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The Archaeology of Israel-Palestine in Finland

November 14, 2013 9:29 am by:

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By: Kirsi Valkama, University of Helsinki

Finland is a country of 5.4 million inhabitants, famous for the cell phone manufacturer Nokia, or at least what is left of it. But Finland had long made contributions to archaeology that outstrip its small size.

Aapeli Saarisalo.

Aapeli Saarisalo.

The first person in Finland to become involved in Near Eastern archaeology was Aapeli Saarisalo (1896–1986), professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Helsinki. In fact, he was the first foreign scholar to resume work in the new state of Israel, when he appeared at the office of the Israel Antiquities Unit in March 1949, asking permission to continue his Galilee survey from the 1920s. The Israeli officials were not prepared for this kind of a request and they asked that Saarisalo postpone the work for several months, because, as the official files put it, the danger of “Arab mines and of Arab militia groups from the rescue army of Qawuqji.”[i]

Saarisalo was already interested in biblical archaeology during his studies of theology and took courses in archaeology in Great Britain. He participated in several excavations in the Near East, notably at Tepe Gawra and Kafr Qama. Saarisalo’s main works concerned the survey of topographical names in Galilee[ii]. He also  published tens of books aimed at the public about biblical history and his own excavation experiences as well as countless newspaper articles. Saarisalo was a devout conservative Christian and his orientation to archaeology was a traditional form of biblical archaeology, but as a prolific writer he made the field well-known to the wider public in Finland.

Saarisalo describes in his memoir that when he travelled for the first time to Palestine in 1920 he was advised by his former professor Arthur Hjelt to visit Qumran, since Hjelt had assumed that there must be important inscriptions in the caves near the remains of an ancient monastery. Many years later Saarisalo was still displeased that British officials did not grant him permission to vistit that area.[iii] If Saarisalo had succeeded in doing so, we might have had a completely different history of research in Finland.

Today many students follow a similar path, thanks in part to Finland’s acclaimed educational system, which is comprised of ten multidisciplinary and six specialized universities with about 180 000 students. Departments of archaeology are located at the Universities of Helsinki, Turku and Oulu. The research and teaching at these departments largely focuses on the archaeology of Finland. The approach to archaeology is deeply rooted in the natural sciences and their faculties that, for their part, provide Finland’s archaeologists with good technical facilities, special equipment and knowledge.

A surveyor at work. The GIS survey and mapping project in Jebel Bishri, Syria. Photo: SYGIS.

A surveyor at work. The GIS survey and mapping project in Jebel Bishri, Syria. Photo: SYGIS.

These departments of archaeology have been involved in many international projects over the years. Those in the Near East have included the 1997–2007 survey and excavation project at Jabal Haroun (Petra)[iv], in Jordan, conducted by the University of Helsinki’s departments of Classics and Archaeology directed by Prof. Jaakko Frösén. The 2000–2010 GIS survey and mapping project (SYGIS) in the Jebel Bishri region[v] of Syria was directed by Dr. Minna Lönnqvist from the same university’s Department of Archaeology. In Egypt, the documentation project from 2007–2013 at the Station de Repos area in Thebes[vi] was led by Egyptologist Dr. Jaana Toivari-Viitala, also from the University of Helsinki. Meanwhile the department of archaeology at the University of Oulu has been involved in an international project focusing on the tomb of Montemhat and its surroundings in Luxor, Egypt.

Excavation of the Iron Age I structures at Tel Kinrot. Photo by Stefan Wenger; © Kinneret Regional Project.

Excavation of the Iron Age I structures at Tel Kinrot. Photo by Stefan Wenger; © Kinneret Regional Project.

Among academics in Finland, biblical scholars in particular have been interested in the archaeology of Israel-Palestine. Archaeological finds cannot be dismissed when the history of biblical periods is studied, and as a consequence, more interest has been focused on archaeological questions. A new turn occurred in 1998 when the Department of Biblical studies at the University of Helsinki[vii] joined the excavations in Galilee at Tel Kinrot (Tell el-‘Oreme), directed by the late Professor Volkmar Fritz. Since 2003, the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki has been a member of the Kinneret Regional Project[viii] along with the universities of Bern, Leiden and Mainz. The project continued the excavations at Tel Kinrot during the periods of 2003–2005 and 2007–2008 under the direction of Dr. Stefan Münger, Dr. Juha Pakkala and Prof. Jürgen Zangenberg. The excavation focused on Iron Age I structures.

Excavating at Horvat Kur. Photo by Benjamin de Groot; © Kinneret Regional Project

Excavating at Horvat Kur. Photo by Benjamin de Groot; © Kinneret Regional Project

In addition to Tel Kinrot, the Roman–Byzantine settlement at Horvat Kur has been under excavation since 2010 under Prof. Jürgen Zangenberg, Dr. Stefan Münger, Dr. Raimo Hakola and Prof. Byron McCane from the universities of Leiden, Bern, Helsinki and the Wofford College, respectively. Close to 90 students from the University of Helsinki, and also the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Oulu and Åbo Akademi University have worked as volunteers at these multinational excavations and have taken part in the field school. The field school has become an important part of the education of students of theology: it gives them fieldwork experience and an idea of how information is collected through archaeological work. Finnish students are usually highly motivated, work hard and do not complain, but if you ask them what they have gained from the excavations, the answer will probably include strong muscles, a nice tan, great international friends and getting to see Israel.

At the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology, questions concerning archaeology are part of all courses covering the history of the biblical periods. Special courses in archaeology are given yearly by Dr. Raz Kletter, and graduate student seminars are held concerning archaeological questions resulting in a number of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations that focus on archaeology. These studies often discuss themes relevant to biblical studies.

In the foreground Horvat Kur, with Tel Kinrot in the background. Photo by Skyview Ltd (Kinneret Regional Project).

In the foreground Horvat Kur, with Tel Kinrot in the background. Photo by Skyview Ltd (Kinneret Regional Project).

Not only are biblical scholars and archaeologists interested in Near Eastern archaeology, research in this area is also carried at within such fields as Assyriology, Egyptology and Comparative religion. However, this is not an optimal situation for students in Finland interested in Near Eastern archaeology. No post-graduate program is provided in Near Eastern archaeology in the country, and the courses provided by different disciplines do not form a coherent curriculum. Much is left to the students’ own initiative. Insufficient library collections also make study and research difficult, and often require traveling to better libraries.

Along with academics and students there are individuals who through their general interest in the Bible also have an interest in archaeology, which is twofold. There is interest in the results of academic studies particularly among teachers and pastors: general books covering the archaeology of Israel-Palestine find an audience among such individuals. Another group is religious persons who are usually interested in the historicity of the Bible. Students and laypersons interested in archaeology have privately joined excavations in Israel as volunteers. Dr. Eero Junkkaala[ix], lecturer and pastor at the Finnish Bible Institute, has lectured for three decades on topics concerning the Bible and archaeology, both at the Institute and in Lutheran congregations. Between 1984 and 2003 Junkkaala annually led a group of roughly 20 Finnish volunteers at different excavations (Afek-Antipatris, Yiftahel, Tel Soreg, Mitham Leviah, Emmaus-Nikopolis and Modi’in), directed by archaeologists Moshe Kochavi,  Eliot Braun,  Mikko Louhivuori and Edwin van den Brink. Altogether over 300 Finns, including students, participated in the archaeological fieldwork at these excavations.

A student inspects a find at Tel Kinrot. Photo by Patrick Wyssmann, Kinneret Regional Project.

A student inspects a find at Tel Kinrot. Photo by Patrick Wyssmann, Kinneret Regional Project.

Ongoing excavations have kept the wider audience informed about the archaeology of Israel-Palestine and the Near East. Excavations have raised interest in the local media and Finland’s National TV broadcaster has aired programs concerning various projects. The Finnish media is usually interested in archaeological finds from Israel-Palestine if something there is considered to be of special interest. The largest national Christian newspaper, Kotimaa, covers particularly on its website the latest archaeological finds from Israel-Palestine. A broader discussion on archaeological topics occasionally arises, often in tandem with the publication of a new general book.

The future of the field in Finland is in the hands of eager young scholars. The economic recession has reduced the funding for all research, but the will to study the roots of Western civilization in the Near East remains, and will bear fruit in the future.

Kirsi Valkama is Postdoctoral Researcher of Biblical Studies at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki

I want to thank Dr. Minna Lönnqvist (SYGIS project) and Dr. Stefan Münger and Prof. Jürgen Zangenberg (Kinneret Regional Project) for the permission to publish the photographs and Dr. Raz Kletter for pointing me the reference to Saarisalo in his book “Just Past?”



[i] Israel State Archive GL44864/14, quoted in Raz Kletter, Just Past?: The Making of Israeli Archaeology (London & Oakville: Equinox, 2006), p. 82.

[ii][ii] Aapeli Saarisalo, The Boundary between Issachar and Naphtali: An Archaeological and Literary Study of Israel’s Settlement in Canaan (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Tiedeakatemian Toimituksia), 1927; Sites and Roads in Asher and Western Judah (Helsinki: Societas Orientalis Fennica), 1962.

[iii][iii] Saarisalo, Aapeli, Rymättylä räätälin poika: Silakkapitäjästä suureen maailmaan (WSOY: Porvoo, 1975), pp. 97–98, 174.

[iv] http://www.fjhp.info/mainpage.htm

[v] http://www.helsinki.fi/hum/arla/sygis/

[vi] http://www.egyptologinenseura.fi/fieldwork/engl/index.html

[vii] http://www.helsinki.fi/teol/hyel/english/index.htm

[viii] http://www.kinneret-excavations.org

[ix] http://eerojunkkaala.net/vaitos/#abstract

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The Archaeology of Israel-Palestine in Finland Reviewed by on . By: Kirsi Valkama, University of Helsinki Finland is a country of 5.4 million inhabitants, famous for the cell phone manufacturer Nokia, or at least what is lef By: Kirsi Valkama, University of Helsinki Finland is a country of 5.4 million inhabitants, famous for the cell phone manufacturer Nokia, or at least what is lef Rating: 0

Comments (3)

  • Stephen Goranson

    Thanks you for this interesting article. That "inscriptions" were predicted in the 1920s to be in Qumran caves is news to me. Since I do not read Finnish (note iii to paragraph 4), could you please give more information about this, such as: What led Prof. Hjelt to predict this? Did he write this and is it published? Did he express an opinion about Khirbet Qumran usage? Did he call it a "monastery" in the 1920s? (The earliest uses of the Greek word monasterion are in Philo, On the Contemplative Life, 25 and 30.) Thanks!

    • Kirsi Valkama

      It seems that Prof. Hjelt was not alone with this idea and he was not the first one to present it. I read this only in Saarisalo's memoir where he writes that he met Hjelt in Germany before traveling to Palestine and there Hjelt presented this idea to Saarisalo. This is an interesting question and I'll try to find out more from Hjelt's memoir or his letters to figure out where he got the idea, but I'm afraid that it is something they only discussed and for Saarisalo it was important because of the later history.

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