THE TESTIMONY OF ARCHAEOLOGY
Historical reconstruction through physical evidence is one of the main goals of archaeology; chapters of unwritten history are revealed by archaeological remains. In the case of biblical archaeology, traditions conveyed by texts add another and dominant element to the field of study. The edge between history and myth, however, is never easy to delineate, and both archaeological findings and biblical texts should not be just read, but also deciphered.
The biblical story of Exodus may be considered as eternal truth dictated by God, as a fairy tale or as history. To us it appears as a synthesis of oral tales that, passed for years from storyteller to storyteller, probably underwent adaptations and modifications prior to being put into writing. We consider the biblical descriptions of sites, geography, and topography, with numerous specific details, to have derived from real memories of the terrain and landscape, despite opposed exegetic tendencies of today. Travellers and storytellers of the past transmitted ancient tradition in a similar manner as happens today among many tribal populations around the world, where each storyteller may have distinct versions of tales, deriving from main contextual cores. Many of Har Karkom's archaeological remains are not buried and they have been visible for ages. No doubt, 3000 years ago they were better preserved than today; they may have been read, interpreted, and deciphered by travellers, as Bedouins still do, well before present-day archaeologists. But every relic which does not have a clearly recorded history may generate myths, and archaeological remains may either be testimonies to the truth of epic tales, or inspirations for the creation of such tales.
Some biblical scholars consider the Pentateuch to be a group of texts with metaphoric meanings. Others consider it a collection of popular tales. For these people it may seem useless to look for topographical or historical data in the texts. Others consider the Bible as "the Word of God," and for them it is almost blasphemy to search for the described sites. The study of biblical archaeology, when the site involved concerns a place such as Mount Sinai, presents the difficulty of confronting attitudes and philosophies that discourage every attempt to reconstruct history in the modern sense of the word. The biblical narration is a story, but every type of reading and interpreting sees the story differently: from fantasy to history, from myth to revelation.
The first archaeological considerations that suggested a relation between Har Karkom and the biblical Mount Sinai relied on analogies between field findings and biblical descriptions. After the analysis of topographic and exegetic analogies, the archaeological finds may seem secondary. Even in this case, however, they may be worth some consideration.
Near an inhabited site of the BAC period at the foot of the mountain, site HK 52, a group of twelve pillars were found in front of a stone platform. When this monument was discovered, in 1983, it brought to our minds, for the first time, the hypothesis that there might be some connection between Har Karkom and the mythical Mount Sinai of the Bible. This site recalls the passage referring to Moses in Exodus 24:4: "He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and put up twelve pillars, for the twelve tribes of Israel." Here an altar and twelve pillars are at the foot of the mountain, near the remains of a Bronze Age camping site. We do not know whether this place was seen, interpreted, and described by ancient travellers, and obviously it cannot be affirmed that Moses built it, or even that such a man as Moses ever existed. But the query arose, concerning the possible relation between this site and the biblical description.
The plateau of Har Karkom has two prominent hills as two summits. On the top of one is a rather unique feature for a mountain in the region: a small rock shelter. The book of Exodus describes a similar detail at the top of Mount Sinai: "The Lord said, 'Here is a place beside me. Stand on the rock and when my glory passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I pass by'" (Exodus 33:21-22). Again this is a topographical characteristic that the Bible attributes to Mount Sinai. The story itself is beyond the theme of this text; while archaeology and historical geography do not have the scope or the possibility to verify visions, revelations, or miracles, the reference to topographical elements can be verified. The text indicates a tradition of a cleft of the rock present at the top of Mount Sinai. Just as at Mount Moriah, where the tradition refers to Isaac's sacrifice, the little cave appears to be a sign of the mountain's sacredness.
On the plateau of Har Karkom remains of a small BAC period shrine feature, a stone platform oriented to the east (site HK 24). Around this site, which the expedition members have called the "Midianite temple," small tumuli, geoglyphs, and rock engravings were found, some of which represent footprints oriented toward the top of the mountain. (The footprint has been a sign of veneration and cult ever since Neolithic times in various parts of the Old World.) The attribution of the temple to the Midianites is controversial but irrelevant. The name derives from the fact that it is not a living site but rather a modest shrine of a desert people. In the book of Exodus several references are made to a temple that Moses is said to have seen on the mountain which inspired the construction of the temple of Jerusalem (Exodus 25:40; 26:30; 27:8). Some biblicists maintain that the text indicates a vision Moses had of a "celestial" temple while on the mountain. According to another exegetic school, these passages are demagogical texts introduced by the Levites to legitimise the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. But the Bible tells us a temple was located on Mount Sinai, and this again is a topographical reference. Sceptical students claim that ancient travellers in biblical times may have recognised a sanctuary in these structures and may have decided that it inspired Moses.
A legitimate problem with archaeological finds that apparently corroborate biblical accounts is determining which one of the two came first: the site, or the story? Are archaeological finds a testimony to the described events, or are they the source of the myth? Whatever the case may be, similar parallels between biblical accounts and archaeological finds appeared at first as coincidences, but with the progress of research, such coincidences became too many to be dismissed, beyond the possible diverging evaluations on what may have happened or may not have happened on Mount Sinai. Also rock art correlates with the biblical accounts. Such a wealth of connections is unusual, and perhaps stretches the limits of pure coincidence.
Nevertheless, not all the religious structures have biblical parallels. At Har Karkom a large quantity of cult sites show different expressions of religious relations between men and the site. They fall within a vast span of time and should not all be attributed to the same populations. No doubt several tribes in the course of centuries saw Har Karkom as a sacred mountain and worshipped there. A variety of pillars or standing stones, altars and shrines, indicate diverse habits and traditions. Some of the boulders that fell from the mountain and tumbled to its foot have been given special treatment. Sometimes humans helped nature to give these rocks anthropomorphic shapes by engraving signs that look like eyes, noses, or other physical features. Around some of these boulders stone circles or heaps of stones have been constructed. Some of them have worn paths which lead directly to them. It seems that man asked himself questions: why did this rock part from the mountain, and why did it stop where it stopped? What power allowed the rock to move from its original place and reach a new resting point?
In several sites both on the plateau and around it, geoglyphs convey elusive messages. These large-scale pebble drawings, executed with stone alignments or areas cleared of stones, give a strong impression of this site's surface as a medium for human expression. Geoglyphs are especially relevant in that they reflect human actions which are not utilitarian or economic. Traces of geoglyphs are known in the Uvda Valley and in other parts of the Negev and the Arabah, as well as on the Jordanian plateau, but nowhere else are they known to be as concentrated and as varied as at Har Karkom.
Numerous standing pillars known as menhirs are found isolated, in alignments, or in circles. Sometimes engraved rocks are located at the bases of these pillars. The Pentateuch mentions the use of standing pillars in various instances for commemorating pacts or affirming the sanctity of a location. Small shrines, groups of anthropomorphic stones, trails that lead to altars, or to boulders with naturally man-like shapes represent human expressions whose motivations are not always evident, even after extensive study. The general impression one gathers from this evidence - geoglyphs, menhirs, engravings - is that humans had a profound emotional relationship with this mountain.
The archaeological discoveries at Har Karkom and in the surrounding areas provide a complex image of desert tribal lifestyle, of their beliefs and cult practices, social organisation, and economic resources. Some of the findings may offer analogies with biblical accounts. Though it is unproved that the mythic character Moses ever arrived in this place, archaeological findings do reflect many similarities with the biblical accounts of Mount Sinai. This area, however, also retains significant testimonies of other cult episodes, which may be far removed from the biblical narration.
The compilers of the book of Exodus provided a wealth of topographical details when they described the Mountain of God, much of which corresponds strikingly with the physical features of Har Karkom. The cult of this mountain persisted for many generations, and in more than one case large groups of people camped at its foot. We cannot say if one of these consisted of Asiatics fleeing Egypt, but we can say that much of the archaeological evidence seems to find parallels with the events related in the Bible.
Year after year documentation of Har Karkom's ancient sites grows, and the general image becomes more complex. Har Karkom is a unique source of information concerning that type of tribal world which is described in the book of Exodus. However, most of the altars, the platforms, the private sanctuaries, and the standing pillars do not provide direct information on the divinities to which they may have been dedicated, or on the kinds of rituals and worship performed there.
When the book The Mountain of God was published in 1986, about five hundred archaeological sites had been recognised in the area of concession. Since then the number has grown to over 1200. Many recent discoveries have contributed information that requires time to be adequately analysed. In the course of two thousand years, between 4000 and 2000 BC, the mountain was a major highplace of cult, and the valleys around, mainly those to the west and the north of the mountain, were densely inhabited by human groups.
Archaeology tends to identify remains of structures in stone such as hut foundations, fireplaces, and other remnants of material culture. Usually, because geological processes have buried or obscured this kind of evidence, excavations focus on limited square meters of surface. A different situation is provided by desert archaeology and by contexts such as those around Har Karkom, where the walking surface of the Bronze Age and even earlier has been exposed for millennia and remains so. Thus we do not have available one of the key providers of archaeological chronologies: stratigraphy. On this surface Palaeolithic tools are found at the same level as Bronze Age tools. Despite adding an even more challenging dimension to dating and chronology, this context offers extremely valuable evidence on human behaviour. For many square kilometres, traces of palaeosoils, alignments of stones, geoglyphs, clusters of flint implements, workshops, hearths, and remains of hut floors lay out the steps of man meter by meter over a vast territory. This provides us with a perspective on human behaviour. His steps, the actions of his feet and his hands, are revealed by a wealth of tracers and hints. An indirect "horizontal" stratigraphy is sometimes provided by variations in the patina and degrees of deterioration, or wear of the flint artefacts.
It sometimes seems that man moved almost every stone as he observed and manipulated the shapes of nature, tried to understand those shapes, and added to them his own touches of creativity. For twenty years we have had the rare opportunity to study how human beings interacted with their environment, built structures and shapes, and modified details of the soil surface, how they erected orthostats, scratched images into rock, or collected together stones of peculiar shapes.
Sites that have remained intact for ages allow an exceptional vision of the enduring changes that human hands wrought during their ephemeral presence in the area. At Har Karkom these remains mainly concern two periods: the Palaeolithic Age and the Bronze Age Complex (BAC). The entire surface of two hundred square kilometres seems like an ancient mosaic where humans inscribed messages. To read the indirect messages left behind and to try to understand the logic of such human actions is a constant challenge.
The area of Har Karkom appears as an immense open-air museum. People left traces everywhere, even where they did not build structures or erect stones. Their steps cover the territory. However this means that this immense source of archaeological data is at risk of being altered. Documentation, to be carried out as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, is urgent now while the area lies more or less undisturbed. The increasing number of pilgrims and other visitors justifies the fear that the archaeological integrity of this site may soon deteriorate.
If this is the mountain which the Bible called Sinai, the biblical traditions tell us only a sliver of its story: the part concerning the public to whom the text was addressed. But the mountain saw at its foot a series of different populations. Many of the findings recorded to date have yet to be analysed. We do not know what else this mountain may still conceal that will disclose other chapters of its story.