Cour­tesy of the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.

Few peo­ple today real­ize that Armaged­don is a real place, but it cer­tain­ly is. The very word Armaged­don” comes from Har Megid­do” — Hebrew for the mound” or moun­tain” (har) of Megid­do. [1] 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.”

The ancient site of Megid­do, locat­ed now in the Jezreel Val­ley of mod­ern Israel, is actu­al­ly 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. We are told in Rev­e­la­tion 16:16 that the two oppos­ing armies will assem­ble at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.”

Megid­do has been at the cen­ter of bib­li­cal archae­ol­o­gy for more than a cen­tu­ry. It is par­tic­u­lar famous for dis­cov­er­ies such as Solomon’s Sta­bles” (which are prob­a­bly not Solomon’s and might not be sta­bles), as well as the water tun­nel, the Megid­do ivories, the Sheshonq frag­ment, and so on.

With­in the mound itself, we now know, are the remains of at least twen­ty ancient cities, built one on top of anoth­er over the course of near­ly five thou­sand years, from about 5000 BCE to just before 300 BCE. The var­i­ous exca­va­tors have giv­en a Roman numer­al to each one, I – XX, num­ber­ing them sequen­tial­ly. Stra­tum I, at the very top, is the most recent, dat­ing to the Per­sian peri­od. Stra­tum XX, locat­ed just above the native bedrock, is the old­est set­tle­ment, dat­ing to the Neolith­ic peri­od. The stra­ta in between date to the Cop­per, Bronze, and Iron Ages, includ­ing the time of the Canaan­ites and the Israelites.

The first per­son to exca­vate at the site was Got­tlieb Schu­mach­er, an Amer­i­can of Ger­man ances­try. His exca­va­tions from 1903 to 1905 were spon­sored by the Ger­man Ori­en­tal Soci­ety and the Ger­man Soci­ety for the Explo­ration of Pales­tine. Twen­ty years lat­er, in 1925, exca­va­tors from the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go arrived at the site, deter­mined to find Solomon’s city. They stayed for fif­teen exca­va­tion sea­sons, expos­ing most of what can now be seen at the site today, and halt­ing only because of World War II.

Despite con­sist­ing large­ly of archi­tects and geol­o­gists retrained as archae­ol­o­gists and pot­tery spe­cial­ists, and notwith­stand­ing changes in per­son­nel on an almost year­ly basis, the team from Chica­go was among the best to exca­vate in the Mid­dle East at the time. They retrieved the entire chrono­log­i­cal his­to­ry of Megid­do, from the Neolith­ic peri­od to the Per­sian era, and not­ed the lat­er Roman graves and adja­cent remains as well. Along the way, they incor­po­rat­ed cut­ting-edge inno­va­tions and tech­niques, includ­ing bal­loon pho­tog­ra­phy, ver­ti­cal exca­va­tion, and the use of the Mun­sell col­or sys­tem for describ­ing soil col­or. Their dis­cov­er­ies and inno­va­tions still res­onate through­out bib­li­cal archaeology.

Their dis­cov­er­ies and inno­va­tions still res­onate through­out bib­li­cal archaeology.

Cour­tesy of the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.

They were fol­lowed in the 1960s and 1970s by a team led by Yigael Yadin from the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem and then, from 1994 until the present, by a team led pri­mar­i­ly by Israel Finkel­stein and David Ussis­skin from Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. I was part of that fourth exca­va­tion team, work­ing at the site from 1994 and ris­ing through the ranks from vol­un­teer to co-direc­tor until I retired from the dig in 2014.

I start­ed work­ing on Dig­ging Up Armaged­don back in the spring of 2015. It began life as a book about the archae­ol­o­gy of Megid­do meant for the gen­er­al pub­lic, going lev­el by lev­el and build­ing by build­ing. But then I found out that a col­league of mine was work­ing on the exact same top­ic, which hap­pens more often than one might imag­ine. For­tu­nate­ly, by that point I had found anoth­er angle, which empha­sized the archae­ol­o­gists as much as the archaeology.

I hap­pened to go to the archives at the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go at a very ear­ly point in my research and I dis­cov­ered a trea­sure trove of per­son­al papers there; a lot more than I ever expect­ed. I was pret­ty sure that there were going to be notes about the lev­els and the stratig­ra­phy and the var­i­ous archae­o­log­i­cal remains writ­ten by the three suc­ces­sive field direc­tors: first Clarence Fish­er, then Philip Longstaffe Ord Guy (more usu­al­ly referred to as PLO” Guy, an acronym which did not have the mean­ing back then as it does now), and final­ly Gor­don Loud, all of whom had been sent to Megid­do by James Hen­ry Breast­ed, the Direc­tor of the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute. And indeed, there were. How­ev­er, there were also let­ters and telegrams and diaries and note­books and pho­tographs from the oth­er mem­bers of the staff as well.

One of the first things that I found was a cable that PLO Guy sent to Breast­ed in 1928, on the day that they found what he thought were Solomon’s sta­bles, in which he lit­er­al­ly quotes chap­ter and verse from the Hebrew Bible: FIRST KINGS NINE FIF­TEEN TO NINE­TEEN AND TEN TWEN­TYSIX STOP STRA­TUM FOUR APPAR­ENT­LY COR­RE­SPONDS STOP BELIEVE HAVE FOUND SOLOMON’S STA­BLES.”

Con­sid­er­ing that he had been wait­ing near­ly three years for such a dis­cov­ery, Breast­ed demon­strat­ed remark­able restraint, because the cable which he sent back in reply that very same day con­sist­ed of a sin­gle word: CON­GRAT­U­LA­TIONS.”

And then I found out that the Rock­e­feller archives in Sleepy Hol­low, NY, had let­ters that had been sent back and forth between Breast­ed and John D. Rock­e­feller, Jr., who financed the dig. There were also oth­er items there, includ­ing Rockefeller’s trav­el diary, with an entry for the day that he vis­it­ed Megid­do in 1929. Fri­day, March 8” — Left 9 [a.m.] drove to the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute of Chica­go house at Megid­do. Mr. Guy in charge. Mr. Noble the Eng­lish road engi­neer and wife also there. Saw exca­va­tion of Solomon’s sta­bles. Left after lunch over same new road to high­way near Haifa then back through Nazareth and on three-quar­ters of an hour to Tiberias on Sea of Galilee.” That was it; no oth­er com­ments, notes, or reac­tion from the man who had been fund­ing the entire enter­prise to the tune of what would now be the equiv­a­lent of sev­er­al mil­lion dollars.

I went on line to Ances​try​.com and found liv­ing descen­dants of the team mem­bers, a few of whom I was able to con­tact. Some had addi­tion­al pho­tographs, let­ters, and diaries that had been kept in the fam­i­ly and which they shared with me.

As a whole, the schol­ar­ly pub­li­ca­tions by the Chica­go exca­va­tors present their final thoughts on the results of their exca­va­tions. The books and arti­cles that they pub­lished are still used, and debat­ed, by archae­ol­o­gists work­ing in the region today. How­ev­er, these pro­vide only a small win­dow into the dai­ly activ­i­ties of the team mem­bers and the sto­ries behind their discoveries.

How­ev­er, these pro­vide only a small win­dow into the dai­ly activ­i­ties of the team mem­bers and the sto­ries behind their discoveries.

For­tu­nate­ly, the trea­sure trove of oth­er writ­ings that they left behind — more than three decades’ worth of let­ters, cable­grams, cards, and notes exchanged by the par­tic­i­pants, as well as the diaries that they kept allowed me to bet­ter under­stand and dis­cuss these team mem­bers as real peo­ple in the con­text of their times, with hopes, fears, dreams, prob­lems, ambi­tions, and desires, rather than sim­ply being names on the spines of books or in bland lists of par­tic­i­pants, which is what they had been to me previously.

For instance, Guy — the sec­ond field direc­tor — was mar­ried to Yemi­ma Ben-Yehu­da, whom he fond­ly referred to as Jim­mie” in his let­ters. They had wed in 1925, after the death of her father, Eliez­er Ben-Yehu­da, the well-known schol­ar pri­mar­i­ly respon­si­ble for the revival of Hebrew as a spo­ken mod­ern lan­guage. With this union, which brought him into the upper ech­e­lons of the Yishuv (the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty), Guy became firm­ly entrenched in Zion­ist cir­cles, even though he him­self was not Jewish.

In work­ing through all of these archival mate­ri­als, I also real­ized that they pro­vide us with a glimpse behind the scenes, a peek at the inter­nal work­ings of the dig, play­ing out against the back­drop of the Great Depres­sion in the Unit­ed States, as well as the grow­ing trou­bles and ten­sions in British Man­date Pales­tine between the two world wars. In addi­tion, we also get a taste of what the ear­ly years of bib­li­cal archae­ol­o­gy were like, includ­ing the back­sto­ry of how they actu­al­ly did the archae­ol­o­gy, and the tools and tech­niques that they used at the time; in some ways, it is a far cry from what we do and use today, while in oth­er ways it has not changed at all.

The sto­ry of the Megid­do exca­va­tors includes intrigues, infight­ing, romance, and dogged per­se­ver­ance, as well as the details under­ly­ing the dras­tic changes in staff and direc­tors, before the dig­ging came to an abrupt and unex­pect­ed end because of World War II. But even there the sto­ry doesn’t end, because dur­ing the 1948 Israeli War of Inde­pen­dence and the months imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing, there was a bat­tle fought at the ancient site on May 30th through the 31st; the dig house was loot­ed some­time between late June and late July; and a fire destroyed most of the house and oth­er build­ings in mid-Octo­ber. In the end, after a long inves­ti­ga­tion, the Israeli gov­ern­ment paid the equiv­a­lent of near­ly half a mil­lion dol­lars (in today’s mon­ey) in order to avoid a huge pub­lic scan­dal. A few years lat­er, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go sold both the site and the dig house to the gov­ern­ment (specif­i­cal­ly the Israeli Depart­ment of Antiq­ui­ties and Muse­ums) in Jan­u­ary 1955 for the nom­i­nal sum of One Dol­lar ($1.00).” And with that, the Chica­go exca­va­tions at Megid­do offi­cial­ly end­ed, three decades after the first team mem­bers had arrived at the site in 1925.

[1] The fol­low­ing is excerpt­ed from Dig­ging Up Armaged­don: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon (Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020). It is pre­sent­ed here with­out foot­notes or ref­er­ences, all of which can be found in the pub­lished book. Archival mate­r­i­al and quo­ta­tions are repro­duced by per­mis­sion of the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, the Israel Antiq­ui­ty Author­i­ty, and the Rock­e­feller Archive Cen­ter in Sleepy Hol­low, New York, as described in greater detail in the book.

Eric H. Cline is pro­fes­sor of clas­sics and anthro­pol­o­gy and direc­tor of the Capi­tol Archae­o­log­i­cal Insti­tute at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. His many books include Three Stones Make a Wall: The Sto­ry of Archae­ol­o­gy and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civ­i­liza­tion Col­lapsed (both Prince­ton). He lives in Rockville, Maryland.