Posted by: cjobrien | 20 April 2008

The Problem With Biblical Archaeology “Volunteers”

Intelligent Design proponents misappropriating archaeological method and theory as support for their own positions is not the only problem professional archaeology faces today with regard to the creationist crowd. Unfortunately, the issue that Eric Cline has raised regarding the impact of “faux archaeologists” claiming archaeological expertise where none exists should be equally of concern to those of us managing public lands archaeology. Federal archaeologists have done a wonderful job of providing opportunities for the public to volunteer alongside professional archaeologists, but I’m afraid that archaeology’s greatest public benefit may also be one of its greatest weaknesses. I see two problems here: the first is a tendency among “Christian” volunteers on archaeological excavations in the Middle East to return to the United States and then use this limited experience as justification for speaking to public audiences about the nature of archaeological research.  This is not just about the “high profile” faux archaeologists like Cornuke. It’s about a lot of “creation research” faux archaeologists who go to the Holy Land, work on a couple of excavations, and then list these experiences in their online resumes as proof of their professional credentials. The second problem, I believe is more egregious: national antiquity agencies, specifically the Israeli Antiquities Authority, are either turning a blind eye to this problem or is actively providing opportunities for non-professionals (specifically pro-Zionist Christian professionals…there, I said it) to gain a measure of professional respectability that is undeserved.

I had to clarify to my audience on Friday that I did not mean to cast dispersions on archaeology volunteer programs in general , only that the potential problems with volunteers starting to portray themselves as professionals in the field is starting to be a problem here, on public land, and we should begin to think about it. I DID NOT say, although in retrospect I probably should have, that I believe this problem stems solely from the way the Israeli Antiquities Authority appears to conduct business, and does not appear to be a problem with volunteer archaeology projects in general.

Some excerpts from my paper:

The war on science is occurring on multiple fronts, but I am particularly concerned with the battles over creationism and intelligent design. Although traditionally a battle fought by biologists, geologists and paleontologists, proponents of these anti-science positions increasingly enlist archaeology as an unwilling ally. I believe the public impression of archaeology generated by these misleading efforts  is beginning to impact our mission as cultural stewards and science professionals.  When several residents from my home town accompanied Dr. Carl Baugh and members from the Creation Evidence Museum to excavate at the Pool of Siloam in Israel recently, the local paper practically wet itself over the opportunity to extol the virtues of Baugh as an archaeologist who was “proving the Bible correct” by his important archaeological work in Jerusalem. But Baugh is not an archaeologist; he has no legitimate degree; he has never written a peer-reviewed article on any of his so-called “field research”; he has faked evidence and been accused of sloppy, if not incompetent, field methodology. However, the media led the public to believe that “Dr.” Baugh was actually directing the excavations at the site (no mention was made the actual directors of the Pool of Siloam excavations) and portrayed Baugh as a typical member of the professional archaeology community. The media also went out of its way to indicate that the Israeli Antiquities Authority “commissioned” Baugh’s group to work at the site, thus giving him a measure of professional respectability. This would not have been an issue of relevance here today had I not been asked in my professional capacity as a Forest Archaeologist to address whether or not the media actually had it right about archaeology.  I did not answer in an official capacity for fear of putting the Forest Service in the middle of a professional dispute. It was a mistake I will not make again. Nor was the Israeli Antiquities Authority much help – I could get no one from our international counterparts to officially comment on whether or not the IAA regards Baugh as a professional archaeologist.


Unfortunately, Baugh’s group is not the only one.  There seems to be a growing trend of non-professionals participating in archaeological excavations for the purposes of gaining a measure of professional authenticity that they then parade in front of home audiences. This is bad enough for archaeology, but it also broadly translates into the perception that these people can speak authoritatively on science in general. Nor are these simply sour grapes on the part of a Darwinian archaeologist concerned with the broader issues of whether evolution or the Bible is true. As a Forest Service Heritage Program Manager, I am tasked with the same mission as the Israeli Antiquities Authority: to oversee the preservation of archaeological sites on public lands and to ensure professional research is undertaken, by legitimate archaeologists with valid credentials. I would no sooner grant a research permit to Baugh and the Creation Evidences Museum than to a group of kindergarten children. But how am I to respond to “But we were allowed to excavate in Israel, why can’t we do it here?” And I kid you not: I have been asked that question more than once, recently, in my professional career as a federal archaeologist.

And of course, I had to promote Eric Cline’s book, From Eden to Exile (which was onscreen during this next segment, along with a choice quote from Eric’s Boston Globe piece on “faux archaeologists”):

My whining to contrary, the important issue of archaeology’s role in educating the public on science has not flown by entirely under the archaeological radar. Eric Cline has raised the problem of the seemingly endless stream of “faux archaeologists” returning from volunteer excavations in the Middle East to explain to the rest of us how archaeology is done. No less an auspicious a journal than Antiquity (that’s the European version, not the American) recently editorialized on the exact question I raise today: is it time that archaeology does something about creationism and intelligent design? Prompted by online comments written by a professional archaeologist, the editorial notes the propensity for archaeologists to maintain a “withering silence” on this issue but suggests that “…there are reasons why silence might not be sensible for ever”.  The principle objections are cited: the abuse of archaeological method and theory by intelligent design advocates, and not allowing “…the numerous cohort of amateur archaeologists to try and prove the Bible was right after five minutes working as a volunteer on an excavation”. More importantly, the editorial concludes that the author, “…shows that far from countering the benighted influence of creationism, [archaeologists] are providing it with ammunition. For the sake of our children, archaeologists must confront it…”


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