Day By Day

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Reporting an archaeological discovery

Journalistic treatment of archaeological discoveries, no matter how trivial, is a scandal. "Scientists" and reporters conspire to hype the subject beyond all reason. Everything uncovered, it seems, is going to rewrite the textbooks, will transform our understanding off some big subject, is immensely important, etc. You know the drill. You've seen it over and over in the popular press.

One of the most hyped subjects is Biblical archaeology, but even here you can from time to time find a reasonably accurate and objective account. One such appeared in the Guardian this week.

The AP reports:
An encounter with a Bedouin robber in a desert valley has led to what one Israeli archaeologist described as one of the most important biblical finds from the region in half a century.

Professor Chanan Eshel, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said yesterday that the discovery of two fragments of nearly 2,000-year-old parchment scroll from the Dead Sea area gave hope to biblical and archaeological scholars, frustrated by a dearth of material unearthed in the region in recent years, that the Judean desert could yet yield further artefacts.

No more scrolls have been found in the Judean desert since 1965. This encourages scholars to believe that if they bother to excavate, survey and climb they will still find things in the Judean desert. The common knowledge has been that there is nothing left to find there," Prof Eshel said.

The two small pieces of brown animal skin, inscribed in Hebrew with verses from the Book of Leviticus, are said by Prof Eshel to be from "refugee" caves in Nachal Arugot, a canyon near the Dead Sea, where Jews hid from the Romans in the second century.

The scrolls are being tested by Israel's Antiquities Authority.

Prof Eshel said he was first shown the fragments last year in an abandoned police station near the Dead Sea. A Bedouin had been offered $20,000 (£11,000) on the black market and wanted an evaluation.

Read it here.

Now that's not bad! It is informative, succinct, has some color to it, and contains only one over-the-top statement ("one of the most important Biblical finds from the region in half a century") and even that is qualified to some extent. And..., this is unusual, the article explains just exactly why the scroll is considered important. The text itself is nothing new, but just the fact that the scroll exists gives hope that other, more significant, finds might emerge.

Unstated, of course, is the real importance of that fact. Now Prof. Eshel and other scholars have something positive to present to funding agencies when they write their next grant proposals.

For a useful contrast check out the report by AFP [here]

Here the text fragment is tied to the Jewish revolt of 135 AD complete with a description of the carnage of that period. It includes a comment on how Bedouin Arabs mistreated the fragment, already in bad condition because it lay under bat droppings, and damaged it further. Even the title of the article is mildly derisive: "Bedouin Wanders Across Biblical Manuscript." Also there is a description of Prof. Eshel's long ordeal, scouring the desert and turning over innumerable rocks, and notes the irony that the find was made by a Bedouin. There is also an account of how Eshel bargained the Arab finder down from his initial offering price. It concludes with a reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Here the significance of the scroll is not discussed in any substantive way -- it is simply declared "sensational". Instead we get ethnic stereotypes and mild anti-Arabism along with gritty details like bat guano. The report of an archaeological find has become a human interest story of a scholar's quest.

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