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History of Research

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the 200- year history of archaeological research in the Levant. It suggests that the archaeology of the Levant is a tapestry of cultures interwoven with strands of nationalism, colonialism, and politics which speaks directly to questions of identity. The article explains the data gathered from the Levant during the Ottoman rule, colonial domination, and the national era. Levantine archaeology remains a vibrant and healthy discipline in the twenty-first century. Its greatest strength lies in its wealth of accumulated primary data providing the basis for vibrant, foundational research into the story of the past.

Keywords: Levant, archaeological research, cultures, nationalism, colonialism, politics, identity, Ottoman rule, colonial domination

Two centuries of archaeology in the Levant have resulted in an intensely examined archaeological record and provided a laboratory for theoretical models and methodologies. The Levant is a tapestry of cultures interwoven with strands of nationalism, colonialism, and politics. Archaeology in the Levant speaks directly to questions of identity, and as a consequence has often been appropriated by modern political ideologues.

Ottoman Rule

The weakness of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century attracted the covetous gaze of the ‘Great Powers’. The western European intelligentsia shared a generalized negative attitude toward Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, the reverse side of long-standing philhellenic attitudes (Frankel 2001). One of the byproducts of renewed European commercial and political interest in the region was increased antiquarian research and collecting. Many foreigners resident in the Levant began to collect and excavate for antiquities, motivated by religious beliefs, academic concerns, and basic acquisitiveness. Initial excavations carried out in this manner were essentially treasure hunts. One of the most colourful of these pillagers was the Russian and American consul on Cyprus, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola. He undertook large-scale plundering of tombs and other Cypriot sites and exported more than 10,000 items from the island; most of the collection ended up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where Cesnola was appointed as the first director.

In keeping with the prevailing social and academic milieu in western Europe, one expression of public interest in the region in the mid-19th century was the establishment of a plethora of academic and religious societies dedicated to Near Eastern archaeology. Great Britain in particular witnessed the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Cyprus Exploration Fund, and the Society of Biblical Archaeology. The United States entered the fray with the Palestine Exploration Society and, more successfully, in 1900 with the founding of the American Schools of Oriental Research (King 1983; Seger 2001).

(p. 36) The biblical connection was a primary factor behind much of the public and scholarly interest in archaeology in the Levant (Davis 2004). Edward Robinson, an American clergyman seeking to locate biblical sites based on his belief that ancient names were preserved in local Arabic usage, conducted the pioneering archaeological survey of Palestine. Conservative biblical scholars, inspired by the perceived success of Heinrich Schliemann in locating Homeric sites around the Aegean, sought to excavate the world of the Bible in the thousands of ancient ‘tell’ sites crowding the eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of important inscriptions such as the Siloam Inscription and the Moabite Stone added to the interest of biblical scholars in archaeological discoveries.

By the First World War, scholarly societies had spawned numerous foreign institutes in the Levant, principally in Jerusalem. Academic interest marched in step with political interests (Silberman 1982, 1989). British dominance in Egypt and Cyprus was balanced by a French focus on Syria and Lebanon, while German scholars worked in Anatolia. All of the ‘Great Power’ archaeological communities shared an interest in Palestine thanks to the biblical connection. The Palestine Exploration Fund followed up the pioneering survey work of Robinson with a monumental survey of Palestine, executed by serving British military officers demonstrating official support of research. Despite its geographical proximity to the Asian mainland, the interest in Cypriot archaeology was led by classical archaeologists. This resulted in the dominance of a Hellenocentric interpretive framework and a model of Cyprus as an intermediary between two cultural hemispheres of Asia and Europe (Frankel 2001).

The unique phenomenon of the tell site dominated the archeological agenda in the Levant (although not in Cyprus). Archaeologists active in this region employed a variety of different excavation methodologies to try and tell the ‘tale of the Tell’. Sir Flinders Petrie, an English excavator working in Egypt, developed the principles of ceramic sequence dating while excavating Egyptian cemeteries, and came to Palestine to test this theory at Tell el-Hesi in 1890. He took advantage of an erosional cut in the mound there to gain a stratigraphic window to the site and provide an independent test for the idealized ceramic sequence. He established the importance of pottery for dating purposes, and coordinated ceramic typological changes with the stratigraphic changes in the tell. These two principles, ceramic typology and stratigraphy, are fundamental to archaeology. Unfortunately, Petrie diluted the importance of his work by only publishing ‘types’, i.e. a single specimen of each whole form, neglecting the sherd material completely.

Petrie also provided a fundamental framework for Late Bronze Age chronology in the Levant when he returned to Egypt and began excavations at the site of Tell el-Amarna in Egypt. This palace-city of the Egyptian New Kingdom ruler Amenhotep IV was only occupied for a short time, consequently yielding a closely dated assemblage of imported Mycenaean and Cypriot ceramics. Archaeologists working throughout the Near East would use this dated corpus as chronological markers to date local ceramic horizons.

Archaeologists focused on the excavation of tell sites because they were the remains of ancient cities, the home of the political and social elites of ancient civilizations. The primary aim of such excavations was chronology building to elucidate political history and the recovery of works of art and ancient texts. This reflected the desires of the western European and American intelligentsia and the membership of the funding societies, including societal elites linked to the burgeoning museum community. The relatively low level of expense involved in excavation in the Ottoman world also encouraged international archeology in (p. 37) the region. Indigenous involvement in the projects was, with rare exceptions, confined to providing the labour pool.

Archaeologists trained in the classical tradition brought trenching methods refined at classical sites such as Olympia in Greece to the Levant. The trench method was the most economical way to uncover elite structures at a tell. If a ‘monumental building’ was identified in a trench, the exposure would be widened to recover the floor plan and associated material of interest. German and Austrian excavators at the biblical sites of Megiddo and Jericho successfully employed the trench methodology. Meticulous architectural recordation was emphasized at the excavation of Tel Halaf in Syria by the German archaeologist Baron Max von Oppenheim. George Reisner, an American archaeologist at Samaria, was not interested in recovering building plans per se, and he used a more nuanced stratigraphic approach at Samaria. This reflected his understanding of a tell as a product of natural and human activity, not just building phases. At the time, however, the Palestinian ceramic chronology was not well understood, which prevented his innovative approach from being more successful.

Colonial Domination

After the First World War, international archaeology expanded dramatically. The former Ottoman-controlled territories of Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus, now under British and French oversight, were wide-open territory for archaeology. The British Mandatory government introduced new antiquities laws in October 1920. The archaeological permit process was much simpler than the old Turkish firman system, and the government retained the power to expropriate land for excavation. The new law used ad 1700 as a cut-off for archeological interest, reflecting the age of the village housing stock and betraying a subtle anti-Ottoman bias. The law made generous provision for sponsoring institutions to export recovered antiquities to Europe and America. This system was transferred to Cyprus and formed the basis of the modified antiquities laws of that British colony. It was at the instigation of a politically important local Cypriot that the antiquities laws were modified to allow the export of finds, to encourage foreign interest in archaeology on the island. The antiquities codes in the French Mandate of Syria adhered more closely to the stricter Ottoman model, but still allowed expeditions to have a division of finds. Sir Max Mallowan found the French regime in Syria more generous than the new tighter restrictions imposed in Iraq in the early 1930s, and began working in Syria (Mallowan 1977: 100). The British Museum excavations of Carchemish were undertaken to ‘permit the recovery of numerous reliefs of the Neo-Hittite period’ (Matthiae 1980: 19). William F. Albright, the director of the American School in Jerusalem, believed that tighter restrictions were scientifically preferable, but was concerned that tighter control ‘greatly reduces the incentive to give money for excavation’ (Albright 1921: 10).

Enlightened directors of antiquities, such as John Garstang in Palestine, Gerald Lankester Harding in Jordan, Henri Arnold Seyrig in Syria, and Peter Megaw in Cyprus, worked hard to promote archaeological research yet still protect archaeological resources as development in the region increased. New museums were constructed to encourage the display of artefacts in their home region, since before the First World War, the best finds (such as the (p. 38) Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon) from the Levant had been taken to Istanbul. Cyprus, under British administration since 1878, had had a museum since the late 19th century; a new structure built in the Edwardian period remains the home of the Cyprus Museum today. During the Depression, local antiquities authorities undertook large-scale clearance and stabilization of visible monuments such as the Venetian fortifications of Nicosia and Famagusta in Cyprus, and the huge crusader castle of Krac des Chevaliers in Syria. These projects provided much-needed local employment and raised awareness of the monuments.

The international community responded to the more open policies of colonial rule with enthusiasm. During the next two decades, American, Australian, Austrian, Belgian, British, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Swedish excavators were active in the field. Active local archaeologists such as Eleazar Sukenik in Palestine and Porphyrios Dikaios in Cyprus, began to take field leadership roles in the colonial antiquities departments and in local academic settings. The political division of the Levant between British and French control accelerated a tendency amongst archaeologists to emphasize cultural divergences in their own studies of the ancient Near East. Albright, perhaps because he was an American, was able to retain a focus on the fundamental unities of the region and coined the term ‘Syro-Palestinian archaeology’ for the field, although most did not follow him in this (Albright 1938).

Archaeological methods reflected the exuberant self-confidence of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ (Davis 2003). Large-scale excavations were the order of the day in Syria and Palestine, many with museum sponsorship. The Oriental Institute from the University of Chicago planned a twenty-five-year campaign at the biblical site of Megiddo with the announced aim of total excavation of the 7.3ha mound. This was a huge undertaking, since the pre-excavation cultural deposits measured nearly 23m deep in places. The labour force was made up of local residents and specialist workmen trained by the antiquities departments. In more than forty seasons at the Lebanese site of Byblos, French teams under the direction of the Department of Antiquities attempted to excavate the entire site in 20cm levels, ignoring stratigraphic divisions. This method was ill suited to a tell site, and the publications make this failure clear. The excavations of Antioch, sponsored by a consortium of American museums, led to the discovery of more than 400 mosaics, many of which were exported from Syria to the sponsoring institutions. The excavations at Dura-Europos by Yale University recovered well-preserved frescos from a synagogue. These stayed in Syria and were placed in the new National Museum in Damascus.

Clarence S. Fisher, field director at both Megiddo and Beth Shean, advocated an area approach to excavation (as opposed to the trench method) since he saw a tell as a series of strata composed of architectural remains. Section drawings were used for the first time in the region at the Palestinian Antiquities Department excavations at Ashkelon. Aerial photography for archaeology was pioneered in the region by Antoine Poidebard in eastern Syria in the late 1920s. This was a by-product of the decision by France and Britain to police large areas of their mandated territories by air.

Rich individuals and companies continued to sponsor archaeology in the Levant. John D. Rockefeller provided US$1 million for the excavation by the Oriental Institute at Megiddo. Melvin Grove Kyle, a fundamentalist Presbyterian minister and seminary president, supported work at supposed biblical sites in Palestine. The Carlsberg Foundation funded the Danish work at Hama. George McFadden provided the major funding for the excavation of (p. 39) Kourion on Cyprus in the 1930s. He was de facto director of the dig in the field, despite having no training in archaeology.

A major research emphasis throughout the region remained the chronological sequence. For the most part, Near Eastern archaeologists followed the traditional ‘Three-Age’ techno-evolutionary model pioneered in Scandinavia. Albright clarified the Palestinian ceramic chronology through his work at Tell Beit Mirsim. Harald Ingholt and his Danish colleagues at Hama provided the ceramic framework for northern Syria. Of crucial importance for ceramic chronology throughout the Levant was the Swedish Cyprus Expedition from 1927 to 1931. Einar Gjerstad and his Swedish colleagues refined and codified the Cypriot ceramic sequence. Since Cypriot pottery was widely exported in antiquity, it provided crucial cross-dating for sites in Palestine and Syria. Albright pioneered sherd-collecting archaeological surveys, and the newly solidified ceramic chronology made these forays viable. Thousands of new sites were recorded by various survey teams throughout the southern Levant during this period. Survey in Syria did not become widespread until after the Second World War (Matthiae 1980: 32).

Across the Levant, excavations explored sites from prehistory through the medieval period. The long-term excavations of the major Syrian coastal site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) starting in 1929 discovered texts in a new language that illuminated the Late Bronze Age world of the northern Levant and profoundly influenced biblical studies. The new texts discovered in these decades, such as the Ugaritic corpus, the Lachish Letters, and the Samaria Ostraca, were all directly relevant to the study of the Hebrew Bible, further encouraging biblical scholars’ interest in archaeology. The Biblical Archaeology model dominated the interpretation of Bronze and Iron Age materials (Davis 2004). Biblically related textual discoveries culminated with the Dead Sea Scrolls immediately after the Second World War.

The Second World War brought a halt to most fieldwork in the region, although some small-scale work continued. Many archaeologists served in the armed forces of the various combatants, for example Claude Schaeffer and George McFadden. Nelson Glueck scouted for the Office of Strategic Services while continuing his archaeological survey work in southern Palestine (King 1983: 103).

National Era

The end of the Second World War ushered in the postcolonial world in the Levant. Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Cyprus all achieved full independence by 1960. National archaeologists took over control of the various antiquities departments, directed significant excavations, and established departments of archaeology in the local universities. Regional museums were opened in urban centres throughout the region, widening the potential support base for archaeology among local residents. The new states imposed stricter controls over their archaeological heritage. For example, the Republic of Cyprus reversed the regulations of the colonial regime and eliminated the previous practice of artefact division between the excavation and the host government.

Understandably, nationalism became closely linked with archaeology in the new postcolonial states in the region after the Second World War. Since archaeology deals with (p. 40) questions of identity, the new states appropriated various cultures/peoples/eras of their past as part of the nation-building process. This encouraged the continued domination of a historical/cultural approach to archaeological explanation. In Israel, the archaeology of Eretz Israel intertwined with the ideology of the return and the search for roots by the thousands of new immigrants to the young state. Jordan and Syria both looked to the first flowering of Islamic culture in the region under the Umayyads. The archaeological record could be a source of national pride. The University of Rome excavations at Tell Mardikh recovered a massive cuneiform library that illuminated the vibrant urban culture of Syria in the third millennium bce. The Jordanians also highlighted the achievements of the indigenous Arab Nabatean kingdom, particularly the site of Petra. The majority Greek Cypriot community on Cyprus heralded the Hellenic influence on the island, tracing their heritage back to Mycenaean immigrants at the end of the Bronze Age.

Levantine archaeology became truly worldwide, with teams from Japan, South America, and Eastern Europe joining Australian, North American, and Western European scholars in the field. The conflicts between the states in the region accelerated the scholarly tendency to cultural ‘tunnel vision’ by preventing direct archaeological cooperation across modern political boundaries. This was partially offset by the international scholars who continued to work in the newly independent states. International conferences held out-of-region usually provided the venue for cross-border archeological contacts.

The long hiatus in major research archaeology caused by the war allowed a new generation of scholars to reach positions of influence in Levantine archaeology. Yigael Yadin, after serving as chief of staff to the Israeli armed forces, joined the Hebrew University in 1954 and provided academic field training for the new generation of Israeli archaeologists through his large-scale, architecturally oriented excavations at Hazor (Mazar 1997: 48). These methods sought wide horizontal exposures, illuminating ancient city plans and major architectural units. The Hazor method became the signature Israeli excavation style. Yadin later excavated Masada, a site with deep emotional and historical ties for many Israelis. This excavation in the 1960s employed hundreds of volunteers from around the world, setting a pattern of student/volunteer archaeological labour that continues today. In Syria, the establishment of an archaeology programme by the University of Damascus encouraged more local students to become archaeologists than had been possible previously when they went to Europe for academic training.

A major methodological revolution occurred with Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation of Jericho in the area of Palestine under Jordanian control in the 1950s. Kenyon had trained at Verulamium, a Roman site in Britain directed by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. He used a stratigraphically oriented method, employing vertical sections. Kenyon applied the methods to the tell site of Jericho, excavating a series of relatively small square units separated by vertical sections between them (baulks) which provided a record of the vertical stratigraphy. This is driven by a stratigraphic understanding of a tell. The resulting methodology became known as ‘Wheeler–Kenyon’ in the Near Eastern archaeological literature. Kenyon’s methodology in a variety of guises became the dominant field paradigm within the region, including Syria and Cyprus.

Recurring military conflict in the region profoundly affected archaeology. The new political realities after the Arab–Israeli War of 1967 created the need for new research centres in Amman to assist archaeologists active in Jordan. The Lebanese Civil War (1975–91) (p. 41) prevented most archaeological activity in that country; paradoxically, after the country stabilized, the destruction in Beirut provided the opportunity to study the previously inaccessible urban centre. The coup d’état against Cypriot President Makarios in July 1974 led to the invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus by the Turkish army. No internationally condoned archaeological excavations have been undertaken in the areas outside the direct control of the Republic of Cyprus. Turkish Republic archaeologists and Turkish Cypriot scholars have undertaken some excavation and survey work in the north of Cyprus, but these are not published internationally and have been condemned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the international community. This isolation is creating a ‘significant bias in primary data’ for Cypriot archaeology (Frankel 2001).

Since the Second World War, technological advances have accelerated the pace of theoretical and methodological change. The advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s revolutionized prehistoric archaeology. The multidisciplinary approach to archaeology, introduced into the Levant by Robert Braidwood and his fellow prehistorians, had become the norm for later period sites by the 1970s. Nautical archaeology has expanded rapidly in the region from the pioneering work in the 1960s of Michael and Susan Katzev on the Kyrenia ship off the coast of Cyprus, the first ancient hull raised in the Mediterranean. The advent of computers in the field created a data revolution. New questions could be asked, and Levantine archaeology is now much more in line with developments in the wider discipline of archaeology as processual and post-processual approaches have relegated traditional historical/biblical questions to a less dominant position (Dever 1981). This change has been reinforced by the impact of anthropologically oriented funding agencies in Europe and America. The use of new technologies in the field and the laboratory such as magnetometry, global positioning systems, digital photography, geographic information systems, and chemical provenience studies make significant contributions in the region.

Salvage archaeology became a dominant focus of the national antiquities departments after the 1967 war, when the resulting population displacement accelerated the already expanding pace of regional development (Akkermans and Schwartz 2003: 11). National infrastructure projects impacted vast tracts of landscape including countless archaeological sites. Examples include major water projects on the Euphrates and Khabur Rivers in Syria (cf. the Tabqa Dam project: Kelly-Buccellati 1997: 44) and the East Ghor Canal in Jordan. Archaeologists conducted extensive emergency site surveys and many rescue excavations. These regional studies encouraged a growing appreciation for the value of archaeological surveys, and provided raw data for new research questions including settlement pattern analyses, demographic studies, and landscape archaeology. The government of Jordan, in cooperation with the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, developed an active and effective programem of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) in Jordan. A CRM conference held in 1992 acted as a catalyst to focus efforts on integrating cultural resources into the needs of development.

Public archaeology plays a key role in archaeological decision-making. All of the regional states have recognized the valuable economic contribution archaeology can make to the vital international tourist trade. Throughout the region, major sites have been designated as archaeological parks. Specialized tourist itineraries emphasizing religious and historical events have been created. Of necessity, the packaging of the past affects the way excavations (p. 42) were carried out and results presented. On occasion, excavation at a site or monument is halted to allow for the preservation and presentation of a particular historical moment in the history of the occupation of a site, despite unanswered questions. Individual projects are forced to consider the final status of the site and its conservation/public presentation as part of their research design.

In the 21st century, Levantine archaeology remains a vibrant, healthy discipline, a ‘big tent’ home to a wide variety of archaeological traditions. Its greatest strength lies in its wealth of accumulated primary data providing the basis for vibrant, foundational research into the story of the past.

Suggested reading

Davis, T. W. (2004). Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

    Kletter, R. (2006). Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology. London: Equinox.Find this resource:

      Silberman, N. A. (1989). Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East. New York: Holt.Find this resource:


        Akkermans, P. M. M. G., and G. M. Schwartz (2003). The Archaeology of Syria: From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies (c. 16,000–300 bc). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

          Albright, W. F. (1921). A tour on foot through Samaria and Galilee. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 4: 7–13.Find this resource:

            ——— (1938). The present state of Syro-Palestinian archaeology. In E. Grant (ed.), The Haverford Symposium on Archaeology and the Bible. New Haven, Conn.: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1–46.Find this resource:

              Davis, T. W. (2003). Levantine archaeology. In S. Richard (ed.), Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 54–9.Find this resource:

                ——— (2004). Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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                    Frankel, D. (2001). Cyprus. In T. Murray (ed.), Encyclopedia of Archaeology: History and Discoveries, vol. 1. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 388–94.Find this resource:

                      Kelly-Buccellati, M. (1997). History of the field: archaeology in Syria. In E. M. Meyers (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 42–7.Find this resource:

                        King, P. J. (1983). American Archaeology in the Mideast: A History of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Philadelphia: American Schools of Oriental Research.Find this resource:

                          Mallowan, M. E. L. (1977). Mallowan’s Memoirs. New York: Dodd, Mead.Find this resource:

                            Matthiae, P. (1980). Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered, trans. C. Holme. London: Hodder & Stoughton.Find this resource:

                              (p. 43) Mazar, A. (1997). History of the field: archaeology in Israel. In E. M. Meyers (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 47–51.Find this resource:

                                Seger, J. D. (ed.) (2001). An ASOR Mosaic: A Centennial History of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1900–2000. Boston, Mass.: American Schools of Oriental Research.Find this resource:

                                  Silberman, N. A. (1982). Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archeology and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799–1917. New York: Knopf.Find this resource:

                                    ——— (1989). Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East. New York: Holt.Find this resource: