Q&A with Dr. Tristan Barako for Cogito.org

Q & A with Dr. Tristan Barako

Dr. Barako, in His Own Words...

My name is Tristan Barako and I'm the Senior Researcher for the NOVA/PBS documentary The Bible's Buried Secrets.  I became involved in the film because of my background in biblical archaeology.  I received my Ph.D. in the subject from Harvard University and I've excavated for many years in the Middle East.


The conversation starts with questions about the documentary, biblical archaeology, and religion. 

Given your background in the field (no pun intended), what are some of the biggest surprises to you in "The Bible's Buried Secrets" and why?

Because I've been involved in biblical archaeology for years, I was already aware of all the major discoveries showcased in the film.  But here are three that I think will surprise ordinary viewers.
1.  Thousands of female figurines have been excavated at ancient Israelite sites.  These figurines almost certainly represent goddesses, so many Israelites weren't monotheists.
2.  Until about 15 years ago, there was no direct evidence outside the Bible that any biblical figures from Adam to Solomon existed.  Then came an amazing discovery . . .
3.  The Bible tells us that the Israelites, led by Joshua, conquered Canaan, the Promised Land, and slaughtered its inhabitants.  Archaeology shows us that this didn't happen and, in fact, most Israelites were themselves Canaanites.

You told a couple of your discoveries, but what has been your favorite discovery?

My favorite discovery was learning more about a site that didn't even make it into the film.  The site's called Elephantine and it's located in southern Egypt.  They found there an archive of letters describing a Jewish temple dedicated to Yahweh and a goddess Anatyahu.  Using the letters in the archive as a kind of treasure map, they then found the temple.

When examining artifacts that are often considered sacred by many different people, are there some difficulties that you run into, especially politically?

The most politically sensitive issue, especially in Israel, involves human skeletal remains.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews feel strongly about the excavation of human burials because they regard them as belonging to their ancestors.  Occasionally they protest at archaeological sites and obstruct excavation.  I got into a shoving match once with one who wanted to enter our excavation area (we were digging in tombs, but from a period much earlier than the Israelites).  All human bones, whether they are "Jewish" or not, must be handed over to a religious authority for reburial after they have been properly analyzed.

Will your documentary explain how you can show that most Israelites were Canaanites?

Yes, you will see the evidence for why most scholars believe that the Israelites were Canaanites.  It has mostly to do with what archaeologists call "material culture", which consists mainly of pottery.

I recently saw all of your documentary. I thought the transitions between camera footage and the "desk" with maps, time lines, and the Bible were fantastic! Is the footage of the archaeologists finding the artifacts filmed after they had found it? In other words, is the footage a reenactment of them finding the artifacts?

I agree, the transitions from live footage to the virtual desktop were amazing.  The animations were created by Handcranked Productions using traditional stop-motion techniques and involved the creation of a physical Bible that contained all the artwork and text you saw in the film.  Our editor, Rob Tinworth, is responsible for the transitions.

The footage of the discoveries were basically all recreations, but at the actual sites involving the people who discovered the artifacts.  In one or two cases, we happened to be filming at a site when they found something exciting.

What would you do if you found the rolled-up scrolls that Barkay found? Would you risk opening them, or you would keep them as you had found them?


I probably would have unrolled the scrolls also because all rolled up and heavily corroded they would have been of limited archaeological value.

I found it very interesting to read about the evidence for a "social revolution" of Israel rather than an invasion of Canaan. One of the arguments I sometimes hear for why Israel, today, should pull out of their conquered territories and even hand over all of their land to the Palestinian refugees living there is that they originally took the land by force some several thousand years ago. What implications does the discovery that the Israelites may have been Canaanites to begin with have for this argument? Does archaeology often impact modern-day events like this?

Good questions.  Archaeology in Israel has a MAJOR impact on modern events.  Discoveries from the biblical period are often politicized by both sides of the conflict.  The issue of Israelite origins is no exception.  The theory (which is well supported by archaeological data) that most ancient Israelites were originally Canaanites can be used in different ways.  Some on the pro-Israel side could argue that because they were originally Canaanites, they've always been living there and, therefore, have a right to the land.  The problem is that the most vocal proponents tend to be biblical literalists and privilege what the Bible says over archaeological discoveries.  Some on the pro-Palestine side have made a similar argument:  that their ancestors were the Canaanites!  I and most archaeologists avoid this debate like the plague.

If you're interested in reading more about this subject, check out "Digging for God and Country" by Neil Asher Silberman.

How might the  confluence of the Israelites and Zoroastrians in Babylon during "the  Captivity" have influenced the monotheistic traditions of the Israelites?  Zoroastrians had Ahura Mazda, their monotheistic God, and I believe that that  belief precedes the Jewish adoption.

I have to admit that I don't know  a great deal about Zoroastrianism.  I do know that many scholars have  noted the similarities between Judaism and Zoroastrianism and the probable  time and place of contact (Babylonian Exile), but it's important also to  observe the differences, such as the strong dualistic nature of  Zoroastrianism.  Also, like Judaism, it's hard to establish a starting  date for Zoroastrianism because it depends almost entirely on determining how  far back to date the oral traditions that eventually made their way into  written texts.

Do you think that sometimes religious leaders may be against archaeology because it might prove some teachings incorrect? Have you seen any opposition besides for the one mentioned above with the burial grounds and ultra-orthodox Jews?

In my opinion, there's no doubt that some religious leaders feel threatened by archaeology, not so much because it proves teachings wrong, but shows that events described in the Bible are more legendary than historical.

There was even opposition to our show when it was first announced over the summer.  One Christian organization, the American Family Association, encouraged people to write to Congress to de-fund PBS!

I was wondering- how do you make the decision of whether an artifact is religious or not?

Good question.  There's a running joke in archaeology that if you don't know what the function of an artifact is, then it must be cultic (i.e., religious).  It's a big problem because artifacts are essentially mute -- that is, they don't tell you what they were used for.  It's up to the archaeologist to interpret them and give them meaning.  Obviously this can be very subjective, which explains why there are always so many contrasting theories in archaeology -- this is especially true when it comes to religious objects.

Why do many of the artifacts "turn out to be fakes"?  Are they planted by individuals with ulterior motives?

The fakes are created by antiquities dealers (and people associated with them) and sold to unsuspecting collectors.  There's a big court case going on right now in Israel over some high-profile objects, including the "so-called" James Ossuary.

Where do most excavations relating to biblical archaeology take place?  Are there sites all over Israel and the surrounding area, or are most of them concentrated in a particular region? 

Most sites important for biblical archaeologists are located in Israel, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.  Ironically, the most important biblical sites are located in the Palestinian West Bank, whereas most Israelis today live along the coast, where Phoenicians and Philistines lived in ancient times.

Is ancient Hebrew similar to Hebrew now? What language was the inscriptions and how did they translate it or make out that it was similar to Hebrew now? Where has the oldest biblical manuscript been found?

When modern Hebrew was created about a hundred years ago, it was based largely on ancient Hebrew, so they are very similar.  There were a number of different inscriptions featured in the film (Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic), so I'm not sure which one you mean.  In general, specialists called epigraphers can identify ancient scripts immediately based on the shape of the letters.  The oldest biblical manuscripts are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest of which date to the third century BCE.

Also, I watched a part of the show and it seems like the archaeologists are using the knowledge they have from the sites and connecting it to the Bible to give a verification of it. Is that the kind of purpose of being a biblical archaeologist?

Years ago many biblical archaeologists excavated in order to verify stories in the Bible.  Today very few have this objective.  I would say that the goal of biblical archaeology is to illuminate the world that produced the Bible, the society that existed in Israel and Palestine from about 1,000 BCE to the time of Jesus.

You mentioned an example of the archeological findings supporting the biblical account and another where the findings contradict the biblical account. Have your achaeological finds reinforced your beliefs? If so, why?


By the time  I became a full-time biblical archaeologist in graduate school, I was already  fairly agnostic.  The way I looked at the Bible at that point was  primarily as an ancient text that has the ability to reveal information about  ancient Israel.  I still find parts of the Bible inspirational, but not  in terms of personal faith.

My initial reaction to studying the Bible (especially the Torah, the first five books) using modern critical tools was that it was mostly legend and propaganda.  But now, in part through my involvement with this film, I view the Bible differently.  I no longer think of the Bible in terms of fact or fiction.  Instead I approach it more from the perspective of the people who wrote it, the ancient Israelites:  the stories they told and wrote were true in the sense that they illustrated how the Israelites perceived their relationship to God and the world.  Whether these stories were factual in a historical sense was beside the point.

Here are questions about being/becoming a biblical archaeologist.

This looks like a very interesting topic. What got you interested into the idea? Did you grow up with the Bible, or have questions about the Bible as you heard people talk about it? Was it difficult to search for the secrets? I can't wait to watch the documentary.

Ever since I was kid, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist.  And since I was interested in religion too, I figured that a good way to combine the two interests was to become a biblical archaeologist.  I also remember reading a book my dad got me called "Gods, Graves, and Scholars".  It was filled with the adventurous tales of early archaeologists in the Middle East.

I'm interested, myself, in the role of education in shaping people such as yourself. What was the role of your education in shaping your interests?

Education was important, though I'd said my parents were more so.  They're both retired Latin teachers, so the ancient world was always very present when I was growing up.  The biggest educational influences came from two teachers in particular.  One was a high school teacher who taught a course in archaeology.  Not only was he great in the classroom, but he also took us on excavations in the backyard of a nearby historic home.  In college I had the good fortune of finding a great mentor who took me under his wing.  The amazing thing is that he didn't even teach at my university, so he did everything out of love for the field.  Without all of their guidance and encouragement I'm not sure that I would have stuck it out. 

On the college level, how did you study to become a biblical archaeologist?  Did you combine religious studies with archaeology? 

That's exactly what I did in college, combine religious studies with archaeology.  I did so because there was no program in biblical archaeology (usually called ancient Near Eastern archaeology) at McGill University, where I got my undergraduate degree.  In fact, there are only a handful of such programs in the country.

Why do you think that there are so few Near Eastern archaeology programs?  Which countries have the most Near Eastern archaeology programs available? 


All good questions.  The decline in ancient Near Eastern (ANE) archaeology programs probably has a lot to do with the movement away from biblical archaeology in general.  Years ago there was a greater attempt to verify the Bible through archaeology, but now that approach is frowned upon.  Many of the "old school" biblical archaeologists taught in seminaries and theology departments.  Many of those positions are now gone.  The U.S. still probably has the most ANE programs in terms of sheer number, but Israel must have the most per capita. 

What would a normal day be like for you?  Is there a lot of excavation, or is there more research involved with reading old texts?

Usually I like to start my day by whip-cracking bad guys or out-running boulders.  But seriously, many archaeologists only spend several weeks out of the year in the field excavating.  These archaeologists, who are connected with colleges and universities, spend most of their time teaching and researching their finds in a library or the comfort of their homes.  Then there are contract archaeologists who spend a lot more time in the field.  Typically they're called in to excavate a site quickly that was discovered through modern construction projects.  As for myself, I don't dig much anymore.  I still do a bit of research, but mostly I make documentaries about archaeology now.

What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of being a biblical archaeologist? 

The most challenging aspect for many biblical archaeologists (including myself) is finding a job in the field.  There are a ton of grad students and recent doctorates fighting for a couple positions (at most) nationwide per year.

Further, what do you think is the most important tool in archaeology? What is the most important skill necessary to success in this field? 

The most important tool in archaeology is the interpretive skill of the archaeologist.  Most of the data generated through excavation is meaningless until it is analyzed by specialists and synthesized by the lead archaeologist.

It's hard to say what the most important skill is.  High on the list is the ability to take large amounts of data from different sub-disciplines (e.g., archaeometry, faunal analysis, epigraphy) and synthesize them in insightful ways. 

Do you feel that this is a growing field?

Biblical archaeology (and I'd say all university-based archaeology) is not a growing field.  Contract archaeology and cultural resource management, on the other hand, are.  These fields are concerned with excavation and preservation of ancient and historic sites in advance of modern development.

Is it possible to be a bible archaeologist if you're not Christian? I know that it's difficult to be one for Islam because of permission issues - do you run into such problems?

My faith doesn't greatly affect my work, mainly because I am not a very religious person (at least not in an institutional sense). But I know a lot of good biblical archaeologists who are devout Christians and Jews, and I'm sure that there are devout Muslims working in related fields.  So it's definitely possible to be a person of faith and a biblical archaeologist.

What must a burgeoning archaeologist do to further their interest in the subject, or to further a potential career in it?  (Besides buying a fedora and booking an express flight to Cairo, of course.)

The obvious answer is to watch The Bible's Buried Secrets online.  It's an excellent overview of the field of biblical archaeology.  You should also check out the NOVA website, which can lead you to some other good resources.  The Archaeological Institute of America has a magazine called "Dig" that is geared towards younger people.  They may also still put out something called the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin.  It's a listing of all the digs worldwide that are accepting volunteers.  There may be an excavation going on near where you live.  Actually digging is by far the best way to further an interest in archaeology.

Given the limited number of job opportunities, if one cannot secure a position similar to your own, what would be another profession to pursue with this degree? 

Short of a job teaching archaeology in a college or university, one could also work as a contract archaeologist or teach in a private secondary school.  Others go into academic publishing or museum work.  It's pretty rare to go from academia to film making.

Why do you love your  job? Some day I want to be a biological scientist, I love science and anything  related to it. Do you have any advice for me?

I found both  my past career as a biblical archaeologist and my current job as a documentary  film maker very fulfilling for the same reasons.  It basically boils down  to being able to indulge and share my interests in history and religion.   I guess my main advice would be to figure out which field is going to  hold your interest for a long time and, at the same time, provide you with a  steady income.  It's easy to get swept away by the former, especially  when you're young and romantic, and forget about the latter.  I was lucky  in that when one field wasn't panning out financially (archaeology), I was  able to move into a related field (film making) that does.    

How easy is it to obtain permits for excavation work in various countries? 

For archaeologists digging overseas, it's very difficult to obtain a permit.  Usually the only way to get one is to find a local partner. There's no officially stated reason that it's so difficult to obtain permission, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the relationship between western countries and the Middle East going back centuries.  For many years, westerners (mostly Europeans) essentially pillaged ancient sites in the Middle East looking for artifacts.  We're living with that legacy today in the struggle between Western museums and Middle Eastern governments over the repatriation of artifacts.  So there's a great deal of sensitivity around allowing foreigners to dig.

How difficult is it to have new evidence accepted by the scientific community, especially regarding discoveries that have an impact on religion? 

As long as the evidence comes from a well-run excavation, then the archaeological community accepts it as valid.  The issue then becomes how the discovery is interpreted, because so much of archaeology depends on what an artifact means.  There is another problem that is somewhat specific to biblical archaeology:  many important artifacts turn up in the antiquities market so nobody knows their provenience (where they come from).  Lots of them turn out to be fakes.