Eric H. Cline on Digging Up Armageddon

Eric H. Cline on Digging Up Armageddon

By Eric H. Cline

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In 1925, James Henry Breasted, famed Egyptologist and director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, sent a team of archaeologists to the Holy Land to excavate the ancient site of Megiddo—Armageddon in the New Testament—which the Bible says was fortified by King Solomon. Their excavations made headlines around the world and shed light on one of the most legendary cities of biblical times, yet little has been written about what happened behind the scenes. Digging Up Armageddon brings to life one of the most important archaeological expeditions ever undertaken, describing the site and what was found there, including discoveries of gold and ivory, and providing an up-close look at the internal workings of a dig in the early years of biblical archaeology.

How did you come to write this book?

EHC: I started working on it five years ago, back in the spring of 2015, after I received an NEH Public Scholar grant the very first year that they were offered. It began life as a book about the archaeology of Megiddo meant for the general public, going level by level and building by building—I dug at Megiddo myself for twenty years, starting as a volunteer and ending as co-director, and wanted to write a book about the archaeology. So, that’s what I originally told Princeton University Press I was going to do and that’s also what I said I was going to do in my application for the NEH Public Scholars grant. However, when I began doing the actual research, I immediately found another angle, which emphasized the archaeologists as much as the archaeology. You see, I was pretty sure that within the archives at the Oriental Institute there were going to be notes about the levels and the stratigraphy and the various archaeological remains written by the three successive field directors: first Clarence Fisher, then P.L.O. Guy, and finally Gordon Loud, all of whom had been sent to Megiddo by James Henry Breasted. And indeed there were. However, there was also a treasure trove of personal papers belonging to many of the other team members, not just the directors, which I simply hadn’t expected. The end result was that I changed the focus of the book, because it soon became clear to me that the story of the actual archaeologists who dug up Megiddo was just as interesting as what they dug up! I found it absolutely fascinating to research, because it was basically a soap opera for the entire time that Chicago was there…and I have my fingers crossed that I have told the story well enough that readers will find it fascinating as well.

How would you briefly summarize your findings?

EHC: As a whole, the story of the Chicago excavators at Megiddo includes intrigues, infighting, romance, and dogged perseverance, as well as the details underlying the drastic changes in staff and directors, before the digging came to an abrupt and unexpected end because of World War II. It really does frequently read more like the script for a daytime soap opera, for the improbable cast of characters included architects and geologists retrained as archaeologists and pottery specialists; a director who was one of the best excavators of his day, but who couldn’t manage a team of diggers; and a British Zionist who was married to the daughter of the man who reinvented Hebrew as a modern language, but who himself had neither a college degree nor any formal training in archaeology, and was fired for writing “one of the most scurrilous letters ever received” by the Oriental Institute. There was also a surveyor who sued for wrongful termination, but who may also have been spying for the Haganah while at the site; a young scholar arrested for smuggling antiquities on his way home, but who went on to a successful academic career nevertheless; and a high school dropout without a degree in archaeology and a geology student initially without an undergraduate degree, who together published more of the final excavation reports than anyone else—all micromanaged by Breasted from far-off Chicago and funded by one of the wealthiest men of the day, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. And yet, notwithstanding changes in personnel on an almost yearly basis, this team was among the best to excavate in the Middle East at the time. Hopefully I have been successful in attempting to untangle and tell the story of their quest to uncover biblical Armageddon and to lay bare the city of Solomon, and of their intertwined personal and professional interactions during the search.

What surprised you the most while researching the book?

EHC: To my surprise, and delight, I found the archival research to be unexpectedly similar to doing an archaeological excavation, except that it involved digging through paper rather than dirt. Just as with a dig at an ancient site, where the presence (or absence) of a single item can sometimes make a tremendous difference, trying to resolve a specific issue at an archive often raised a whole host of other questions even while answering the original query. There was also the same thrill of finding something, especially the unexpected; the same dejection at coming up dry despite a promising beginning; and the same satisfaction that comes from putting together enough puzzle pieces to yield a plausible hypothesis for a past event. Overall, I was able to search in several different archives, including the Oriental Institute archives at the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller archives in Sleepy Hollow, NY, the British Mandate archives of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as well as utilizing materials that were shared with me by descendants of the team members. All of these allowed me to better understand and discuss the various people in the context of their times, with hopes, fears, dreams, problems, ambitions, and desires, rather than simply being names on the spines of books or in bland lists of participants, which is what they had been to me previously.

Can you name a few things that you came across which were unexpected?

EHC: Yes, certainly. The scholarly publications produced by the University of Chicago excavators who dug at Megiddo from 1925-39 are well known—they are still used, and debated, by archaeologists working in the region today. As I mentioned above, what I didn’t realize, and what is much less well known, is that the same Chicago archaeologists also left behind a treasure trove of other writings—more than three decades worth of letters, cablegrams, cards, notes, and diaries. These shed substantial, and often-surprising, light on the history and internal workings of the excavations, including why Breasted chose to begin digging at the site and how he procured funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.; the low levels of previous training and archaeological experience of many members of the team; and the reasons behind the dramatic changes in field directors and other personnel over the years. The archival material also makes clear the atmosphere within which the archaeologists were working, including the degree to which they were affected by the Great Depression in the United States and rising tensions in British Mandate Palestine. Finally, these documents also help to clarify why the excavations came to a sudden end following the Spring 1939 season and what happened at the site and the dig house during World War II, the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, and the years afterward, from 1940–55, at which time they were formally relinquished by the Oriental Institute. Pretty much all of that was new to me, even after working at the site myself for twenty years!

What sort of light did the archival material shed on archaeology, especially in terms of what has changed the most and the least between excavating back then and now?

EHC: In some ways, archaeology has changed very little since that time, though overall it has changed a lot. In working through all of the archival materials, I realized that they provide us with a glimpse behind the scenes, a peek at the internal workings of the dig. We get a glimpse of what the early years of biblical archaeology were like, including the backstory of how they actually did the archaeology, and the tools and techniques that they used at the time; in some ways, it is a far cry from what we do and use today, while in other ways it has not changed at all. It also shed light on, and gave the back story to, many of their most famous discoveries, including the water tunnel, the ivories, the stables, the Sheshonq fragment, and so on. The Chicago archaeologists managed to retrieve the entire chronological history of Megiddo, from the Neolithic period to the Persian era, and noted the later Roman graves and adjacent remains as well. Along the way, they incorporated cutting-edge innovations and techniques, including balloon photography, vertical excavation, and the use of the Munsell color system for describing soil color. Their discoveries and innovations still resonate throughout biblical archaeology today.

Tell us about your time excavating at Megiddo. Any good stories?

EHC: Many, but for most of them you had to be there…Megiddo was my home away from home every other summer for twenty years, from 1994 to 2014. I dug at the site as a member of the Tel Aviv Expedition for almost as long as I have been married to my wife, Diane Harris Cline. She was the one who spotted the original flier advertising for volunteers and staff to take part in a new series of excavations at the site. I was interested in participating for several reasons, including the fact that Megiddo has been at the center of biblical archaeology for more than a century, but also because of James Michener’s book The Source, which I have read six times and which was influential in my choice of career. Over the course of ten seasons in twenty years, I dug in most of the areas that we opened up, as I rose through the ranks from a volunteer to eventually join Israel Finkelstein as co-director of the expedition. Our daughter, Hannah, first came with us when she was eighteen months old, digging in the dirt with a trowel that seemed immense in her tiny hands, wearing a shirt cut down to size that read, “I Survived Armageddon.” Our son, Joshua, was born five years after I joined the excavation team, and he was with me at Megiddo as I began to write the opening chapters of the book—by the time he turned eighteen, he had celebrated almost as many birthdays on excavations in Israel as he had at home in the United States. I actually dedicate the book to the memory of James Henry Breasted and all of the staff members and their spouses who took part in Chicago’s excavations at Megiddo, as well as to my “Megiddo family”( including all of the staff and team members of the Tel Aviv Expedition past and present), in addition to my real family—Diane, Hannah, and Joshua—who put up with me being away at Megiddo every other summer for as long as they can remember.

Any last thoughts to share with us?

EHC: Well, first and foremost, I think that this is the first time anyone has published a study of an excavation from its beginning to its end, all seen through the lens of the participants’ own materials. Second, I think this could be done for a number of other excavations, perhaps for Lachish, for instance, if there are enough records left in the archives of the Palestine Exploration Fund, in addition to the online resources of the IAA Mandate archive, and so on. So, I hope that other people try to do it for those sites. And third, as I said above, I discovered that there was an awful lot that I didn’t know about Megiddo and about the stories behind their great discoveries!

Eric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. His many books include Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (both Princeton). He lives in Rockville, Maryland. Twitter @digkabri