As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Nehemiah's Tower: A Test Case
Posted Nov 13,2007

Today the World Net Daily reported that Dr. Eilat Mazar claims to have discovered Nehemiah's tower. This blog has addressed the question of how a non-expert might evaluate such claims of biblical discoveries. If one reads the news report carefully, it is not clear whether Dr. Mazar is making the inferential leap between finding Persian era pottery at the site and the site being Nehemiah's tower or if it is the media that is presenting it this way. Whatever the case (and I will try to find out) this is a good example of a sensational find that it is hard for a non-expert to evaluate. So, let's put it to the test.

In an earlier blog, Eric Cline provided some guidance. One of his comments was:

"...as a general rule of thumb, I would also say that it would be prudent to be wary of anyone with a web site or multiple publications who claims to have been able to “solve” more than one biblical mystery or locate more than one of the missing biblical objects or places."

Well, this makes number two for Dr. Mazar. Her first was King David's Palace.

And Phillip Davies, who recently commented on the same blog, made the following useful observation:

"I would like to add to Eric Cline's comment the observation that a number of 'sensational' biblical discoveries are claimed by professional archaeologists who are funded by groups interested not in objective discovery but vindication of the Bible—such as recent claims about 'David's palace' in Jerusalem. However, in such cases proper academic discussion usually follows and the initial claims are challenged and even modified."

Dr. Mazar's announcement may fall into this category since she is a professional archaeologist funded by the Shalem Center .

So, what are we to think? Is Dr. Mazar just an incredibly lucky archaeologist? How much of what we are hearing is the media and how much is Dr. Mazar? Is she motivated to make what appear to be sensational announcements because of her funding affiliation?

If we take the advice of Dr. Cline and Dr. Davies, a nonexpert would have to be cautious regarding the idea that Nehemiah's Tower has been found. What do you think?

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (14)

Comments

Jim
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

As I suggest on my posting on the issue,

I don’t know Dr. Mazar’s motivations. I don’t think anyone does. But there are people, as Philip so sagely notes, that are motivated purely by economic reasons. Or ideological. I find the second class of motivations worse than the first since a person motivated by economic reasons can at least bend in the direction of accuracy while the person motivated by ideological reasons can never be persuaded- the truth be damned.

In other words, I’m more inclined to believe Mazar than I am Ron Wyatt or Steven Collins or any other of the host of people out there finding arks and discovering the location of putative cities or the very source of the 4 rivers described in the opening chapters of Genesis.

Christopher Conlan
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

In a Q&A with Haaretz a year ago, Dr. Mazar suggested that the ark of the covenant might well be discovered under the temple mount. She appears to specialize in sensational archaeology in order to further the agenda of the Shalem Center, though I am sure that she also enjoys the media attention.

yair davidiy
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

Many of the great early archaeologists (e.g. Layard, Flinders-Petrie, etc) made more than one important discovery.
Dr. Mazar is taking an innovative approach and excavating in an area where great discoveries should be expected.

chris sloan
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

Check out the discussion on Jim West's blog at http://drjimwest.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/more-overblown-archaeological-claims-2/#comment-32111. There are comments there from folks who were present at the conference where Mazar made her announcement. Seems like the journalists present may have taken it further than Mazar intended.

Zachi Zweig
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

I have excavated with Mazar at the site, a visited the recent digs under the Tower, which was considered to be Hasmonean until the recent discovery.
The issue of the existence of Nehemias wall wasn't in controversy till the recent new theories of I. Finkelstein on the subject. Mazar had no prior agenda in regarding the Persian period, and was just interested in conducting this salvage excavation herself because of its proximity to the area of her dig.

Regarding the palace of David, she admits that her interpretation of the large stone structure to be the Phoenician palace of David has no proof, and she allows herself to bring up this suggestion. The problem is that some archaeologist make use of this attitude and fully dismiss the importance of this find, which should be dated to the 11th-10th century. For this reason many archaeologist rather identify it with the Fortress of Zion.

Eilat Mazar discoveries are not a result of luck, but rather courage.

Steve Ulrich
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

From the interview that I read cited in the Jerusalem Post of Mazar, she is very careful to parse her words. I don't want to second guess her. I respect her as a archaeologist. This theory of hers that she spells out in the interview is not unique with her. There are a few predecessors that calculated and thought that Nehemiah's tower/wall would be where she found it.

Peter Nathan
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

Why build an argument on the basis of one news report? Do you not have correspondents in Israel who could search out some first hand material on this issue. Sadly, it looks like you have been bitten by a self promoter rather than the facts of the situation.

chris sloan
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

Remember this is not about whether Dr. Mazar's claim is fact or fiction. I'm testing to see if there are some criteria the average person can use to evaluate "sensational" biblical claims. It is just by coincidence that Dr. Mazar's claim fit two criteria suggested by Eric Cline and Philip Davies. See above.

In any case, I contacted Dr. Mazar and let her know about this blog. She graciously referred me to Bar Ilan University, The Ingborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, which will publish the reports of the conference.

Chan
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

This blog has addressed the question of how a non-expert might evaluate such claims of biblical discoveries. Thanks!

Antonios Vasileiadis
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

To the list of the great early archaeologists given by Yair Davidiy above I will add H.Schlimann but also some contemporary ones as S.Marinatos, G.Bass, V.Sarigiannidis, B.Ballard etc who made more than one important discovery. Hard work, more than sear luck can be the reason . Dr. Mazar's reports
" handicap " in this case seems to be her sponsor.
Had her statement been more plausible if she was funded by a non " Israeli friendly " organization?
Academic world is conservative by nature and this is how it should be. Researchers should be bold for the sake of progress.

Steven Meigs
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

Sensationalist? Certainly that is the way these finds must seem in the current climate. On the one hand we have minimalism's a priori devaluation of any suggestion agreeing with the Biblical record in the absence of indisputable archaeological proof, and on the other hand the excited reaction of the insufficiently-critical community of faith whenever any find seems to contradict the minimalists.

Now if Mazar happens to think there is real history in the Biblical record and suggests correlations with her finds, is she any less objective than scholars who will only consider hypotheses that directly contradict the Biblical record?

Those scholars currently "disproving" the sacred history of the faith community in the world-wide media will gladly cause a tidal wave of controversy to get their 15 minutes of fame, sell books, and get distinguished at their universities. Sensationalism sells, period.

I happen to agree with Zachi Zweig and others here regarding Eliat Mazar's courage and integrity, and I do hope she considers it an honor that Finkelstein and others are so concerned with countering her hypotheses.

Steven Meigs
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

How horrendous of me to mistype Dr. Mazar's first name! Apologies.

Jason Bradley
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

Chris, your remark about "checking stuff" was insightful. I would make one additional suggestion though. You might have had the details of Dr. Mazar's archeological dig checked from any number of avenues. For example, other artifacts at the site might have supported carbon dating from times other than those supported by her, thereby supporting alternatives to her suggestions. Uh oh! I'm using science. Sorry! In the balance of things its better to settle the issue as you did by soliciting a couple of opinions.

chris sloan
Nov 13, 2007 7AM #

You might be interested to see that Hershel Shanks at Biblical Archaeology review has taken issue with this blog in an Editorial called "First Person: In Defense of Eilat Mazar." See http://www.bib-arch.org/bswb_BAR/indexBAR.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=34&Issue=2&ArticleID=2


I'm sorry Shanks had such a strong negative reaction to this discussion, but I can understand where he is coming from.

Now let me reiterate the purpose of this discussion. It is an exploration of what factors a lay person can use to evaluate a sensational biblical find. The purpose here is NOT to besmirch Dr. Mazar or to evaluate the merits of her find. We're simply looking for clues to how the average person reading the media can evaluate what they hear.

The Nehemiah's Tower announcement was the first such claim to come along after this blog idea started. In my mind it was a particularly interesting case, since the claim did not come from a crackpot, but from a bona fide archaeologist. One can see cleary from the discussion above that there are many views as to whether this has been a useful discussion or not.

Dr. Mazar was very courteous to National Geographic when we visited her dig in Jerusalem and we remain very interested in her work. We have no interest in judging her actions or her work. We'll leave that to scholars. And if Dr. Mazar feels offended by this blog, I am sorry. That was certainly not my intention.

In fact, Dr. Mazar is one of the first people I contacted about this blog. Here is the text of the message I sent on 11/13/07:

DEAR DR. MAZAR:


I am one of the editors here at National Geographic responsible for our archaeology coverage. I have a blog where I cover many things, but the current topic is "how does a non-exert evaluate sensational biblical archaeology claims." The Nehemiah's Tower story came to my attention as one that would be interesting to explore from this perspective. Since I was not at your announcement, all I have are the reports from World News Daily, etc... The big question I have is this: Are YOU saying this is Nehemiah's Tower, or is it the media that is making that leap? All I can find from your comments is that the Persian era pottery suggests the tower dates from the right period to be the tower. I would very interested to hear your thoughts, either here, or directly in the blog at http://ngm.typepad.com/stones_bones_things/

The blog entry as it stands comes out advising people to be cautious about the claim. I'm trying to keep the discussion focused more on "how can the nonexpert evaluate for themselves" rather than challenge any particular find. Do you have any advice to add to the Cline or Davies comments?

Very best regards, Chris

I look forward to reading more about the find when it appears in the conference report or other professional publication.

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