Bones, Burials And Biblical History: The Goals of Burial Excavation -- By: John J. Davis

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 14:4 (Fall 2001)
Article: Bones, Burials And Biblical History: The Goals of Burial Excavation
Author: John J. Davis


Bones, Burials And Biblical History:
The Goals of Burial Excavation

First of Three Parts

John J. Davis

The excavation of burials has long been a matter of fascination and mystery for both young and old. Reactions by modern observers to this part of the archaeological field process are often mixed. There are those who consider the excavation of tombs as an act of desecration that cannot be justified. Others view the process with casual curiosity. Archaeologists regard it as necessary to the complete reconstruction of a society and its cultural traditions.

This is the first of a three-pan series in which we will explore the purposes of burial excavation, the methods employed, and the impact it has on understanding Biblical history and culture.

Early History

Unfortunately, the history of tomb exploration is not noted for its scientific sophistication. In fact, the motives and methods early explorers used to open and explore tombs is an archaeological embarrassment.

Typical of the brutal methods was the work of Giovanni Battista Belzoni in Egypt. Having located the entrance of a royal tomb in the western Valley of the Kings, he proceeded to open it with a battering ram made of two palm logs (Baikie n.d.: 12). Belzoni’s own account of his work is enough to send chills up the spine of the modern excavator.

Elaborating on his experience inside the tomb, Belzoni stales; “Every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other” (Belzoni 1966:141). Elsewhere he relates

that the tomb ... was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downward, my own weight helped me on; however, I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above (Belzoni 1966:141).

In one European archaeological report the observation is made that “where necessary, the dolmens [tombs] were blasted, the circle of stones removed...” (Wheeler 1954:113). In Italy, the pursuit of buried treasure both in and out of tombs, was carried on by the use of tunnels which often destroyed as much artifactual material as was recovered (Deiss 1966:22–28).

Author analyzing tool impressions in a Roman tomb

Osteologist Tom Kick examines a skull from an early Roman tomb at Abila.

There are at least two reasons why such crude methodologies were employed. First, it was a period of exploration when hi...

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