Reviews of

The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant: c. 8000-332 BCE

In Ancient Israel, Ancient Near East, Ann E. KILLEBREW, Archaeology, Kurtis Peters, Margreet L. STEINER, Oxford University Press on November 17, 2014 at 12:14 am

2014.11.18 | Margreet L. Steiner and Ann E. Killebrew, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant: c. 8000-332 BCE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. £110. pp. 912. ISBN 978-0-19-921297-2.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters,
University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to OUP for providing a review copy.

Steiner and Killebrew have delivered exactly what those of us in Biblical Studies needed – an access point for engaging with the world of archaeology as it pertains to the Levant. In the past it has been difficult for biblical scholars and students to engage critically with archaeological research on a particular subject, or time period, or geographic region. A quick glance through the table of contents will immediately reveal that this book is designed for such novice or intermediate readers. It is as a guidebook for interested amateurs, such as many of RBECS’ readers, that it will be evaluated here.

The volume is arranged primarily according to chronology and secondarily according to geographic region, but significantly, this arrangement only begins in Part III. Parts I and II provide essential orientation work that is recommended to all readers before they delve into the chapters dedicated to certain times and places. Part I consists of four chapters concerning historical geography, peoples and languages, general history of research, and an overview of chronology and its uses and problems. Much of the rest of the book depends on the readers understanding some of these issues, and readers may need to return here now and again to make sense of what they encounter in the later chapters. Part II considers the relationship of the Levant to the various empires of the ancient world, particularly as it serves as a land bridge or crossroads between them. There are, then, individual chapters dedicated in turn to Egypt, Anatolia (Hittites), Mesopotamia (Assyrians and Babylonians), and Persia. This is a particularly interesting section, one that is more interpretive and integrating of archaeological data.

Part III is the main body of the volume and is concerned with the archaeological record itself. Beginning with the neolithic period it weaves its way through time and space until it arrives at the end of the Achaemenid/Persian period (c. 332 BCE and the campaign of Alexander). There are subsections (Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Early and Intermediate Bronze, Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, Iron I, Iron II) each of which begins with an overview of that period across the whole of the Levant, and then is followed by chapters arranged by regions. It is interesting to note a gradual increase in specificity as one moves through the chronological eras. In the first two sections, Neolithic and Chalcolithic, the regional chapters are northern Levant, southern Levant Cisjordan, southern Levant Transjordan, and Cyprus. In each of the Bronze Ages the same division is used except that the northern Levant is divided into northern Levant Syria and northern Levant Lebanon. In the Iron I section, these two are collapsed again simply into northern Levant. But the greatest specificity (and interpretation) comes with Iron II, which is divided into the following chapter subjects, after the overview chapter: Aramaean states, Phoenicia, Philistia, Israel, Judah, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Cyprus (11th Century to 300 BCE), the Levant during the Babylonian period, and the Levant during the Persian period. This seems a strange divergence from an otherwise effective plan. The previous sections were arranged by region, but this last section seems to be arranged by ancient polities. There is, of course, good reason to divide archaeology by polities, or at least by distinctive ethnic groups, given that each group tends to produce its own style of pottery, settlement patterns, etc. Nevertheless, to attach archaeological data to particular people groups or kingdoms is an interpretive move, one that is often condemned in archaeological research, even when those attachments are made with relatively firm grounding. That is the practise of historiography. Such a move can and must be forgiven, for the information in these chapters is invaluable and the authors themselves are by no means operating under the illusion that each of these groups or polities is archaeologically isolated from one another.

Several other brief comments on the format of the volume are necessary. One is that Part II (empires) is lacking a chapter on the influence of Mittani on the archaeology of the Levant. Mittani may have played less of a role than the other empires who have dedicated chapters, but it was nonetheless significant, especially for the political situation in the northern Levant. Readers of this volume would have benefited from such a chapter. A second note is one of praise for that which might otherwise go unnoticed. At the beginning of every chapter concerning a particular region/polity is a map of excavated sites from the relevant time and place. While it can be helpful to have an overall map of the Levant covering all time periods, that can be overwhelming and confusing. It was therefore a wise decision to require a map at the beginning of each chapter. Also, each chapter has, as expected, a dedicated bibliography and suggested reading list for the interested reader, which is essential for a handbook of this sort. Lastly, on a slightly more critical note, it is obvious by looking at the contents that the volume prioritizes the Iron Age over all the other chronological periods. This is, no doubt, due to the fact that the field of archaeology tends to have the same bias (or perhaps those who fund archaeological digs have the same bias), but a handbook should be able to comment on that aspect and perhaps move beyond it in the same way that it moves beyond the geographically fractured nature of the field. Of course, readers of RBECS and others interested in the world that the Bible inhabits are going to find themselves drawn to the Iron Age anyhow and for this reason they can appreciate the greater emphasis that the volume places there.

The subject of this book itself deserves comment. Importantly, it is not ‘Biblical Archaeology’. It is not even the archaeology of Israel/Palestine. Instead, it is the archaeology of the Levant. The Levant, which consists of the entire eastern Mediterranean seaboard, is held here to be a semi-unified geographical region. This is not to say that the region was politically or ethnically unified. Rather, this land served as a bridge between empires and trade routes, power and commerce. It was largely mountainous and depended on rainfall, as opposed to the great riverine cultures as its neighbours. While the peoples that lived there were indeed diverse, they often shared patterns of resource production, trade, relationships with foreign powers, etc. Therefore, to isolate the south (Canaan/Palestine/Israel) from the north (Syria and Lebanon) or one side of the Jordan from the other is to look at but one part of an integrated picture. To consider the whole of the Levant together, however, is not a common thing to do. In the pages of this book one can see the general confusion or lack of communication between archaeologists of different regions who all use different dating schemes, different pottery terminology, and so on (see Sherratt p.497-498). It is not treated as a single field. Nevertheless, the aim of the present volume is to draw these varied groups together between the same two covers and hopefully pave a way forward that is typified by communication and collaboration.

One especially illustrative example of how archaeology in the Levant is fractured is the study of Cyprus. This island has been studied primarily as part of Mediterranean archaeology rather than as part of the Levant. However, as Clarke points out, there are extensive connections between Cyprus and the mainland to its east. Already in the epipaleolithic (11th Millennium BCE) there were hunter-fisher groups from the Levant visiting parts of the island and in the 10th Millennium these groups may even have settled there (Clarke p.183-184). This relationship, however, is not only one of origins, but continues to be play a major role in the make-up and structure of Cyprus (also sometimes known as Alashya). They interacted with the Hittite empire, with Egypt, with Phoenicians, and with the Assyrian empire, to name but a few of their prominent contacts. It is true that their archaeological sequence often does not exactly match that of the mainland, i.e. archaeological periods begin and end at different times than on the mainland. This does not, however, preclude the island from being studied as part of the Levantine whole.

Readers who, as mentioned above, will be drawn to the sections on the Iron Age, will miss some of the important insights provided by the earlier chapters. For example, the Chalcolithic period (approximately 5th Millennium BCE) saw the first real urban centres, which is what led to the rise of institutionalized social inequality (Levy p. 203). Prior to urbanism, societies relied on being more socially egalitarian for the purposes of survival. Such was also often the case even after the rise of urbanism in places and communities far from the reach of such centres. During this same period, sedentarization was underway, with the first real signs of increased agricultural expansion (producing cereals, olives, etc. (Rowan p. 224). But it was not until the change from the Chalcolithic to the Early Bronze that there was a notable shift in ideology and economy toward power, agriculture, horticulture and herding (Greenberg p. 270). And it was in the Early Bronze that most scholars have placed the major urban development of the Levant, though this does not go unchallenged. According to some, there are more promising new directions in societal reconstruction that would see that, rather than urbanization, the Levant transitioned into complex ruralism and interconnected heterarchy, this latter being defined as a web of different power bases within a community, each responsible for different aspects of the community’s life (Richard p. 331 ff.). Also interesting is the first of the two chapters on the Intermediate Bronze Age (by Harvey Weiss), which provides a detailed account of the climatic change that either contributed to or caused the massive changes seen in that era. All of these are useful ideas or tools that biblical scholars and students ought to be aware of, as it situates the people of the Bible as playing a part in a longer sweep of time and gives broader context for their actions in that time.

In the later periods, such as the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, with which biblical scholars will be more familiar, the chapters offer helpful guideposts for navigating some of the tangled archaeological/historical debates (who were the Israelites, was there a Davidic/Solomonic kingdom and what did it look like, etc.), but the authors do a good job of not becoming caught too deeply in them. They do not shy away from mentioning the problems and debates, but they merely mention them and some of the nuances of the arguments, and then allow for the reader to follow it up according to the bibliography and suggested reading. For example, the matter of Israel’s origin is given a fair yet brief overview and the author (Gilboa) allows the reader to make his/her own decision on the matter (p.644).

A final critical comment concerns the relationship of archaeology to history as well as to the Bible. Different authors in this volume show themselves to be interested in pure archaeology, or in archaeologically-informed history, or in archaeologically-informed biblical studies (or in biblically-driven archaeology). For example, in Part II (empires), the chapter on Egypt reads more like a description of the Egyptian influence on the Levantine archaeological record. The other chapters on the remaining empires read more like the influence of these empires on the history of the Levant, and subsequently on its archaeological record. As mentioned above, the arrangement of Part III is also peculiar, wherein the chapters begin by being arranged by region and by the Iron Age II they are arranged by polities. Some of the authors spend more time discussing the history of events as described in texts (sometimes texts discovered in digs, sometimes the Bible, sometimes both) than they do describing the nature of the archaeological data. It is an interesting mix of agendas or aims, but that merely points to the varied nature of archaeological research in the Levant in general, and thus Steiner and Killebrew can only be credited for adequately representing the field in the breadth of the scholars represented here.

There are, therefore, a few aspects of this volume that could be improved, but that should not take away from the overwhelmingly positive value that it provides for the non-specialist audience. It is, in the present author’s estimation, the introduction/reference to archaeological research in the Levant. Whether one is studying the Middle Bronze Age in northern Syria or the role of Edom in the Iron Age II, let alone the more direct study of Israel/Judah, this is where to start.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh

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