The aim of archaeology

During my archaeological studies at university I only got a cursory introduction to the history of the discipline. But we learned that it started mainly with the collection and subsequent classification of artefacts. Just as others in the early 19th century caught butterflies and catalogued them, so some scholars were interested in old man-made objects. This curiosity combined with the anthropological research into savages, which were now scientifically studied. As a result, anthropologists developed a classification of cultures. In the case of archaeology, such a classification of cultures proceeded on the basis of artefacts.

206city of David
In the case of Biblical archaeology, two further influences were often mentioned: the pilgrimage traditions, which encouraged the imagination, depiction and research into Biblical places; and the Biblical geography tradition, particularly the research by Edward Robinson, who identified many Biblical sites on the basis of linguistic and geographical considerations (he travelled to Palestine in 1841).

Imagine then my surprise then, when I found a far more developed discussion of the aims of archaeology in a short book published in 1845. In his Prolegomena to the Theology of the Old Testament (Prolegomena zur Theologie des Alten Testaments) my great-great-great-grandfather Gustav Friedrich Oehler discussed the interaction between Old Testament Theology and Biblical Archaeology. He uses the definition of de Wette (1814): the aim of Biblical Archaeology is to describe the specific natural and social state of the Israelite people. Oehler goes on to mention in particular the lifeways (Volksleben) and the conditions (Volkszustände) of a society as the main subjects of study for archaeology. Gustav Friedrich Oehler suggests that Biblical Archaeology is a discipline that is particularly close to Old Testament Theology as the whole of human life has to be considered if we want to have insights into the religious aspects of society.

Oehler mentions geography as an area of study that is far more important to Biblical Archaeology than to Old Testament Theology. Today, geographical considerations are probably seen as more important as scholars aim to work out differences in the geographical provenience of writings. For example, some passages in the Bible are seen as related to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while others are seen as characteristically Judahite. But geography is indeed more important to archaeological than theological studies.

Such a wide scope of archaeology, which is not so much focused on the artefacts, but more on a study of ancient societies, has been important throughout the history of the discipline. But it seems this understanding of archaeology has been moved to the background throughout its history by focusing the narrative of its provenience and purpose on the artefacts and cultural classification. Maybe this is partly to the ascendancy of an understanding of archaeology that grew out of a particularly Anglo-American tradition, which disregarded the earlier European understanding.

Of course, the concentration on artefacts is important. The early archaeologies without doubt did not place sufficient importance on those artefacts, as there was not sufficient well-excavated data available. But through that they also avoided the temptation of exhausting archaeology in the study of the artefacts themselves. For past humans and societies need to be at the centre of archaeology.

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One Response to The aim of archaeology

  1. Pingback: History and Archaeology sciences looked at #3 Nature of archaeological work | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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