Bible and Beyond

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The shoals in the sea of archaeology are treacherous indeed. Take the case of Marie-Louise Buhl.
Ms. Buhl, a Keeper of the National Museum of Denmark, recently wrote part of the final report on the Danish excavations at Shiloha. Ms. Buhl’s task was admittedly complicated by the fact that the Shiloh excavations had been carried out by a Danish expedition about 40 years earlier—in three campaigns in the 1920’s and early 1930’s under the direction of Hans Kjaer. Kjaer tragically died of dysentery a month after the last season began. As a result, no final report was ever written—until Ms. Buhl and a colleague assumed the task four decades later.

Prior to his death, Hans Kjaer did publish two preliminary reports on the excavations containing a major finding for students of the Bible- Shiloh had been destroyed in about 1050 B.C., about the time that the Philistines had captured the Ark of the Lord—after it had been taken from the central sanctuary at Shiloh to lead the Israelite forces in battle (See 1 Samuel 4). It seemed reasonable to conclude that the Philistines had destroyed the Israelite sanctuary at Shiloh following the fateful defeat of the Israelite army near Aphek.

Whether the Philistines destroyed Shiloh had always been a vexing question. Nowhere is it explicitly so stated in the Bible. That the Ark was placed at Kiryat Yearim, rather than at Shiloh, after it was returned by the Philistines, is certainly consistent with the hypothesis that Shiloh had been destroyed. Even more significant are several passages in Jeremiah written 450 years later- In one, the prophet warns in the Lord’s name, “Go, if you will, to my place that used to be in Shiloh, where once I made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel” (Jeremiah 7-12). Later, the priests in the Jerusalem temple demand of Jeremiah, “Why have you prophesied in the Lord’s name that this house shall become like Shiloh and this city an uninhabited ruin” (Jeremiah 26-9; see also Jeremiah 26-6 and Psalm 78-60). All these references had implied to many scholars, even before Kjaer’s archaeological evidence, that the Philistines had destroyed Shiloh after the battle near Aphek in which the Ark was captured.

On the other hand, the Bible contains several references to Shiloh as a place where people lived after the time when it was supposedly destroyed by the Philistines. For example, in 1 Kings, Shiloh is referred to as the home of the prophet Ahijah (1 Kings 11-29; 14-2; see also Jeremiah 41-5). If the Philistines destroyed Shiloh, how does it happen that people were living there afterward? The answer may be that a small village continued to exist at the ancient shrine. Or perhaps, as it was thought before the Danish excavations, the Philistines did not destroy Shiloh.

Kjaer’s excavations appeared to have settled the question. For once, archaeology seemed to speak to a specific Biblical incident, not just to the background. And its answer was confirmation of the Philistine destruction of Shiloh. This became the standard and conventional wisdom for more than 30 years. (See, for example, John Bright’s commentary on Jeremiah, 7-12 in the Anchor Bible series.)
Then in the 1960’s came Ms. Buhl’s final report on Kjaer’s excavations, in connection with which she made a thorough re-examination of the excavation materials. To her surprise—and the shock of the scholarly world—she discovered that Kjaer had misdated the destruction of Shiloh by more than 300 years. According to Ms. Buhl, the destruction of Shiloh had not occurred until about 700 B.C.
When Shiloh was destroyed depends on the dating of some storage jars. These jars—known as collar rim jars because they appear to have a little collar around the neck—were associated with a destruction layer of charcoal found in the excavation. Whole collar rim jars were recovered from this destruction level in a building known as House A and sherds of the same style jar were found in the destruction level on top of an early wall.

Kjaer’s preliminary report had dated these collar rim jars to the Iron Age I period and more precisely to about 1050 B.C., approximately the date of the battle in which the Philistines captured the Ark.
Ms. Buhl in the 1960’s came to a different conclusion- The collar rim jars from House A date from the Iron Age II period, not Iron Age I. “It is now beyond doubt” writes Ms. Buhl, “that House A … was destroyed by fire at the end of the 8th Cent. B.C., and that layers of ashes from the same time also were present in the basement of a neighboring house with a jar of the Iron II period”.
Ms. Buhl bases her conclusion primarily on materials from Yigael Yadin’s excavations at Hazor. Solid confidence can be placed in Yadin’s dating of his carefully excavated stratified finds. “With the help of the finds from the Hazor excavations”, Ms. Buhl tells us, “it has been possible to date the storage jars from House A … to the Iron II period”.

Ms. Buhl writes of her predecessor Hans Kjaer with a certain sympathetic condescension. Because of his own lack of knowledge, he was perhaps too easily influenced by others. “It is unjust to blame Hans Kjaer for these errors,” Ms. Buhl tells us. “He was a careful excavator, but, as a specialist in Danish prehistory who had to deal with numerous unfamiliar problems of both a practical and scholarly nature, he was obliged to consult others on many details.” Kjaer “was obviously influenced by others who believed that Shiloh had been completely destroyed by the Philistines at the time they captured the Ark.”

Nowhere does Ms. Buhl tell us who these unhelpful influences were, who it was that Kjaer consulted.
As a matter of fact, Kjaer was fully aware that he knew very little about Palestinian ceramic chronology. So he associated with him as his archaeological advisor—Ms. Buhl’s eminence grise—the greatest ceramic expert of his time, none other than William Foxwell Albright. It was Albright, not Kjaer, who dated these collar rim storage jars to c. 1050 B.C. Of course, even the great Albright made mistakes, but an archaeologist usually reaches this conclusion with somewhat more diffidence than Ms. Buhl writes of Hans Kjaer.

In this instance, however, Albright was correct. It was Ms. Buhl who erred.

The task of demolishing Ms. Buhl was left to Yigal Shiloh—whose relationship to the Biblical site of the same name has now been established. Shiloh is an archaeologist on the staff of Hebrew University and was one of Yadin’s chief assistants at Hazor. We have checked his conclusions with a number of pottery experts and all confirm the accuracy of his conclusions. None has any hesitation in disagreeing with Ms. Buhl.

Professor Shiloh has shown that while the collar rim jar continued to be produced in Iron II, as Ms. Buhl contends, the Iron II collar rim jar was a much smaller and squatter vessel than the Iron I collar rim jar, as shown in the illustration—which was prepared by Professor Shiloh. This is true of all the collar rim jars, including those from Hazor, which Ms. Buhl uses in her effort to establish that the Shiloh collar rim jars belong to the Iron II period. In addition, the collar itself varies somewhat in the two periods. The Iron I collar sits at the base of the neck or on the shoulder. The Iron II collar sits further up and creates a ridge in the middle of the neck.

Thus, we are back where we started from 45 years ago—with the archaeological evidence indicating a destruction of Shiloh in about 1050 B.C.

Another interesting aspect of the story is the use which has unfortunately been made of Ms. Buhl’s erroneous conclusion. The great English Bible scholar, Professor Peter R. Ackroyd of the University of London, swallowed Ms. Buhl’s conclusion whole and thus unwittingly served to perpetuate her mistaken conclusion. Writing in 1971 in the influential and popular Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (1 Samuel), Professor Ackroyd tells his readers, “A recent re-examination of the evidence … has shown [the earlier conclusion that a major destruction occurred at Shiloh about 1050 B.C.] to be incorrect.” When queried as to why he had accepted Ms. Buhl’s conclusion, Professor Ackroyd replied that the answer was “quite simple.” “I am not,” he said, “an archaeologist.” Although conceding that he would probably handle the matter differently if he were writing today, Professor Ackroyd’s answer does point up the difficulty even a well-informed Bible scholar may have in handling archaeological materials in this age of specialization, which perhaps in part accounts for the fact that more use is not made of these materials by Bible scholars.

Perhaps at this point it would be well to sound our own note of caution. Ms. Buhl’s error does not mean that archaeology has proved the destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines in 1050 B.C. It only tells us that there is some evidence of a destruction—how widespread we cannot be sure—at about this time. Although archaeology probably will never be able to answer the ultimate question of whether the Philistines destroyed Shiloh, it would be intriguing to return to the site for a major re-excavation in the light of all the new archaeological knowledge that has been accumulated in the last 45 years.

Finally, it is important to note that Ms. Buhl did correctly identify a great deal of evidence of Iron II occupation at the site, which Kjaer did not find. Thus, although Shiloh may have been destroyed by the Philistines, it continued to be occupied thereafter. This is consistent with the Biblical evidence of occupation at Shiloh (such as the prophet Ahijah) even after the Philistine capture of the Ark. In short, the archaeological evidence from Shiloh is consistent both with the Biblical implication of the Philistine destruction of Shiloh and also with the city’s continued occupation thereafter.

(For further details, see Y. Shiloh, Review, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 21, p. 67 (1970); Y. Shiloh, “The Camp at Shiloh” in Eretz Shomron (Jerusalem 1973))