• Adrian J. Boas

On Reliability

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

A man with "fake news" rushing to the printing press, Frederick Burr Opper 1894 [Public domain]

Whenever my father heard a statement by a politician he did not approve of, or by some acquaintance expressing a political or other viewpoint that did not fit in with his, he would invariably make the following pronouncement: “Balderdash… poppycock… sheer and utter rot!” There was no room for argument. It was a statement as authoritative and final as a Roman emperor’s thumbs down.

My father was often dogmatic in his opinions, but he was also extremely honest, and would never say something that he knew was not true. Viewpoints can and do vary, our interpretation of what we read or see can vary, and that is fine, but for the archaeologist and for the historian reliability is essential. We can agree or disagree in estimating the meaning and importance of what we read in a source or find in the field, but we should not distort the facts to fit in with what we would like to believe. And we should not invent "facts" to prove our point. I read some time ago about an article published in a well-known American newspaper stating that right wing graffiti had been scrawled on the walls of a certain Jerusalem street named for the Andalusian-born Talmudic scholar and poet, Shmuel HaNagid. The article suggested that the graffiti had been placed there in order to associate the medieval writers' name and prestige to the right wing cause. Out of curiosity I went to take a look and walked the length of the street without coming across a trace of the said graffiti, which left me wondering if this bit of evidence had not been invented by the article's author in order to prove her point.

One of the difficulties facing the archaeologist is that he is often coming to the field with a suitcase full of preconceived ideas that largely originate in what he has read. If the evidence he uncovers does not fit his preconceptions he has to find a way to deal with the discrepancy. Three possibilities exist - either what he has read was incorrect or he has misinterpreted it, or he has misinterpreted what he has uncovered. The problem that sometimes arises is the reluctance of some scholars to admit that they simply do not understand the evidence (historical or archaeological). But there are ways around that. I recall, as a student, that whenever we came across some object that did not fit our understanding of the sources, we resolved the problem by referring to it as being "cultic", as if cultic objects did not need to fit the facts as we knew or understood them. (Another option was to apply the Hebrew term "abam" (עב"ם), an acronym for "unidentified object" the equivalent of the English "UFO" - "unidentified flying object", but in Hebrew usefully more adaptable as it did not include the word "flying").