The Beauty of Uncertainty, or Why the Neolithic Tower at Jericho has not been “Solved”

The mainstream media this past week picked up an archaeological story and ran with it. By the end of the week, ever major news outlet had said something on the subject. Now I think this is great; archaeology needs more attention from the media. The public likes archaeology, and those of us who are archaeologists should be willingly and happily indulging their interest. Archaeology isn’t profitable. It never will be, nor should it be, but that means that our profession and field’s continued existence hinges on a public that sees the value in what we do and is willing to fund our research.

Even more exciting in my view was that this story wasn’t about some new discovery. New excavations are of course important and exciting, but there’s plenty of material that has already seen the light of day that sits in museums or warehouses, or that stands in archaeological parks or completed excavations sites slowly being  sucked back under the earth by erosion and plant growth, that archaeologists work every day to say new things about: new theories that attempt to explain how those people who came before us lived and thought. Its no longer the 19th century, and archaeologists don’t simply seek to describe, we seek to understand, and so we build models and theories to explain what we see in the data. These theories are really the most important thing that archaeologists do, and certainly what we spend the most time thinking about.

But that’s where the problem come in – A theory is just that: A theory.

This week the internet was swept with stories concerned a large stone tower found at the site of Jericho in Israel. Built during approximately 11,000 years ago, the tower has nothing to do with Biblical Jericho (its arguable whether Iron Age Jericho did either, some day maybe I’ll talk about that, too!), but was instead a major structure associated with a large Neolithic village.  The tower was excavated in 1952 by Dame Kathleen Kenyon (one of the all-time great archaeologists, and oh by the way, she was a woman), and has been a subject of much debate and analysis ever since.

The tower itself is indeed an imposing and remarkable construction. Built entirely of uncut stone, it is nearly 9 meters in diameter and stands preserved to a height of over 7 meters (nearly 28 feet), though its original height remains unavoidably unknown. Its current size, including the associated wall, it would have taken 100 men 100 work days to build, a more than significant investment in time and labour, and arguably the most energy-consuming structure built up to that point in history (of which we know, of course). Through the center of this tower is a staircase allowing access to the top, which was found stuffed full of bodies – 12 to be precise – though it was clear that these were not part of the towers original purpose, as at the time they were interred, the passage through the base of the tower was almost completely filled with soil. The tower was also rebuilt at least twice, as can be determined by two successive “skins” or outer layers of stone, added most likely at times that the town walls were being reconstructed. The tower and settlement were abandoned after only a few centuries of use, and the next settlement wasn’t built on the site for another 2000 years, sometime in the early 7th millennium B.C.E.

Dame Kenyon’s original interpretation was that the tower was a defensive structure, connected as it was with the walls that encircled the village. Later scholars, including O. Bar-Yosef, thought this unlikely, since the tower is actually inside the walls, whereas a practical defensive structure might be expected to jut out from the walls, giving a good view and angle of attack for defenders. Also, there’s no evidence for any kind of inter-site conflict during this period, so Bar-Yosef theorized that the walls and ditches were built as defense against flooding, not attack. The tower he suggests was instead used for ritual activities or served as some other central focus for the community. Danny Naveh, in 2003, took a more anthropological approach to interpreting the tower and other monumental features of early Neolithic Jericho. He put forward the idea that the tower (and walls) were built as signs of power, on the one hand to people not outside the village at a sign of power and control over the local territory and natural resources, and on the other hand, as a message to the inhabitants of the village of new social distinctions and power within the community, a daily reminder that someone within the community had enough influence to martial the manpower to build such an imposing structure.

So this week the public learned not of these theories, but of a new one recently published by Roy Liran and Ran Barkai, two scholars from Tel Aviv University, in the major archaeological journal, Antiquity. These researchers discovered using computer models that on the solstice the shadow of a nearby hill would have hit the top of the tower first, before engulfing the rest of the settlement. They’ve hypothesized that the tower was therefore built both as a time-keeping device and as a magical guardian against the darkness of winter, while serving as a monument connecting the settlement to the sky and land. Whatever person or persons who mobilized the population into building the tower may have used the people’s fears as motivation.

Now, I study ideational or cognitive landscapes (i.e. what people think of their landscape and how they understand how it works in relation to them and their society), so I actually think this is a pretty cool theory. I’m not sure I’d go quite as metaphysical as they did but still, it’s a pretty awesome theory, and I think it’s great (a bit weird, but great!) that MSNBC, CBS, and other news outlets have decided to report on this fascinating piece of archaeological theorizing.

The important thing to remember, though, is that it IS just theorizing. It is based on evidence, so its more than mere speculation, but its still just an idea. Nothing has been proven, no great mystery has been securely and confidently solved.  So why the ridiculous headlines? MSNBC declares, “Jericho mystery solved: It was a tower of power” and that “Archaeologists reach conclusion,” even though two paragraphs in, the quotation from the actual researchers begins, “We suggest…” SiFy titled their article, “Archaeologists solve tower of Jericho puzzle?” Perhaps the question mark is supposed to make it better? And several other stories inform us that, “Jericho Tower Was A Monument To Intimidation,” which interestingly isn’t the main thesis of the current investigators, but that of Naveh, published 8 years ago, and which again is just a theory.

All of these news articles try to tell us that the “mystery has been solved” that somehow the case is closed, and we now know just what the tower at Jericho was all about. And really, we don’t. We don’t know what it was all about, because we can’t go back in time and ask these people what is was all about, but we have some pretty good ideas. And honestly, most of the researchers if asked, would probably agree that the complete story is most likely some combination of these ideas. Humans aren’t simple creatures, and we rarely just have one thought about something: the story is –always- multifaceted. And archaeologists are just trying to get a better understanding of that story. Is there some reason why we can’t just tell the public that?

In conclusion, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the French writer and philosopher Voltaire:

“Doubt is not a pleasant situation, but certainty is absurd.”

Bar-Yosef, O. “The Walls of Jericho: An Alternative Interpretation,” in Current Anthropology, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr. 1986), pp. 157-162.

Kenyon, K.M. 1957. Digging Up Jericho. London: Ernest Benn.

Liran, R. & R. Barkai, “Casting a shadow on Neolithic Jericho.” Antiquity Online Project Gallery.

Naveh, D. “PPNA Jericho: A Socio-Political Perspective” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Col. 13, No. 1 (Aug. 2003), pp. 83-96.


16 thoughts on “The Beauty of Uncertainty, or Why the Neolithic Tower at Jericho has not been “Solved”

  1. Great post. The media loves to embellish and sensationalize everything. It isn’t about reporting the news anymore, it’s about grabbing peoples attention in any way and getting those all-important ratings and/or revenue dollars* in whatever way possible.

    I spent 10 years working for the National Park Service and another 6 for Montana State Parks, dealing with the media day in and day out. My focus was pre-20th century North American fur trade history and material culture and American Indian history and material culture, and I found that the media always wanted to run with the “sexy” bit, even if it wasn’t accurate, was – like the Jericho tower – only one of many theories, or was complete bunk. In the end, while these inaccurate or misleading articles did bring visitors to the parks and sites I worked at, we were left holding the bag and trying to correct the misinformation or incomplete information the folks that read the stories came to us believing in.

    *disclaimer: I am in no way anti-revenue dollars – I just believe in doing it honestly

    1. Hi Robert, glad you liked it! I understand that the media likes to sensationalize, I guess my question really is whether in the case of archaeology it actually adds anything. Do we have to sell our archaeology this way to make the public interested, or is it possible to present a more nuanced picture and still hold their attention?

      1. I understand what you’re getting at, and fully agree with you. The unfortunate thing is we don’t have control over what the media wants to report or how they report it, so no whether archaeologists or historians want to “sex things up” or not doesn’t matter to the media.

        That said, I do think we have to do some selling. In the modern day where our papers, articles, brochures, and books have to compete with heavily sensationalized media headlines, and draw the attention of a general public used to such things, if we don’t “up-sell” (to use a retail sales phrase) our product, we aren’t going to get the notice it deserves.

      2. We don’t have complete control over how the media portrays our work, but I would argue that there is at least something we can do about that. A lot of archaeologists don’t make an effort to have their work covered by the media, and when we do work with news outlets or documentary teams we have a bad habit of not standing up for ourselves and allowing our work to be misrepresented. For example, an archaeologist or historian can easily have a clause put in their contract that allow them final approval over any footage used of them speaking. This can at least aid in the classic problem where skillful editing results in a scholar appearing to say something he ever meant! Dr. Eric Cline at the George Washington University has been making a really admirable effort at educating Near Eastern archaeologists (particularly those working in the “Biblical” world) on how to work more productively and safely with the media.

        But yes, I completely agree that we DO have some selling to do! There’s nothing wrong with trying to call some attention to our work, and in fact I think we should exert a lot more effort in that area. Some academics look unfavorably on scholars who try to market their work to the public, which I think is both unfair and short-sighted. I think if more attention was brought to our field in the media in general, then it would be easier for us to fight the sensationalist (or outright incorrect) material the public is currently subjected to. Think of all the wildlife/adventure shows, for example. Yes, there’s some sensationalist stuff (more or less crappy – I’m actually a fan of Shark Week!) but then there’s also lost of beautiful, serious work. I see no reason why archaeology can’t be covered the same way!

      3. That is very true. And while there have been a couple of TV shows that follow archaeologists, it’s not become a sexy thing for the public and it seems hard to keep their focus.

        The last place I worked before I left the field of public history was a prehistoric bison jump here in central Montana. Such a fascinating site, with so many wonderful aspects to it. But the local media always wanted to talk about the prairie dogs – which are cute critters, sure – or something along that line. Frustrating. I’d try to steer them towards the cooking hearths, the bison processing areas, etc., but it wouldn’t hold their fascination long enough – like dealing with a 5-year old. The best I ever got from them was when revealed some of the pictographs and petroglyphs we found on the cliffs.

  2. Excellent article – nothing annoys me more than archaeologists or media trying to place 21st century social thoughts and values onto ancient artefacts and earthworks – because of this it seems that all carvings are “sacred,” every article is “probably ceremonial” and every hillock a site of “ritual.” Not much fun in the old days then.

    1. Ah, the old archaeology standby: we don’t know what it is… it must be ritual!! Of course from what we know of pre-industrialized societies through ethnographic research, a lot of these groups do seem to have a more connected relationship with their landscape, so its not difficult to suggest that our prehistoric ancestors could have been the same way. And eve we have our rituals, though we don’t think of them that way… think of all those football fans singing their songs and wearing their favorite player’s jersey/. I think the mistake is in associating “ritual” with mysticism. Thanks for your comment!

  3. That was a fantastic read. Robert is right. These days, the more sensational the story is, the better. The more colorful you can make you story, the better. This is why news of scandals have more audience than actual news. Thank you for posting this gem of an article!

  4. >Ah, the old archaeology standby: we don’t know what it is… it must be ritual!!

    Do you really have the same saying? In Germany we’re talking of “Kult” or “Ritus” (cult, ritual) in this context 😀

  5. nice article and i am agree with you like history and archeology not study any of this but here in Greece have a long story of both, sure these days the most important for media are the story can sold , sensational and agree with Famacusta Developers about media and as i romantic type prefere more nuanced picture and still hold their attention as you write and sure i prefere old days

  6. Cool post, Girl Archaeologist! Enjoy your tweets, too. We’re also frequently frustrated with media characterisations of East Asian archaeology, prehistory, early history, and material culture. The English-language media is the main recipient of our frustration, but the problem is connected to the way all archaeologies are seen and reported on by all English-language media. The immediate and every-day problem in the media that we notice for East Asian stories is the lack of familiarisation with basic concepts. Very few seem to know even the basic terminology and so we are left with very shallow, awkward reports that confuse the general public. Perhaps it is unfair to expect the media to be completely archaeologically literate, but they can do so much better than they do now to give the general public a solid idea of the basics and importance of the stories on which they report.

    1. Excellent and well thought out description of the problem! The lack of basic terminology in the media is frustrating but we can only assume that the public would also be lacking in that terminology. So, should we try to explain archaeological terminology to the public? I think archaeology should be taught in public schools – at least the basics, as part of history, social studies, or science courses! Or is it acceptable/possible for us to distill our language, like physicists must for example, in a fashion that still conveys the importance (and coolness!) of our work?

      1. Perhaps the problems that we are describing cannot be solved quickly. We agree, therefore, that distilling language in good faith is the way to go to convey some sense of the importance of our work.

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