BAR's 20th Anniversary
10 Great Finds
Picture
When BAR’s editors invited me to prepare a list of significant finds for the 20th anniversary issue, I thought the task would be easy. I had already been developing the forthcoming BAS Slide Set on the Hebrew Bible and archaeology, so I figured I could easily cull 10 slides from these. But as I began to work, I realized that reducing the number from 140 to 10 would be difficult, especially when the chronological horzon was extended to include material later than the time of the Hebrew Bible.
Necessarily, this list is arbitrary and subjective. I selected ten discoveries that give a geographical overview of the lands of the Bible—illustrating how exploding knowledge of ancient cultures has enhanced our understanding of the contexts in which Biblical traditions emerged—and that make arresting and informative pictures.
The most significant discoveries are often texts. But texts seldom provide striking photographs, so I have chosen one—Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic—to stand for all the fascinating texts from Mari, Ugarit, Amarna, Qumran and Nag Hammadi, and many other tablets, inscriptions and manuscripts that transmit to us the words of ancient peoples. These silent witnesses have transformed our understanding of the Bible over the last century and a half.
I’ve left out important sites such as Jericho, because neither the mound itself nor its stratigraphic sequences are especially photogenic.
As for Jerusalem, where there’s an embarrassment of riches, I have chosen the exquisitely detailed sixth-century depiction of Jerusalem on the mosaic map from Madaba (in modern Jordan) to stand for all the excavations there since Biblical archaeology began.
This then is my list, arranged in chronological order. Remember that each, in one way or another, stands for many more. You may want to make your own list—perhaps we can update this selection for the 25th anniversary!
1. Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet XI
Picture
Nineveh, modern Iraq
7th century B.C.E.
Clay tablet with cuneiform script
Digging in northern Mesopotamia, with techniques too primitive to be called archaeology, the British explorer Austen Henry Layard uncovered tons of monumental sculptures and tens of thousands of inscribed clay tablets, many of which Layard shipped back to London. Among these finds are the famous Black Obelisk of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C.E.)a and the library of King Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.), which Layard discovered at Nineveh. After he returned to England in 1851 to pursue a diplomatic career, his work was carried on by Hormuzd Rassam, one of his assistants, who continued to uncover tablets and ship them to London.
After the rapid decipherment of Akkadian (the Semitic language of Mesopotamia, whose two principal dialects are Babylonian and Assyrian), scholars at the British Museum began to catalogue and translate the clay tablets. In 1872, George Smith, an assistant in the museum’s Assyrian Department, discovered on one of the tablets a story about a flood, written down in the seventh century B.C.E., that was strikingly similar to the Biblical story of Noah in Genesis 6–9:
When the seventh day arrived,
I put out and released a dove.
The dove went; it came back,
For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round.

I put out and released a swallow.
The swallow went; it came back,
For no perching place was visible to it, and it turned round.

I put out and released a raven.
The raven went, and saw the waters receding.
And it ate, preened, lifted its tail, and did not turn round.b
Smith had happened upon Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic, one of the most popular literary works in the ancient Near East. He announced his discovery at a meeting in London of the recently founded Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3, 1872, where his paper created a sensation. Because the tablet was broken, some of the flood narrative was missing, and Smith went to Nineveh to find the rest; on May 14, 1873, after only five days at the huge, largely untouched site, he succeeded in finding another tablet with the missing lines to the flood story.
The initial reaction was that the Biblical flood story was confirmed as historical—for here was another account of the same event. But subsequent discoveries and analysis demonstrated that Mesopotamian versions of the flood were significantly older than the Biblical accounts, suggesting that the story of Noah and the flood was, in part, a borrowed tale. Moreover, Biblical writers had access to the Gilgamesh epic, as the discovery in 1956 of another part at Megiddo in Israel dramatically proved.c
Gilgamesh’s flood story is one of many texts that parallel and supplement Biblical traditions, strengthening our grasp of the cultural contexts in which the Bible was written, and often forcing us to reconsider traditional views of it.
2. Beni Hasan Mural
Picture
150 miles south of Cairo, Egypt
19th century B.C.E.
8 feet by 1 1/2 feet

Join the BAS Library!


Already a library member? Login at the members box (top right).