Archaeology has many facets, and all of them are important as we seek to interpret what we’re finding and how that speaks to us about a given site. In some cases, we can gather some information from texts such as the Bible or archives of royal records from neighboring countries like Assyria, Babylonia, or Egypt (usually in cuneiform or hieroglyphics).
While these contain historical information, however, we can only depend on them so far: none of them were written following the principles of objectivity and validating sources that are prized in modern Western history writing. All of them were written with an agenda, whether to glorify a particular king through exaggerating his exploits, to emphasize a particular belief system (such as the Deuteronomistic concept of covenant or the Chronicler’s emphasis on the temple), or to magnify one group of people over another (such as the books of Samuel and Kings, which clearly favor the idea of Judah as preeminent from the start, even though the northern kingdom of Israel was much larger and more powerful for much of its history).
There was a day when “Biblical archaeologists” set out with a Bible in one hand and a pick in the other, hoping in various ways to prove the Bible true. Though some still have a similar mindset, most modern archaeologists working in the Levant (Israel and the surrounding area) prefer to begin with the evidence on (and in) the ground when describing what seems to have been happening in various places — and when.
The “when” is the trick, and the prime evidence for dating the various loci in a particular site is pottery. Humans have been making and using pottery since the Neolithic period, and archaeologists learn to estimate how old a site is by the type of pottery they find there. Pottery was ubiquitous in the ancient world, but also fragile, so it was often broken, but doesn’t decompose, so it lies around for thousands of years waiting for us to dig it up, wash it, examine it, and compare it to other pottery from sites with a known date.
Pottery is often mixed, as when people live peacefully for a long time in the same place, or when we run across a dumping area or a pit. When we’re lucky enough to identify a “safe locus,” such as beneath a clear destruction layer, a wall, or a floor, we have a good idea of when the destruction occurred, when the wall was built, or when the floor was in use. We know, for example, that Lachish was destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE, so pottery from beneath that obvious layer of burned materials has a known “last date,” and can be compared with pottery from other sites that may not have been destroyed at the same time, but have similar styles of pottery.
When organic materials are found, they can be dated, with an increasingly narrow margin of error, through an analysis of Carbon 14, an isotope that starts deteriorating the moment something (plant or animal) dies. Carbonized grain, charcoal, and other materials can be dated in this way, and the results compared with pottery found in the same locus.
Examining and interpreting the ancient sherds (or shards) is called “reading the pottery,” and it is a regular part of any dig from periods that made use of it. We learn from the shape, the color, and the fabric or texture of the clay (coarse or fine?). Was it painted or burnished? Was it treated with a colorful slip before baking? Does it have designs or indentions typical of a particular period? Was it stamped with a seal or engraved before baking? All of these questions, and more, come into play.
While digging, pottery from each locus is kept in a bucket or basket marked by an identifying tag. Afterward, it is washed. At most sites, pottery is kept in buckets and lugged back to where team members are lodging. The buckets are filled with water to let the pottery soak and loosen the encrusted dirt. Later, dig participants use small brushes and fresh water to scrub away as much of the dirt as possible, then the pottery is left to dry in the sun.
At Jezreel, we are fortunate enough to be digging near the site of the spring that made life at Jezreel possible. The original spring dried up some years ago, but water is now piped in from another spring nearby, where it gives life to a grove of Eucalyptus trees that have been turned into a popular park. Dig co-director Norma Franklin came up with the idea of putting the pottery in open weave plastic baskets, which can be dunked in the narrow channel of spring water and sloshed around to loosen the outer layer of dirt. Team members, hot and dirty from hours of digging, can end the day by sitting with their feet in the cool water while scrubbing basket upon basket of sherds — well over a hundred pounds of it on most days, mostly in small pieces. We can then bring the washed pottery back to the dig office and transfer it to open cardboard boxes for drying.
When it’s time for pottery reading, square supervisors spread each pottery basket on a table, and team members carefully separate the diagnostic pieces — mainly pieces of rims, bases, handles, or body sherds with special features. These are more likely to tell us if the piece came from a jar, a cooking pot, a platter, or something else. Dig staff who are most experienced in reading pottery evaluate each piece and render a preliminary judgment as to whether the pottery is of mixed types (for example, ranging from Early Bronze to Persian), or whether it is predominantly from one period, such as the Middle Bronze, the latter part of the Iron Age, and so forth.
The most telling diagnostic pieces are saved for closer analysis by a pottery specialist. The last step in the field is “pottery writing,” when the Sharpies come out and each piece is labeled with a number indicating the expedition (Jezreel), the year (17), the general location (currently area S), the locus number, and the basket number.
One has to be careful to read the pottery (and the architecture) as it is, not as one wants it to be. If you set out thinking that you might find evidence of life a particular period, but most of the pottery you find comes from earlier or later periods, you have a puzzle to solve.
And Jezreel has puzzles aplenty.