Through archaeology, a picture of ancient Israeli life appears
While the Hebrew Bible purports to give us snapshots of particular events in time that occurred in ancient Israel, archaeological evidence of those specific events is relatively rare, according to Aaron Brody, associate professor of Bible and archaeology, and director of the Bade Museum at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.
What archaeology does afford us, Brody said, is the ability to understand, in broader terms, how ancient people lived: their social behaviors, their customs and their economy.
Brody was in town last weekend to address the Biblical Archeology Society of Pittsburgh on “Ancient Israel and its Mediterranean Connections.” His lecture was held at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Sunday, March 15.
There was an interconnectedness between ancient Israel and the Mediterranean beyond what we read in the Hebrew Bible, Brody said in an interview while he was in town. That interconnectedness is revealed through artifacts dating from 1200 B.C.E. to 333 B.C.E., including the discovery in Israel of products that were not naturally abundant there and therefore must have been imported from afar.
“Like in our modern world, there are certain products that don’t exist everywhere,” Brody noted. Copper artifacts found in Israel, for example, would have come from Cyprus, he said, and would have had to have been delivered by boat, therefore indicating an ancient trade relationship between Israel and Cyprus.
Likewise, testing on hoards of silver discovered recently in Israel and dating to between the 10th and sixth centuries B.C.E., Brody noted, indicate that it originated in Spain and Sardinia. That silver, he said, could substantiate imagery in the Prophets that describes the ships of Tarshish.
“It’s thought that the places where the silver was coming from was from that far-off land of Tarshish,” Brody said. “It’s a metaphor that the prophets were aware of the international community of the time.”
“We’re talking in some ways about globalization,” he added. “Some of us don’t realize how interconnected the world has been from a very early period.”
Shipwrecks, as well as products, can reveal a lot of information about ancient Israel and its maritime activities, Brody said.
A fairly recent find, he said, was a shipwreck off the coast of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, dating to the fourth century B.C.E. The wooden hull of the ship was “actually, pretty well-preserved,” he said.
“One of the things that always impresses me is the sophistication of this ancient property,” said Brody. “The ships themselves in some ways are some of the most intricate ancient construction that we have. And they did it with no power tools. It’s humbling to think of human ingenuity and what people cold accomplish in a pre-mechanized age.”
Just a couple decades ago, it was commonly thought that international trade was absent during the biblical time period traditionally associated with the Iron Age. But, while it may not have been robust, recent studies have shown that the ancient Israelites had a trade connection with Cyprus, which lends credence to some of the references in biblical poetry to ships or sand or the shore, according to Brody.
Brody became interested in maritime archaeology during a college year abroad at the University of Haifa, where he worked on a land excavation harbor site. While there are not a lot of underwater finds in Israel, he said, there is “a rich maritime heritage off the Israeli coast.”
The museum Brody runs in northern California showcases artifacts from a collection discovered about 80 years ago at Tell en-Nasbeh, which is believed to be the ancient city of Mizpah, located about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem. Those artifacts, Brody said, tell the story of the daily life of ancient Israelites, including what their houses were like, how they cooked their food, aspects of their rituals and their death and burial practices.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.