Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Conference Reflections: Archaeology and Texts

Academic conferences tend to peter out. The time is late; all are tired; even some of the panelists have already left for home. There is thus often little time or energy at the end for reflection, synthesis, and robust discussion. The Talmuda de’Eretz Israel conference was no exception. While no fault of the organizers – who really did a great job bringing together a high-level panel with few (visible) organizational glitches – I missed having the opportunity to take a step back and consider with my colleagues the larger issues and implications raised at the conference.

It was striking that almost every paper followed a similar pattern: it usually began with some piece of puzzling evidence, either textual (in the vast majority of cases) or material, and used the other kind of evidence to elucidate it. The product of this analysis was a solution or better understanding of the context of the original crux.

Now there is nothing wrong with this. I know of no serious scholar who would disagree with the assertion that both textual and material evidence can be elucidated by reference to the other; we are not or should not be in silos. Obviously, actually combining this evidence in our work is often hampered by practical considerations (e.g., expertise, access, time), but that’s the ideal. And indeed, it was fascinating to see in many presentations how, for example, judicious use of material evidence can resolve textual cruxes (e.g., Sperber).

Yet even when the resolution of these small cruxes leads to more generalized conclusion, there is also something that I find vaguely unsatisfying about the method. I am currently co-teaching a graduate seminar (with Prof. Ken Sacks) on methodologies for the study of ancient history, and we recently completed two case studies that illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of this precise approach. One was the problem of whether the community that lived in Qumran produced the Dead Sea Scrolls (using primarily the fine survey of Jodi Magness) and the other was the supposed identification of Phillip’s tomb in Macedonia. Both left the class wanting – once the small question is solved, so what? I was left with this feeling at the end of the conference. I learned many small things, but did I learn anything bigger, other than the obvious idea that texts are produced in material contexts?

I wrote very briefly about this issue in an earlier essay ("Beyond Influence: Toward a New Historiographic Paradigm") but this conference helped me to further refine my thinking. I wonder if it might be more fruitful to start with questions rather than evidence. This, of course, is not meant to create a binary dichotomy between those who start from evidence and those who start with questions; there is always a back and forth to this process. But at least framing our questions in terms of issues rather than evidence (e.g., did Jews sacrifice to Greek and Roman gods in Roman Palestine? Did they have distinctive marriage rituals?) might help us to better gather all of the evidence – textual and material – that bears upon it. In order to facilitate such work, we could use more sustained and sophisticated reflection on our methods. This is the higher order question that I hope is addressed in the publication of these fine individual papers, to which I very much look forward.

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