What a nail taught me about archaeology, sin, and God

Archaeology is a destructive science.  In order to embody this maxim, I once took a two thousand year old metal object, found by my friend on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and broke it in half between my fingers just so that I could declare whether it was a “pin” or a “nail.” Though I would never dare to do it again, in breaking that nail, I learned a lot about archaeological research, depravity, and how we relate to God.

Ancient nails can be found all along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. These were on display at Nof Ginosar on the north-eastern shore and likely date to the first century AD.

Ancient nails can be found all along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. These were on display at Nof Ginosar on the north-eastern shore and likely date to the first century AD.

Archaeology is a destructive science

That is one of the first things you learn when you go into the field. Almost every time an archaeologist attempts to answer a research question something is irrevocably changed. Not just altered, destroyed. The thing, the layer of dirt, the well, or the wall that you’re excavating doesn’t exist anymore after it’s excavated. There is no way to re-excavate it. There is no way to put it all back together so that you can double check that thing you forgot to check the first time. The wall is broken, the relationship between the wall and the floor is broken and sometimes, the object lying on the floor is broken.

A hundred years ago, Archaeology was practiced in very different ways than it is today. Even archaeologists who must be called good in comparison to their peers excavated hundreds of sites with methods that enhanced rather than mitigated this destructive tendency.  Researchers would do things like dig trenches along walls in order to find the layout of a building. Unfortunately, in doing so, they destroyed the ability to determine what layers were deposited before or after that building.

Moreover individual researchers had their own ideas of what type of cultural remains were archaeologically important. Frequently remains that we would consider significant today (such as animal bones or soil samples) were thrown out in the dump. As archaeological technique progressed new objects and types of materials were included in the list of what was considered archaeologically significant. Rather than throwing that type of object in the dump, individual researchers would collect, catalogue and preserve them.

Today archaeologists attempt to limit their destruction as much as possible. Instead of excavating an entire room at once, you excavate half the room so that you can preserve the other half of the room for later excavation when you have more information.

The same is true for entire sites. Archaeologists, now leave sections of the entire site (sometimes really interesting sections) unexcavated so that future generations, with better archaeological techniques, will have the opportunity to research the site.

In other words, in recognizing the destructive nature of archaeology, archaeological technique underwent a process of sanctification.

My archaeological depravity

I once took the adage that “archaeology was a destructive science” to the extreme. My friend had come to show me (and others around me) what she had found while combing the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In my hand, she placed a small one and a half inch long chunk of rusted metal. It was immediately clear that the object appeared to be whole. There was no sign of recent breakage. It had a shaft, a point, and, at one end, a nob. In other words, it was clear that it was a nail or a pin, certainly ancient and certainly invaluable as a souvenir of the trip.

My friend, of course, knew this already.

At some point in time prior to this event, I had come into the notion (quite wrongly) that you could classify the type of object that was in my hand as either a “nail” or a “pin” based upon the shape of the shaft. If it had a square shaft it was a nail. If it had a round shaft it was a pin.

The problem with this object was that it was so completely rusted; you couldn’t see the character of the metal beneath. The problem with this object, as I saw it, was that it was unbroken — whole.

I started by picking at the tip with my nail. No luck – the rust wouldn’t come off. Then I started to bend it, thinking perhaps the rust would pop off.  And then … I snapped it in half. Sure, my mouth gaped open just as wide as those standing around me, but I had been creeping up to the point of breaking it for some time.

In order to save face, I took a quick look at the now exposed metal profile and triumphantly declared it a nail, “look it’s square!”

Our natural depravity

Sin is that way; it breaks us revealing our true character. Sometimes we rush right in and obliterate ourselves. Sometimes we creep up to the breaking point. (Tweet This) As in archaeological research, we destroy ourselves, exposing that which is hidden just below the surface.

My archaeological sin was precipitated by much more nefarious personal sins: pride and impatience. I could have waited. There are non-invasive techniques for “seeing” under rust.  I didn’t wait though because I wanted to look good.  I wanted to be the person who provided information that no one else in the group could. My pride made me prefer the esteem of my colleagues over the God who called me to humility.

The irony is that any good archaeologist would look down on me for having done what I did. I seriously doubt I raised anyone’s estimation of my skills by correctly classifying the object as either a pin or a nail. I just broke an ancient artifact – on purpose! In breaking the object I broke myself, revealing my true nature as prideful and petty, not humble and careful.

We may not be pins or nails but anyone would classify themselves as a pinhead or doornail for showing off at work with a coworker, or for yelling at their children, or for that small lie that exploded. (Tweet This)

Making pinheads and doornails whole again

Fortunately, two things are true of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

First, God already knows our character. We don’t have to break ourselves in order to reveal it to him. He already knows whither we are a pin or a nail. He is more than capable of breaking us open to discover our metallic structure without any assistance on our part (Consider the wilderness wanderings in Deuteronomy 8:2)

Second, though we are broken beings, laid bare, exposed and excavated before God, because of the good work of Christ, we are mended, and made new.  God sees us as whole beings. Our sin is covered.

A prophet named Isaiah described it this way, “though our sins are like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). The Hebrew word for crimson here is more than just a color. It is a technical term referring to the ancient dye created when a particular type of worm was crushed and boiled. This dye was “colorfast and indelible” according to Marvin Wilson (Our Father Abraham).  Isaiah isn’t just saying that we are cleansed before God; he’s arguing that eventually we will be like new wool that was never dyed to begin with. We will be mended, unbroken and undyed wool.

Though my friend’s nail will never again function as a nail is supposed to function, the same is not true for us. Our brokenness is never allowed to prevent us from functioning for the fruitful work God has set before us. That work is a process of sanctification, one where we are constantly called to mitigate and avoid the destructive nature of our sin, archaeological or otherwise.

Archaeology may be destructive science. Once a site is excavated it can never be put back together. What is in the dump can never be positively connected to its original context. My friend’s nail will never again be whole. The same is not true for us. Even when we are broken, exposed, excavated or dyed, Jesus repeatedly and continually mends, covers, and makes whole.


Join the conversation below: Do you think the comparison of the destructive nature of archaeological work with sin is a fruitful one? What other helpful analogies do you have?

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