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Calling Dr Jones (part four)

In which we finally finish talking about Tudor Parfitt and the Ark of the Covenant


Series of posts, on here, always seem to take me longer to write than I had planned. It’s now, ooh, at least six weeks since I wrote the first post in this series, so I really should tidy it up and finish it off. For people who aren’t regular readers: some time ago, a Jewish Studies professor called Tudor Parfitt made a documentary about the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Biblical artefact which starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in reality has been missing for well over 2 millennia. Professor Parfitt’s theory is that, although the original ark is probably long destroyed, it passed into east Africa, into the possession of a Jewish tribe there called the Lemba, and that its replacement is a war drum now sitting in storage in an Harare museum. Feel free to go back and read what I’ve written so far, if you’re a new reader.

All that is so well and good. It may well, indeed, be true, so far as I’m concerned. However, that’s not the end of the theory. Its logic goes as follows: the ark’s descendant is a war drum; therefore, the original ark must have been a drum too. Even though all the evidence for its existance states that it wasn’t a drum, a drum it is now, so a drum it must have been. In part three, I discussed how, in some ways, this theory is typical of what I suppose you could call “primitive archaeology”: the traditional diffusionist archaeology that held sway until the 1960s. Change was seen as a hard thing to do, and the possibility of cultural change tended to get swept under the carpet.

Change happens, though, in the real world: we can see it every day. It’s hard to see it occurring in the archaeological record, though; and very hard to determine its cause. Archaeological change and historical change are very different beasts.

There is one case in the British archaeological record where archaeology and history match up, and together provide evidence for inward migration. It’s in a small area of East Yorkshire, and archaeologically it’s known as the Arras Culture. It’s distinctive because of its chariot burials, unique in Britain. The nearest parallels are with similar cemetaries in the Ile-de-France region and the surrounding area.* Some of the riding gear buried with the chariots – the bits, for example – also resemble continental riding gear more than British.**

Fast forward to the end of the Iron Age; and the Romans arrive in the area. They have historians with them, and said historians write down the names of the various British tribes that the Romans encounter. The tribe that lives in East Yorkshire? They’re called the Parisii. They’re not the only tribe of that name, though. The Romans had discovered Parisii before, in the Ile-de-France, where they even had a city named after them.*** On the face of it, then, an obvious link. One of the few clear examples of cultural change in the British archaeological record which has matching historical evidence for a migration.

It’s not quite that simple, though. The Yorkshire Parisii and the French Parisii both buried people in chariots, and they used similar riding gear. But if you put a Yorkshire horse bit next to a French horse bit then, although the Yorkshire one looks suspiciously Continental in its general design, it’s still also clearly separate from the French one. Its detail design work will still be distinctively British. Overall, the Arras Culture is something of a hybrid of British and Continental Iron Age styles.

How does this fit in with Tudor Parfitt’s Ark of the Covenant theories? Well, archaeologists have tried to explain the Arras Culture in various ways other than straightforward migration. For example, a British tribe might have been trying to adopt Continental styles and fashions.**** Or, it might reflect a limited migration: a small number of leaders move, bringing their technology with them; but the craftsmen and engineers doing the actual work are British and use the same styles as their ancestors did. And, curiously, this is exactly what the Lemba say happened to them. A small number of priests came down from the north, bringing with them Jewish traditions, laws, and their holy war drum.

It’s entirely possible that this happened. There aren’t many other ways to explain the Lemba’s existence, after all. However, we do know that the priests from the north didn’t bring all the Jewish traditions with them. The Hebrew language, for one thing: the Lemba speak a Bantu language. Just like in Yorkshire, the new leaders brought with them the outline of a culture but not the detail. They brought with them an idea of the Ark, if not the Ark itself, as a holy object through which God could speak and smite, to be carried into battle in front of the tribe. But the concept of the Ark as a reliquary didn’t survive. In the Lemba culture, it became a drum, the literal and thunderous voice of God.

Professor Parfitt is forced to admit that the Harare drum is definitely not the Biblical Ark, because, being wood, it’s straightforward to date. He wants to stick with the idea, though, that the Harare drum is as close to the real Ark as we can get now. It may well be the closest surviving object to the Ark we have, yes. But that doesn’t mean that the Ark was always a drum. Cultural change happens, details of culture get left behind, and things change and adapt. The Lemba’s religion isn’t Judaism as the rest of the world practises it: it is Judaism filtered and absorbed through a small group of priests and the African tribe they evangelised. There’s no reason why we should follow their lead and say that the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, when the rest of Judaism***** says it was a reliquary. Tudor Parfitt’s theory may be partly right, but it is also very flawed, because of his inability to consider how the Lemba culture developed, and how cultures can adapt and change.

* Confusingly, the “Arras Culture” name is nothing to do with France at all; it refers to a place in Yorkshire.

** Specifically: the number of joints in the bit mouthpiece.

*** It’s still there today, apparently.

**** Even today, I can see why, if you came from Hull you might want to imagine you were from Paris instead.

***** Not to mention Christianity, and Islam.

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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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