“Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon” by Eric H Cline

Megiddo excavations (via Wikimedia Commons) Megiddo excavations (via Wikimedia Commons)

“And he gathered them together in a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). Armageddon. The word sends shivers up the spine; it’s the place where, according to the imaginative interpretation of some, the final battle between the forces of good and evil will be fought. It’s mentioned twelve times in the Old Testament and once only in the New, quoted above.

In reality, Megiddo is a small hill, barely more than a mound. “Armageddon” isn’t Hebrew, either—it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew Har Megiddo, meaning “a range of hills”. It was the location of thirty battles in four thousand years, involving leaders from Thutmose III (reigned 1479-1426 BCE) through Saladin and Napoleon to General Allenby in 1918. These events, plus the possibility that Solomon built a city there, have made it a major archaeological site since 1903, when Gottlieb Schumacher exposed eight strata or layers of building at Megiddo together with a number of artifacts from various chronological periods, one of which, a small statue of the Egyptian king Sheshonq I (r. 943-922 BCE), was contemporaneous with the Biblical king Solomon, an important fact for what was to follow.

Armageddon was the site of several more battles, this time between feuding archaeologists!

Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon, Eric H Cline (Princeton University Press, March 2020)
Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon, Eric H Cline (Princeton University Press, March 2020)

Megiddo is “home away from home” for George Washington University professor of anthropology and classics who has worked there every summer from 1994 to 2014. The author of a detailed study of Megiddo (Battles of Armageddon, 2001), he is uniquely qualified to write about the discoveries there of his predecessors.

In Digging Up Armageddon, Cline presents the story of the expedition begun in 1925 under the leadership of the eminent American archaeologist James Henry Breasted of the University of Chicago and Clarence Fisher, his first of several field directors, and which has continued in various forms until the present day. Breasted, whose ultimate authority was the Old Testament account (1 Kings 10:26-27) of Solomon housing horses for his chariots at Megiddo, believed it possible the king’s stables could be found there. Cline quotes Philip Guy, the British leader of Breasted’s team in 1927-35, declaring that the structures they had uncovered at that juncture “can be nothing else than stables.” Unfortunately, later scholarship has shown that they weren’t, but that’s another story. Breasted’s sensational discovery, which happened not long after Howard Carter’s legendary excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922,  made front-page news then, but now is almost forgotten.

Cline approaches the story of formative years of biblical archaeology not just as an archaeological dig of great importance, but as something of an adventure involving actual personalities. Indeed, it seems that Armageddon was the site of several more battles, this time between feuding archaeologists! Personnel are hired and fired (Guy a prime  example), clashes between egos are almost constant, and at one point even escalating into physical violence. Personal letters, a detailed list of personnel involved over the whole period, contemporary photographs, maps and figures all contribute to the understanding of what was happening at Megiddo, and of course help to shine light on the various human conflicts between the participants. One such happened between Emmanuel Wilensky and Herbert May in 1933, after the latter had “asked the workmen to dig a little bit in one specific area,” and Wilensky, who was in charge, had questioned him about it, then stormed off. Later, coming across May again, he shouted (as an eyewitness wrote) “If you ever act that way again, I’ll smash your d*** face!” Wilensky was summarily dismissed. Quarrels and backbiting between archaeologists and their various spouses (several of them got married during the time of the dig) were also quite common, but almost coming to blows was not, although one member, Ralph Parker, kicked one of the workmen and was known for anti-Semitic outbursts. There were also the usual differences between the British and the Americans. “[Guy] is a stubborn Englishman and seems to be getting away with murder,” wrote Laurence Woolman, and accused him of being a “dawdler.”

There’s a lawsuit, madness, a scandal (one of the expedition’s secretaries seems to have had a thing for younger men) and endless gossip, all of which must have had a deleterious effect on the very real work being carried out at Megiddo. Sometimes one wonders how they managed to get so much actual archaeology done.

At the same time—and it’s really quite amazing how he pulls it off—Cline has written a book deeply-imbued with scholarship, an in-depth look at the history and archaeology not just of the expedition at Megiddo, but of the whole Near Eastern region and ancient Israel, of which Megiddo is such a crucial part. These people, for all their personal feuds, quirks and differences, made exciting and significant discoveries whose importance lasts to this day, and Cline, by examining their papers and letters as well as the more formal reports, shows us what team archaeology was like at the time, and is perhaps still like in our own time, at least as far as the more human side of it is concerned. Indeed, so vivid is Cline’s telling of the story that readers might be forgiven for finding the personal dimension just as interesting as the archaeology. Anyone who thought that archaeologists were just boring people digging up ancient relics which were of no interest to anyone outside their own field, will be quickly disabused of such a notion.

 

Megiddo is, of course, an extremely important site, and excavation continues to this day. Many significant buildings have been unearthed, from palaces and temples to more humble structures such as water-tunnels. Its real archaeological and historical importance lay in what it could tell us about kingship in ancient Israel and early city-dwelling, as there were several layers of building there open to excavation, beginning with the ancient Egyptian period. During the Breasted era at Megiddo, several new techniques were developed and put into operation, such as aerial photography, and Breasted’s son Charles even made a film about the discoveries called The Human Adventure (1935), in which, Cline tells us, “he wrote the script and served as the narrator.” The film “explores the history of past civilizations in what was, essentially, an hour-long illustrated lecture given by [James] Breasted for the general public.” It was a success, despite the fears of  one critic that it might turn out to be as interesting as a film about stamp-collecting; he was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t. Charles Breasted himself explained to his audience how digging was done, and the result was what may be considered the predecessor of modern documentaries about archaeology, not to mention Cline’s observation that one could see it as anticipating the interest shown in Indiana Jones movies, with James Breasted (who would sadly die in 1935) starring in his impeccable three-piece tweed suit.

 Cline devotes a section to each of the four stages of the excavation, ending with 1940-2020, when archaeologists had to cope with the sometimes dangerous climate of not just the Second World War but with the first Arab-Israeli conflict inf 1948, the year following the establishment of the state of Israel; at that time their dig house was looted and equipment destroyed. The Chicago group stopped excavating when the Second World War intervened, but Cline tells us that they intended to resume after 1945, but did not, and the work was taken over by Israeli archaeologists, with renewed excavations beginning in 1992 and still continuing to this day.

As Cline tells us, questions about Megiddo still abound. “We have barely scratched the surface of this ancient site,” he writes, “and have plumbed its depths down to bedrock in only one area.” Even the questions about Solomon’s city which led to Breasted’s original expedition still remain unanswered, namely “which city was the one fortified by Solomon, and which one was captured by Thutmose III?” The detailed reports and learned speculations put forward over the years since 1903 have not provided a solution to the riddle of Megiddo, which of course leads archaeologists to continue their possibly endless quest there.

This book will open a reader’s eyes about the seemingly cold and objective science of archaeology, and Cline’s judicious, generous and sometimes humorous treatment of the interactions between the personal and professional worlds is what accomplishes it. We may learn a lot about the Bronze and Iron Ages or the nature of the monarchy in ancient Israel in this book, but we also see those who provide that knowledge as, in Nietzsche’s words, “human, all-too human.” Long may they remain that way!


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.