William Albright

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William Albright

William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971) was a well-known, prolific, and gifted archaeologist and scholar of the ancient Near East. He excavated several Biblical sites, served as director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and was a professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University for many years.

Albright was born on May 24, 1891 in Coquimbo, Chile, to Methodist missionary parents who were stationed in the Atacama Desert. His family had very modest means. Although they were able to provide the bare necessities of life, he and his three brothers and two sisters were not brought up with any luxuries. The family lived in a missionary compound separate from the Chilean people. They were constantly reminded of their cultural differences. When Albright's parents wanted him to do errands for them outside the compound, they had to spank him in order to force him to go out and face the Chilean children, who harassed him and occasionally even tossed stones at him, calling him "gringo"; they also teased him for being a Protestant in a largely Catholic country.

Albright was different from the Chilean children in two other ways: although he was tall and strong, he had such weak eyes that he couldn't read without holding the book only inches from his face. He was so afraid of becoming blind that he taught himself to read Braille. In addition, an accident with a farm machine when he was five had resulted in his left hand being injured and rendered almost useless. Because of these afflictions, as well as his isolated status as a missionary child, he didn't play much with other children and spent most of his time in his father's library, which was filled with books on history and theology. These formed the basis for a rich imaginary world. G. Ernest Wright wrote in Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, "His play was solitary and mental, in which he constructed ever larger and more complex historical worlds-peopled by imaginary heroes and non-heroes-an activity to which he credits his adult success in historical synthesis." Albright never forgot his childhood experience of being an outcast and a member of a persecuted minority, and throughout his life would remain sympathetic to the plight of minorities, outsiders, and the poor.

Albright became deeply interested in Biblical archaeology by age eight, and by the time he was ten, he had managed to save enough of the pennies his parents gave him to to buy the recently published History of Babylonia and Assyria by R. W. Rogers, a professor at Drew University. At the time, the book was the most comprehensive volume on this topic in English. He read the book so many times that he virtually memorized it. He also taught himself Hebrew so that he could better understand the Bible and Biblical history.

Hard Work and Lean Living

In 1903 Albright's parents moved the family back to Iowa, where his father was pastor of a series of small Methodist churches in the Midwest. In 1907, when he was 16, he entered Upper Iowa University, the same school his father had attended, and graduated in 1912 with a B.A. in classics and mathematics. Because his family was poor, he worked as a farm hand during the summers. The work exercised his crippled hand so much that eventually he could milk cows with it. These frugal years of hard work and lean living taught him that he could live, and even thrive, on very little. He claimed that they toughened him for his later career as an archaeologist, because archaeologists often live very roughly when they are on expeditions to remote parts of the world. This toughness was confirmed by Wright, who commented, "Those who have ever worked with him on an excavation can certainly agree with him that this was excellent training…. He possessed a will and a constitution of iron."

At the same time that he was so excited by his studies, however, Albright felt guilty to be spending his meager money on his schooling, because his family was so impoverished. Nevertheless, he managed his meager finances well enough to make it all the way through school without a break, and even spent money on books, which he read secretly on Sundays-a day when all non-religious reading was banned by his strict parents.

Academic Honors and Teaching Positions

Albright briefly worked as a principal of a small South Dakota high school, then applied to Johns Hopkins University, where he was accepted and given a scholarship based on the strength of an article he had submitted with his application. The article, "The Amorite form of the Name Hammurabi," on an ancient Akkadian king's name, had been accepted for publication by a German scholarly journal on the ancient Near East, and impressed Paul Haupt, who was head of the Oriental Seminary at the University. When Albright showed up at the university, he was already fluent in Spanish and German, had taught himself Greek and Latin, and had a fair knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Assyrian, as well as a wide knowledge of ancient history and cultures.

At the University, Albright studied the Akkadian culture. He received his doctorate in 1916, preparing a dissertation on "The Assyrian Deluge Epic," an ancient myth very similar to the story of Noah and the Flood in the Bible. By that time, he had already published twelve scholarly articles. Despite this impressive beginning, Albright didn't expect to find work as a professor immediately, and he did not. From 1916 until 1919, he held research fellowships, and he served briefly in labor battalions during World War I. He met his beloved wife, Ruth Norton, in 1916 and married her in 1921. She later earned a Ph.D. in Sanskrit literature at Johns Hopkins.

Albright continued to study and write on various Near Eastern subjects. In 1919 he received the Thayer Fellowship of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. He was acting director of the school in 1920-21, and in 1922 became its director, a position he held until 1936. He was a professor of Semitic Languages at Johns Hopkins University from 1929 until he retired in 1958.

While in Palestine, Albright learned to speak Arabic and expanded his knowledge of modern Hebrew. He also expanded the scope of his writing to include studies of ancient topography, but did not write only on this topic. As Wright noted, "No subject lay outside his interest, and if it interested him enough, he could and usually did write a brilliant article on it, whether or not he had specific academic training in the particular subject." He became convinced, through living and exploring in Palestine, that much of the Bible could be considered a historical document: that many of the cities mentioned in it had existed and that remnants of them could perhaps still be found.

Discoveries and Innovations in Palestine

As a boy, Albright had worried that all the good archaeological sites in Palestine would be excavated before he was old enough to work as an archaeologist, but of course this was not the case. In fact, in 1922 he discovered that Tell el-Ful, a mound four miles north of Jerusalem, was the site of Jerusalem's first capital, and said joyfully that until this identification of the site, not one major city of ancient Israel had even been discovered. He began a small excavation there, and returned for more work at the site in 1934.

Albright is perhaps most widely known for his identification and reconstruction of the palace-fortress of Saul, which was confirmed by a later archaeologist, Paul W. Lapp, in 1964, shortly before King Hussein built his own palace on top of the ruins. Before Albright's time, archaeologists had trouble determining the dates of the ruins they found. Their chronology of sites they excavated was often vague or nonexistent. However, Albright quickly mastered a new technique, that of pottery chronology. In this technique, archeologists first determine the ages of various types of pottery, using their style, their position in various ruins, and their relationship to other items that could be dated. Then, when they find the same styles of pottery in a ruin that has previously not been dated, they use their knowledge of pottery types and the ages of those types to determine when the ancient structures were used. Albright became so skilled at this technique that he could tell, by examining pottery fragments found on the surface of a site, whether the site could potentially be an ancient site. In addition, he advanced the field of pottery chronology so quickly that other scholars couldn't keep up with him. Wright summed up Albright's contributions to this field by noting, "It must be said that Albright created the discipline of Palestinian archaeology as we know it."

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Albright excavated a site called Tell Beit Mirsim, which he determined was the city of Debir in the Bible. In 1932 he published a detailed description of the ten layers of the site and its pottery in the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and added a correction and revision of the chronology of the Bronze Age layers of the site in 1933. Further descriptions of the Bronze Age layers and the Iron Age layers of the site followed in 1938 and 1943. With this work, Albright made Palestinian archaeology into a science, instead of what it had formerly been-"a digging in which the details are more or less well-described in an indifferent chronological framework which is as general as possible and often wildly wrong," according to Wright.

Wide Influence and Scholarly Legacy

In addition to his excavation and work in chronology, Albright advanced Near Eastern archaeology through his teaching of other scholars, and also through his work as editor of the American Schools of Oriental Research's Bulletin. He edited the journal from 1931 until 1968. During that time, he attracted a great deal of attention to ancient Near Eastern studies. The intense focus on discovery and learning in the journal excited readers, according to Wright, imparting a feeling of being on the cutting edge of archaeological discovery. Albright contributed articles to almost every issue, and showed his unusually deep and wide grasp of a wide range of subjects and disciplines, which he brought together in a masterful synthesis. He was a prolific writer, completing over 1100 articles and books during his lifetime.

Throughout his life, Albright was honored with numerous awards, honorary doctorates, and medals, and was given the title "Worthy One of Jerusalem"-the first time the award had been given to a non-Jew. After his death, his legacy continued as a large number of scholars, inspired by his work, became specialists in the areas Albright had pioneered. The American Schools of Oriental Research is now known as the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, in honor of Albright's exceptional contributions to the field.

Albright died in Baltimore, Maryland from multiple strokes on September 19, 1971—a few months after celebrating his eightieth birthday. In his preface to Hans Goedicke's Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, Wendell Phillips wrote, "His religious training, which began before he could walk, became his career; the Bible has been the center of all his research, particularly the Old Testament, which made such a vivid impression on him as a boy. It was his real world more than the modern world in which he lived. He believed in it as history and he identified himself with it, just as he identified himself with the Old Testament warriors and kings."


King, Philip J. American Archaeology in the Mideast, American Schools of Oriental Research, 1983.

Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, edited by James Sanders, Doubleday and Co., 1970.

Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, edited by Hans Goedicke, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, edited by Eric M. Meyers, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Who Was Who in America 1970-1979, Marquis Who's Who, 1980. □

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William Albright

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