Hypostyle Hall of Ramesses II at Karnak Temple

Photography and Archaeology

Photographs are an important component to being a respected archaeologist.  When people come to your lectures, they are not nearly as interested in your rigorous scientific method and seed counts, as they are interested in your stunning photographs.  There is an old joke.  “What is the difference between a historian and an archaeologist?  The archaeologist has pictures.”  Like a lot of jokes there is more than a grain of truth to the punch line.


Photographic Needs of the Archaeologist

Most archaeologists who do photography are self-taught.  Many are simply handed a camera at a dig and told to take pictures.  However, photography is a skill like any other.  A skill that can be learned and can be done well or poorly.

In many ways the needs of the archaeology photographer are similar to the needs of the sports photographer.  Unlike the average photographer, both sports and archaeology photographers normally ply their craft in low light conditions and need cameras that can do low ISO shots.  Both benefit from fast, large aperture lenses.   And both often find themselves in situations where tripods and flashes are often impractical or prohibited.

In museums and tombs, an archaeologist may have to take photographs that are good enough for publication but are restricted by extreme low-light environments where tripods and monopods are not permitted.  When taking photography in temples, local administrators generally permit flash photography but may charge a hefty tripod “fee” if they see you carrying a tripod.

Sometimes you will have to carry your equipment for a good hike into mountainous terrain.  Not all archaeological sites are located conveniently by a shopping mall parking lot.  So anything you need, you may have to carry in and out of the camp site.  Sure, that all-aluminum Manfrotto tripod is rock solid, but it is also rock heavy especially after a 10 mile hike.


Camera and Lens Recommendations

When it comes to selecting the equipment for doing archaeological photographs, I would recommend that one begins with a good modern camera body.  A body that can do 24 megapixals and 25000 ISO is generally sufficient.  Whether one chooses a cropped sensor or a full-frame camera depends largely upon personal goals and tastes.  And there are advantages and disadvantages to either.

A good selection of lenses is a must.  I would recommend 2 low light lenses (a 50mm prime and a 17-50mm telephoto) with an aperture no greater than f/2.8. The 50mm f/1.8 lens is super cheap and one the best general purpose lenses that you can get for your camera.  For museum work, I typically use a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS lens.  While I don’t generally like or trust Sigma lenses–they are heavy, expensive, and unreliable–this particular lenses has been a solid work horse for me.

I would recommend one long telephoto lens.  I like the Tamron 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC lens because it is a good value for the money. This lens has a good reach but is not as crisp as 70-200mm lenses.  Nevertheless, a 70-300mm lenses is less than a quarter of the price and can focus in on those reliefs at the tops of the Egyptian pylons.  In other words, good enough.

I would also recommend a wide angle rectilinear (not fish-eye) lens.  No longer focal length than 17mm for cropped-sensor cameras and 25mm for full-frame cameras.  Because of their wide angles of field, these lenses are particularly useful for taking interior photos of small, cramped rooms, such as tombs.  I use the Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC.  Wide angle lenses are also wonderful for taking those dreamy shots of the exteriors of monuments–we need more of these photos in archaeology.


Miscellaneous Equipment and Final Thoughts

Additional gear you should consider would be a speedlight off-camera flash with a flash cord–important for taking clear shots of reliefs.  A solid, light, travel tripod, preferably made of carbon fiber.  A shutter cord–yes, they still make them for DSLRs and they are still useful.

Also consider a good gear backpack to haul all your stuff.  I prefer the backpack over the traditional camera bag.   When you start accumulating multiple lenses and camera bodies, a traditional camera bag becomes way too awkward and bulky to carry around with you.

Stunning photography and great discoveries keeps archaeologists in the public eye.  Many universities will teach you the rigor to make academically sound discoveries.  But when it comes to learning photography, you are pretty much on your own.  Yet, I’m hoping that this blog will be a helpful resource for those wanting to add photography to their archaeological repertoire.



A Levantine Asiatic with a colorful coat from tomb 3 at Beni Hasan.

The Tomb of Joseph, Good or Bad Biblical Scholarship?

One of the occupational hazards of being both an Egyptologist and a Bible scholar is that one is frequently confronted with fringe theories.  And typically I don’t feel the need to pay those views a lot of attention.  Yet, some views have been affirmed by otherwise respectable scholars that are not so good.  Thomas S. McCall (a ThD in Semitic languages and Old Testament) published an article affirming the work of David Rohl who claimed that the tomb of Joseph had been discovered.  But is this good or bad biblical scholarship?


David Rohl and his “New Chronology”

McCall in his article endorses a view of chronology held by Rohl.  Both believe that the Exodus occurred around 1450 BC, a date consistent with the “early Exodus” perspective. Unfortunately, McCall is not alone in his support of Rohl.  Many Christian ministries have endorsed Rohl’s views.

For most Egyptologists, a 1450 BC date would place the Exodus during the reign of Thutmosis III (mid New Kingdom).  However, McCall and Rohl have a divergent view of chronology.   Rohl believes that the Exodus occurred instead during the reign of Dudimose (a king that reigned 2 years at the end of the Middle Kingdom). 

This “new chronology” blithely ignores all the synchronistic evidence.  And there is a lot of evidence that precludes Rohl’s chronology from serious consideration (e.g. the Amarna letters).  Rohl is definitely outside of the mainstream of modern archaeology and scholarship.


The Tomb of Joseph?

But what about the so-called tomb of Joseph?  Regrettably, all that remains are fragments of a single statue.  These fragments suggest part of a Semitic hair style and a varicolored tunic.  From the account of Joseph having a varicolored tunic (Gen 37:3) and this being the tomb of an important Semite, McCall and Rohl conclude that this must be the tomb of Joseph.

I think that there are problems with how McCall and Rohl arrived at this conclusion.  First is the problem of Joseph’s varicolored tunic.  Joseph had a varicolored tunic that was a gift from Jacob.  But his brothers took Joseph’s tunic and they covered it in goat’s blood to prove to their father that Joseph was dead (Gen 37:23, 31-32).  Nothing in the biblical text suggests that Joseph obtained another varicolored tunic.

The other issue is that many Semites had varicolored tunics.  For example, from tomb 3 at Beni Hasan, a painting portrays an Asiatic wearing a varicolored tunic while he tends an ibex (see featured picture).  This is a problem since the location of Rohl’s so-called tomb of Joseph was at Avaris, a predominantly Semite culture.  Many people could have had varicolored tunics, and thus a varicolored tunic would not have been an identifying symbol.

How can we know that this is the tomb of Joseph versus any other Hyksos or Asiatic official?  We can’t.  The evidence is simply insufficient to determine one way or the other.


Scholarship Gone Bad

So why does McCall accept Rohl’s chronology?  Because what Rohl says fits with a chronology that McCall expects from the Bible.  The problem here is confirmation bias.

Biblical studies is by no means alone in having confirmation bias.  But when bible scholars seek to take an apologetic approach to their research, the desire to prove what they already think is true often becomes a driving imperative.  This often leads them down wrong paths by ignoring contradictory evidence in the pursuit of evidence that supports their position.

Now, I think that there is evidence that supports various aspects of the biblical texts.  However, making the purpose of our scholarship the finding (or manufacture) of evidence does more harm than good.  As responsible scholars, we must carefully weigh the evidence both for and against whatever hypothesis we may hold, and then go with the evidence.  This way we can learn about biblical texts in ways that may not have even occurred to us.

I honestly think that starting with specific dates and looking for evidence that fits is really poor scholarship. What if your chronology is wrong?  What if we are reading the biblical texts in a way that is different from what the ancient writer intended?  What if by some chance you find the real Joseph?  In McCall’s case, his acceptance of Rohl’s defective chronology is almost certainly wrong.

McCall and Rohl are looking to find Joseph, and that is what both find in spite of the evidence.  While I believe that Joseph was a real person, I just don’t think that either Rohl’s chronology or his evidence is sound.  This is why confirmation bias is such a terrible thing.  Confirmation bias blinds us to any hard truths or bad scholarship that might be before us.

A relief of Tiglath-Pileser III. Photo taken at the British Museum.

His Name will be Immanuel

For today’s blog, we are going to discuss the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-16:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  “Look, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will be call His name Immanuel.  He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”

Pastors often quote this prophecy during the Christmas season as a foretelling of the coming of Christ.  This is no coincidence since Isaiah links chapter 7 to the text in chapter 9.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. And the government will rest on His shoulders.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” (Isa 9:6-7)

Many people are familiar with this prophecy with respect to the New Testament.  Few however are familiar with the historical context of this passage.  The events of Isaiah 7-9 take place during the Syro-Ephriamite War.  The prophet Isaiah wrote in the days of king Ahaz (ca. 732-716 BC) of Judah.  Ahaz was a king in trouble.  He was facing a potential invasion from an alliance between Pekah king of Israel and Rezin king of Aram.

In response to the impending invasion, Isaiah tells Ahaz to do nothing except believe the Lord’s word (Isa 7:9).  And as sign that his word comes from the Lord, a virgin was to conceive a son.  If the result were to be favorable, the Lord would name the son Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

However, Ahaz didn’t listen to the prophet.  Ahaz sent an envoy to Tiglath-Pileser III king of a Assyria.  He sent all the gold that he could to put pressure on Pekah and Rezim to withdraw (2 Kings 16:7-9).

While the meaning of “virgin” is uncertain in its original context, Isaiah visits the “virgin” who happened to be a prophetess.  She gives birth.  But instead of the favorable sign, the Lord names the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa 8:3).

“For before the boy knows how to cry out ‘my father’ or ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Isa 8:4).

While this might sound a positive outcome for Ahaz on the surface, it was a condemnation of Ahaz’s precipitous actions.

Look, the Lord is about to bring on them the strong and abundant waters of the Euphrates… then it will sweep on into the Judah (Isa 8:7-8).

Tiglath-Pileser III was probably planning on putting pressure on Pekah and Rezim anyway.  But now, the Assyrians, whetted with a taste for gold, believed they could invade Canaan to fund their ever expanding empire.  Ahaz’s act of faithlessness sets into motion a course of events that ultimately led to the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (2 Chr 28:16-22).

Despite the historical context of this passage, we must remember that Israelite prophecy is a form of amphiboly.  Amphiboly is a literary device where an author writes about two things at the same time.  It is a form compressed language.  Amphiboly was very common in Egyptian writing where a writer could leverage the pictorial and homonymic aspects of the language to refer to multiple things at the same time.

Israelite prophecy was no different.  The prophets could discuss current events as one aspect of their writing.  This could make plain the understanding of complex times for a living audience.  And at the same time, a prophet could allude to something in the future which would have meaning to some future generation.  Writing for this effect was not an accident; it is a complex form of writing that took tremendous skill, not to mention foresight.

This is why at the end of this fiasco by king Ahaz we get a rejoinder in Isa 9:6-7 that doesn’t make a lot of sense to a strict historicist reading.  The regional powers were about to subjugate Judah, but God was still sending a promised son.  Isaiah injects a secondary reading into the text that was the real point he was trying to convey.

Despite Ahaz’s treachery and faithlessness, God is still faithful.  A son called Immanuel would still come.  But he was going to be more than a resolution to a local geopolitical dispute.  He was going to be Immanuel–literally “God with us.”  Merry Christmas.



update, ark in Ethiopia is a replica

Beyond Indiana Jones: Backpedaling on Ark Claims

After my blog last week expressing skepticism over the news story announcing the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant, LiveScience.com has walked back its story.  The fact is that, lurid tales of killer priests and fabulous treasure aside, a Western professor has seen the ark in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.


The Man who Saw the Ark

Edward Ullendorff saw the ark inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  Ullendorff was a professor at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  He also served as an army officer attached to the British armed forces in 1941.  And he was with them, when British forces took Ethiopia from the fascist Italians.   With soldiers to his back and no one to stop him, Ullendorff had access to the ark within the church.

When he was still alive, Ullendorff gave an interview to the L. A. Times in 1992 debunking Graham Hancock’s claims.  Ullendorff stated that he saw “a wooden box, but it’s empty.”   He described it as a “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”  He maintained that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion possessed a medieval period replica of the ark.


Ethiopian Replicas

These replicas are a common feature of Ethiopian Coptic churches, and none of them are the real Ark of the Covenant.  They serve an important role as an idealized place of veneration and religious focus.

These arks function like the altars in Roman Catholic churches.  In Roman Catholic churches, the altar is not really a place were consecrated offerings are incinerated with fire — they are technically offering tables that are called altars.

The tabot (or “ark”) in Ethiopian churches serve a similar purpose.  The word tabot comes from the Aramaic tebuta, which descended from the Egyptian tbt, “box, chest.”  The purpose of the tabot is to remind the onlooker of the Mosaic law and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

But this is not a the first time an outsider has seen an Ethiopian ark.  In 2002, a Scottish church returned a tabot to Ethiopia.  Photographs of these tabot show that they are nothing like the original Ark of the Covenant.  They are small wood boxes that a single priest carried over his head.  In contrast, the original Ark was 2.5 cubits (45 inches) long by 1.5 cubits (27 inches) wide and high (Exod 25:10) and the priests carried it on poles (Exod 25:13-14).

No doubt exists that these Ethiopian arks remain important religious and historical artifacts.  But they are only historically significant to the medieval world of Axum, not the late bronze age world of Israel.


A Mount Tabor Oak tree. The other vanilla flavor source. Photo © Jean Stephan.

Not So Sweet Vanilla

At the 2018 ASOR conference, Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University gave the paper “Long Distance Trade: Vanillin as a Mortuary Offering in Middle Bronze Meggido.”  In this paper reported by Science News, Linares used organic residue analysis to find vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde on three small jugs.  These jugs were recovered from an elite tomb at Meggido that dated to the middle bronze age (ca. 1650-1550 BCE).

A Vanilla Hypothesis

Linares notes that seed pods of the vanilla orchid contain both vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde compounds.  She claims that the current belief that the vanilla was first domesticated in the New World is wrong.  And she concludes that vanilla flavoring must have originated from Africa, India, or southeast Asia.

From the results of her organic residue analysis on three jugs, Linares constructs a vast global-wide middle bronze age trading network in vanilla.  And there is no denying that such vast trade networks could (and probably did) exist.  But there is a problem with her theory.

Another Source of Vanillin

Vanilla is not the only source of vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.  Oak trees also contain vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.[1]   A quality we see used today in alcohol production.   For example, bourbon is aged in oak barrels to impart a vanilla flavor profile.

And the fact is that oaks are native to the Levant.  The varieties of oak trees found in the Levant include the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos), Aleppo oak (Quercus Infectoria), and the Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis).  And these trees have been in the Levant since ancient times.

The ancient Israelites used oaks as landmarks (Gen 12:6, 13:18) as such trees could reach 18 meters in height.  Because of their use as landmarks, people passed by these trees frequently, which also made these areas desirable for graves (Gen 35:8; 1 Chr 10:12).  And other ancient peoples even used oak groves for divination (Judg 9:6).  So the oak was a well-known tree in the Levant.

A Less Sweet Bias

I would not go as far as to say that the ancient Levantines used oak wood to age the substances stored in these middle bronze age jugs.  Nevertheless, they could have used oak containers and utensils in a wide variety of industrial processes.  Oak as a source of vanillin seems to me much more likely than the hypothesis proposed by Linares.

While Linares may be correct that the source could be the vanilla bean, she is a long way from proving it.  And in whipping up this elaborate hypothesis, Linares has become mired in a confection of confirmation bias.   And this produces research that is a lot less sweet.



1. Philip J. Spillman, Alan P. Pollnitz, Dimitra Liacopoulos, George K. Skouroumounis, and Mark A. Sefton, “Accumulation of Vanillin during Barrel-Aging of White, Red, and Model Wines,” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 45 (1997): 2584-2589.   Jose Miguel Oliva, Felica Sáes, Ignacio Ballesteros, Alberto González, Maria José Negro, Paloma Manzanares, and Mercedes Ballesteros, “Effect of Lignocellulosic Degradation Compounds from Steam Explosion Pretreatment on Ethanol Fermentation by Thermotolerant Yeast Kluyveromyces marxianus” in Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals: The Twenty-Fourth Symposium, eds. Brian H. Davison, James W. Lee, James D. McMillan, and Mark Finkelstein (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2003), 150.

The polynomial texture map of Sinai 349.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 2)

Last week, we touched upon three new technologies that have revolutionized the field of epigraphy.  These technologies have changed the way epigraphers see their inscriptions.  Today, we will introduce another four technologies that have changed epigraphy in the 21st century.

Multi-Spectral Photography

With the proliferation of digital cameras, many people now have a second (or third) DSLR camera just lying around.  As epigraphers, we don’t need to have those old cameras go to waste.  Instead, we can send them to a conversion lab to have them converted for multi-spectral photography.

Most of the photodiodes in DSLR cameras are already sensitive to infrared and ultraviolet light.  This is normally a bad thing as these light wavelengths cause false colors with visible light photography.  So camera manufacturers add filters over the photodiode to screen out infrared and ultraviolet light.

By removing the infrared filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an infrared camera.  Infrared cameras are useful for infrared luminescence.   By removing the ultraviolet filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an ultraviolet camera.   Ultraviolet cameras are useful for detecting the pigments and minerals that fluoresce in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Multiple Light Photography

With advances in photography has also come advances in photographic setups and procedures to capture difficult to obtain information.  One of the most rudimentary of these is the multiple light setup.  With multiple light photography, the camera is kept in one position and the light sources are moved around the piece in progressive small angles.  Typically this this done in a 180 degree arc.

The advantage of this is that it can capture the fine details in the recesses of the piece, which can be exposed just by moving the light to another position.

Polynomial Texture Maps

This technique scans the surface of an artifact and recreates the surface of an object as a high resolution map of polygons.  Using this you can see the object from various angles and shine artificial lights upon the map to see the details.

Furthermore, the contrasting topography of a piece can be emphasized so that you can detect small details in the texture of the piece.  PTMs are often the next best thing to being able to see an object in person.  In the featured photo above, we see two images of Sinai 349 with the polynomial texture map to the right.

Strobe Lighting

Sometimes, none of the above techniques are all that helpful.  And the epigrapher just has to examine an artifact in person.  Perhaps, the contrast between the inscription and the matrix is too low.  Or maybe the inscription is too shallow to see or photograph clearly.  There is one more advanced technique that is helpful.  While not strictly speaking new, strobe lighting has recently found new usefulness in epigraphy.

When you look at a stela with only discrete color differences between inscription and matrix, your vision adjusts faster than your brain can figure out what you’re seeing. In a tenth of a second, your visual cortex becomes saturated and those discrete color differences between inscription and matrix wash out.

What strobe lighting does is prevents your visual cortex from saturating. This way you can continue to see the fine differences between the inscription and stone matrix. The net result is that visual features not seen previously begin to emerge. 



A split photo of the petroglyphs from Stein Park. The right half is enhanced by DStretch.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 1)

The field of epigraphy has under gone a silent revolution over the last decade.  The problem of epigraphy has always been the same.  That is, being able to read inscriptions that are hard to see.  The process was laborious with readers taking weeks to carefully examine and untease a difficult to read inscription.

Today, while reading an inscription still can take weeks to unlock, the following advanced technologies transformed epigraphy into a more scientific endeavor.  The difference is not so much how long things take, but that epigraphers are now able to engage ever more difficult inscriptions.

In fact, the way that epigraphy is done today would hardly be recognizable to the epigrapher of a decade ago.  Gone are the days of crudely magnifying blurry photographs taken on site.  A host of new technologies now exist that would put the space shuttle to shame.  Today’s bog will give the briefest introduction to three of these tools.

Digital Photography

Digital photography is the foundation of 21st century epigraphy.  Even as late as the 1990’s, black and white film photography was preferred over digital images because of the detail captured by film.  Today, that is no longer true.  Even older DSLR cameras can capture an image resolution that exceeds many film photos.  But more importantly,  DSLR color images can capture color information that is simply not preserved by film photography.

Furthermore, in the old days, if you wanted to manipulate an image, you needed to digitize a photograph with a scanner.  Even the best scanners resulted in some image degradation.  A DSLR camera can create a RAW image that preserves what the camera sees directly from the camera sensor.  More image data means a greater capacity to extract information from an image.


Photoshop is the Swiss Army knife of the epigrapher.   And the ability of Photoshop to manipulate photographic information is practically limitless.  Photoshop can enhance a single image, and it can composite many smaller images together.

With Photoshop, the epigrapher can amplify the color curve of a photo.  This can make a photograph with low contrast easier to read.  Photoshop can also convert a color image to black and white using existing color information.  This can provide not just one, but many black and white images that can show different aspects of the same photo.


One of the more interesting advances in the last decade has been the invention of DStretch.  The developer of DStretch sells the program as a plugin used with ImageJ, a free imaging software package.   The plugin pulls the colors of red ochre from an image and allows the epigrapher to see the image more clearly.  For example, I used DStretch to make the petroglyphs from Stein Park, BC (photo by Sebastian Rakowski) easily seen.

While originally designed for prehistoric anthropologists to extract hard to read petroglyphs from rock faces, others in the fields of archaeology and epigraphy have found the tool exceptionally useful.   Roland Enmarch has used DStretch to read inscriptions at the quarry site of Hatnub.  I have also found it useful to separate out damage from inscription in one of the early alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim.


Infrared Luminescence and the Beads of Nuzi and Serebit el-Khadim

When I visited the Harvard Semitic Museum during Oct 2017, I brought my infrared camera gear to do some tests on HSM 1935.4.7 (=Sinai 375a).  I was looking for the presence (or absence) of Egyptian Blue pigment.  And while there, I asked the director of the museum if they wanted anything else tested. They had me test beads from the city of Nuzi in Iraq and the Egyptian mining colony at Serabit el-Khadim.  In both cases, the beads looked similar, mostly chalk white and unremarkable.  Some beads from Serabit el-Khadim had a faint blue cast. Using a process called infrared luminescence, an artifact can be tested for the presence of certain pigments.  The process is quite simple.  Ambient light is reduced and a red light is shone upon the artifacts.  The artifacts are then photographed used a camera modified to capture infrared light.  If the red light stimulates the production of infrared light, this infrared light will be detected by the camera.  In the case of Egyptian Blue pigment, the camera detects the otherwise faded pigment as a bright blue glow. Under testing, the beads from Serabit el-Khadim showed no presence of Egyptian Blue pigment.  But the Nuzi beads glowed intensely with infrared luminosity (see photo). This is interesting and makes a lot of sense if one thinks about it. Serabit el-Khadim was a mining colony where turquoise was mined.  And even though the miners had all the materials to make Egyptian Blue, it was unnecessary for them to do so since the pigment was a substitute for turquoise.  Why make a counterfeit when you have easy access to the genuine article?   They simply decorated their beads with turquoise paint. Nuzi had no natural source of turquoise and therefore imported beads decorated with Egyptian Blue pigment as trade goods.