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The limits of archaeology
By Orson Scott Card April 21, 2011

When I was researching my Women of Genesis novels, I was amused by the authors who felt it necessary to declare, "The Biblical figure Abraham never existed." It was almost as if, to keep their respectability among scholars, they had to bear their non-testimony of the Bible.

Why was I amused? Because there are no written sources from the era of Abraham that could reasonably be expected to mention him. So the only source of information that could shed light on Abraham's era is archaeology.

And any respectable archeologist would know that there is no way, from the archeological record, to declare the nonexistence of a particular historical individual.

As the saying goes, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." For instance, for many years many archaeologists were convinced that the great Maya city-states of Mesoamerica were peaceful -- in part because there were no signs of fortification.

Then Mayan writing was finally decoded and translated, and the newly available historical records made it clear that warfare between Mayan city-states was constant and far-reaching.

Newly deciphered history showed that in the second century a.d., the great city-state of Mexico, Teotihuacan, actually had the military reach to depose the ruler of the Mayan city-state of El Mirador and install a puppet regime -- a situation unguessable from the previously known archaeological record.

Without historical records, archaeology is sharply limited in what it can tell us. One of the main limitations is in our choice of what to research: Archaeology was long dominated by a fascination with elite cultures and the rise and fall of empires.

It's not a nonsensical approach -- elites generally like to have markers of their status, which requires that they own and display items that common people can't get. This means that there is often wide-ranging trade in substances that are precious and rare ... and durable.

Metals and stones can often be traced to their sources, which gives archaeologists a good idea of the extent of trading networks. But concentrating on elite items tells almost nothing about the organization of society or the lives of the common people.

Another limitation is that archaeologists cannot find what isn't there. Wooden structures decay; baskets, cloth goods, and food disappear, except in rare chance findings.

It is only in recent decades that archaeologists have become adept at finding traces of such non-durable objects. Pollen, for instance, has been very illuminating about what crops a particular culture relied on -- but, as you can guess, finding ancient pollen requires some pretty close work. And it's difficult to tell how well the pollen in ancient soil samples has remained within the layer in which it was originally deposited.

Archaeologists, when they aren't relying on durable elite goods, are compelled to rely on information sources that are vague at best. Maize pollen is found here but not there; does this mean that corn was not used in the place where the pollen wasn't found?

Garbage heaps and ancient sewage are excellent sources of general cultural information. But they usually tell little or nothing about how society was organized. Foreigners might move into an area, adopt the local culture, replace the local language with their own, completely reorganize who was in charge of what -- and make no detectable changes in what archaeologists find.

Even with the help of historical records, scholars of the ancient past are faced with the limitations of their sources: People only wrote what they thought was worth writing. Chroniclers of kings tended to write only what redounded to the credit of the king -- until he was deposed and a new king's boosters rewrote the history. Lying has a long tradition among the writers of histories.

The result is that an awful lot of the human past flies under the radar, and good archaeologists have become quite humble about the level of certainty of any of their conclusions. The data remains, but the theories about the data come and go, shift and adapt as more information comes to light -- or fails to.

Every now and then we get headlines about this or that discovery that "proves" something about the Bible or the Book of Mormon. Sometimes these are legitimate -- the discovery of ancient cisterns in Jerusalem, for instance, verified that a previously-scoffed-at biblical assertion was actually right.

But then there was that absurd "discovery" of the supposed burial site of Jesus and Mary Magdalene touted by James Cameron. Two very common names -- Yeshua and Miriam -- and people leap to ridiculous conclusions. Archaeologists sneer, and correctly so, at people who make such wild leaps; at the same time, archaeologists themselves have made some pretty wild leaps in the past.

Assumptions have been made that simply can't withstand scrutiny. For instance, the "nonexistence" of Abraham was based on the fact that Abraham's activities were simply impossible in the era when he was supposed to have lived. Canaan was too populated for this wanderer with his herds and flocks to have done what Genesis said Abraham did.

But the dating of Abraham was based on the old-but-false Jewish tradition that the Pharaoh of Exodus was Ramesses II. Ancient Jews naturally wanted to point to the great monuments Ramesses commissioned and say, Our ancestors actually built those!

Unfortunately, all of Ramesses' monumental building was done in stone. And Exodus tells us that the Israelites made brick.

Besides, Ramesses' reign is extremely well chronicled. There is simply no room for any of the events of Exodus in that era.

But if you bump Exodus back to an era when it could have happened -- if the "daughter of Pharaoh" is Hatshepsut, who actually reigned as Pharaoh, and whose rival and successor, Thutmosis III, did his best to expunge her name from history -- then there is plenty of room for the underlying events of Exodus to have taken place.

That pushes Abraham centuries back in time -- possibly to the 23rd or 22nd century b.c., an era when long periods of drought had virtually depopulated many of the cities of Canaan. Now there's plenty of room for a nomad prince to do everything that Abraham is said by Genesis to have done.

With misleading assumptions and the natural limitations of archaeology as the background, a close examination of the text of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that if the Nephite people had tried to hide from modern archaeologists, they could not have done a better job. But that's a subject for next time.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

 
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