Archaeological finds in Israel are always particularly exciting.
From the “David” reference at Tel Dan, to excavations in Jerusalem’s Old City, there is always something exciting to find when a shovel hits the dirt. The modern fascination with Israeli archaeology probably occurred during the work of famed archaeologist William Albright. As professor of ancient Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins, Albright became director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem in the 1920s. His work is still highlighted in east Jerusalem.
He helped authenticate the Dead Sea Scrolls and then established his reputation as a biblical archaeologist. Very importantly, as he came of age during the reign of the evil German Higher Criticism (a school of thought that said much of the Old Testament is myth), Albright rejected that and believed the biblical records are accurate.
Recently though, a discovery has come under scrutiny and we can thank the Israel Antiquities Authority for that. It does no good to come upon an interesting find and peddle it as truth if it isn’t.
The story of the discovery of an inscription referring to King Darius the Persian is quite fascinating. Darius of course was ruler in a time of intense struggle for Jews in Mesopotamia. Rocked by invasions from Assyria and Babylon, they found themselves slaves in Babylon.
Until the Medo-Persian empire arose. Which leads to one more archaeological find that is authentic. The so-called “Cyrus Cylinder,” a barrel-shaped clay cuneiform message, was a decree from King Cyrus (predicted to come 150 years before he did, in Isaiah 45) that allowed conquered peoples to return to their ancestral homelands. This is what precipitated the exodus from Babylon back to Jerusalem by the Jews in the sixth century B.C.
Darius was king between Belshazzar and Cyrus.
The inscription on the pottery shard referring to Darius excited many only weeks ago when it was announced. However, the end of the story, though disappointing in one sense, is still intriguing and again, we must acknowledge the diligence of professionals that did not allow this find to “take root.” But the rest of the story is not nefarious, as in a blatant hoax.
Archaeological hoaxes are fairly common, and usually involve money or notoriety. A much more recent example would be the infamous “Hitler Diaries” in the 1980s, a collection of writings attributed to one of the most ruthless men in history. It came out then though that the “diaries” were really sophisticated forgeries.
Much more important are ancient Near East artifacts. If we are to properly know history, we must get the archaeology right.
It turns out that, far from being a sinister plot, the real ending to this story is a bit more mundane, albeit fascinating.
It was found in the Tel Lachish national park in southern Israel. According to the Jewish News Syndicate:
“However, in a rare weekend press announcement two days later, the IAA stated that an expert, who participated in the expedition last August contacted it following the publication of the find.
“The scholar informed the authority that she had created the inscription ‘while demonstrating to a group of students the manner in which sherds were inscribed in ancient times.’ (‘Sherd’ is a technical term that often overlaps with ‘shard.’)
“The scholar accidentally left the shard on the site, leading to the erroneous identification, per the statement.”
So there you have it! An innocent mistake led to a fairly electrifying announcement. The Antiquities Authority is revising procedures that will hopefully prevent such a mistake from being made again.
In the meantime…hey, what’s that over there? Sticking out of the dirt!