Like Flies to Honey: On Eric H. Cline’s “Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon”

August 16, 2020   •   By Lydia Pyne

Digging Up Armageddon

Eric H. Cline

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT certain archaeological sites that inspires the imagination. Places like Troy. Luxor. Ebla. Palmyra. Masada. Petra. Ur. Giza. Pompeii. Jericho.

“Some sites make headlines around the world when they are discovered,” archaeologist and author Eric H. Cline opined in his Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology in 2017. And some of these “attract outlandish theories like flies to honey.” And some, he wrote, do both. They ride a media wave of publicity, like Howard Carter’s expedition to the Valley of the Kings. Finding and excavating other famous sites — ancient Troy, for example — were originally pet projects of wealthy enthusiasts like Heinrich Schliemann, wanting to “prove” that millennia of myths and legends about the city had legitimate historical roots. Regardless of exactly how and why famous sites are pursued, the stories of their excavation become inexorably intertwined with the already long, deep history of each place. Archaeological excavations are simply the most recent way that humankind has occupied what we, today, call an archaeological site.

In his most recent book, Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon, Cline offers the detailed, nuanced story of one such iconic archaeological site in Northwestern Israel — Armageddon. “[It] is mentioned a dozen times in the Hebrew Bible, and in a multitude of other ancient texts, but it is especially well-known as the setting in the New Testament for the penultimate battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil,” he tells us.

One would be hard-pressed to find a site whose name fires up the imagination more. But the site and its name are more than sheer sensationalism — the history of archaeological excavations at Armageddon is about how capitalism, science, and history came together to underwrite biblical archaeology in the first half of the 20th century.

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Today, the site is called Megiddo. Cline explains, “[T]he very word Armageddon comes from Har Megiddo — Hebrew for the ‘mound’ or ‘mountain’ (har) of Megiddo. By the Middle Ages, multiple nationalities, languages, and centuries had added an n and dropped the h, transforming Har Megiddo to Harmageddon and thence to Armageddon.

It’s easy for histories of archaeological sites to simply spiral into long lists of artifacts recovered and layers dug through — a record of events, but not really a historical synthesis. Likewise, some “histories” become narrative catalogs of how non-ancient interpretations of a site’s ancient peoples have changed over decades. But Cline neatly sidesteps such pitfalls: his treatment of the site is about its people, both ancient, modern, and contemporary. He writes with the deft surety of someone familiar with both the site and its archive, his experience with one informing his writing of the other.

Like most complex sites, Megiddo isn’t a single moment in history or a single period of occupation. The earliest occupations date to 5000 BCE and, today, the site resonates with tourists and archaeologists alike.

There have actually been numerous Armageddons at the ancient site of Megiddo already, as one civilization, group, or political entity gave way to another over the millennia — one world ending and another beginning — from the Canaanites to the Israelites, and then the Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, followed in turn by the Muslims, crusaders, Mongols, Mamlukes, Ottomans, and most recently, World War I and the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.


Cline reminds readers that the process that archaeologists call “site formation” is ongoing. Archaeological sites aren’t static entities — or places merely relegated to the past — and Megiddo is no exception. Contemporary interactions with Megiddo, like archaeological excavations or tourists’ pilgrimages, continue to add cultural stratas to a site already long-steeped in history. (Fun fact: James Michener’s best seller The Source was influenced heavily by his travels to Megiddo.)

Fundamentally, what makes Digging Up Armageddon such a smart historical treatment of Megiddo is Cline’s nuanced examination of how labor, privilege, politics, and capitalism underscored much of the archaeology done in the United States and Europe in the early to mid-20th century. The book is also a reminder that colonial legacies in archaeology show up in strange and unexpected ways — from who dug what site when to what artifacts are in which museums and why.

The earliest excavations were carried out between 1903 and 1905 by Gottlieb Schumacher, the German Oriental Society, and the German Society for the Study of Palestine. Large-scale excavations began in earnest in 1925, when the then-new Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago — underwritten by John D. Rockefeller Jr. — set up shop at the site, excavating the site until the outbreak of World War II. (Many of the archaeologists volunteered for military service and the project’s equipment, like its automobile, was sold to the British Army and sent to Iraq.) Cline is able to offer his own in-the-flesh turn-of-the-21st-century perspective, having dug at Megiddo for 10 seasons over 20 years between 1994 and 2014, starting as a volunteer and eventually becoming co-director with Israel Finkelstein. He includes anecdotes from his field seasons (e.g., regarding signs snarkily cautioning tourists, “[D]o not feed the archaeologists”), which serve to connect readers to these excavations.

But his focus is the 14 Rockefeller-financed field seasons between 1925 and 1939, under the guidance of the Oriental Institute’s inaugural director, Egyptologist James Henry Breasted. (“[He] favored three-piece suits, rimless glasses, and a debonair mustache,” Cline writes of the dapper, fastidious Breasted.) Both Rockefeller and Breasted were caught up in the lure of excavating “Armageddon.” The general fervor, shared by the public, for big, biblical discoveries was especially apparent in the messages that Breasted received from the field directors working in what was then British Mandate Palestine. From the 1928 discovery of a structure that continues to ignite archaeological debate today (“BELIEVE HAVE FOUND SOLOMON’S STABLES,” the cable to Breasted announced) to the use of a crewless hydrogen balloon in 1929 to photograph the site from the air, the site inspired grandiose gestures.

However, it’s impossible to talk about excavations at Megiddo — particularly the pre–World War II field seasons underwritten by Rockefeller — without refracting them through the historical lenses of capitalism, labor, and politics. The project might have been financed by Rockefeller, organized by Breasted, and directed by several well-known archaeologists, but rest assured that these and other experts were not the ones physically digging at the site day in and day out. Cline takes special care to call attention to the fact that historical archives decline to name the many laborers who hauled bucket after bucket of sediment away. Photographs that Cline includes in Digging Up Armageddon show the busy-ness and labor of excavations rather than featuring artistic portraits of eye-catching artifacts. Moreover, readers are reminded that the Middle East of the early to mid-20th century was no less turbulent a place than it is today, with political turmoil and colonial legacies underscoring everything from supply lines to social and governmental institutions.

Megiddo is hardly the only archaeological site whose early 20th-century excavations were underwritten by wealthy American capitalists. For decades around the turn of the century, industrial titans like Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie financed archaeological and paleontological projects, which served to buoy their own philanthropic and cultural cachet to say nothing of injecting recently made American capital into the longue durée of global history. Consequently, it’s impossible to separate archaeology from the financial means by which it is done — an axiom that is just as true today as it was for Megiddo in the 1920s and 1930s.

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A writer and historian, Lydia Pyne is the author most recently of Genuine Fakes: What Phony Things Can Teach Us About Real Stuff (2019).