Saturday, December 13, 2008

That Herod Guy

I love National Geographic. In some fashion, National Geographic probably was the initial cause of my love of archaeology; without fond memories of voraciously reading various articles about Egyptian treasures and human evolution, I may never have thought to take Intro to Archaeology in college. So when I heard that NG Magazine's cover story for December was about Herod the Great, my expectations were high.

If there's any single person from antiquity whom I know anything about, it's Herod. I've visited several sites featuring his building projects, taken an entire class on Herodian architecture, worked at a site with probable Herodian ties, and written 40 page thesis level paper on the guy and how he navigated the tricky political world of the Mediterranean in the late first century BCE. Last spring, I road tripped with two friends to Gustavus in St Peter, Minnesota one evening just to see Ehud Netzer, who has made his career excavating Herodian sites and made news about a year and a half ago with the proclamation that he had found Herod's tomb.

King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land's Visionary Builder Excepting the unnecessary 'Holy Land' reference, the article seemed pretty promising. I knew from a friend that Netzer's work was featured in the article, and I had high hopes that there might be more information about Herod's tomb than had heretofore been published. So I began reading...not until page 6 (of 9) was archaeology much mentioned. The overwhelming majority of the article was a biography of Herod, cribbed from two historical sources, written about almost a century after Herod's death: Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War. Mueller focuses on the sensationalist narrative of Joesphus' compelling and riveting familial melodrama, filling his article with sentences such as "All this beauty from a man who killed his wife and sons, tortured courtiers, and spent long months in stammering madness."

While I appreciate the appeal of having such precise information about a historical figure - I certainly used Josephus in my thesis paper - I just ended up disappointed in the journalism of the article and the paucity of actual academic and scientific based information contained within. Especially because the photo gallery is filled with beautiful images of Herodian construction projects, only obliquely referred to in the main text. So many of Herod's construction projects are simply spectacular, and they are inordinately well preserved. He was a master politician, as demonstrated by his master building projects. Herod came to power in a period of great uncertainty in both Judea and the rest of the world. He initiated large scale civic works: entire cities, a port, roads, aqueducts, temples. This is why Herod matters: not because he got a (probably deservedly) crummy reputation in literary sources. Mueller allows the historical, not archaeological sources, to control the story his article tells.

The trouble is, National Geographic is a major publication, read by a very diverse cross section of people with various degrees of interest and knowledge in its wide area of topical coverage. Fewer and fewer archaeologists now work with text in one hand, shovel in the other. Nothing in Mueller's article emphasizes the knowledge gained strictly from archaeological work. To him, Netzer and his cohort are the treasure hunters like Howard Carter (King Tut's tomb) and Heinrich Schliemann (Troy, Mycenae), obsessed with finding "stuff." An accompanying piece discusses looting of sites in the West Bank. How are Netzer and other archaeologists any different from the looters? Aren't they all just after stuff?

In 2007, Netzer's team found a sarcophagus, which they have interpreted as belonging to Herod. It appears to have been intentionally destroyed in antiquity, likely around the time of the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-70CE. Had the site been attacked by looters, the smaller and poorer quality fragments would have been tossed aside, and the larger pieces sold, to be scattered throughout the world. We would then never know how this famous and influential figure chose to be buried. We would never know that he was so reviled decades after his death that his coffin was intentionally vandalized. Archaeologists aren't after stuff: they're after the information that stuff provides. And that is a crucial difference.


  1. Oh man. I am excited for you to be at a point where you're seriously critiquing National Geographic articles. Have you thought of sending them a letter?

    (Don't take this comment to mean I condone this "having to check an entirely separate blog" thing.)

  2. Oh, Kate, you're such a Macalester classics major. :-D

  3. (Seriously, though, I picked up the same issue of National Geographic and skimmed that part--so glad to hear your critique. I liked reading it even more!)