Tuesday 14 January 2014

Archaeology and Bias

Radio 4's often engaging Beyond Belief tackled the fascinating topic of 'Archaeology and Religion' this week. 

Ernie Rea's guests were: Professor Robin Coningham, the man who led the excavation in Nepal which seems to have proved that Buddha lived around 200-300 years earlier than is commonly supposed; Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University, an occasional BBC presenter who specialises in Israelite and Judahite history; and Professor Tim Insoll of Manchester University, whose main work is in the field of early Islam. 

All three believe that they are not biased in their work, preferring to see themselves as disinterested academics pursuing a knowledge of history for its own sake - though Francesca Stavrakopoulou conceded that, being human, even archaeologists can't be entirely certain that they are bias-free. Thus, Francesca herself may be an atheist but that doesn't impact on her work, she says, and Tim Insoll may be a Catholic but that doesn't impact on his work either. 

Against this attractively unprejudiced-sounding panel was set Geoffrey Smith, a Christian Zionist. He was interviewed (briefly) midway through the programme.

Ernie Rae questioned him about whether he was looking for confirmation of his faith through Biblical archaeology, about the whether he thinks the story of King David is true, and about whether any archaeological evidence could shake his faith in the Biblical accounts. Mr Smith said that he's discovered nothing so far to shake his faith. 

Though reasonable-sounding, Geoffrey Smith did seem to me to have been set up by the programme, cast as the kind of blinkered person who uses archaeology merely to reinforce his own faith - unlike the programme's three main guests - and, thus, as representing the 'bad side' of archaeology. 

As his area of interest overlapped strongly with hers, Francesca Stavrakopoulou was then allowed  to sit in judgement on what Mr Smith had said.

As someone whose views have proved controversial (especially her questioning of the existence of King David) and who robustly defended Ilan Ziv’s film, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story after it was broadcast , it was therefore hardly surprising that she gave his views short shrift ("simply wrong", "misinformative" [sic], "distorted", etc). 

If things weren't bad enough for Geoffrey Smith, there followed an exchange between Ernie Rae and Francesca Stavrakopoulou where Ernie raised "this business about the extent of the kingdom of David - whether it was widespread or whether he was just a tribal leader" and said it was a "a political hot potato".

Francesca suggested it was more plausible to take the dismissive view about King David and said that, even if the Biblical account was true, 
David himself, according to the Bible, took on Jerusalem as a site that was occupied by the indigenous peoples before him so, even if you can prove that David made Jerusalem his capital city, brought the symbol of God, the Ark of the Covenant, into Jerusalem and, so, laid the foundations, if you like, for the beginnings of this great state, there were still indigenous people living in that place before him. So it doesn't solve any of the problems that we face today when we look at contemporary Jerusalem.
I think we know where she's coming from on the Israel-Palestinian issue.

Most striking of all, Ernie Rae then raised an example of archaeological sites that become "seriously problematic: "I'm thinking of the Dome of the Rock, the Temple Mount."

The following exchange ensued:
Francesca Stavrakopoulou: When it comes to the Temple Mount or the Dome of the Rock it is incredibly difficult. A lot of the digging that's going on in that particular area in Jerusalem at the moment is ideologically charged.
Ernie Rae: A lot of it is financed by American evangelicals... 
Francesca Stavrakopoulou: A huge amount.
Ernie Rae: ...who basically think that until you restore the Temple the Messiah will not come again, so I'm tempted to say 'if you want to look at the motivation of the archaeologists, follow the money, find out who's funding it'. 
Francesca Stavrakopoulou: That's exactly right. So much of archaeology, particularly in my field, comes down to 'Where does the money come from?'
I have to admit that, even though the subject interests me, I did listen to this programme half-expecting - and fearing - that Israeli archaeology would get a bad press, especially after seeing Francesca's name on the guest list.

Even so, it was still disappointing to find that the sole modern representatives of 'bad' modern archaeologists turned out to be Israeli archaeologists and their Christian evangelical supporters. 

It's the sort of thing that leads us to blog about BBC bias. 


  1. Follow the money, eh?
    Good advice.
    "Since 1984, the University of Exeter has received substantial financial contributions, totalling well over £5.5million, from such sources as Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum of Dubai, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi of Sharjah, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia"

  2. Heard a slyly-biased account of the Battle of Tours on "In Our Time" this morning-and the edit these evening only confirms my thinking that the BBC will only have one side of the debate aired.
    Won`t bore you with the details, but it`s worth seeing who Bragg calls in as his "scholars"...for historians seems a bit too exalted for them.
    One is paid for by some Sheikh for his London Middle East Institute at the SOAS...one a disengaged Anglican lite suckup(if not an atheist) and one some tribune mouthpiece from Birkbeck.
    Islam was energetic as it converted Berber....it only wanted to get more booty for itself so there was no religious imperative at all. The Franks were no better-they would have been as foreign and as mercenenary as the Muslims..but with worse algebra and a lack of Greek translations, Islam being such a vector of nice things.
    Bede was trashed, Gibbon scorned-why this Battle wasn`t really much at all!
    These low graders could only have seen what happens to real historians like Tom Holland, and feared a Rushdie reprise.
    The next generation of historians will probably be discussing Blackadder because they`ll not be reading by then...and it`ll be Sir Billy Bragg excusing Islam by then.
    Craven crap from the BBC....if that`s liberal reasoned scholarship, then you`ll be needing to do flamenco versions of Ebony and Ivory for the Emir within a few years.

    1. I listened to that last night and felt much the same as you about it. In fact I was thinking of posting about it. Watch this space!

  3. You should never get your history from one source, as (left, right, or center) everyone is potentially subject to a host of biases (with confirmation bias being chief among them). That said, that makes it good to have atheists studying Biblical archeology and offering up alternatives to more orthodox religious observers. Plus, I think it is clear that the while modern scholarship at least prizes objectivity as an ideal to be striven for (even if true objectivity is vanishingly hard to achieve), the Bible and other ancient sources did not value it and they have to be treated carefully as a result. Anyone who hasn't seen some reason to seriously reconsider the complete accuracy of the Biblical account of history, either hasn't really looked at the evidence or did so without being open to the evidence.

    (That said, I have seen Stavrakopoulou's hour-ling documentary on the historicity of King David, and while she has good points about the thin evidence for the Biblical account, there is also thin evidence for some of the alternative speculations she asserts as if they were fact.)

    I agree with the assertion that the historical claims of David in the Israel mean jack all to the modern question of who should hold power there, any more than the Celts are entitled to oust those with Anglo-Saxon blood in Britain or the Lanape people should be able to toss out the folks currently living in Manhattan.


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