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The Bible Detective

As archaeology in biblical lands gained popularity a century ago, a dashing adventurer named Nelson Glueck made headlines with his astonishing—and perhaps overstated—discoveries

Jenna Weissman Joselit
August 26, 2021
Nelson Glueck in Israel, 1956Wikipedia
Nelson Glueck in Israel, 1956Wikipedia

Rising before dawn, getting your hands dirty, and patiently sifting through the soil in search of shards or something that glistens faintly is not my idea of summer fun. But for thousands of undergraduates and a substantial number of grown-ups, too, enjoying those moments while on an archaeological dig in Israel is a not-to-be-missed opportunity.

“Experience history firsthand,” would-be participants are told. “Whether you’re interested in the worlds of King David and Solomon, want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles, or work in an ancient Phoenician city, we’ve got a dig for you,” gushes the Biblical Archaeological Society’s Dig Scholarship Program. The “thrill of discovery” awaits. Besides, you can get college credit for your efforts.

Or could. As much a rite of passage as an adventure, volunteering on a dig came to a halt as a result of the pandemic, prompting contemporary observers, among them the Jerusalem Post, to pronounce archaeological excavations the latest “victim of the coronavirus.” An official of the Archaeological Division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which oversees excavations throughout the country, told the Israeli newspaper that in years past an estimated 2,000 volunteers, most of them students, could be found digging away over the summer. But in 2020, “everything got canceled,” leading to the “collapse of the system.”

The presence of volunteers within the ecology of scholarly excavations is of recent vintage. For much of their history, archaeologists in the field relied on local help—poorly paid and poorly trained laborers—to do the heavy lifting. Making use of knives and brushes of camel’s hair, they would remove their finds—water jars, pitchers, statuettes, architectural fragments—from what one archaeologist working at Mizpah in the 1920s called “successive layers of the corroding, decaying ruins of the years.” These items, after being carefully numbered and photographed by a professional staff of supervisors, would be loaded into baskets perched atop the “heads of the strongest women,” who would then carry their contents to headquarters for safekeeping.

Paid by the number of objects they uncovered, workers were inclined to place more of a premium on speed than on accuracy, getting in the way of archaeology’s emerging sense of itself as a scientific discipline. Once rigor and precision in the field became de rigueur in the years immediately prior to and following WWII, students trained in archaeological methods, many of them seminarians from theological schools in the States, came to replace the locals.

Later still, as the romance of archaeology showed few signs of abating, college-age volunteers in droves flocked to Israel, a phenomenon set in motion when, in 1963, the celebrated Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin placed an advertisement in local Israeli papers as well as in the London Observer calling for volunteers to participate, at their own expense, in his excavations at Masada. He received several thousand replies—and with that, a new, and steady, pool of workers as well as a new system of financing excavations came into their own.

Where opening up excavation sites to eager-beaver volunteers is a late-20th-century phenomenon, the American Jewish public’s fascination with archaeology, particularly biblical archaeology, goes back quite a ways, to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At first excavation in the Holy Land was an exercise in establishing the literal truth of the Bible, or, as a headline in The New York Times acknowledged in 1926, the “spade confirms the Bible,” an assessment with which the American Israelite wholeheartedly agreed. While conceding that Jonah’s whale still eluded those in pursuit, the newspaper observed that throughout the Middle East, archaeologists now “trod the stones which once echoed with the sandals” of our ancient forebears.

A generation on, the theologically oriented approach gave way to a different imperative: generating a national Israeli narrative linking the ancient Israelites to modern-day Israelis. “Rarely has a people been so conscious of its expressive past,” observed Dana Adams Schmidt, the Tel Aviv correspondent for The New York Times, in 1952. “Biblical history and prophecy explain and give meaning to their presence today as an independent nation,” as does archaeological research from which contemporary Israelis “derive not only spiritual inspiration but physical guidance for charting the future of their fledgling country.” The journalist went on to note that none other than David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister, was an ardent believer in the Bible as the “best of guides to the land, except for the land itself.”

At the time, a spate of exciting discoveries—a “wonderland of widened horizons”—encompassing what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the excavation of Masada, heightened the pull of archaeology on the public imagination, giving rise to what one observer, writing in 1958, called a “floodtide of fascination.”

Less well known today but no less thrilling was the discovery in 1934 of what was reported to be King Solomon’s fabled copper mines in the Wadi Arabah, the southernmost portion of the Negev, by Nelson Glueck, a highly trained archaeologist-cum-Reform-rabbi, who went on to serve as the president of Hebrew Union College for 24 years until his death in 1971. Exploring a part of the country described as a Godforsaken, “fearful place” and braving the elements—extreme heat, relentless dust storms—the intrepid archaeologist happened upon what he took to be the ruins of several ancient copper mining and smelting sites and pronounced them forthwith the handiwork of King Solomon, the key to his commercial empire.

A number of Glueck’s colleagues were equally quick to throw cold water on his claims, insisting that, having little to go on other than his imagination and his insistence on taking the Bible at face value, he was led “badly astray.” (For years, many professional archaeologists, some writing as late as 1987, continued to take Glueck to task, compelling him to modify some of his more extravagant observations. Recently, however, a new generation of Israeli archaeologists, drawing on carbon-14 dating and other technologies unavailable a half century earlier, has given them more credence.)

The fiercely worded doubts and disclaimers of Glueck’s contemporaries did little to dispel the public’s embrace of his theories, or, for that matter, his persona. A dashing figure, the “Bible detective” was lionized by the press, which seized on, and made much of, his appealing physical qualities. “The intelligent smile. The unclad head. The shape of that head. The color of the hair. The face itself. The lithe, vigorous figure,” rhapsodized the American Israelite in 1935, noting that a comparison with Charles Lindbergh was not only warranted, but “tempting,” a suggestion that, given what we now know of the aviator’s pro-Nazi sympathies seems ill-advised today, but which, at the time, placed Glueck within the same heavenly orbit as the beloved boyish adventurer of the skies.

That the heroic Glueck made a point of sharing his findings with the public added to his allure. He lectured at synagogues throughout the country, especially to audiences of sisterhood women, and published lively accounts of his adventures in the desert, a rifle in one hand, a trowel in the other. The cumulative effect of his persona and purposefulness was to render biblical archaeology a popular preoccupation, not just a theological or an academic one. Long after his archaeological exploits first came to light, the “slim rabbi with the emphatic eyebrows,” who felt as much at home in Bedouin robes as in a suit and tie, remained in the public eye.

Israel’s determination in the 1950s to reopen these very same copper mines, prompting bold headlines that read “King Solomon’s mines are in operation again,” brought Glueck renewed attention during the postwar years, as did his ongoing explorations, often at great personal danger, of the Negev.

Later still, the belated revelation that during WWII, Glueck, like T.E. Lawrence before him, had engaged in espionage, burnished his stellar reputation even more. “I had the best cover of any spy, because it was real,” he later recalled of his work on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. “I went on doing what I had always done. I would investigate five to 10 archaeological sites per day, then find the nearest Arab encampment [where I would] sound out” Arab public opinion, be on the lookout for Nazi spies, and keep abreast of what the British were up to. “I was supposed to play some sort of Lawrence of Arabia role. I knew all about the country, so I would have been invaluable if we had landed troops there.”

Glueck’s wide-ranging career, which also had him delivering the benediction at President Kennedy’s inauguration, landed the archaeologist and Jewish communal leader on the cover of Time in December 1963, celebrating him as an American culture hero of the first rank. When asked by the magazine’s reporter, whose detailed account, “Archaeology: The Shards of History,” was as much a profile of the field as of its human subject, to explain what drew him to visiting and studying the Holy Land for 36 years, Glueck put it this way: “To me, archaeology is like burning the mist off the Bible.” He then added: “There is something there, not just things to find, but the threads of history to tie up.”

Perhaps next summer, some of us might be able, once again, to chip away at the past and to try our hands at tying up the remaining loose ends of our history.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.