Imagine a time three thousand years from now. New York, once the mightiest city in the world, has become a heap of ruins, a mountain of rubble and stones, decayed wood, corroded iron. Its name is hardly remembered, its days of glory forgotten.
Imagine three thousand years from now a team of archaeologists starts digging among the ruins. They conclude that once an important city was located here. But how to discover which city it was? How would they be able to identify the site?
The archaeologist might get lucky: maybe they find a piece of a rusty metal board reading “City of New York.” That would certainly be a strong indication that they were digging a city called New York. Or they find the carbonized remains of a magazine, the New Yorker. That would be less of a clear indication, as the object might have been brought to the site from elsewhere. Maybe there are ancient documents mentioning the city of New York and describing where it was located. If the description fits, that would be an indication as well. Or they dig up a part of a large statue of a lady holding a torch, and someone would remember having seen an ancient image depicting the Statue of Liberty.
All these finds provide clues about which city is being excavated, but they also leave room for doubt. Objects, even large statues, are constantly being hauled from one place to another. Sites may have had different names in different periods, or several sites may have had the same name. And descriptions of locations and buildings are often ambiguous. Maybe the dating of the finds does not correspond to the period in which the site is supposed to have existed according to ancient texts.
The same problems surround the identification of ancient sites in our days. Some sites are cooperative. In 1738, archaeologists began excavating ancient Herculaneum, the twin sister of Pompeii that was equally buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. After a few weeks, workers uncovered a large building with several life-size statues and a building inscription mentioning the Theatrum Herculanensi. They had hit upon the main theater of the city of Herculaneum. Little room for doubt there.
Other sites are less forthcoming. The identification of Tell es-Sultan as ancient Jericho is a good example. According to the biblical texts, Jericho played an important role in the conquest of Canaan (