Behind the scenes of a great excavation

The digging at Megiddo was undertaken by local workers, supervised by Egyptians from Quft.

It is an open secret that archaeological expeditions are not always entirely harmonious operations, but does understanding a digging team aid appreciation of the archaeology they uncovered? Eric H Cline guides Matthew Symonds through the highs and lows of the remarkable 1920s and 1930s excavations at Megiddo.

There is a well-worn saying that history never repeats itself, but perhaps an exception can be made for Megiddo. This great tell (artificial mound) dominates a natural crossroads in the Valley of Jezreel, where routes leading to Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and the Mediterranean converge. Unsurprisingly, many powerful ancient rulers coveted the control that conquering Megiddo promised, with the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III bragging that seizing it in 1479 BC was ‘like the capturing of a thousand cities’. More than 3,000 years later, no less an authority than Napoleon reportedly described its setting as ‘the most perfect battleground on the face of the earth’. Over thousands of years, countless competing forces have had a chance to put this claim to the test, but the site is most famous for a battle that is yet to be joined. According to the New Testament, the penultimate battle between good and evil will occur at Armageddon, which comes from the Hebrew ‘Har Megiddo’, or ‘the mound of Megiddo’.

A clash between Allied and Ottoman forces at the site in September 1918 was also destined to prove momentous for Megiddo. The Allied army was commanded by Edmund Allenby, later to be widely known as ‘Allenby of Armageddon’, who was well aware of the area’s bloody past. Allenby magnanimously credited Thutmose III with a share in the Allied victory, after studying a translation of ancient Egyptian accounts of the pharaoh’s tactics at Megiddo, which Allenby successfully replicated. The translation he relied on had been penned by James Henry Breasted, a renowned Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Allenby returned the favour when he persuaded Breasted that the great mound of Megiddo would repay excavation. We now know that its earth holds the remains of at least 20 superimposed cities, with activity stretching from around 5000 BC to 350 BC. Breasted, though, wanted to identify two particular settlements: the one captured by Thutmose III, and another fortified in the 10th century BC by a famous ruler from the Hebrew Bible: Solomon.

The excavations saw the construction of a dig house at Megiddo, but until it was ready the team were obliged to live under canvas.

In pursuit of this aim, Breasted set in motion a chain of events leading to 14 years of excavation between 1926 and 1939, which would hit headlines around the world, supply data that became the backbone of biblical archaeology, and see a variously innovative and fractious field-team get to grips with Megiddo, before the Second World War intervened. The expedition was funded by J D Rockefeller, Jr, initially to the tune of $215,000 (equating to about $3,000,000 today) for five years, which was the wildly over-optimistic estimate for how long total excavation of the mound would take. Work was led by three successive field-directors – Clarence Fisher, P L O Guy, and Gordon Loud – with Breasted orchestrating events from afar. It is this story, of the personalities and behind-the- scenes shenanigans of a great, if at times flawed, expedition, that Eric H Cline tells in a fascinating new book charting progress both on- and off-site (see ‘Further reading’ below).

The search for two cities

‘Going in, this was going to be a very different book,’ says Eric. ‘I started out wanting to write about the archaeology of Megiddo, but then I saw how much untouched archive material relating to the team there was. So then I set about telling the story of the people and the archaeology. Halfway through writing it, David Ussishkin told me that he was also working on a book about Megiddo, which would focus on the archaeology. That helped to cement my decision to go the other way and focus on the people. So I would see them as companion volumes.’

The Megiddo team, including the Egyptians who supervised the digging, in 1926. Clarence Fisher, the first field-director, is sitting at the centre, with his hat on his knees.

Eric’s interest in the site developed from a long association with its archaeology. ‘I had been a member of the Tel Aviv Expedition to Megiddo since its inception in 1994, and had worked my way up to co-director,’ he says. ‘In many ways it was a typical dig – the food left something to be desired, but the team camaraderie was fabulous, and of course it is a captivating site. When you climb up on to the mound in the morning, you’re wondering what you’re walking over, because there’s 70 feet of stratigraphy below your feet. It’s amazing to dig there, which is why I kept going back for 20 years. It is like an oven, though, and even in June and July the temperature is routinely above 95°F and 100°F. And there are mosquitos. We got bitten every morning when we came up on to the tell.’

A promising early find came when workmen scoured spoil from an early excavation for masonry to build the dig house with. This block bears heavily abraded Egyptian hieroglyphics, including a cartouche of the pharaoh Sheshonq, who reigned c.945-920 BC.

Mosquitoes proved to be a far more dangerous hazard during the early days of the University of Chicago excavations. Back then, Megiddo lay beside malarial marshes and, when the first members of the field-team arrived in the autumn of 1925, they had little more than canvas to keep the insects at bay. Although Rockefeller’s largesse allowed for the construction of a dig house, until it was completed the team were quartered in tents. Fisher – Breasted’s first field-director – was keen to get the mound surveyed before the first digging season’s scheduled start in April 1926. Instead, by December, he had succumbed to malaria, and within a month the rest of the team had it, too. Illness delayed the start of digging by three months, but preparatory work was also stymied by a personality clash between Fisher and the surveyor. The bad blood eventually led to the latter’s dismissal, with the plan still unfinished.

One innovation during Guy’s tenure as field-director was to launch meteorological balloons to secure aerial photographs of the site – shown here being released from within the stables.

As was usual for the period, hired workmen did the actual digging, in this case a sizable team of Egyptians from Quft oversaw local workers from the villages around Megiddo. Slightly more unusual was that Fisher was the only experienced archaeologist among the small team of Americans assembled by Breasted. Despite the challenging start, the team was able to stage a PR coup when Breasted visited in March 1926. Earlier excavations at the site under Gottlieb Schumacher had seen a massive trench sliced through the tell. Combing his spoil heaps for stones to construct the dig house, the Chicago workmen found a fragment of an inscription bearing Egyptian hieroglyphics, and it was implied in later write-ups that this discovery coincided with Breasted’s visit. He identified it with another ruler who probably makes an appearance in the Bible – pharaoh Sheshonq, who reigned from c.945-920 BC – but was less than amused that it had been found four months earlier and no one had thought to tell him! In the event, the 1926 season proved to be Fisher’s first and last. He never fully recovered from the malaria, and was replaced as field-director by P L O Guy, a freshly retired chief inspector for the Department of Antiquities in British Mandate Palestine.

‘When you find out what was going on, sometimes you think, “Wow, that would never happen today”, but at other times the events feel very familiar,’ says Eric. ‘The internal workings of the Chicago expedition can feel both very distant and very near, which I find fascinating. As anyone who has been on a dig will know, it can be tough. Reading about it, I was appreciative of the team’s efforts, and completely understood when things went south for a while. When it comes to the infighting, plenty of people will think “Yep, been there, done that”. Many archaeologists will be familiar with those days when you’ve got five people on a dig, and two aren’t talking to each other.’

The aerial photographs were brought together to produce an impressive photographic mosaic of Megiddo.

A great way to get two archaeologists in a trench to fall out is to ask them to agree on the precise colour of any given layer they are excavating. One well-known way to sidestep this tension is deploying the Munsell Book of Color, which presents a handy compendium of colour shades, complete with descriptions. This approach seems to have been introduced by Breasted in 1930. ‘I still want to know who at Chicago told Breasted to use this,’ says Eric. ‘He says that it was someone in the art department, and my guess is it happened at a faculty lunch or something. It is amazing how many things can happen that way. Back in 2008, we found some bullet casings in a neo-Assyrian level at Megiddo. When I came back afterwards, I was in line at a buffet luncheon next to the Head of Forensic Science. He asked me what I had been doing over the summer, and I suddenly thought to ask “You do forensics: can you help me to identify some bullet casings?” And that accidental meeting solved the mystery. We did a ballistics comparison, and the casings turned out to be from a Czechoslovakian MG34 machine-gun used in the 1948 battle at Megiddo.’

Linking the stables discovered at Megiddo to Solomon caused a sensation, with Guy quoting 1 Kings 9:15 (referring to a wall at Megiddo) and 1 Kings 10:26 (mentioning chariot cities) when announcing the discovery to Breasted in June 1928.

Adopting Munsell was not the only innovation to occur during Guy’s tenure as field-director. He advocated launching hydrogen-filled meteorological balloons to secure aerial photographs of the site. The response from Chicago to this proposal was lukewarm at best: ‘my own reaction… is… the Megiddo expedition runs a considerable risk of being blown to atoms. However, this again rests with you.’ Undeterred, Guy secured some of the first aerial photographs to be taken in the region. By now, Guy also believed he had discovered something that justified such scrupulous recording, and which occasioned an extraordinary telegram to Breasted. It opened with two biblical references, because Guy believed he had discovered Solomon’s stables. The result was an international sensation.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 102 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

Further reading

The fascinating and engaging account of the University of Chicago excavations at Megiddo is available as:
E H Cline (2020) Digging up Armageddon: the search for the lost city of Solomon (Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691166322).

All images: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago