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.