, and Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who directs excavations at Huqoq. They regularly share their research with the public through lectures, seminars, exhibits, articles, and books, including Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014; rev. 2021) and Magness’s Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth(2019).

In their conversation, they discuss the importance of public scholarship, new efforts to reach broader audiences, and the critical role BAR plays in bridging the gap between scholars and a public eager to know more. The responses here have been lightly edited and modified for clarity and readability.

GJC: Welcome to all three of you. I wonder if we can start with you, Jodi. How do you think about your role as a public scholar?

Jodi Magness

MAGNESS: You know, I don’t really think about myself in that way. I know that there are people who think of themselves as public scholars, but that’s not actually how I’ve ever thought of myself or what I set out to do. It just kind of happened. I’ve always had a combination of my scholarly work, which can be quite technical, and my more public-facing work, but I never set out to become a public scholar. That said, I do think that it’s extremely important work, because I don’t think that as academics, and especially as archaeologists, we can afford to divorce ourselves from the world around us. We have a responsibility to communicate what we do and what’s important about what we do to the larger world, and to communicate it to them in a way that makes it accessible and relevant.

GJC: Eric, how would you answer that question?

CLINE: Really, the concise answer for me is that archaeology is not just my job; it’s my passion, and I want that passion to come through in my lecturing, my teaching, and my writing. But I also would say that these all go together because, fundamentally, we are all educators, in addition to being archaeologists. When we’re letting our colleagues know about new data that we’ve just excavated, like Jodi at Huqoq or me at Tel Kabri, we’re actually educating them, too. But then there’s the more usual—teaching classes for students, giving lectures to public audiences, writing for the general public, installing a museum display—it’s all education. It all involves the transmission of knowledge, and I think it’s our duty to make that as clear, concise, and accessible as possible. Basically, in my opinion, there’s no excuse for making anything full of jargon or incomprehensible except to an elite few, rather than making it accessible to everybody.

GJC: Melissa, your work in the museum is very much public facing. How do you understand your work and why you do it?

CRADIC: In my role as a curator at the Badè Museum, I see public scholarship as being an ambassador for the discipline, where it’s important to communicate complex issues to audiences of all ages and to be clear why a certain topic in what seems like an esoteric field is relevant to them, and why they might want to care about it.

Over the past year, there have been some major shifts in terms of how I deliver this kind of public scholarship—shifting from in-person gallery exhibits and programming to pretty much everything being online—and that has presented huge opportunities to reach new audiences. So, for example, at the Badè Museum, we have been developing new online web exhibits that are adapting older gallery exhibits into open-access resources for public audiences. Some of them are specifically tailored to complement the public school curriculum in California, where sixth-grade students have a unit on ancient Israel. So we’ve been developing some resources that are specifically speaking to particular audiences. And it’s important to speak to K–12 audiences, not just adult audiences, as a way of showing younger people why the ancient world is important and relevant to them.

GJC: How do you strike a balance between allowing people to understand some of the complexities involved in scholarship versus presenting something that’s comprehensible and accessible? Is there sometimes a tension in finding that balance?

Eric Cline

CLINE: There is, indeed, a tension. One tension comes in when you’re trying to popularize biblical archaeology and you don’t do it well. I’d say there are two main ways that people don’t do it well. Either the author or speaker presents the material in a way that feels like they’re dumbing the material down, or they don’t realize how to popularize something properly and think they’re being popular while actually still using jargon. What I’ve found is that people who are interested in biblical archaeology are often voracious readers, have a quick wit, have a lively intelligence, appreciate not being talked down to, and want to be presented with all sides of an issue so that they can make their own informed decision.

The other tension is one that we get from our colleagues: “Oh, you’re just a popularizer. You did academic work earlier in your career. Now, you’re just a popularizer.” So I think we need to strike a balance between writing for the public and writing for our colleagues, so that we have credibility on both sides. Usually, for every general thing I put out, I try to put out two additional scholarly pieces to keep my standing in the field.

GJC: Jodi, how do you see that issue and balancing act?

MAGNESS: When I write or speak to the public, I do it in very much the same way that I do for teaching undergraduates. You have to come in assuming that whatever it is you’re going to talk about, you need to present in a way that does not presuppose that they already know it. Now, the trick is, as Eric mentioned, to present in a way that is respectful and not dumbing down the material or talking down to the audience.

As far as that sort of tension, yes, there is a tension. I think it’s important to communicate that nothing is black and white. What we have are a lot of data, and the trick is to have the public understand what is the process that we go through when we evaluate and interpret the data. And so what does that process involve? It comes back to a lot of critical thinking, training and methodology, and stuff like that. But that sort of thing, I think, is very important to communicate to the public: Why do scholars reach certain conclusions? Why are there disagreements? How can there be disagreements about something when archaeology supposedly is objective and scientific? Well, it comes down to interpretation.

GJC: Melissa, when it comes to speaking to these complex issues in a museum setting, how do you find teachable moments?

CRADIC: It’s really taking the same approach to museum exhibits and other public programming that Eric and Jodi were talking about. It’s like presenting to an undergraduate class or, when there’s a specific target audience in mind, pitching it to that level using clear, plain English, and really being honest about what the data are, and, as Jodi was saying, making a distinction between data and interpretation. I think being up front with the audience and respecting their ability to formulate their own judgments is incredibly important. At the museum, we really do try to “show our work” in the sense of having catalog data available that someone can access. For our newer web exhibits, for example, someone can go to our online database and look something up for themselves. We put up archival photographs and the documentation for the excavations, so that the audience can track the field methods and how objects were recovered originally and then how we come to these interpretations about the past.

GJC: Melissa, coming from the museum perspective, how do you see today’s audience for biblical archaeology, and what do you find intrigues them about the topic?

Melissa Cradic

Melissa Cradic

CRADIC: So with the past year being what it has been, we’ve been trying to expand the audience and reach people who might not be predisposed to be interested in biblical archaeology. That means maybe shifting away from more traditional questions toward more universal topics, such as daily life in ancient Israel. Another example is a public lecture series that’s been running this year called New Perspectives on Ancient Nubia, which is explicitly trying to decenter the study of Nubia from Egypt and look at it as a subject worthy of its own study.b That is related to broader social justice initiatives that have come in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are trying to put into practice social justice within our programming, and that, in part, necessitates moving away from some of the more traditional questions, narratives, and audiences to attract new people who might not otherwise be familiar with a field like biblical archaeology.

GJC: Melissa raises very good points about expanding the audience for biblical archaeology. Eric and Jodi, you both have decades of experience in the field. Is there a changing audience for what we call biblical archaeology?

MAGNESS: I don’t think there’s been a huge sea change in the people who seem to be interested in what I do. I generally find that the audience is people who are older, who tend to have the means and leisure time to engage in academic study of things that they might not have had a chance to do when they were younger. I don’t want to say that there aren’t younger people who are also interested in the field, but the main consumers tend to be older.

I do think Melissa raised an excellent point, which is that one of the things we have to be attentive to is bringing more diversity to our field, both in terms of the people who engage in the study of the past, but also those to whom we communicate the results. So I think, moving forward, that’s one of the big challenges and really important for the survival of what we do.

CLINE: I would agree with both Jodi and Melissa here. But also there’s a huge range of people who are attracted to biblical archaeology. They really come in all ages, faiths, colors, genders, and nationalities. It’s really difficult to categorize them. I don’t think we can provide blanket statements on what attracts them to the subject. Some come because they love ancient history, some because of their religious belief, some love to travel, and quite a few always wanted to be an archaeologist, but their parents wouldn’t let them. I don’t think that we’re going to see huge changes to this audience in coming years. And I say that because it’s been constant for decades. If anything, it will expand to bring in some younger people, more diverse people, but the core audience is going to be there.

CRADIC: I agree that I haven’t seen huge changes in the core audience. But this is part of a bigger conversation in terms of what can be achieved with outreach. So I give here just a couple of other examples from the Badè Museum. In working toward reaching more diverse audiences, we’re planning to translate some of our web exhibitions into Spanish. We are also developing an exhibit on the story of the excavations at Tell en-Nasbeh from the 1920s and 1930s not from the traditional narrative of the dig director, but from the perspective of the local laborers and the Egyptian foremen—just to flip the script and see what their contributions were and what their knowledge was that really made it all happen. I think these are important types of initiatives that can be taken, and this is a good time and a good opportunity to do that, to actively reach out to audiences beyond the core group to make sure that this audience continues to grow.

Glenn J. Corbett

GJC: Are there particular discussions going on within the academy that you feel the public needs to be better informed about, whether related to inclusion and social justice issues or, for example, scholarly debates about unprovenienced artifacts? What are some of the discussions that we need to better articulate?

CLINE: The discussion about diversity and inclusion is indeed taking place at the highest level. I’ll give you one example: ASOR just changed its name—rather than the American Schools of Oriental Research, it’s now the American Society of Overseas Research. We kept the acronym because that’s what we’re known as, but we realized that the original name was no longer appropriate. And there are movements in ASOR and in other professional organizations for more diversity, more inclusion. I’m on a couple of committees where we’re trying to get more scholarships to allow students who might not otherwise be able to come on excavations or to go to graduate school. I see the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America) doing this, ASOR doing this, AAA (American Anthropological Association), and SSA (Society for American Archaeology). All the professional organizations are moving to become more diverse and inclusive.

MAGNESS: So two things that are not quite related: The first is, in my opinion, the crisis that the humanities is facing, which has gotten steadily worse since the Great Recession in 2008 but now is even worse as a result of COVID-19. One of the things that’s happening is that whole departments and programs are being eliminated—not just individual faculty lines—in the fields that we study at colleges and universities around the U.S. And I’m very concerned about the future of our discipline moving forward. What’s very interesting is that, as you know, there is a public out there that really is interested in what we do, and if we’re not there to do it, I don’t know what’s going to happen in another 10, 20, 30 years down the line.

The second thing is, as you mentioned, unprovenienced antiquities, antiquities that were not excavated in an archaeological excavation but were acquired on the antiquities market. I think that, here, we do need to play a role in making the public understand why this is an important issue. A lot of people, when they hear “archaeology,” think that we’re treasure hunters, that the point of archaeology is to go out and dig up something, and it’s like you’re Indiana Jones. But archaeology is a scientific discipline where the point is to have research questions that you hope to answer by digging up data, the data to answer those questions. The ultimate goal of archaeology, as I always say, is not excavation; it’s publication. So once we’ve excavated, we have a responsibility to publish the results, and that’s the way that we make our discoveries accessible to others, because we have destroyed the data as we dig the finds out of the ground.

So unprovenienced antiquities, that’s exactly antithetical to the archaeological enterprise, because in the course of looting archaeological sites without any scientific supervision, not only have those artifacts been ripped from their archaeological context, but damage has also been done to the surrounding area of the site. So I think it’s extremely important for us to make the public understand why archaeologists are opposed to the publication and sale of unprovenienced antiquities.

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CLINE: I completely agree with Jodi. There’s no debate about this. It’s an open and shut case. Unprovenienced artifacts should not be published. Having an artifact that’s unprovenienced almost always means that they’re either looted or forged. And if they’re looted, as Jodi has just said, they’ve lost all the information that we could have gained from finding them in context. We lose something like 90 percent of the information if something appears on the art market, as opposed to being found in an excavation. And a forgery, in some ways, can be even worse, especially if it goes undetected for a long time and skews what we think we know about the ancient world. I do agree with Jodi that explaining to the public why we have that stand is probably a very, very good idea.

CRADIC: Both Eric and Jodi bring up important points about not publishing or promoting unprovenienced artifacts because of all the damage that they do when it comes to knowledge about sites and the broader human impact to cultural heritage for people who live in those areas, for the countries from which these materials are looted and stolen. I think that the classic example of what not to do is the Museum of the Bible, which has sort of hit all of those marks of acquiring a huge amount of unprovenienced objects, some of which turned out to be forgeries, some of which—something like 12,000—have forged customs paperwork, and those turned out to have been looted from Iraq and Egypt.c So the acquisition of unprovenienced artifacts got that particular museum into huge legal trouble, and I think that has consequences, too, for the field at large, because then there are questions of legitimacy.

Another thing I’ll add are the issues of human rights to consider when it comes to unprovenienced artifacts. I’ll promote the work here of people like Candida Moss, Joel Baden, Morag Kersel, and Patty Gerstenblith who have written on the legal and human rights implications of trafficking antiquities, which sometimes goes along with trafficking of weapons, drugs, and people. So there are much bigger issues to consider when it comes to unprovenienced artifacts.

GJC: How do you see the contemporary relevance of biblical archaeology? This goes to Jodi’s point about the crisis facing the humanities. How do we make biblical archaeology relevant to an understanding of ourselves and the issues we face today?

CRADIC: If we think of archaeology in a broader sense, it’s really about understanding and humanizing the past and about connecting the dots between human ways of life, culture, and ingenuity across time and space. So it’s a matter of drawing the connections between this sort of remote “then” and the “now” that people live in, their material worlds. That’s an angle where I think museums are really well suited to address the material aspects of daily life through object-based learning and exhibitions. You can compare a cooking pot today and a cooking pot from the Iron Age and see how people are really not that different—but then delve into the details about how maybe small differences translate into really big differences in people’s ways of life.

I think archaeology also provides broader lessons relevant to issues today. Something that is on my mind a lot are environmental issues of sustainability, efficiency, and exploitation of resources. There’s a lot that we can learn from the past, applying lessons from people who have already gone through various crises or cracked the codes for a lot of the issues facing us today. I think, for example, of mudbrick as being a very sustainable, cost-efficient, energy-efficient material that’s also abundantly and potentially cheaply available. Adobe and mudbrick are used in contemporary societies as well, so it’s not even something that’s necessarily remote and in the past. I think emphasizing this endangered or ancient knowledge is one way that archaeology can help address some of today’s global problems.

MAGNESS: There are a couple of different aspects to this. One thing that attracts people to archaeology is the way archaeology gives us a tangible connection with the past. How many times have I been on a dig and a first-time volunteer picks up their first of a bazillion pottery sherds, and they’re so excited because it’s like, “Wow, somebody 2,000 years ago held this same potsherd!” So that physical, tangible connection with the past, which is just so human, I think that’s one of the things that makes archaeology so very attractive to people.

The problem that I raised within the sort of more academic framework, I’m not sure it’s actually so much the relevance of archaeology because, as an archaeologist, I could probably offer a course on ancient sustainability and environment, and it probably would attract a lot of students. But I don’t think ultimately that’s going to necessarily save us. And the reason is because the mindset now seems to be “Will an archaeology major get you a job when you graduate?” That seems to be the overall approach to the humanities. And I think the problem is the breakdown in the understanding of what a university is and what a liberal arts education should do for you. You don’t necessarily have to major in something that you’re going to do for the rest of your life to come out with a skill set that will benefit you no matter what you end up doing.

CLINE: There are actually, I think, a lot of lessons that are relevant today if people are willing to listen and learn. For example, I’ve been telling this story for about the past seven years now about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. I explain not only why I think it happened, but also the similarity with what I see around us today, because I see today almost all the problems that they had back then—and they collapsed as a result of it. If they had these things back then and they collapsed, and we’ve got them right now, don’t you think that maybe we should be going, “Hmmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here?” I don’t know that it can help people make better sense of things happening today, but it can make them realize that things going on today happened in antiquity, too, like climate change. And it really doesn’t matter if climate change is purely caused by Mother Nature or if it’s exacerbated by human activity. Either way, it can result in collapse and catastrophe. So if it happened 3,200 years ago, it’s really hubristic to think it couldn’t happen to us today.

GJC: Finally, how do you see the role of BAR in continuing to engage with popular audiences? With today’s fractured media landscape, is it important to have a magazine like BAR to present these fields to the public?

CRADIC: I think BAR serves a really important role, especially because it does an excellent job of presenting multiple viewpoints. I think this goes back to what we were all touching on earlier about respecting the public audience and giving them information so that they can make their own judgments. So, I see it continuing to operate as a source of educational and informative discussion on all things biblical archaeology, and I hope that it can continue to present these balanced perspectives and operate as this kind of first-stop place where people can go when they are interested in some topic or have a question.

I think this is really important, especially in this new world of the proliferation of social media where anyone who has an internet connection can have a platform and say whatever they want. Now, that’s not bad. I don’t think democratization of information is bad. But there is a role that BARcan play in informing these debates in a way that can be fact checked that I think is lost for a lot of people if they’re just doing a random Google search online. Steering people toward good, authoritative sources of information is important, and that’s the role that I see it taking in the future.

CLINE: In some ways, the modern media landscape has become the great equalizer, but it’s both for good and for bad. I’m thinking in terms of interested amateurs, some of whom know just as much as the professionals. They can now host podcasts, write blogs, tweet, and write internet posts. And if it’s accurate and doesn’t reflect nonsensical information, then that’s great. The downside is that now suddenly everyone’s an expert, and you get people who have read a few things on the internet thinking that they know as much as someone who has spent their lifetime studying this material. So I think that’s where BAR and BAS are even more essential now than they were before, because they’re able to present biblical archaeology that is dependable, that is accurate, that is not only new and relevant, but trustworthy. Magazines like BAR—and also like Archaeology magazine and Near Eastern Archaeology—are effectively the bridges between the professional archaeologists and the general public. The articles that BAR puts out—and the lectures, seminars, and events that BAS holds—those are the conduits that we need to help disseminate what we find in the field so that it’s not just a handful of academics that have the newest information, but anybody and everybody who might be interested has access to it.

GJC: Jodi, I’ll give the last word to you.

MAGNESS: I’m actually going to start by tying it in with the importance of the humanities because, of course, one of the things that a liberal arts education gives you is the ability to critically evaluate your sources of information. And that is exactly what’s needed when you’re surfing the web: How can you evaluate those different websites? Who posted that information? Are they an authority? And so I think that actually BAR’s mission ties in with the larger importance of the humanities.

The second thing is, as Eric mentioned, for example, Archaeology magazine published by the AIA. One of the big differences between Archaeology magazine and BAR is that whereas the articles for Archaeology are written by journalists, the articles for BAR are written by archaeologists. It’s actually a really important difference because it means that the public is hearing from the archaeologists themselves about their discoveries, about their research, and it’s one of the reasons why, for example, I read BAR and also cite BAR articles in my own research. I think this is one of the really valuable things about BAR, which is that it manages to be valuable not just as a means of communicating to the general public, but also for academics and archaeologists.

GJC: Thank you all for your time.

The conversation was conducted in April, 2021. See the video.


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