Monday, August 12, 2013

Of crosses and sphinxes

With the world apparently on the verge of a complete collapse not seen since the end of the Western Roman Empire or perhaps since the 12th century BC collapse of inter alia the Mycenaean Greek civilization, the Hittite Empire, and Ugarit, might as well do some archaeology blogging.

First, there is talk that archaeologists have found a piece of the True Cross -- the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified -- at the remains of a 7th century church in Turkey:
Archaeologists working at an ancient church in Turkey believe they have unearthed a piece of the cross used to crucify Jesus.
But it could take years of analysis before the world will know for sure.
“We have found a holy thing in a chest; it’s a piece of a cross,” said one of the archaeologists.
Workers believe that cross is the one Jesus died on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D.
The piece of wood was discovered in a stone chest on the site of a church in Turkey, built in 660 A.D.
The church also has frescoes on its walls depicting Jesus, Mary and the Apostles.
Researchers aren’t sure who owned the chest, but it was probably a religious person of some importance, and that person apparently believed the cross relic was the real deal.
I think that's probably the only thing we can take as definitely true in this story: that whoever owned the chest believed it is a piece of the True Cross, not necessarily that it actually is a piece of the True Cross. In that sense, I think Ed Morrissey has it right:
Believe is the operative word here. It may well be that the original church in Turkey believed the relic to be part of the True Cross, even without the use of carbon dating. There may have been an oral and/or written tradition that supported the belief at the time, although that tradition may or may not be recoverable now. Clearly it was an object of veneration, which would make that belief at the time very clear; after all, what other chunk of wood would call for that kind of treatment by a Christian church of that period?
Carbon dating, though, can’t provide a definitively positive answer to that question, as a moment’s thought makes clear. It could set the date of the lumber’s production at or near the year of the Crucifixion, but it can’t tell the date of its use nor the victim executed on it — or even if it was used in an execution at all. At best, archeology can only provide correlative data that might tend to support or discredit the claim, but can’t offer much proof in either direction. Science is of limited application in cases like these, especially with a lack of information about the object and its provenance. 
Believe is indeed the operative word here. Precisely why he believed it remains to be determined, if it is even possible. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts and even origins of the True Cross -- perhaps most famously, a piece believed to have come from the True Cross was lost to the Muslim Salah al-Din (Saladin) at the disastrous Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187 during the Crusades -- I have my doubts as to whether or not it can ever be scientifically determined that this was the actual cross. Thus, there will probably always be an element of faith necessary here. But it's certainly fun for us Christians to think about.

As to the second piece of news, let's ask a question: Why on earth would there be an ancient Egyptian sphinx in Israel?
Tel Hazor in northern Israel has long been a treasure trove for archeologists, but a recent discovery of part of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian sphinx has been a most unexpected find.
Inexplicably buried far from Egypt, the paws of a sphinx statue, resting on its base, have been unearthed with an inscription in hieroglyphs naming King Mycerinus. The pharaoh ruled in 2500 BC and oversaw the construction of one of the three Giza pyramids, where he was enshrined.
"Once in a lifetime you find something like this," says Amnon Ben-Tor, the director of the excavation and a professor at Hebrew University, which sponsors the archeological digging.
"This is of extreme importance from many points of view, since it is the only sphinx of this king known in the world -- even in Egypt. It is also the only monumental piece of Egyptian sculpture found anywhere in the Levant," he said, referring to the region spanning the east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Ben-Tor says the sphinx was deliberately broken, as were about 10 other Egyptian statues that had been previously found there. When cities fell, he said, most statues had their heads and hands cut off.
"This is what happened to this one here. He lost his hands," Ben-Tor said. The full sphinx is estimated to have been a meter tall, weighing half a ton.
The team will continue to search for the rest of its body on the archeological site covering 200 acres -- even if it takes 600 years, the length of time Ben-Tor expects for the site to be fully excavated.
As for the biggest question of all -- how the sphinx got to Tel Hazor -- it will likely remain a mystery.
"Maybe this was a gift which the Egyptian king sent to the local king of Hazor. Maybe. To prove it? Impossible," Ben-Tor said.
Tel Hazor was the capital of the city of Canaan 4,000 years ago, its population reaching 20,000. Located on the route connecting Egypt and Babylon, the city prospered.
Mycerinus is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure. 

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