Dig­ging Up Armaged­don: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon

  • Review
By – August 3, 2020

A visitor’s tour of north­ern Israel is like­ly to include a stop at Megid­do, where a guide will offer an overview of the archae­o­log­i­cal site. Exca­va­tions began in 1903 and con­tin­ue today. Com­prised of lay­er upon lay­er of some twen­ty cities, Megiddo’s ear­li­est signs of habi­ta­tion date back to approx­i­mate­ly 5000 BCE.

Megid­do is men­tioned sev­er­al times in the Hebrew Bible — Har Megid­do, the moun­tain of Megid­do — and in the New Tes­ta­ment it became Armaged­don, the site of the penul­ti­mate bat­tle between the forces of good and evil. It is, Eric Cline writes in his newest book, Dig­ging Up Armaged­don, the cen­ter of bib­li­cal archae­ol­o­gy.” And yet much of it remains a mystery.

Cline, direc­tor of the Capi­tol Archae­ol­o­gy Insti­tute at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, focus­es on the exca­va­tions that began in 1925 and came to an end due to World War II. The work of this peri­od took place under the direc­tion of James Hen­ry Breast­ed, founder of the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. Fund­ed by John D. Rock­e­feller, Jr., teams of archae­ol­o­gists spent four­teen sea­sons at Megid­do, dig­ging for the grand prize — the City of Solomon.

These were ear­ly days in the field of archae­ol­o­gy in the region, and Breast­ed was look­ing for sites to exca­vate for his new insti­tute. His atten­tion was drawn to Megid­do by Gen­er­al Edmund Allen­by, whose mil­i­tary vic­to­ry there in 1918 against the Ottoman army suc­ceed­ed in part thanks to a pub­lished account by Breast­ed of a suc­cess­ful bat­tle waged there by Pharaoh Thut­mose III. Some 3,400 years lat­er, Allen­by fol­lowed the same approach, which again led to vic­to­ry at Megiddo.

Then there’s the sto­ry of one of the ear­ly field direc­tors of the exca­va­tions, P. L. O. Guy, a Scots­man who had been chief inspec­tor for the Depart­ment of Antiq­ui­ties in British Man­date Pales­tine. Guy was mar­ried to the daugh­ter of Eliez­er Ben-Yehu­da, the man cred­it­ed with reviv­ing Hebrew as a spo­ken lan­guage. Her pres­ence at the site brought out the anti­semitism of some of the team members.

Notwith­stand­ing oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties Guy expe­ri­enced with per­son­nel (much of which he was respon­si­ble for, accord­ing to Cline), his years as direc­tor includ­ed sig­nif­i­cant finds. In 1928, Guy noti­fied Breast­ed that they had dis­cov­ered part of the city of Solomon — the sta­bles. This was a source of great excite­ment, although the dat­ing proved prob­lem­at­ic even then. Today, Cline writes, it is clear” the sta­bles were not built by Solomon.

Accounts such as these add the human ele­ment to what might oth­er­wise be, for the non-spe­cial­ist read­er, a dust-dry account of dig­ging, with con­fus­ing descrip­tions of time peri­ods relat­ed to find­ings of walls, pot­tery, ivories, and oth­er signs of past civ­i­liza­tions. Draw­ing on let­ters, cables, diaries, and his own gift for sto­ry­telling, Cline brings to life the per­son­al­i­ties of the often-frac­tious exca­va­tion team mem­bers. Dur­ing the team’s four­teen sea­sons, as exca­va­tion per­son­nel came and went, there were fre­quent pow­er strug­gles, per­son­al dis­agree­ments, rival­ries, argu­ments over every­thing from liv­ing quar­ters, food, the num­ber of hours worked in a day, to approach­es on how to con­duct the dig. Espe­cial­ly in the ear­ly years, the exca­va­tors also had to con­tend with recur­ring bouts of malar­ia. Breast­ed con­sis­tent­ly weighed in, main­ly by cable and let­ter from Chica­go. It could be, Cline writes, the script for a day­time soap opera.”

It all played out against a back­ground of Arab-Jew­ish con­flict, from which the teams at Megid­do seemed to have been some­what pro­tect­ed. It was World War II that brought about the final sea­son of the dig, and notwith­stand­ing inten­tions and hopes, end­ed the Ori­en­tal Institute’s involve­ment in fur­ther exca­va­tions at Megiddo.

Today, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tel Aviv con­ducts the exca­va­tions, which Cline joined every oth­er sum­mer, from 1994 to 2014. Remark­ably, we have bare­ly scratched the sur­face of this ancient site,” Cline writes, and Solomon’s city — the impe­tus for the Chica­go expe­di­tions — has yet to be defin­i­tive­ly iden­ti­fied. So the work con­tin­ues, and for the read­er, the mys­tery and romance of Megiddo/​Armageddon remain.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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