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Archaeological Views: Children of Three Paradigms
My Generation in Israeli Archaeology
When my kids listen to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, I proudly tell them that when the legendary sound track of the 1960s and the 1970s was created, “I was there.” Studying archaeology in the early 1970s, at a time when major intellectual transformations reshaped the discipline, my generation of archaeologists also “was there.” Indeed, this generation of Israeli archaeologists are children of three successive archaeological paradigms: (1) traditional (or culture history), (2) modern (scientific, processual) and (3) postmodern (interpretive, reflexive).
How did we experience these disciplinary “revolutions” in Israel, and what is their impact on the research agenda at the current excavations at Tel Beth-Shemesh, directed by Zvi Lederman, an old classmate from Tel Aviv University, and me?
As beginners in archaeology we were exposed both to normative culture historical archaeology and to the unique brand of Israeli Biblical archaeology: secular, yet existentially and emotionally tied to the Bible. The strong ties with the Bible dictated research agendas and explanatory paradigms hardly different from that of earlier scholarship during the “Golden Age” of the archaeology of Palestine between the two World Wars. The main interest still focused on conspicuous historical events, such as royal building enterprises, military campaigns, wholesale destructions, etc. Ordinary life and social and cultural processes were mostly ignored.
In the mid-1970s, the sound of trumpets announcing archaeology’s “loss of innocence” and the end of traditional culture-historical archaeology were hardly heard in Israel; they were considered voices from abroad. Though some American expeditions working at the time in Israel proudly claimed to have introduced scientific and processes-oriented “New Archaeology” to the land, a more balanced retrospect shows that this claim was overstated. We acquainted ourselves with the innovative thinking of British and American “New Archaeology” mainly through reading its programmatic literature, not by doing it.
Luckily for us, environmentally oriented settlement archaeology was practiced at Tel Aviv Institute of Archaeology. Though rooted in historical geography, rather than in theoretical developments abroad, this branch of research concurred with the new spirit of processual archaeology. The large-scale archaeological field surveys that took place all over the country during the 1970s and 1980s were conducted mainly by advanced students at Tel Aviv University. These surveys profoundly changed the focus of Israeli archaeology. The new interest in the “people without history”—the rural backbone of ancient Canaan and Israel—countered the urban bias of traditional tell archaeology and its near-exclusive reliance on elitist political history.
The archaeology of the “silent majority” (the rural backbone, the people without a history) that emerged in Israel served as a healthy antidote to the traditional archaeological inquiry of “great men” and “great deeds.” Yet its processual and environmental spirit carried it away from human agency. The strong reaction against processual archaeology in the 1980s (mainly by British archaeologists) made us aware of the need for a more humane or “human” archaeology. Apparently, an explanation of “what happened in history” cannot be reduced merely to adaptation—to materialist or determinist schemes that take into account only such factors as environment, technology or subsistence, and ignore the role of symbols, ideology and even religion, in shaping of society and in culture change.
Despite the important theoretical revolutions in archaeology in recent decades, no one paradigm has gained full rein in Israel. In fact, the three main archaeological paradigms run parallel to each other. Although the way in which these different approaches should be incorporated into a “grand unified theory” of archaeology is still unclear, I would argue that they can and should be practiced together—as at our investigation of Tel Beth-Shemesh:
1. Culture history is the foundation course of any archaeological enterprise since it involves the integration of material-culture remains within the cultural sequence of the geographical region. At Beth-Shemesh we acknowledge the need for an up-to-date refined stratigraphical, chronological and cultural sequence of the site (what archaeologists have always looked for) before trying to expose any processual and cognitive patterns within the data.
2. The processual and interpretive “layers” of our intellectual background is manifested at Tel Beth-Shemesh excavations in some of the new research trends we explore. One of our major studies, rooted in processual thinking, is the long-term relations between the site’s geopolitical location and its material culture. The theme of a border site—between Israel and Philistia—is the backbone of our research as we try to monitor changes in material culture and behavioral patterns at Beth-Shemesh in tandem with Iron Age social and political transformations in the Shephelah of Judah, especially Israelites versus Philistines in general.
3. We want to go beyond the processual program at Beth Shemesh, however. We want to look at the cognitive and symbolic aspects related, for example, to Israelite ethnogenesis (that is, foodways and food taboos, etc.). In this respect, we look at the Biblical narratives about identity at the Philistine-Israelite border (for example, the Samson epics and the Ark narrative) as cultural documents rather than historical or ideological texts.
The excavations of Tel Beth-Shemesh faithfully reflect, then, the multilayered intellectual background of our generation, combining the best of the three major archaeological paradigms. Yet, we always try not to forget the memorable words of G. Ernest Wright, our predecessor in the research of ancient Beth-Shemesh. In the heyday of aspirations to morph archaeology into a “hard” science, Wright was bold enough to remind us all that “only humanists in the true sense can in the end make sense out of the seeming chaos of human culture systems.”
Further Reading:
Israeli Archaeology

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