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Calling Dr Jones (part three)

In which we return to Tudor Parfitt, the Ark of the Covenant, and consider how archaeology has changed


About time I finished off writing about SOAS Modern Jewish Studies professor Tudor Parfitt, and his rather dodgy theory, shown on TV in his documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, that the Biblical Ark Of The Covenant was not the ark that is biblically described, but was in fact a drum; that it was taken to Africa, survived in the possession of a Jewish tribe there, and that its final version is now in storage in an Harare museum. Which might make more sense if you read the previous posts I’ve written about it: part one, and part two.

Previously we’ve discussed the theory itself, and its basic flaw: in order for it to be true, every piece of evidence for the original ark’s existence has to mis-describe it in a fundamental way. Now, I want to discuss why Professor Parfitt might have come up with his rather misguided theory. He has trouble with a concept which archaeology itself had trouble with, in general, for many many years. The Parfitt theory states that there is a medieval African war drum which was constructed to replace an earlier Ark of the Covenant, so those earlier Arks, all the way back to the Mosaic period, must have been drums also. This is because Parfitt is unwilling to consider any degree of cultural change.

Cultural change is, as I said, a concept which archaeology has always had trouble with. In traditional archaeology, it was one of several concepts which was not so much discarded as never considered. Change in material cultures was almost always explained by means of migration, often mass-migration: wave on wave of homogeneous and distinct peoples moving about the map, rather like a game of Risk, never themselves changing. There are probably a few reasons for this. For a start, archaeology as a discipline arose after the formulation of the classic “nation state”, and during the period that the Western countries were dividing up the third world with lines across the map in just the same way that archaeologists then divided up prehistoric maps. For another thing, there was a rather patronising attitude that invention was rather too hard for “prehistoric barbarians” to do. If your stereotypical woad-covered Ancient Briton wasn’t up to inventing new stuff, then any archaeological change must come from outside. Small changes in style could be explained by trade; large changes by immigration.* This theory was known as “diffusion”, and was finally put to bed in the late 60s and early 70s.**

Cultural change took a long time to accept, partly because it complicates things. It’s not, itself, an easy explanation, compared to diffusion and migration. Moreover, archaeological theories of change were first adopted by “processual archaeologists”, who explained change in terms of biological and ecological analogies like the spread of muskrat populations.*** They were followed up by “post-processualists”, the postmodernists of the archaeological world, who liked to use words like “hermeneutics“. They introduced some important concepts into archaeological interpretation, but not in a very accessible way; and nevertheless their concepts were still the best means archaeologists had to discuss cultural change.****

Looking at historical evidence, though, it’s hard to see why the supposed correlation between migration and cultural change was accepted for so long. Take British history, for example. In the first millennium AD there were three major migrations that we know about from British history.***** The first, the Roman invasion, probably involved the fewest people of the three, but is extremely well-represented in both history and archaeology. The second, the invasion of the English-to-be, is represented in archaeology quite well, but there is huge debate as to the actual number of people involved. Particularly, genetic research has shown that the old 19th-century theory, that the Angles and Saxons completely replaced the previous Welsh-speaking inhabitants, is almost certainly wrong. The language changed, the rulers changed, but most of the people probably did not. The third, the migration of the Scots from Ireland into western Scotland, is well-known from history; it changed the language of western and highland Scotland, and the government of the whole country,****** but is impossible to find in the archaeological record. There are plenty of buildings and sites from the period in Scottish archaeology, but none of them give any indication that the culture of western Scotland was changing in the way that history tells us it did.

I had intended that this was going to be the final post about Tudor Parfitt’s Ark theory; but this post is growing to be rather larger than I’d thought it would end up.******* Additionally, my dinner’s ready. The final final part of these posts will talk more about cultural change, and show how it could, potentially, correct Professor Parfitt’s ideas.

The fourth and final part of this post follows, here »

* Moreover, changes in metalwork were seen as indicating trade or war, because metalwork must have been a man’s job, distributed either by traders (men) or raiding warriors (also men). Changes in pottery were seen as indicating mass migration, because pottery must have been “domestic”, made near the home, used by women, and so must have indicated homes, families, and therefore population movement. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a history of archaeology, largely because theories like that are so easy to take the piss out of.

** after Colin Renfrew – now Lord Renfrew – used radiocarbon dating with tree-ring calibration to show that metalworking was probably first invented in south-eastern Europe.

*** I’m not exaggerating: when I was a student, we were given, as a prime example of processual archaeology, a paper that compared artefact distributions to the spread of muskrats in, um, Canada I think.

**** the processualists, on the other hand, were pretty hot on technological change. I am, of course, extremely over-generalising on all this.

***** at least before the Danes and Norse arrived, towards the end of the millennium.

****** and gave it its name, of course.

******* and I’m clearly running out of footnotes.

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Calling Dr Jones (part two)

In which we discuss lost relics once more


Time to return to Tudor Parfitt‘s documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, which I started to discuss last week. A brief recap: Prof. Parfitt has discovered, in a museum in Harare, a 14th-century southern African war drum whose descent can, arguably, be traced back to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, as described in Raiders Of The Lost Ark Exodus:

“Have them make a chest of acacia-wood: two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.

If you remember the film: the prop-makers on Raiders Of The Lost Ark followed this description pretty much spot-on. Tudor Parfitt, though, has another theory. As the Ark’s descendant is a drum, the original Ark must have been a drum also.

There are, though, a couple of glaring problems with this. Apart from one verse in the Quran,* the evidence we have for the Ark’s original existence comes from the Bible; from the Old Testament and related books. In all those Biblical references, it’s described in the same way, as a chest. That’s very clear. For Professor Parfitt’s theory to be correct, then we have to assume that although the ark existed according to our sources, all those sources are wrong about what it essentially was. It’s like saying “I believe the Battle of Agincourt happened just like it says in the chronicles – only it wasn’t a battle. And it was somewhere else.”

Furthermore, it makes good archaeological sense that the chest the Israelites built was indeed a chest. If you follow the description of the Ark in the Bible, it’s a chest, about a metre long, designed to be carried on poles. According to the Bible, it was built just after the Israelites had left their Egyptian bondage; and the Egyptians used very similar chests in their own religious rites. They had portable shrines, chests borne on poles just like the Ark, used to carry iconic statues in religious procession – just as the Ark was carried in procession in front of the Israelites. Indeed, Parfitt’s documentary covered all this, and pointed out that the description of the Ark quoted above is pretty close to a description of an Egyptian portable shrine. He didn’t believe in it, though, because it’s a very ornate object to be built by people wandering about in the desert.

In Deuteronomy there’s a different description of the building of the Ark:

At that time the LORD said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands.

None of the ornate decoration, just a wooden box. A box, note. This passage has led some people to believe that there might have been two arks, an ornate one in the Temple and a practical one for use in war; but equally, it could be that the Israelites built a simple chest first and decorated it later.** In any case, it’s still most definitely a box, not a drum.

In order to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant was a war-drum, as Tudor Parfitt thinks, you have to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant didn’t exist at all; and that the Israelites had some other holy object which they carried in front of them, some holy object for which there is no evidence at all. On the other hand, if you’re willing to embrace a more sophisticated model of archaeology and culture than Professor Parfitt apparently is, it’s quite possible that there is a 14th-century AD African war drum which is, in some way, a descendant of a 14th-century BCE*** Israelite reliquary. A lot can change in 2,800 years, after all. In the final part of these posts, we’ll talk about cultural change, the archaeology of Yorkshire, and why a holy chest might well become a holy drum over time.

Part Three of this post follows, here, even though I haven’t got around to the Yorkshire bit yet »

* Which agrees pretty much with one of the Torah’s description’s of the ark.

** Or, this could be a brief summary of the previous chapter which didn’t need to delve into the full specification.

*** That date’s based on Moses’ traditional Jewish birth date, in 1391 BCE

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Calling Dr Jones (part one)

In which we go in search of lost relics


In our attempt to make sure we didn’t do anything too romantic on Saturday, we stayed in and watched an archaeology documentary on the telly. Or, at least, it said it was an archaeology documentary. It quickly veered off towards pseudoarchaeology, and stayed there.

The documentary in question was The Quest For The Lost Ark by Tudor Parfitt – a repeat, although neither of us had previously caught it. The titular ark in question was the Mosaic Ark Of The Covenant, as described in the Bible: built according to God’s instructions while the Jews were wandering lost in the desert, then later installed in the inner sanctum of Solomon’s Temple. It went missing, though; Jerusalem was sacked, the Temple was destroyed, and nobody knows where the Ark now is* – or, indeed, if it survived at all.

Professor Parfitt’s theory was, essentially, that the Ark of the Covenant can’t have been the chest described, in remarkably detailed fashion,** in the Bible. This is because he has found its descendant: an African war drum, currently in storage in an Harare museum. This drum and the Ark were both used something like a military standard was in later times, borne at the head of armies; except that unlike a standard, both the artifacts had unearthly powers. It was the Ark, for example, which brought down God’s destruction of the walls of Jericho, after it had been paraded around the city.

Some backtracking might be needed here, to explain the professor’s argument. This wasn’t any random African war drum. Rather, it belonged to a tribe called the Lemba, who, despite living in Zimbabwe, maintain that they are a lost tribe of Israel, having been led south by seven priests, back in the mists of time. They do, indeed, have religious practices that are similar to Judaism in some ways; more to the point, study of their Y-chromosome has apparently found that a large number of men from their priestly clan are probably descended from a small group of Kohanim.*** That wouldn’t really be that significant if they were a Semitic people; but, they’re not.

The Lemba’s traditional belief is that, as they were led south by this small group of priests, they took with them a holy war drum. Remade over the years, the descendant of this artefact is the drum now in Harare. It is, indisputably, a drum. So, says Professor Parfitt, if this 14th-century drum is modelled on the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, and not the box described in the Bible**** – even if it definitely did exist, as described in the Bible. Hum. I can spot a bit of a logical gap here.

Putting on my archaeological hat,***** there’s nothing at all to say that the Lemba drum in Harare wasn’t inspired, in its use and construction, by the original Ark – or by traditions of the Ark, which is slightly different. That is, of course, if the drum in Harare is the genuine article, evidence for which wasn’t really discussed: Parfitt skipped over that bit in something of a hurry. However, you can’t then justify a logical leap to say that it is modelled directly on the original, so the original can’t be as described. There are sound archaeological reasons why the Ark of the Covenant is unlikely to have looked like the drum Parfitt found in Harare; and, for that matter, why the drum might have become a drum later. I’ll come to that, in the next part of this post.

Part Two of this post follows, here »

* although you might know the apocryphal story about the Nazis and an American treasure hunter…

** at least he’s not as bad as those of the von Däniken school – I forget if it was von D himself or an acolyte – who stated baldly that if you build the ark according to the biblical plan, you get a radio receiver with a high-voltage battery. Unsurprisingly, they have not managed to replicate said item.

*** The Jewish priestly clan, if you didn’t know and didn’t want to follow the link.

**** It does get two contradictory descriptions, but in both it’s a reliquary, a chest for relics.

***** (it’s a bit dusty)

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A Big Splash (Or, Films I’ve Never Seen, Part One)

In which we wonder what the film-makers were thinking


Every time I’ve been to the cinema recently, I’ve had to sit through a trailer for newly-released film Evan Almighty. And it makes me slightly uneasy. Because – if you’re lucky enough to have managed to avoid the thing – it’s a lighthearted family comedy based on the story of Noah And The Flood, from Genesis. God comes down to Earth, visits an innocent politician, and tells him to build an ark because he’s decided to do the whole flood thing again.

Read that again. It’s a lighthearted family comedy, where God comes down to visit a politician, because (going on what happened last time) he wants to warn him that everyone else on the planet is going to be killed in the biggest natural disaster you can imagine. Did anyone even think at all about this film before it was made? Did they get beyond “comedy, sequel, some Bible story that everyone vaguely remembers”?* To my mind, the idea of writing a comedy about God breaking the only promise he ever made to the whole of mankind,** and apparently planning to kill everyone on earth apart from an American politician, is a little … well, perverse.***

I assume – not having seen the film – that not everyone (apart from the blessed family) gets killed at the end. Surely no Hollywood studio is going to release a big summer comedy where everyone on earth apart from a handful of people dies at the end? Drama, maybe, but not comedy. All in all, it sounds like a bit of a mess. Does God turn out to be nice in the end? Does he say: “Aw, I was only kidding. I just wanted you to learn how to be a better person.” How many people are killed by the flood that I did spot in the trailer? I really don’t want to find out.

* Although most people forget the bit at the end where Noah gets drunk, and one of his sons is forever cursed for seeing his drunken father’s tadger.

** Because it – the promise that “I’m not going to kill you all ever again” – was made before the Tower of Babel incident, when God scrambles everyone’s brains and makes possible the Tourist Phrasebook – so, as everyone was rather samey, there wasn’t any one Chosen People. And he never does kill everyone all together again – after that, he limits himself to smiting one city at a time.

*** And not in the good way

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