30 November 2011

Digging Up Old Crimes

by Robert Lopresti

We just got back from San Francisco, which felt like deja vu all over again, since we were there last fall for Bouchercon.   Even stayed at the same hotel.  But this time we were attending a very different conference: the fourteenth annual Biblical Archaeology Fest.

I discussed this event the last time my wife and I attended it.  I won't repeat myself except to explain that this is not a religious event, but a chance for archaeology buffs and wannabees to learn from the experts (who are actually meeting together across town).

And I heard a lot of wonderful lectures on subjects ranging from the horned altar of Gath to misconceptions about second Temple-era Judaism, but I will stick to two lectures that I can reasonably tie to crime.

Dr. Robert R. Cargill's talk was titled "No, No, You Didn't Find That."  He is an archaeologist and since he is willing to face cameras and was for several years working in Los Angeles, he became a go-to person when someone made an outrageous claim about archaeology.  This happens with depressing regularity.  (Does anyone keep track of how many times Noah's Ark has been discovered in the last century?  Or the Ark of the Covenant?)

A pseudoarchaeological claim is generally made by an amateur (who will often argue that the elitists - e.g. those with training - are conspiring against him).  There are a lot of possible motives: money, fame, religious or other ideology.  Cargill offered his "magic formula" for success in pseudoarchaeology:  start with a media blitz (as opposed to attempting publication in a scholarly journal or conference), misinformation dump (forcing critics to go through piles of irrelevant stuff, disproving it all), and attacking the critics.

One fun example: Glenn Beck claiming that the Dead Sea Scrolls were texts being hidden from Emperor Constantine.  What's a difference of three centuries between friends?

Law and Order: Ancient Canaan
Rami Arav has had an interesting career.  With his fresh doctorate in hand he moved back to Israel and began searching for a place to excavate in his native Galigee.  Aware that no on e had determined the site of  Bethsaida (the third most mentioned place in the Gospels).he set out to find it, and in ten days he did.


He duly reported this at a conference in front of an audience of about ten people (the air conditioning had broken down).  One of them happened to be a reporter who wrote that the site of  the miracle of loaves and fishes had been discovered.  Two days later everyone in the world wanted to interview Rami Arav.  The result is 25 years later he is still digging at Bethesda - or more accurately at Geshur, the huge ancient city whose ruins Bethesda was built on.  Arav estmates he has dug up about 4% of the site's 25 acres.

Amazing story, but what does this have to do with crime?  Well, Arav explains that archaeologicists "are like C.S.I.  First we take thousands of pictures.  Then we bring in experts.  Geologists, biologists,  chemists, computer experts, paleozoologists," and so on. (Quotation is approximate.)   He says archaeologists only deal with mute witnesses (texts get passed on to other scholars, but ruins can nonetheless provide remarkable evidence.

For example, one issue about the Geshur era (say, 3.000 years ago) is the question of law and order: was there a reliable system of justice, or something more like anarchy?  Is there anyway to find out without written texts?

Well, one of the things Arav's workers found was a four-meter wide paved road outside the city.  Nobody builds a paved road that wide for pedestrians or people on horseback.  That road was for wheeled wagons.  Now, think about that.  The merchant wouldn't bring a wagon pulled by animals to the city if he wasn't fairly comfortable that it would be there the next time he looked for it, and that someone would take an interest if it disappeared.  So there was law and order in Geshur.  Cool, huh?

I have 19 pages of notes from the conference, but I'll be merciful.  Meanwhile, keep digging.

5 comments:

Brad Crowther said...

Very interesting, Rob. Are there any archaeologists writing mysteries or thrillers? - Brad

John Floyd said...

Keep digging, indeed. Interesting column!

Leigh Lundin said...

I like the CSI analogy. Sad how often 'professionals' conspire to keep 'experts' from the market, whether they be archeologists, other scientists, or authors. A friend asked me to watch a Glenn Beck in which he 'proved' global warming was a fraud… and his 'scientists' had degrees in political science.

David Dean said...

I liked the law and order angle, Rob. I think archaeology is very akin to CSI, except there's no particular hurry to the investigatigation--all the suspects, victims, etc...are dead.

R.T. Lawton said...

History and Mystery go together quite well. Intriguing article.