Lecture at the PEF meeting – and a note on good and bad archaeological methods

As mentioned previously, yesterday I participated in the meeting about the early research in Israel by the PEF, which took place at the University of Haifa. In addition to presenting my paper (and thanks to all the in absentia co-authors), I heard a few papers which dealt with various archaeological, historical and geographical issues stemming from the PEF research, whether looking at little aspects of their findings, or assessing them in the light of more recent research.

In my paper, I discussed the dating of the fortification wall which Bliss and Macalister first reported at the site, and demonstrated that it was first erected in the Early Bronze Age, but then reused, in different parts of the site, during the MB, LB and Iron Ages.

During my lecture I noted that one of the best aspects relating to the PEF team and their work on the site – is that they only excavated at Tell es-Safi/Gath for three weeks, which saved the site from much destruction – as in my opinion the quality of excavation and publication was sub-standard even for what was being done at the turn of the 19th century CE.

During the discussion, this was debated, with one of the discussants, Dr. Shimon Gibson, who is very familiar with the PEF materials, claiming that the poor excavation at the site was due to Macalister’s methods, while Bliss was a much better archaeologist, trained by Petrie.

I did not agree with this for two reasons:

First – Bliss was the director of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath – and in the reports he clearly states that Macalister was sidelined to rather minor responsibilities during the work on the site (such as documenting the rock cuttings and installations around the site).

Secondly – if in fact the poor work was the result of Macalister’s methods – why did not Bliss, as the director, step in?

In any case, the standard of excavation and publication was very poor, and when you compare it to Petrie‘s work (which also had much to improve upon, but is much better) this can be seen, but even more so, if you compare it to the methods employed by Pitt Rivers during the 19th cent CE, in the UK, there is no reason to accept poor quality work in the field. Even though famous archaeologists such as Schliemann excavated poorly at more or less the same time, if a high standard had been insisted upon by the PEF directors – for all the work conducted under the PEF’s auspices in the Levant – much more information would have been gleaned from these excavations – which in many cases is not much more than a catalogue of objects without much understanding of their find context.

I firmly believe that as archaeologists, whether of the past, present or future, we must strive to use the best methods available for our time – and constantly work to improve them. I have no doubt that in 50 years from now, archaeologists will view the methods employed by the current excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath as very antiquated, but I hope they will recognize that we tried to conduct them at the highest standards available for our time, searching for an implementing as many new methods of excavation and analysis as possible – anything else is unacceptable!


4 thoughts on “Lecture at the PEF meeting – and a note on good and bad archaeological methods

  1. Thanks for sharing what transpired at this meeting! Two things I’m confident about regarding how people 50 years from now will view your work, is that you maintained an awesome blog that everyone could access in a timely manner, & that you made the subject entertaining.


  2. Sam Wolff

    Problem was that there was a shortage of good archaeologists in England around the turn of the 20th c. I haven’t given this much thought, but perhaps a comparison can be made to Israel in the 1950’s-early 1960’s when archaeologists with limited academic backgrounds (e.g. Zori, Druks, Rabbani, Kaplan?) prevailed until local universities began to produce well-trained excavators… Also it is not totally fair to compare methodologies of contemporary excavators; e.g. Macalister to Reisner. The former was a one-man show working with a limited budget, whereas the latter had a staff and a reasonable budget. The “anything less is unacceptable” adage has to take such into factors into consideration.


    1. arenmaeir

      Sam – what you are saying is true, but one wonders whether they should have not have excavated if the funding was limited and the training was poor. But then, perhaps during those times such considerations were not even open for discussion, and more importance was seen in simply doing – something which I hope nowadays is less acceptable…


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