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.