Book Reviews

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With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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The Source by James A. Michener

Reviewed on: March 1, 2022


Dial Press:  New York
2014 (Trade Paperback)
Original copyright: 1965 by Random House Publishers

I recently read the fascinating monograph, Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon, by George Washington University archaeologist, Eric H. Cline.  In his introduction, Professor Cline cites the 1965 novel, The Source, by James A. Michener, as an important inspiration in his choice of careers and his abiding interest in the archaeology of the Biblical Holy Land.  With that endorsement in mind, I obtained a recently published trade paperback edition of Michener’s nearly 1,100 page doorstop of a novel and was immediately whisked away to an exotic and ancient land by a master storyteller.

Michener’s grand saga follows the excavation of Tel Makor (Hebrew for “the Source”), which is clearly patterned after the 1920s and ‘30s unearthing of Tel Meggido (Armageddon) by the University of Chicago Oriental Institute.  But it is now 1964 and Harvard-educated archaeologist John Cullinane of the Biblical Museum of Chicago has gathered an international crew of excavators to unearth the secrets of the barren elliptical mound in the northern reaches of the Galilee, some fifteen or twenty miles south of the Lebanese border.

The Cullinane expedition unearths fourteen levels of habitation on this tiny spot of land—from surface level that yielded artifacts marking the brutal battles between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine to near bedrock some 10,000 years earlier when modern homo sapiens living at Makor were in transition from hunting and gathering to early agriculture and the early domestication of animals. 

Between those levels, the archaeologists exposed the evidence of a land that has been central to much of the social, political and religious history of the Western world.  2,000 years before the Common Era, Hittites, Amorites, Sumerians, Akkadians, Egyptians, the Sea Peoples, guided by their myriad of gods—Astarte, Melak, Baal and others—vied with the nomadic and monotheistic Hebrews for control over the land, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not.  Through the eras of David and Solomon and the subsequent assaults by Phoenicians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians, the Hebrews alternately prosper and languish—sometimes as a free people, at other times in captivity.  History seems to repeat itself time and again as the Persians free the Hebrew people from Babylonian bondage, which in turn will hundreds of years later be replaced by Roman hegemony.  Christianity is introduced into a land heretofore reserved for Judaism and paganism.  But hot on the heels of that new messianic religion come riding the mounted soldiers of Islam, who will, at the outset, allow Christians and Jews (People of the Book) to retain some religious freedoms. 

Each new level of excavation exposed the hopes, fears and disappointments of the peoples who persisted at Tel Makor—the Crusader era that brought indiscriminate death and privation, the Diaspora of Jews to far-flung principalities of the Western world, the Ottoman control of the Holy Land that, within the confines of its incredible political corruption, allowed for the peaceful co-existence of Jews, Christians and Moslems.  The Ottoman Empire crumbled under the weight of its own incompetence at the close of the Great War and gave way to the British Mandate to administer Palestine.  The decision to abandon the Mandate opened the floodgates to all-out war between Jews and Arabs, resulting in the establishment of the state of Israel.  The story does not end there as Michener hints that the ultra-orthodox and secular Israelis will battle for the soul of the new country—a struggle that continues almost sixty years after Michener wrote The Source.

The history of this land is masterfully unfolded through the eyes, ears and senses of individuals—some notable and noble and some non-descript and ignoble—who lived at or near Makor down through the ages.  The archaeologists excavating Tel Makor lend context to the worlds they are unearthing as well as the world in which they live and work in 1964 Israel.

Four enthusiastic trowels for James A. Michener’s The Source!

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens