Searching for the House of David
Although modern archeology is a reasonably rigorous scientific discipline, it is subject to non-scientific constraints. In the first place, it is expensive. To excavate a small area whose earliest strata of human settlement lie far beneath the surface can cost large sums of money. Even if the diggers comprise students and other volunteers, they have to be transported to the site, housed, and fed; professionals like photographers and map drawers must be employed; excavated objects need to be carefully cleaned, catalogued, and stored; and in some cases, exotic experts like archeo-zoologists and archeo-botanists have to be brought in. As a rule, moreover, all this is done on an inefficient, drawn out, stop-and-start basis. A process in which every bucket of earth must be sifted and examined, and in which it is impossible to work in bad weather or during rainy seasons, may require a dig to go on for years—at the end of which its findings and conclusions must be published in numerous volumes crammed with intricate drawings and illustrations.
Other sciences, of course, can involve even more expensive research. But whereas such research may be financed by governments or businesses hoping to reap commensurate returns, archeology, apart from an occasional contribution to tourism, yields only knowledge of the past. Moreover, when excavating in urban or built-up areas, even well-funded archeologists are restricted in their choice of sites. They cannot generally demolish existing buildings to get at what is beneath them, and the threat of further development hangs preemptively over their work. (New construction can itself lead to archeological discoveries, but these must be followed up by emergency digs that rarely have time for thoroughness.) As a result, archeologists often cannot excavate in places they consider the most promising and frequently must make do with exploratory shafts that may miss findings of great value by small distances.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.