Dec.20, 2004

Anthropologists settle a Biblical bone of contention

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Archaeological excavation of a copper production building at Khirbat en-Nahas.

Hamilton, ON - For the last decade, archaeologists, historians and Biblical scholars have been embroiled in a debate about the origins and development of the Kingdom of Edom, one of several Iron Age kingdoms mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Like the Kingdom of Israel, Edom grew from the collapse of the Egyptian empire around 1200 BC. Some have argued that Edom, located in present-day Jordan, was the result of the expansion of the Assyrian Empire in 8th to 6th centuries B.C.; others have said Edom is older, and developed independently.

“What’s at stake here is the veracity of the Hebrew Bible,” explains Russell Adams, professor of anthropology at McMaster University. “On one side are the Biblical “minimalists”, such as the British scholar Philip Davies, who assert that the early Biblical accounts were written in the Persian/Hellenic period, and are purely theological and not historical; on the other side are those who argue that many of the historical narratives provide useful if not always a literal interpretation of actual events. The truth, we have found, lies somewhere in between.”

A long-term study of the social impact of copper production from the Neolithic to the Iron Age led the Jabal Hamrat Fidan Archaeological Project, directed by Thomas Levy (University of California, San Diego) and Adams to the site of Khirbat en-Nahas (Arabic for ‘ruins of copper’) in the Arabah Valley of southern Jordan. It is the site of one of the largest industrial landscapes of the ancient world. Excavations at an Iron Age fort where a copper production building and smelting furnaces were unearthed, has been reported in the December 2004 issue of the British journal Antiquity.

Using high-precision radiocarbon dating, the team discovered that Edom is older than scholars predicted, by about 200 years. According to Adams, “The archaeological evidence in conjunction with these new radiocarbon dates has given us solid, scientific proof of the early date of the formation of Edom.”

“Previous evidence led scholars to believe that Edom was one of the last of the Iron Age states, but in fact it turns out to be contemporary of other states such as Israel, which emerged in the 10th century” says Adams. Furthermore, he says, it shows that Edomites were a resourceful, innovative group, exploiting local resources, and thriving under their own steam rather than under a mammoth empire.

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