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Letters to the editors

Vol. 7, NO. 3 / November 2022

To the editors:

Eric Cline’s Digging Up Armageddon tells the story of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute team members who conducted excavations at Megiddo, the site of biblical Armageddon, between the World Wars, from 1925 to 1939. It highlights the participants’ personal stories, which are reconstructed through Cline’s detailed archival research of their letters, diaries, cables, and notes. As Guy Middleton has pointed out in his review, the story focuses on Americans at Megiddo and is in many ways reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. More importantly, it also tells the story of the Chicago team’s process and approach to archaeology, which is what this response seeks to highlight.

Megiddo is one of the most important cities that Thutmose III conquered in the fifteenth century BCE, as described in the reliefs on the Karnak Temple in Egypt.1 It was also, centuries later, the site upon which Solomon is said to have built his stables.2 Uncovering evidence for these two events—one known through the historical record and the other through the Bible—was the major aim of the Chicago expedition. Time and time again, letters sent to and from James Henry Breasted, the director of the Oriental Institute, stress the importance of pressing the excavators to get down to the “Solomonic” layer and, beyond that, to the layer of the city conquered by Thutmose.3

The aim was to confirm the biblical account that the city served as a Solomonic building project and chariot city. Indeed, the book opens with a cable from P. L. O. Guy, the second field director at Megiddo, to Breasted, which references 1 Kings 9:15 and 10:26 in relation to a set of recently discovered stables.4 Guy immediately identified the first of several tripartite buildings found on the upper mound as the stables of Solomon.5 Later work disproved this hypothesis, since the stables probably date much later than the time of Solomon.6 This is the first of several examples of sensational conclusions drawn by the field directors that in later years were clarified by subsequent archaeologists, particularly Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin from the Tel Aviv University expedition to Megiddo.

In Middleton’s words, Breasted “loomed large” over the expedition and was a key figure throughout the Chicago team’s exploits at Megiddo. It is no wonder that he loomed large—it was he who decided to dig at Megiddo, he who secured funding from John D. Rockefeller, and he who handpicked the staff of the expedition, which began work in 1925.

The initial set of staff, like subsequent teams, comprised primarily architects and geologists who were untrained in archaeology.7 Although having previously participated at several digs throughout the Near East, Clarence Fisher, the first field director, had difficulties in leading the team. Furthermore, he did not take proper field notes and did not consistently update Breasted.8 He did, however, eventually publish an introduction to the archaeology of Megiddo.9 Due to his difficulties, he was let go in 1927.

Fisher’s aim was to strip away the mound layer by layer, uncovering ancient city upon ancient city as the dig progressed. This strategy, of “horizontal archaeology” to the extreme, was eventually abandoned in favor of digging down in specific sections.10 But for years, Fisher and his replacement, Guy, maintained horizontal exposure despite Breasted’s demands that they take an alternate approach.11 The removal of Stratum I and Stratum II ultimately proved regrettable, since there is now very little left of these layers for modern archaeologists to explore using current scientific methods and a set methodological approach. Now excavations tend to dig in sections and minimize horizontal exposure, in order to preserve the site for future archaeologists who will presumably have more sophisticated, technologically enhanced approaches.

Breasted pushed Guy to dig in sections due mainly to his desire to find the Solomonic and Thutmosid layers. The rush to pass the levels thought to be of less interest is a common thread throughout the book.12 Unfortunately, today, in the field of archaeology, some layers at various sites are still treated as less interesting—this approach is harmful since such layers are important for others experts of alternative subdisciplines of archaeology. Although the Chicago team was innovative and, in many ways, employed field methods that were cutting-edge for the time, it should never be the case that archaeologists rush through one layer to get to what they consider to be more interesting strata.

It was only with Gordon Loud, the third and final field director, that Breasted’s successor John Wilson eased up on rushing the excavation process. Despite the numerous discoveries under Loud’s direction—including Hoard 3,100 and Treasury 3,073 in the Late Bronze Age palace—Wilson states in a letter to Loud that most important was the establishment of “closer control.”13 Wilson meant that Loud should focus on establishing an accurate stratigraphic sequence rather than on discovering sensational finds. He also writes, in another letter, that

even negative information about a site … is an addition to our knowledge … We will get more objects in the future. There is no pressure upon you to get some every month or even every season.14

These were wise words, even though Wilson did not know at the time that Chicago’s excavations would soon end.

Middleton is right to identify the colonialist hierarchy ever-present at the site, with locals doing the actual digging and foreigners running the show. From another angle, Cline alludes to the negative impact the cessation of digging at Megiddo had on the local population, who relied heavily on the work for their income.15 Digs proved then, as they sometimes do now, as a means for locals to substantiate their income. There is also no doubt the dig was dangerous for the workmen. After one particular incident at Megiddo, they, rather than the Americans who were in charge, were threatened with fines if they did not dig safely.16

Other examples of the Americans’ problematic behavior on the dig include accounts of sexism and anti-Semitism. The Staples, DeLoaches, and Mays encountered problems when each couple became pregnant; at the very least they were made to feel unwanted at the dig due to this perceived issue. All three couples left before the birth of their children.17 Wives were not encouraged to work, despite the need for help in processing finds, and were in one particular case told not to expect a salary.18 Antisemitic talk also ran rampant throughout the dig house, with several team members discussing “the Jewish problem” in blatantly racist terms.19

As Middleton points out, the spotlight is most often cast on the interpersonal drama and scandals of the Chicago team. But the internal bickering seems insignificant compared to the dramatic events happening throughout the world as excavations unfolded. The staff at Megiddo were, surprisingly, relatively unaffected by the politics of the day, at least until the Arab Revolt of 1936–1939 and the beginning of World War II. These events would put an end to the expedition in 1939.

Cline’s book is well-researched and paints an interesting picture of both the work and the social aspects of digs in the early days of archaeology. Although much of the focus is on intrigue and scandal, if one reads Digging Up Armageddon carefully, it is also about a team learning how to approach a complicated site. The technical developments of the Chicago excavators were foundational to the development of Israeli field archaeology, and their findings hold tremendous influence on any study conducted on Megiddo to this day.

  1. Translated in James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 175–82. 
  2. 1 Kings 10:26. 
  3. Eric Cline, Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 241. 
  4. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 124–25. 
  5. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 124–25. 
  6. Deborah Cantrell and Israel Finkelstein, “A Kingdom for a Horse: The Megiddo Stables and Eighth Century Israel,” in Megiddo IV: The 1998–2002 Seasons, ed. Israel Finkelstein, David Ussishkin, and Baruch Halpern (Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology, 2006), 643–65. 
  7. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 185, 200, 209. 
  8. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 61. 
  9. Clarence S. Fisher, The Excavation of Armageddon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929). 
  10. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 267–68. 
  11. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 183, 201. 
  12. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 235. 
  13. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 336. 
  14. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 319. 
  15. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 343. 
  16. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 180. 
  17. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 182. 
  18. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 211–12. 
  19. Cline, Digging Up Armageddon, 95, 139, 186. 

Erin Hall is a post-doctoral fellow at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.


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