Biblical or Near Eastern archaeology reconstructs the histories and societies of the Near East from human ancestors’ first migrations out of Africa 1.5 million years ago to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 CE through archaeological evidence and historical documents.
Geography and Climate
Although the archaic geographic term Near East has been largely replaced by Middle East in popular and political language, the Near East remains an operative term in archaeological research, alongside Anatolian, Arabian, Levantine, Mesopotamian, southwest Asia, and Syro-Palestinian. The geographic term Near East encompasses the modern countries of Bahrain, Cyprus, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Geography and climate play important roles in shaping Near Eastern life, dictating how and where populations subsist as well as the daily and seasonal measure of time. The 6 million km area is an amalgamation of mountains, plains, rivers, coasts, and deserts that, together, create a dynamic setting for the cultural landscape. Primary mountain ranges begin in the Armenian region, with the Taurus and Pontic ranges extending westward across Anatolia while the Zagros and Elburz Ranges extend eastward into Iraq and Iran. Crossing the Straits of Hormuz, the Hajar Range makes up a large portion of modern Oman. Running along either side of the Rift Valley’s extension into the Middle East is a series of mountain ranges: the Lebanon, Anti-Lebanon, and Jabal Ansariye. Along the southern portion of this series is the Hejaz Range, which extends to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. These features separate and sometimes surround several plains and plateaus of varying shapes and sizes, including the Anatolian and Iranian Plateaus in the west and east, respectively. From north to south, the Zagros and Taurus Ranges give way to the Mesopotamian Rise, the Syrian Steppe, Upper Mesopotamia, and Lower Mesopotamia. There is a similar condition in the Arabian Peninsula: moving west to east from the Hijaz Range is the Arabian Shield, followed by a series of escarpments, plateaus, and deserts until reaching the Persian Gulf.
Access to persistent water sources places a constraint on Near Eastern society, determining the level at which communities can thrive and subsist. Major rivers such as the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates and minor rivers such as the Orontes, Jordan, Balikh, and Khabur originate in higher elevations and travel down to the plains, providing water for crops either through flooding or irrigation. Maritime transportation is possible on the larger bodies of water, including the Eastern Mediterranean; the Black, Caspian, and Red Seas; and the Persian Gulf.
The region’s climate is characterized by extreme conditions and dictates, as does geography, the distribution of settlements and subsistence practices. The climate is a dry “continental” variant of the Mediterranean climate with wet winters and hot summers. The amount of moisture is often contingent on proximity to coastlines as well as altitude. Rainfall is higher and temperatures lower in the winter months, when colder weather patterns from Eurasia move south and east. The intensity of rainfall and the duration of the rainy season generally decrease from west to east and north to south. Annual rainfall on the Mediterranean Coastal Plain exceeds 600 mm while further south and east, the semidesert zones see 350-600 mm, and the deserts, 0-150 mm.
Near Eastern archaeologists have traditionally concentrated on the excavation of the region’s ancient settlements that range in size from large urban centers and villages to single family homes and temporary encampments. Because natural resources in the region are limited in their distribution, people habitually reoccupied the same location, using the building materials from previously abandoned settlements to construct new settlements. This palimpsest of human occupational activities resulted in deeply stratified artificial mounds easily visible across the region’s landscape and known in Arabic as tall, in Hebrew as tell, in Persian as tal, and in Turkish as hoyuk.
Excavation methods of ancient Near Eastern settlements vary from region to region, but almost all rely on horizontal and vertical stratigraphic relationships to understand a site’s multiple occupations. Archeologists use both absolute and relative dating techniques to assign dates to architectural and cultural phases. Examples of absolute dating techniques include Carbon-14 and dendrochronology. Relative dating techniques include the seriation of artifact assemblages, especially ceramic vessels, which permit the archaeologist to date strata based on the artifacts they contain.
Landscape survey has played a critical role in the discipline since its days when the early European explorers in the region first identified ancient settlements.
Today, survey is a commonplace practice in archaeological research, not only of settlements but also the myriad features of human construction, such as roads, water wheels, dams, and hunting stations. Survey is also useful in providing relative dates for a site’s occupations based on the artifacts that continuously erode from its soil.
In charting Near Eastern cultural periods, archeologists have developed subchronologies specific to the region. A sketch of Near Eastern history follows, divided into seven parts.
The earliest evidence of human occupation in the Near East dates to 1.5 million years ago during the Lower Paleolithic period at Ubeidiya where Homo erectus tool assemblages were excavated. Middle Paleolithic (250,000 to 45,000 years ago) settlements of Neandertals and Homo sapiens and Upper Paleolithic settlements of Homo sapiens were concentrated in caves such as Tabun and Skhul in Israel and now-extinct lakebeds. Paleolithic societies consisted of small nomadic bands depending on hunter-gather subsistence practices and stone tool technologies.
Toward the end of the Paleolithic and throughout the Neolithic period (c. 8,500-5,000 BCE), societies gradually adopted more sedentary lifestyles, building villages and domesticating plants and animals at sites such as Abu Hureyra, Jarmo, Jericho, and Chatal Hoyuk and Hajji Firuz. Midway through the Neolithic period, ceramic technology was introduced into the region. Village population grew, and along with it, disease increased in Neolithic societies.
Toward the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Chalcolithic Period (c. 5000-3000 BCE), archaeological evidence for social stratification suggests the complexity of political and economic institutions increased. Important Chalcolithic settlements include Chogha Mish, Tulaylat al-Ghassul, and Hacilar.
Urbanism, writing, and the introduction of bronze technology mark the Near Eastern Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BCE). Cites such as Megiddo, Ebla, Ur, Mari, Ugarit, Hattusas, and Susa are examples of cities demonstrating monumental architecture and complex political, religious, and economic institutions. Expansive political polities with far-reaching trade networks, such as the Akkadian, Old Babylonian, Hittite, and Elamite Dynasties rise and fall during this period.
Iron is introduced alongside bronze, ushering in the Iron Age (1200-333 BCE), a period divided between independent states during the first half and vast empires such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persian (Achaemenid) Empires in the second half of the period. Imperial capitals such as Nineveh, Babylon, and Persepolis, as well as smaller cities like Carchemish and Jerusalem are examples of Iron Age urban centers.
The Classical Period (333 BCE-633 CE) begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great. In the region’s western half, the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Empires dominate and integrate the region with their expansive Mediterranean trade networks. Many of the hallmarks of Classical civilization. such as civic institutions, city planning, and religion are introduced at this time. Examples such as Palmyra in Syria, Petra and Jerash in Jordan, Caesarea in Israel, and Antioch in Turkey reflect this Classical influence. In the region’s eastern half, first the Parthian and later, the Sassanid Empires dominated much of modern Iran, Mesopotamia, and Eastern Turkey, with their capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River. Both clashed often with the Roman and Byzantine Empires, as both sides attempted to expand their borders.
The Islamic Period begins in 633 CE with the spread of the Muslim faith across the region and ends with the Ottoman Empire’s collapse following the end of World War I in 1918. In the 7th century, the Umayyad, and later, the ‘Abbasid Empires replace the weakened Byzantine and Sassanid Empires and establish their capitals, first in Damascus, and later in Baghdad and Cairo. At the end of the 11th century, the European Crusades retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land succeeded in occupying the Mediterranean coastline, leaving the Fatamids and Saljuqs divided between Egypt and Iran, respectively. With the expulsion of the Crusaders in 1291, the Mamluk Empire expanded out of Egypt to control the area formerly under European occupation and often clashed with the neighboring Timurids to the east. From 1516 until 1918, the Ottoman Empire ruled Turkey, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula from its capital in Istanbul and from regional capitals such as Damascus and Cairo. The Ottoman Empire declines in the 19th century and is dismantled in World War One. The 20th century sees the division of the region between French and British colonial powers, the establishment of an independent Iran and Turkey, and the eventual founding of the modern nation-states that persist today.
History of Exploration
We can divide Near Eastern archaeology’s disciplinary history into five periods: Antiquarian (1500-1798 CE), Imperial (1798-1914), Colonial (1914-1948), Nationalist (1948-present), and Scientific (1970— present). The Antiquarian period was an era of armchair speculation. Scholars rarely visited the region, then under the Ottoman Empire’s control, and instead relied on indirect evidence, such as the Bible and a limited number of antiquities brought to Europe. The Imperial period began with Napoleon’s 1798 campaign to Egypt, an event that the European powers interpreted as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s decline. In response, European countries established consulates in the region’s major cities such as Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Jerusalem, and commissioned explorers to investigate the region’s ancient remains. With government as well as private funds, research centers were established to host scholars in Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Beirut. A limited number of excavations took place during the Imperial period, such as W. F. Petrie’s work at Tell el-Hesi in Palestine, E. Robinson in Jerusalem, A. H. Layard at Nineveh in Iraq, and J. de Morgan at Susa in Iran.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I launched the Colonial period when the British and French dominated Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. Largely considered a golden age by many scholars, the period between 1918 and 1948 saw an explosion of archaeological activity in the Near East. Now in full control of the region’s archaeological resources, archaeologists could organize large multi-year projects with guaranteed security and large indigenous work crews. Examples include the University of Chicago’s excavations at Megiddo in Palestine, Khorsabad in Iraq, and Persepolis in Iran; the University of Pennsylvania’s excavations at Beth Shean in Palestine and Ur in Iraq; and the Danish government’s excavations at Hama in Syria. The Colonial period also saw the development of excavation techniques. Scholars such as the American W. F. Albright and the British K. Kenyon paid greater attention to stratigraphic relationships and developed a system of ceramic seriation, where ceramic forms and styles helped assign a date to the contexts with which they were associated.
The Nationalist period commenced with the establishment of the region’s current political entities and continues to the current day. Now given complete sovereignty over the antiquities within their border, each country established government agencies that managed excavation and preservation projects. Foreign archaeologists continued their work, although now with the permission of national governments. Departments of archaeology offering degrees in archaeology and sponsoring their own excavations became commonplace in the region’s universities. Hebrew University’s excavations at Hazor in Israel, the University of Jordan’s excavations at Tall Mazar in Jordan, and the Turkish Historical Society’s excavations at Alacahoyuk are only a few examples.
Near Eastern archaeology has undergone a period of increased scientific rigor since 1970. While, in previous periods, archeologists focused on reconstructing the histories of ancient Near Eastern societies, they now seek to understand the structure and evolution of the region’s political, economic, and social institutions. Specialists concentrating on, for instance, palaeoenvironment, diet and ancient technologies are now a necessary part of an excavation’s research design. Emerging technologies such as Global Information Systems (GIS) and materials science techniques continue to push the field in new directions and increase scholars’ abilities to understand the region’s dynamic ancient societies.
Contributions to Anthropology
The contributions of Near Eastern archaeology to anthropology are multiple. The region serves as home to many of humanity’s earliest accomplishments and, because of this, anthropological inquiry has proven fruitful here. As the beginning to some of the world’s first sedentary communities, the Near East witnessed agriculture and urbanism’s first moments. Near Eastern societies were among the first to experiment with ceramic, copper, bronze, iron, and glass technologies. Sumerian, an ancient Mesopotamian language, was among the world’s first attempts to compose a systematic writing system using wedge-shaped cuneiform letters. This writing system persisted and was later transmitted to the Greeks, resulting in the invention of the Western alphabet commonly used today. The Near East is the birthplace of three world religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and the region contains many of their most sacred sites: Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Damascus.
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