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Biblical Archaeology Today*

G. Ernest Wright

Before attempting to say a few things about the present state of Biblical archaeology, it might be well to define what we mean by it. The term is often used in almost synonymous parallelism with Palestinian archaeology, but it is obvious that much with which the latter deals has little to do with the Bible, nor have all Palestinian archaeologists been primarily interested in Biblical matters. In the past, and occasionally even in the present, the term has been used by some to include virtually the whole of pre-Mohammedan archaeology in Biblical lands. Yet here again it is obvious that Biblical archaeology is something more definite and confined, since Near Eastern archaeology has long since thrown off any primary interest in the Bible, while classical archaeology has rarely had such an interest.


In evaluating the present state of this subject perhaps one should begin by saying that it is laboring under several handicaps. The first and obvious handicap is the scarcity of workers. Among the younger scholars in Britain today there appear to be no outstanding scholars in this field. In America the scholars who control the sources and labor intensively in this area can be numbered on the fingers of one hand.

The Oriental Institute, which can be said to be the outstanding center of Near Eastern archaeology in this country, to my knowledge has never had a Biblical archaeologist on its staff. The one figure who looms head and shoulders above all others, not only on this side of the Atlantic but on the other as well, is W. F. Albright. The revolutionary implications of archaeology for Biblical studies have been seen by him as by no other with the result that the real range and importance of the subject are often regarded as nothing more than the individual views of one scholar. Yet discerning scholars who do not always agree with Albright’s conclusions understand that such a situation is not the fault of the facts; it is due to the scarcity of trained workers. As a consequence of this handicap, we may say that the true significance and meaning of archaeology has been slow in affecting Biblical studies…

A second handicap under which Biblical archaeology labors is occasioned by the confusion which exists within and between many of the reports of the excavations, by the inadequacy of many of the publications, and in the past by the lack of competence on the part of a surprising number of excavators. Yet the fact remains that a vast amount of labor now needs to be expended on complete restudies of the original data, both published and unpublished, from such sites as Gezer, Sharuhen (Tell el-Far˓ah), Jericho, and Megiddo. More money has probably been expended in the excavation of the last mentioned site than in any other in Palestine; the published reports ought to have made it the type-site for Palestinian archaeology. Thus far, however, this end has not been accomplished. Instead the type-site is Tell Beit Mirsim (a comparatively small and relatively unimportant mound southwest of Hebron), because the quality of excavation and of publication has made it so.

A third handicap to the Biblical archaeologist is the fact that some of the professional archaeologists and of the scholars who interpret their findings are lacking in broad cultural interest and training. Specialists in architecture, pottery, and linguistics are necessary and extremely important. Yet archaeology is a branch of the humanities; its aim is the interpretation of the life and culture of ancient civilization in the perspective of the whole history of man. This requires a broader as well as a more intensive training than our graduate schools have in the past been providing.

This pragmatic and rather self-centered aim has succeeded in making too many of our journals and books little more than repositories of odds and ends of pedantic research, some of which is good and stands the test of time, but most of which is of little significance and is “like the chaff which the wind driveth away.” Because the Bible is the type of literature that it is, and because its intensive study today is largely carried on by those interested in prospering the life of Church and Synagogue, Biblical archaeology cannot remain content with the mere pedantics of scholarship.. Thus far, however, it has received far too little help from the specialists in contiguous fields, because too many of the scholars have failed to keep in focus the primary end for which they and their disciplines exist.


Turning from these negative considerations to a more positive evaluation of the present state of our subject, we shall pass all too quickly the areas of topographical, textual and linguistic research in order to concentrate on certain historical and religious issues, the significance of which is not yet widely appreciated.

One of the most satisfying areas to survey today is Biblical topography and geography. There are still many knotty problems which defy solution; yet within the last twenty years progress has been so striking that the preparation of Biblical maps can be carried on with much more assurance than before the first World War when the basic work for the Smith and Guthe Atlases was done.*

The American school was the first to make careful use of the pottery criterion which is of obvious importance since there is no use in discussing a particular site as a candidate for a Biblical place if it was unoccupied at the time the latter was supposed to have been inhabited. Abel’s work suffers its greatest limitation at this point, though it is now the basic source for the study of Biblical geography and topography

Progress in the field of linguistic research has been so rapid, particularly since the first war, that Biblical lexicons are woefully out of date. A new dictionary of New Testament Greek which utilizes the papyri and the Septuagint together with a controlled and inductively established theological treatment, is sorely needed. A complete lexicon of the Greek of the Septuagint in modern language has never been compiled and is now desperately needed. Old Testament lexicography is in a much worse state than that of the New Testament…The basic Hebrew lexicons on which we are dependent represent for the most part the state of research prior to the First World War. Since that time the progress of discovery and research has been so rapid that what is needed today is a complete restudy of the whole vocabulary of the Old Testament.

What has been said for lexicography is equally true for grammar. Likewise, the majority of our basic commentaries, particularly in the Old Testament field, were either produced before the First World War or reflect the state of research and the point of view of that period. ..The greatest single task of the Post-War era must be the preparation of new lexicons, grammars, and commentaries which not only endeavor to deal adequately with the wealth of new factual data now at hand, but which also reflect the new points of view and perspective which archaeology necessitates.


As we turn to matters of historical interpretation, we are on much more debatable ground. In general, however, the discoveries have demonstrated that far more trust in the substantial reliability of the narratives is now in order, and that lateness of a written record does not necessarily mean complete unreliability. When the basic attitudes of higher criticism were being formed in the last century, there was an insufficient amount of extra-Biblical data to serve as a check to hyperskepticism. Consequently, passage after passage was challenged as being a literary forgery, and the possibility of “pious fraud” in the compilation of written documents was exaggerated. When such a critical attitude is established, constructive work becomes increasingly difficult since emotional as well as rational factors are involved in the general negativism. The shift in attitude which is now taking place is difficult to assess, but it is perhaps the most important change which archaeology has forced upon Biblical scholarship. Attitude is a subtle factor, not easily described, but it certainly plays a major role in the determination of the use to which the tools of scholarship are put.

There are numerous illustrations of the service which archaeology has rendered along this line. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the partial “recovery” of the Patriarchal period of Biblical history. Our written sources for this period, dating as they do between the tenth and fifth centuries B.C., necessitate the supposition of a long period of oral transmission of the Patriarchal traditions before they were partially and then wholly committed to writing

Archaeological discoveries have changed this attitude to no small degree. While no evidence has been, or probably ever will be, found of the actual Patriarchs themselves, many of their names are now seen to fit squarely within the onomasticon (compiled from several sources in Northern Syria and Mesopotamia, and even in Egypt) which dates from the first half of the second millennium B.C. but not in the corpus of names of any later period.* Several of the names of Patriarchal ancestors have been recognized as names of towns in the Haran (Harran) area.* The Nuzi tablets elucidate many a custom typical of the Patriarchal age in the second millennium, but not of Israelite life in the first.* Analogy suggests that the traditions regarding the God of the Fathers are not completely secondary in origin.

A second major illustration of the conservative trend which archaeology is bringing about has to do with the conquest and settlement of Israel in Palestine. Not all the problems are solved or ever will be. The actual events were undoubtedly of a very complex nature, and we shall never know all of the details. Yet archaeology has provided data which leads us to more conservative views regarding the true nature of the events. Heretofore, the Conquest has been regarded as a gradual one by osmosis, wherein Israelites and Canaanites were gradually amalgamated.

That there is much truth in this belief can be easily shown. However, the violent destruction which occurred at such sites as Bethel, Lachish, and Debir during the thirteenth century indicates that we must take seriously the Biblical claims for a storming of at least central and southern Palestine with such violence and such contempt for the inhabitants that there was small opportunity or desire for amalgamation on a large scale.

A great deal has been written on the date of the Exodus and the Conquest. In the past three main theories have been held: (1) that the Exodus was the Hebrew echo of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, c. 1550 B.C.; (2) that it occurred during the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty, c. 1440 B.C.; and (3) that it took place during the reign of Merenptah in the Nineteenth Dynasty, c. 1230 B.C. None of these theories now appears entirely adequate. Albright’s study of the Amarna tablets indicates that there were four main city-states in Southern Palestine during the first part of the fourteenth century.*

Letters from the kings in Northern Gilead and Bashan indicate that this area was likewise organized within a city-state system, while the silence of the Amarna correspondence concerning Southern Transjordan together with the results of Glueck’s survey, indicates that this area was still inhabited by a nomadic people. In the Book of Joshua, however, we encounter nine city-states in Southern Palestine in addition to those at Jericho, Bethel, and the Hivite tetrapolis, while from the Book of Numbers we learn that an entirely new system of affairs existed in Transjordan, for the area is divided into four kingdoms (those of Og, Sihon, Moab, and Edom) and a fifth, the Ammonite, had come into being by the time of the Judges.

The problems of Jericho and Ai, however, remain, and prevent us from oversimplifying the picture. The final history of Jericho is still obscure. That it was abandoned by the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century, however, seems certain. Consequently, we must assume that behind the present narratives of the Conquest there was a more complex situation than first meets the eye.* Yet this fact cannot obscure the substantial historicity and violence of the main wave of the Conquest in the thirteenth century.

There is an equally large amount of evidence bearing on the settlement of Israel in Palestine. For the first time, the hill country became dotted with newly established towns, the ruins of which can be distinguished from those of the great Canaanite centers left standing and from the towns under the political and economic control of the Philistines…The excavations also indicate the change which began with the United Monarchy of David and Solomon. A far greater degree of stability was achieved; the general prosperity and rise in population and standard of living are witnessed; the last centers of Philistine and Canaanite culture (except, of course, those along the coast to the north of Mt. Carmel) were either destroyed, as was Beth-shan, or brought under the political and economic control of the hill country for the first time in the country’s history.*

The combined linguistic, historical and archaeological treatment of the list of levitical cities in Josh. 21 by Albright indicates that this list is almost certainly from a tenth century compilation of still older material, and that the establishment of these cities can scarcely be an idealization of the Post-Exilic Priestly school, a view which has been commonly held

When it is sometimes said that recent study has done little to disturb the basic tenets of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, we should not fail to observe that the statement is confined to the continued recognition of the basic documents and the acceptance of certain dates for their completion. There is more, however, to Wellhausenism than this. It is primarily a reconstruction of the whole institutional history of Israel, based upon the assumption that the material within a given document is more of a reflection of the age in which the document was written than of the age which it purports to describe. Archaeological discoveries and the new perspective which they are bringing about make it increasingly difficult to hold this view without serious qualification…

The excavations certainly bear clear witness to the gradual decline in the material prosperity of Palestine during the second half of the eighth century and throughout the seventh century when the country was controlled and repeatedly ravaged by the great powers. Even more vivid witness is born to the devastating havoc wrought by the Babylonian conquest of Judah, in which town after town was destroyed, many never to be reoccupied. It was three centuries before the country again attained something of its former prosperity.*

No discoveries for the period of the New Testament compare in importance with those for the Old. This is inevitable since the New Testament covers little more than a century in time, while the Old carries us through more than fifteen hundred years. The most spectacular event in New Testament archaeology has been the publication of newly found manuscripts dating from the second and third centuries A.D. These together with those manuscripts long known provide more evidence for the text of the New Testament than for any other book from antiquity. The recent discoveries, by and large, have supported the text of our best Greek versions, and few new readings of much significance have been discovered. Aramaic inscriptions, especially on Jewish ossuaries, keep coming to light; but until more of them have been discovered and until all the evidence has been assembled, the vexing question of the Aramaic origin of the Gospels will not be settled to the satisfaction of many scholars.

Except for the work of Glueck and others in the exploration of Nabataea, archaeological work in Palestine has dealt primarily either with pre-Christian or with post-first century monuments.*

Accordingly, archaeology has not had the same historical implications for New. Testament scholarship as it has had for Old Testament studies.


As we turn to a brief consideration of the effect which archaeology has had upon the study of Biblical religion, we are immediately plunged into an area in which heated disputes have been taking place. The conservative trends to be observed in German scholarship between the two wars have been drawn together, greatly amplified, and focussed with erudition and a large compilation of the relevant archaeological data in the writings of Albright.* A majority of the scholars in England and America have not been convinced by such an assertion as that of Mosaic monotheism;* yet even so the discussion is having a healthy effect. Issues are being clarified, and a new perspective is being achieved, so that future writing by up to date scholars on the question of Old Testament religion, at least, will be very different from that in the past. What are the issues in this discussion?

The Graf-Wellhausen reconstruction of the history of Israel’s religion was in effect an assertion that within the pages of the Old Testament we have a perfect example of the evolution of a religion from animism in Patriarchal times, through henotheism, to monotheism, the latter first achieved in pure form during the sixth-fifth centuries. The Patriarchs worshipped the spirits in trees, stones, springs, mountains, etc. The God of pre-prophetic Israel was a tribal Deity, limited in his power to the land of Palestine, a mountain-God and a war-God who showed unpredictable favoritism and who lacked many basic moral qualities later attributed to him by the prophets.

 Under the influence of Canaanite religion he even became a fertility God and sufficiently tolerant to allow the early religion of Israel to be distinguished little from that of Canaan. It was the prophets who were the true innovators and who produced most, if not all, of that which was truly distinctive in Israel, the grand culmination coming with the universalism of Second Isaiah. Thus we have animism, or polydemonism, a limited tribal Deity, implicit ethical monotheism, and finally explicit and universal monotheism. The second and third stages have been variously grouped by scholars under polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism, depending upon the particular emphasis of the individual scholar.

Now it should be noted that this view was first established between 1850 and 1880, when the archaeological recovery of the ancient world was barely in its swaddling clothes. No synthesis of Near Eastern cultural history was possible, and inability to understand Israel’s background would inevitably make it difficult to place Israel’s religion in its proper evolutionary background.

Only in the last ten years has a real archaeological synthesis become possible; small wonder, therefore, that its revolutionary effects on Biblical study are only beginning to be felt. In any event, we can assert with confidence that by the time of the Patriarchs the religion of all parts of the Near East was a long distance removed from animism, if the latter in any approved textbook form ever existed at all. As early as the Neolithic period, before the appearance of pottery, we find a building at Jericho, which is almost certainly a temple with remarkable statues of deities in the triad of man, woman, and child.*

The Ghassulian paintings of the Chalcolithic period in the Jordan valley bear witness to an exceedingly complex religious imagination with indications of a belief in high gods.

At least three temples of the third millennium are known from Palestine,* while both the fourth and third millennia bear witness to a highly developed cultus in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and probably in Syria.

Thus it can confidently be said that when Oesterley and Robinson in their Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development take more than one fourth of their book to describe the animistic and magical background of Israel’s religion, they are dealing neither with pagan nor with Patriarchal religion, but chiefly with Stone Age survivals or relics, the true importance of which either in Israel or in contemporary polytheism is inadequately understood and over-emphasized. It cannot be objected that Patriarchal nomadism would naturally be more “primitive” than the inhabitants of contemporary Palestine. While this may have been true relatively, a study of the evidences for Amorite religion, particularly in the Amorite onomasticon, and the indications of such sources as the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, lead us a long, long way from the picture which Oesterley and Robinson have painted. The details of Patriarchal religion we shall never know. That it was a branch from Semitic “El” religion seems probable, but we have no clear evidence as to its exact nature.*

It seems to me quite probable that these remarks would find general agreement today among a majority of informed scholars. A far greater degree of disagreement exists regarding the nature of early Israelite religion. With what assured facts does archaeology confront us? Perhaps the fairly obvious one which should be mentioned is that each of the great polytheisms, we now know, was a cosmic system, of which the gods were the personified natural forces, phenomena, and the like. The gods had no geographical limitation other than the limitation of that portion of nature they personified.* Accordingly, when the earliest poetry and documents of Israel speak of Yahweh’s complete charge of nature and all its substance, we are warned against assuming a geographical limitation on his power which not even the polytheists imposed on their deities. In fact, it seems quite obvious that since divinity in the Old Testament was one and not many,* the designation of Yahweh as a fertility-God, or as a mountain-God, or by any other such term derived from polytheism is misleading. In our earliest, pre-prophetic sources he is all these and more, because he is no personification of nature. He transcends nature and is nature’s God.

In view of the archaeological evidence, therefore, it seems to me that Albright is quite justified in raising his questions about henotheism.* It is extremely difficult to put one’s finger on any parallel phenomenon in the conceptual life of Israel’s neighbors, and while there are several verses in the Old Testament which appear to indicate certain tendencies toward it, the weight of the evidence appears to point away from a dominating henotheism known thus far from the textbook definitions, at least within the official Yahwism of early Israel. An illuminating source of study is the attitude taken toward the holy sites, Tabernacle, and Temple in the pre-prophetic literature. Yahweh used them all, even former Canaanite sacred sites, as places where he revealed himself without in any way being bound or geographically limited by them.* Consequently, those who still wish to retain the term “henotheism” will have to define it somewhat differently than has been the custom in the past.

It has been frequently asserted that the early religion of Israel had little to distinguish it from the religion of Canaan. Today such a view is most difficult. Certainly that portion of the long lost Canaanite literature which has been found at Ugarit sounds very different from anything we have in the Old Testament. According to the Deuteronomic editor of Judges and Kings great numbers of people did “play the harlot” after other gods. Even here, however we may perhaps be in danger of assuming too much, for though statues of male deities are frequently found in Canaanite sites, not a single clear example has thus far been found within the tons and tons of debris removed from Israelite sites. The evidence in this case is so striking that it cannot be dismissed as a questionable argument from silence.

The basic character and antiquity of the second commandment thus receives as strong a support as archaeology will probably ever be able to provide for it. At the same time, however, large numbers of figurines, representing probably the Canaanite mother-goddess and fertility-goddess, have been found in Israelite sites, furnishing unquestioning evidence of syncretism among the common people. These two pieces of evidence suggest that the syncretism did not go so far as to displace, however, Yahweh as Israel’s national and all-controlling God. Possibly the real source of danger in early Israelite theology lay not so much in an equating of Yahweh with a pagan deity* as in the comparative freedom which angelology might allow for the importation of many pagan notions.*

The absence of typical mythology of polytheistic type and the concentration instead upon the will of God as expressed in election and covenant is another fundamental element in pre-prophetic as well as in prophetic religion. The absence of a dominant theriomorphism* and the apodictic as distinguished from the casuistic type of law* are further evidence that even in early Israel there was a distinct cultural and religious point-of-view which was never lost but held to tenaciously and which was not invented but clarified by the prophets.* Thus the more information which archaeology has provided for an understanding of the contemporary polytheisms, the more we are forced to emphasize the distinctive, the revolutionary mutation, which was Israel’s true significance among the ancient religions. In fact, the break in continuity with these religions is becoming increasingly easy to describe, while the evolutionary process between the one and the other is increasingly obscured. Relation, dependence, and influence in many conceptual items and practices are clear, but the organic wholeness of the Israelite point-of-view (as expressed in God, man, covenant, law) cannot be delineated entirely by evolutionary criteria.

The purpose of this brief discussion is not to list all the evidence which archaeology presents for the study of Biblical religion but to point out its most significant contributions: namely, the presentation of evidence which proves that the Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen reconstruction of the history of Israel’s religion was an over-simplification, and inevitably so. For this reason the Old Testament is a more open field for research and study today than it has been for fifty years.


The limitations of space have made it necessary to leave many subjects untouched. The attempt has been to deal with matters of perspective rather than to catalogue discoveries irrespective of their relative importance. The New Testament field particularly has been slighted; yet when the Bible is taken as a whole, it is obvious that archaeology, while extremely important for all phases of study, has played the most significant role in the exposition of the Old Testament.

What are the urgent tasks of the future?

1. The first and foremost task is the recruiting and training of able men and women, particularly those who have a broad background, a great fund of the indispensible common sense, and a good personality, so that they can be placed in teaching positions throughout the country and at the same time encouraged to continue their study.

2. Next in importance is the preparation of new Biblical lexicons, grammars, and commentaries which will repair the tremendous lag which now exists between such handbooks and the present state of our knowledge. This is perhaps the major task of the post-War era, though its successful completion is dependent upon the rearing and training of young scholars adequately prepared for the task.

3. Money must be found in this country both for publications and for excavations. As a result of the devastating effect of the War upon England and the Continent, America must take the lead in furnishing the resources which our discipline requires; and this places a rather heavy burden of responsibility upon us. The undisputed leadership of Germany in our fields of study is a thing of the past. The question, however, is whether we here possess the qualifications necessary to carry on that leadership without a serious drop in quality of output.

4. Perhaps more than anything else today, the Biblical student needs an understanding of the conceptual life of the ancient world, particularly among the lines staked out by the volume, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, by Frankfort, Wilson, Jacobsen, and Irwin.

5. New compilations of the archaeological data which bear on the Bible are badly needed, Burrows’ What Mean These Stones? (1941) and Galling’s Biblisches Reallexikon (1937) are excellent as far as they go; but what is especially imperative are up to date works along the line of Barton’s Archaeology and the Bible (7th ed., 1937), and Gressmann’s Altorientalische Texte and Bilder zum Alten Testament (2nd ed. 1927).

6. The continued study of the Ugaritic, Sumerian, and Accadian literature will undoubtedly throw much more light on literary forms in the Old Testament.

7. Many new excavations are desirable, since archaeological techniques and control have vastly improved within the last twenty years. Specifically New Testament sites have rarely been dug in Palestine, and more attention should be paid to them. Further excavations in Syria and Lebanon, particularly in Iron age sites, are sorely needed. In Palestine the areas of Galilee, Transjordan, and Samaria have scarcely been more than touched.

This list of things to be done could be indefinitely expanded: e.g., the renewed study of personal names in the light of the whole corpus of ancient names, the collection and study of all Aramaic documents, the study of Israelite cultic objects and practices, the attempt to identify the tools and weapons mentioned in the Bible with those found in the excavations in order that more accurate translations of the terms in question may be made, continued research on Israelite institutions in the light of their background, etc. The discovery of the Ugaritie, Mari, Lachish, and Aufa el-Hafir documents certainly whet our appetites for more, and lead us to hope that even the impossible may be possible! Perhaps enough has been said, however, to indicate that Biblical archaeology, far from being a stale subject which has reached the state of diminishing returns, has barely outgrown its adolescence. Its revolutionary contributions and implications are only now being clarified, and no one can predict just how disturbing it may become in the future!

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 10(electronic ed.).

New Radiocarbon Method for Dating the Past*

Donald Collier

The commonest and usually the first question asked by visitors to archaeological digs and museums is “How old is it?” This general curiosity about the age of things made by man in the past is shared by archaeologists, for it is impossible to reconstruct the history of ancient civilizations without chronology. In the absence of written records, like those left by the ancient Egyptians and Mayas, archaeologists have had to depend on indirect methods for determining time sequences in the past. The single exception is that of the American Southwest where, thanks to the tree-ring method of dating, it has been possible to trace with great accuracy the history of Indian cultures during the past 2,000 years. The indirect methods, such as stratigraphy, typological cross-dating, and correlation of human remains and artifacts with geological events and climatic changes, are laborious and inaccurate and do not yield dates in years but only relative sequences.

The new method of radiocarbon dating, developed by Dr. Willard F. Libby at the Institute for Nuclear Studies of the University of Chicago, promises to revolutionize dating problems in archaeology. This method determines the age of things that lived during the past 20,000 years by measuring the amount of carbon 14 they contain.

Carbon 14 is an unstable (radioactive) heavy form of carbon with an atomic weight of 14. Normal, stable carbon has an atomic weight of 12. The half-life of carbon 14 is about 5,500 years. This means that an ounce of carbon 14 is reduced by decay to half an ounce in 5,500 years, that half the remainder decays during the next 5,500 years, leaving a quarter of an ounce, and so on.

Carbon 14 is constantly being formed in the earth’s upper atmosphere as the result of the bombardment of nitrogen-14 atoms by cosmic rays (neutrons). The carbon-14 atoms thus created combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which becomes mixed in the earth’s atmosphere with the vastly greater proportion of carbon dioxide containing ordinary carbon atoms. The carbon 14 then enters all living things, which, through the life process, are in exchange with the atmosphere. This exchange is carried out through photosynthesis in plants. Dr. Libby has shown experimentally that all living matter contains a constant proportion of carbon 14, which is about one trillionth of a gram of carbon 14 to each gram of carbon 12. This constant proportion results from the equilibrium between the rate of formation of carbon 14 and the rate of disintegration of the carbon 14 contained in the atmosphere, in the ocean, and in all living things.

When a plant or an animal dies, it ceases to be in exchange with the atmosphere and hence there is no further intake of carbon 14. But the carbon 14 contained at death goes on disintegrating at a constant rate, so that the amount of carbon 14 remaining is proportional to the time elapsed since death. Given the carbon-14 content of contemporary living matter and the disintegration rate of carbon 14 (the half-life), it is possible to calculate the age of an ancient organic sample from the amount of carbon 14 it contains.

Samples are Burned

The laboratory procedure consists of burning the sample to be dated, reducing it to pure carbon, and measuring its radioactivity (rate of atomic disintegration) in a specially constructed, extremely sensitive radiation counter (a form of Geiger counter). The measurement is expressed in terms of the number of carbon-14 disintegrations per minute per gram of carbon. This value is 15.3 for contemporary living samples, 7.65 for samples 5,568 years old, and 3.83 for samples 11,136 years old. Very old samples contain such a small amount of carbon 14 that the error in counting becomes very large, so that the effective range of the method with present techniques is something less than 20,000 years. But there exists a method for enriching or concentrating the carbon 14 in a sample that may make it possible to obtain useful dates back to 30,000 years. At present the year error in dating samples ranges from 5 to 10 per cent.

Although carbon 14 is present in all organic matter, certain kinds of material have been found to be most useful for dating. These are plant material and wood, charcoal, shell, antler, burned bone, dung, and peat. Unburned bone appears to be unreliable because it is more easily altered chemically than these other materials and hence may lose or gain carbon-14 atoms by exchange during the time between death of the animal and the present.

This method has the disadvantage that the sample to be dated must be destroyed by burning. However, in most cases this is not serious because the size of the sample needed is relatively small. The minimum amount of pure carbon necessary for a single counting run (the amount of carbon placed in the Geiger counter) is 8 grams (about a third of an ounce). Since the carbon content of different organic materials varies, the size of the sample needed to yield this much pure carbon also varies. In general, it is necessary to have about 2 ounces of plant material or wood, 1 to 3 ounces of charcoal, 4 ounces of shell, 5 to 10 ounces of dung or peat, and one to several pounds of antler or burned bone. For the greater accuracy obtained by making two independent counting runs these quantities would need to be doubled.

History of Process

A brief review of the history of the development of radiocarbon dating will help to make clear the nature of the method. In 1934 shortly after the discovery of artificial radioactivity, Dr. A. V. Grosse predicted the possible existence of radioactive elements produced by cosmic rays. In 1946 Dr. Libby predicted that natural or “cosmic” carbon 14 would be found in living matter. The following year he and Grosse checked this hypothesis by testing methane gas derived from sewage (an organic product) and found carbon 14 to be present in the expected amount.

The next step was to test the assumption that carbon 14 was present in the same concentration in all living matter. This research, called by Dr. Libby a “world-wide assay of natural radiocarbon,” consisted of measuring the carbon-14 content of contemporary living material from various parts of the world, various latitudes, altitudes, and geographical situations. This Museum contributed to this part of the research by furnishing from the botanical and anthropological collections wood samples from the Pacific Ocean, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Near East. These measurements, made by Dr. E. C. Anderson, confirmed the assumption and established the value for the carbon-14 content of present-day living matter.

Egyptian Boat Plank Used

The next phase, carried out by Dr. J. R. Arnold and Dr. Libby, consisted of testing the dating method by measuring some ancient samples of relatively accurately known age. These were wood from Egypt and Syria, a sample of wood dated by tree-rings, and a piece of old redwood. They ranged in known age from 1,300 to 4,600 years. One of the Egyptian samples, which was supplied by this Museum, was a piece of deck plank from the mortuary boat of King Sesostris III; who died about 1849 B.C. The dates obtained on this and the other samples agreed with the known ages within the calculated error of the method.

The final phase of this research has consisted of further checking of the method by dating selected archaeological and geological samples of unknown age. An effort was made to obtain from various parts of the world samples whose relative age had been established by the usual archaeological and geological methods. In some instances it was possible to secure several samples coming from different layers of a single stratified deposit. These stratified series were particularly valuable in testing the consistency of the carbon-14 dates obtained. Up to the present more than 150 samples of unknown age from North and South America, Europe, and the Near East have been dated. These range in age from a few centuries to more than 20,000 years, and relate to the problems of dating early man in North and South America; the Archaic Indian cultures of the eastern United States; the early cultures of the Southwest, Mexico, and Peru; the Late Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods in Europe and the Near East; and the last glaciation in North America and Europe.

Test Museum Specimens

Among these samples were several furnished by this Museum. Two were portions of wooden implements from the Early Nazca culture on the south coast of Peru, excavated by a Museum expedition in 1926. Dr. Libby’s results show them to be about 2,000 years old, which is consistent with other carbon-14 dates obtained from Peruvian samples. Two other samples were charcoal from hearths belonging to the Chiricahua stage of the Cochise culture in western New Mexico. These hearths were discovered by the Museum’s 1950 Southwest Archaeological Expedition. The carbon-14 date indicates that these hearths were in use about 2500 B.C. This date is consistent with one obtained from a site of the Chiricahua stage in Arizona. Samples of charcoal, bark, and wood from the Hopewell culture of Ohio were also given to Dr. Libby. These turned out to be considerably older than archaeologists had believed.

Full assessment of the results of the final phase of Dr. Libby’s research on radiocarbon dating has not been made. But the general consistency of the results, including the dates on samples from periods older than 5,000 years, for which there are no absolute dates for checking, leaves little room for doubt that the method is sound and that dates accurate within the experimental error of the method can be obtained. Radiocarbon dating is destined to have a very important role in archaeology, both in increasing the accuracy of its findings and in reducing the amount of time and effort devoted to problems of dating. This will mean that, in the future, archaeologists can move on with greater facility to the syntheses and generalizations that are the ultimate aim of their work.

The method will be extremely useful also in the aspects of geology, paleontology, and paleobotany dealing with events and processes that occurred during the past 80,000 years. Dr. Libby has already obtained dates relating to the time of the last glaciation in North America and Europe. These dates indicate that the last glaciation was considerably more recent than accepted geological estimates. It will be possible with additional work to date the retreat of the glaciers quite accurately, and this information will have a crucial bearing on time estimates for the whole Pleistocene period, which is variously estimated to have lasted from 400,000 to 1,000,000 years. Radiocarbon dating will also give more reliable information on the time required for the formation of new species among plants and animals. In these and many other ways carbon-14 dating promises to be an extremely important scientific tool

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 14(electronic ed.).