A Quick Q&A with Archeologist Dr. Jodi Magness

Please join us on May, 11 2021 for an online event with Dr. Magness on Masada: Last Stronghold of the Jewish Resistance Against Rome.
Register here.

Dr. Jodi Magness specializes in the archaeology of ancient Palestine (modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories) in the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods. Her research interests include Jerusalem, Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient synagogues, Masada, the Roman army in the East, and ancient pottery. She holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism (since 2002). She is an archaeologist and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published 11 books, including Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, and dozens of articles.

In anticipation of Westar’s online event with Dr. Magness, she was kind enough to answer a few general archeological questions from our Westar Staff!

How has archaeology changed or evolved since you began your career?

The biggest changes have come about because of advances in science and technology, which impact almost every aspect of the archaeological process. For example, radiocarbon dating (C14) has become much more common and precise; animal bones are now routinely studied whereas when I started out they were rarely collected in excavations of historical period sites; paleobotanical analyses are now part of the archaeological process; and technological innovations such as the use of computers and 3-D modeling including photogrammetry are now an integral part of field work.  These are just some examples of how scientific and technological advances have impacted archaeology. They make it possible for the process to be more precise, and for archaeologists to retrieve much more data about the ancient world.

What should our audience know about the limits of archaeology?

Archaeology is a science, albeit not an exact science. Whereas in the exact sciences the goal is to replicate the experiment, in archaeology the experiment cannot be replicated because the process of excavation destroys the remains (data).  This is why it is important to record and publish fully all work done in the field. Like other sciences, archaeology is equipped to answer some questions but cannot answer others. So, it is a matter of asking the right questions.  For example, archaeology confirms Josephus’ account of the Roman siege of Masada, but it is not equipped to answer the question of whether or not the Jewish rebels holding out on the mountain committed mass suicide (or homicide).  Also, like in other sciences, archaeology is not objective as it involves a process of interpretation.

What’s the best thing about being an archaeologist?

Playing in the dirt 😊

There’s something magical about literally uncovering the past and making new discoveries or confirming what we already knew. What is the hardest thing for experts to accept when something doesn’t fit with what they believed to be true?

I don’t know how to answer this question, as it assumes experts are dogmatic. Of course we all approach what we do with certain preconceptions, but I hope we are open to changing our preconceptions based on new data. What I do think is challenging is when there seem to be contradictions between different sources of information – for example, when the Bible seems to tell us one thing and the archaeology another. But in a lot of cases such contradictions stem from the way we interpret or understand the sources.

Archeological findings often become politicized.  Why do you think that is?

This happens because archaeology takes place in a larger context. Personally, I do not think archaeology should be used to validate political or religious claims.