The Story of Stuff

Have you ever owned a piece of the past?

I am sure you have.

Well our home has several. My wife has wondered about some of the history we have in our home—the antique quilt from Aunt Hick Cook, the ash tray base made of wood that was from the raft my ancestors used to float from the Eastern US to Western Kentucky, and the square nail that is from the cabin that my grandfather lived in…

I think she wonders why I hang on to this stuff.

It is my way to touch times gone by.

Sometimes it feels so silly. I can’t touch times gone by.

It is a great leap to go from these family artifacts to Biblical artifacts that archaeologists unearth.   As I have read the chapter “Does Archaeology Help?” I think about their work.  I think about why they do what they do.  I look at my pieces of the past and I wonder if they are authentic.  I wonder where they were when they were being used.  I wonder who used them and what the owners looked like.  I wonder about how life was back when.

Maybe this is what drives the archaeologist…

In yesterday’s post I cited Paul Little who said “we cannot prove the Bible by archaeology nor do we believe the Bible on the basis of archaeological proof.”

What archaeologists have are things.

At the writing of Know Why You Believe Little states that there are 25,000 sites where archaeologists have tried to unearth the past.   Just thinking about so many digs is mind-boggling.

He discusses a major question people have who deal with artifacts? How can the archaeologist be sure of the date of the artifact? How can they be sure of their authenticity?

As I look at the nail from my Grandfather’s house, I wonder how could I prove it is authentic other the handwriting on the envelope from my Aunt Babe? The handwriting says it is a nail from the “old home place.”

As we look at Biblical artifacts, how can we prove that the artifacts are truly of the age that they are supposed to be? There are a couple of methods that can be explained.

First of all is the stratification of a tell. You may wonder, “What is that?”  It is not that complicated but often we think of archaeologists as diggers.  They are.  However they do not just randomly dig all over the middle east in 25,000 sites; they dig down in the earth looking for layers of the past.  The digging can be compared to a layer cake where each layer of the cake reveals historical objects.  Little cites A.R. Millard:  “Archaeologists usually concentrated on the more rewarding parts [of an geographical area] where temples or palaces stood…To do this, a trench may slice right through a mound [or a tell], producing a small amount of information at all levels…Each building or time of occupation will leave its mark on the mound in the form of floor surfaces, stumps of walls, and heaps of rubbish.  These will be sandwiched between earlier remains below and later remains above.”

Many of us are not scientists but we may know about “carbon dating”.   However we don’t understand the science behind it.  Maybe my lack of science background can help me simplify an explanation and help you to understand the basics of the process [maybe not].


In the 1940s, researchers began to study the effect of cosmic radiation on the upper atmosphere. They found that the upper atmosphere caused decay at a rate that could be determined.  Without getting too technical, take a piece of charcoal from an ancient campsite.  While the wood was alive and growing, it was taking in carbon dioxide. Its ratio of common carbon to radioactive carbon closely matched the ratio in the surrounding air. But after that ancient camper cut it for firewood, it no longer took in carbon dioxide. The common carbon began to decay, while the amount of radioactive carbon stayed the same. Theoretically, if we know the ratio of these two “isotopes” and the decay rate, we can calculate the radiocarbon age of the charcoal [from the Apologetics Press Website].

Let me be quick to tell you that I cut a lot of the complex science out of this explanation but you “get the gist.”

In conclusion, having a piece of the past is not enough. The artifact needs to “speak” to us somehow.

We need some methods to help us interpret the object we have. Methodical excavation can assist in interpretation as well as carbon dating.

Otherwise what do we have?

Maybe a nail in an envelope with handwriting on the envelope. Whose handwriting is on the envelope?  Is that nail really from the “old home place?”

You can see the faith that one needs to accept the story but a little science goes a long way toward helping us believe.


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