From the faded black-and-white photos of the 1920s Megiddo excavation staff, you’d never think that decades later a successor would be digging up rich dirt on these early archaeologists, rather than on the biblical mound they dug.
But while the early team’s archaeological triumphs were internationally heralded — including “Solomon’s Stables” and the Megiddo Ivories — the British Mandate-period staff’s personal trials and tribulations make for even more exciting reading in Prof. Eric Cline’s “Digging up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon.”
Cline, who participated in the current excavations at the site from 1994 through 2014, succeeds in balancing the personal dirt with the archaeology and through the staff’s correspondence illuminates the tumultuous world around them — including the Great Depression, the wane of the British Mandate, and the lead-up to World War II. Cline spoke with The Times of Israel Podcast this week about his impetus to write the book, and what he found.
“I wanted tell the story of both the archaeology and the archaeologists,” said Cline. He went digging into mounds of paper in the Oriental Institute archives, as well as in the Israel Antiquities Authority and the various Rockefeller foundations that were involved in the site.
“The amount of dirt that I accidentally dug up on the participants is amazing. It really is a soap opera and I’m amazed they got any work done at all,” laughed Cline. The “dirt” included romance, betrayal, an older “cougar” poaching younger men, and latent anti-Semitism. But while that makes for enjoyable reading, the story of the excavations themselves is also riveting.
Located at an ancient crossroads in northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley, Megiddo is mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. King Solomon is said to have fortified the city. For Christians, it is also the site of the final battle, or Armageddon, so named through an assimilation of the Hebrew name “Har Megiddo,” or Mount of Megiddo. A total of 20 layers of cities — 5,000 years of occupation — have been excavated at Megiddo, which is one of the largest archaeological sites in Israel.
In the early 1920s, a fledgling Megiddo expedition was organized by the University of Chicago’s new Oriental Institute. It lasted from 1925 until 1939 and was almost entirely funded by the deep pockets of John D. Rockefeller, whose money — circa $2 million for the first installment alone — paid for year-round excavations, as well as seven-course dinners, ample teatimes, and an onsite tennis court, which was deemed a necessity.
It was an era in which scientific archaeology was just cutting its teeth: Heinrich Schliemann’s splashy, highly unprofessional excavation of Troy had taken place 50 years prior, but the methodically documented King Tut tomb had just been opened three years before the Megiddo dig was launched.
The Chicago Oriental Institute’s expedition was actually the second “modern” dig at the site. The first, from 1903 to 1905, was conducted by Gottleib Schumacher, whose destructive archaeological work was typical of the time and led to frustration and missed opportunities in later digs. The third expedition at the site took place in the 1960s and 1970s and was led by Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin. The fourth dig is the current Tel Aviv University excavation, co-directed by Prof. Israel Finkelstein.
“The Chicago expedition made the discoveries that Megiddo is most famous for: Solomon’s Stables, the water tunnels, the ivories, the gold hoard,” said Cline. “Digging at Megiddo put both the Oriental Institute on the map, and it put Megiddo on the map.”
The expedition at Megiddo came about through a series of battles, and a coincidence: In 1919, Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, who had just founded the Oriental Institute, met Lord Allenby in Cairo, Cline writes in the book. Allenby, then the British commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, related to Breasted that his 1918 Battle of Megiddo victory was partly on account of a translation that Breasted had made of an ancient account of the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III’s 1479 BCE battle there. Allenby’s employment of some of the pharaoh’s tactics 3,400 years later led to a similar triumph.
“Allenby ignored London orders and adopted the Egyptian tactics — and won,” said Cline.
Allenby recommended that Breasted search for the pharaonic-era city at Megiddo. Additionally, Breasted also wanted to find the city that Solomon built there, which is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
“It was a romantic notion, but also a fund-raising mechanism,” said Cline. “John D. and Abigail Rockefeller bought into it.”
Identifying the city of Thutmose III has proved elusive. “They never did ascertain which city Thutmose III captured. We’ve narrowed it down to one or two,” said Cline.
Likewise the excavators, in retrospect, never did actually find Solomon’s city — although they were certain they had in 1928 when an exultant cable was sent of to the Chicago headquarters. The discovery of “Solomon’s stables” became international headline news.
Today, most archaeologists believe the stables (if they are stables) are more likely to belong to king Ahab or Omri, or even Jereboam II. Cline said that throughout the history of Megiddo excavations, four different levels were attached to city of Solomon, yet nobody agrees.
“There’s still a lot to dig at the mound and who knows? He [Solomon] may come to light yet,” said Cline.
A high-tech dig during archaeology’s infancy
The Chicago dig was innovative in many realms, said Cline. They were the first to use aerial photography through sending up cameras on hot air balloons. They were also one of the first digs to fully utilize the Munsell Soil Charts, which allowed for better soil and pottery classification. The team also attempted to dig stratigraphically, excavating each layer separately.
Hindsight in 2020 is everything, but clearly much of the methodology used by the Chicago expedition would not fly in a modern dig. As long as their money held, the team excavated the entire mound, layer by layer, to see the entire picture.
“Nowadays we would never do that and would leave a lot for the next generation to double check us,” said Cline. Archaeologists today leave much of their sites untouched, in the belief that the science will progress and new technology will be developed to test hypotheses.
Since scientific archaeology was still “in its infancy,” said Cline, “We should cut them a little bit of slack, not too much, but some!”
The most resonant findings took place just as the team was running out of funds — and time. On a 1935 voyage home after a site visit, Breasted, who like many of the archaeological team was ill with malaria, also became infected with strep throat and died upon his return to the US. The Rockefellers were increasingly reluctant to toss money into the bottomless Megiddo pit and denied further funding.
Slowly, funding was scraped together and in 1937 the team discovered the monumental ivories in what is now considered a tomb in subterranean rooms of a royal late Bronze Age palace. On top of the ivories were children’s bones and what today appears to be a skeletal donkey, but was in 1937 thought to be a camel. The ivories were found in a helter skelter-state in the tomb, and are considered grave goods.
“They are ‘the’ Megiddo Ivories,” said Cline. Today, half the collection is found in Jerusalem and half in Chicago. Very difficult to excavate and conserve, the ivories were sent on tour with gold that was discovered in the same 1937-38 season.
“Ironically, they had almost shut the dig down the previous year,” said Cline. The gold and ivories are now thought to be “some of the most famous discoveries found at the site, but they came this close to not making them.”