Changing models for understanding Biblical Edom: anthropology, environment and information technology

The archaeology of the southern Levant that focuses on the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE is closely linked to traditional ‘Biblical archaeology.’  Since 2002, a team from UC San Diego, the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the Friends of Archaeology of Jordan has carried out archaeological research in the copper ore rich Faynan region of southern Jordan that relates to these periods.  The project is known as the Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP) and focuses on an anthropological archaeology study of the role technology, specifically metal production, on social change during the Iron Age (ca. 1200 – 500 BCE).  By applying high precision radiocarbon dating, on-site GIS digital archaeology recording, and other tools to control time and the context of artifacts (space), the team has extended the Iron Age chronology of this part of the southern Levant (popularly known as the ‘Holy Land’) by over 300 years.  This newly extended chronology has inadvertently drawn the ELRAP team into heated debates concerning the relationship between sacred texts (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) and the archaeological record.  In this session, ELRAP team members present a series of papers that explore new theories and methods for what may best be referred to as ‘historical biblical archaeology’ – a more pragmatic way of striving to remove ideology and bias from historical archaeology.


The New Pragmatism: Integrating Anthropological, Digital, and Historical Biblical Archaeologies
Thomas E. Levy (University of California, San Diego)

Over the past three decades of so, Biblical archaeology, or the archaeology of the Old Testament, has suffered as a paradigm of scientific archaeological investigation.  In this lecture, I would like to suggest a new pragmatic approach to what should be referred to as ‘historical biblical archaeology’.   Accordingly, it is a type of historical archaeology where researchers strive to understand the relationship between sacred and other ancient texts and the archaeological record in the same way that historical archaeologies around the world should attempt to confront ancient texts and the archaeological record with particular attention to the contribution of high precision radiocarbon dating and GIS tools for controlling both time and space.  Following a brief discussion of the history of Biblical archaeological research Southern Levant, the historical biblical archaeology paradigm advocated here is discussed based on recent research in the Iron Age of southern Jordan.

Questioning the deterministic paradigm: Reflections of Bedouin folklore in the archaeological evidence in Faynan, Jordan
Erez Ben-Yosef (University of California, San Diego)

Ethnographic studies of Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Peninsula have demonstrated the unique place of acacia tree in the folklore and tradition of pastoral nomads in arid zones of the southern Levant. The tree, one of the most prominent perennial plants in the floral landscape of the southern Levant and a substantial source of wood, is considered sacred by the tribal societies of Sinai, and a strict system of laws and customs protects it from cutting down, pruning and harm. Consequently, the main wood used by these societies consists of semi-shrubs and shrubs (e.g., Retama and Haloxylon), and of the rapidly regenerating Hydrophytic vegetation (e.g., Tamarix and Nerium) found near high water table environments.

This paper suggests that the interpretation of more than 9,000 identified charcoal fragments from the Iron Age (c. 1200 – 500 BCE) copper production district of Faynan (Jordan) should be done in the light of the ethnographic evidence from Sinai. In lieu of the common explanation that acacia was in use as fuel only from the Roman period because of ecological change, the lack of acacia charcoal during the Iron Age is a marker of tribal, semi-nomadic society that probably had similar value system in relation to its natural assets as the tribal societies of Sinai. In later periods, when the copper industry was controlled by centralized empires, the acacia was incorporated as a fuel in proportional scale to availability, and the cultural sensibilities of local societies were no longer relevant.

Acknowledging social factors as part of the interpretation fits into the recently suggested model of a tribal-state polity for Iron Age Edom, where tribalism is the fundamental mechanism of social interaction - even in considerably large-scale enterprises like the one conducted in Faynan. Independent key aspects of the tribal-state model support the ethnographic parallelism suggested here, while in return the evidence from Faynan coupled with ethnography substantiates the model and elaborates its implications.

The Pottery Informatics Query Database– A New Digital Archaeology Tool for Analyzing South Levantine Iron Age Pottery
Neil G. Smith*, Avshalom Karasik+, Tejaswini Narayanan*, Thomas E. Levy*, Uzy Smilansky+ (* University of California, San Diego; +Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel)

The Pottery Informatics Query Database (PIQD) is a new online tool designed to enable researchers to test their own interpretations and models against an ever-expanding digital medium of ceramic datasets in ways that conventional print data cannot provide. It opens a new arena for how archaeologists can simultaneously publish their research in scholarly journals but also provide a more in-depth online format for collaborative research and investigation. It makes available an online Geographic Information System of 2D and 3D ceramic profiles from archaeological publications of Iron Age (1200-580 BCE) Southern Levant ceramics. The PIQD stores all ceramics profiles published for the region digitally using a mathematical algorithm called the “curvature function.” This algorithm enables researchers to query and analyze morphological differences in ceramic profiles using an objective, quantitative method similar to BLAST searches commonly employed in the biological science to identify patterns of similarity in complex datasets. Results from a recent implementation of the PIQD will be demonstrated using datasets collected from recent excavations in Ancient Iron Age Edom located in Southern Jordan.

StarCAVE 3D: Virtual Reality, Anthropology and the Biblical World
Kyle Knabb, Jurgen Schultz and Thomas E. Levy (University of California, San Diego)

The StarCAVE at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology is an immersive virtual reality environment where we have developed a process for modeling archaeological sites to be visualized in three dimensions. The project strives to accomplish four things: create compelling visual imagery, develop a new hermeneutic toolkit, integrate GIS and virtual reality and contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage. Archaeologists and anthropologists rightly argue that digital archaeology and visualization theory is underdeveloped.  At the same time, rapid changes in technology make it difficult for theory to keep up. Archaeologists need to strike a balance between the theory and practice of digital technologies.

The excavations carried out at Khirbat en-Nahas provide an abundance of data for testing the benefits of modeling archaeological sites in virtual reality.  Models and the process of modeling are fundamental to interpreting archaeological data.  Working through models is often the best way to explain and experiment with the meaning of data.  In a general sense a model is a simplification, which we can easily understand and manipulate, of some part of reality, which is more difficult to comprehend.  Thus, if we can understand the process and end result of a model we can attempt to apply that understanding to the situation in reality we are trying to figure out.  Virtual reality and computer modeling offer two great benefits to archaeologists.  First, they allow the researcher to illustrate reconstructed sites.  This is especially helpful to the public, who has little or no experience in reading archaeological maps.  Modeling assists the researcher articulate and communicate his or her interpretation of the archaeological data.  Second, the model can allow the archaeologist to test new theories, ideas and reconstructions and see the effect of those new interpretations on the site.  It is these strengths that make virtual modeling such a valuable tool.

Iron Age Foodways in the Faynan District –Zooarchaeology Perspectives on Paleo-Economies in Southern Jordan
Adolfo Muniz (University of California, San Diego)

Recent archaeological research at Khirbat en Nahas in the Faynan region of southern Jordan is beginning to provide evidence on the role of metal production and its effects on the evolution of complexity in this region.  Intertwined within the fabric of society is the relationship between the inhabitants of this site and their use of animal resources.  Current zooarchaeological research from the Iron Age site of Khirbat-en-Nahas stresses a correlation between the intensity in metal production and the changes in the animal economy.  Additionally, the diversity of species identified at this site indicates the interaction sphere of the Faynan region extended beyond local ecological niches to the coastal areas.

The Meaning of Melekh:  Archaeological Readings of Genesis 36
Marc A. Beherec (University of California, San Diego)

Among the challenges facing archaeologists who seek to integrate textual and archaeological evidence are the complexities of translation and source criticism.  One of the most interesting passages dealing with the early history and social structure of Edom is the genealogy and king list of Genesis 36.  This paper will consider the historical geographical, semantic, and source criticism background of this chapter in order to understand its complexities.  This in turn will shed light on the convergence of lines of evidence, including archaeology, which illuminate and obfuscate the history of the land of Edom.

Photography in the ELRAP Digital Archaeology System and Beyond
Aaron Gidding (University of California, San Diego)

Archaeology and photography both share their origins in the mid 1800s and grew complementarily as fields. Early on photography was used as an objective tool to verify the observations made by early antiquarians and archaeologists. Over time the notion of the photograph as an objective tool representing factually the process and results of archaeological excavations has rightfully eroded. Critiques of the photograph in archaeology have focused on problems of contextuality and artificiality of production, especially in this digital age. Notwithstanding these faults, the photograph in the digital age has remarkable objective potential when used as an integral part of a systematic digital excavation. Utilizing the geo-referenced photographic data applications within a larger database of archaeological data, such as the Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land (DAAHL) database, allows for more collaborative research opportunities utilizing larger subjective data sets in ways previously unavailable. This integration signals a new step for the use of the photograph, as integration into excavation methods increases, in its digital form as an important facet of larger scale, regional research using diverse data sets accessible in the digital media. Further careful data management in order to maintain original images preserving academic integrity and allowing for reproducibility of results furthers analytical goals outside of the field using the digital    medium. While of course the photograph does not replace the actual artifact, it does being to allow for new considerations utilizing digital technologies.  The test bed for this has been UC San Diego’s Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP) that provides the examples used in this lecture.