Posted by: aboutalbion | January 16, 2014

Excavators and ideologists

Earlier this week, I heard an interesting UK radio broadcast in the BBC ‘Beyond Belief’ series.  The theme of the programme was the impact that archaeology is having on the study of (commercial) religions.

The claim of the archaeologists who contributed was that, with an ever-widening array of scientific techniques being used, evidence continues to emerge that suggests that the historical claims of religions may (in certain cases) need revision.  It was also made clear that claims of this sort are open to challenge if the results of the excavation are aligned with the ideology of the group who is paying for the excavation.

I think the idea for this radio programme arose late last year when it was reported that remains of a shrine at Lumbini in Nepal had been found, and that they could be dated to the sixth century BCE.  The claim was made that this shrine might well be a Buddhist shrine, in which case the date of Buddha’s birth may have been up to three centuries earlier than is currently thought to be the case.  I don’t think there is a conflict of interest here because I seem to recall that it was said that UNESCO was sponsoring this excavation at their own World Heritage site there in Lumbini.

At least one of the archaeologists on the radio programme pointed to Jerusalem as ‘the hot potato’.  There are institutions in Israel who are paying for excavations around the Temple area, and the view was expressed that it would be politically ‘convenient’ if some evidence was unearthed that could be directly linked with King David.  The view was also expressed that such evidence would not be all that significant.  And this was because the relevant Jewish text does not describe King David as founding Jerusalem, but rather as invading and conquering Jerusalem (which had existing inhabitants). [2 Samuel 5:6f]

On his own blog, Professor Hurtado (Edinburgh University) has recently discerned a series of academic publications from 1970 to the present which concentrate on ‘reading’ the physical features of early Christian papyri.  He endorses this ‘material turn’ but without referring to any archaeological perspectives.  To me, all the Christian papyri dated before 300 CE are material fragments ‘excavated’ from the past.  And my own interest in papyrus 46 begins with looking at it as a material fragment dated around 200 CE.  It is just a regrettable fact of life (well-known to professional historians) that no one now knows the site of the ‘discovery’ and recovery of papyrus 46.


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