Death of Dr. Pritchard, Biblical Archaeologist

Dr. James B. Pritchard, the eminent Biblical archaeologist who excavated some of the major sites of the ancient Near East--and through his findings illuminated the daily lives of those who had lived in Old Testament times--died on New Year's Day at the age of 87.

An Albany College and Drew College alumnus who took his Ph.D. at Penn in 1942, Dr. Pritchard became affiliated with the University Museum in 1950 as a research associate. In 1962 he became the Museum's first curator of the Biblical Archaeology Section and also joined the SAS faculty as professor of religious thought. In 1967-76 he was also Associate Director of the Museum, and he served as Director in 1976-77. He became Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies and Emeritus Curator of Syro-Palestinian Section in 1978, a much-honored archaeologist whose writing and lectures were widely recognized in the field.

But James Pritchard had not set out to be an archaeologist.

After taking an A.B. in 1930 at Albany College near his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky, he had enrolled for a bachelor of divinity degree at Drew College in New Jersey. There his intense interest in the Bible, its lands and people, led him to join a University of Wisconsin expedition to Bethel (at his own expense--$285--a not inconsiderable sum in 1934). Though he returned to complete the divinity degree, served as pastor at two Philadelphia area churches, and was a professor of Old Testament Literature at both Crozier Theological Seminary and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, he has been quoted as saying that "after Bethel, my career was in ruins."

Among the best-known "ruins" of that distinguished career was his excavation of el-Jib, which he was able to document as Gibeon, the Biblical city where "the sun stood still." He also unearthed what is believed to be the winter palace at Jericho where King Herod murdered his brother-in-law Aristobalus, and led excavations at Tell es-Sa'idiyeh, where he found an early example of city planning, and to Sarepta (Zarephath) in Lebanon, where the Bible locates King Solomon's bronzeworks.

"Throughout his career he has related his findings to the literature of the Old Testament, breathing new life into its personalities and places and satisfying his own ambition to me more than a 'textbook expert'," said Lorraine Hannaway in a 1992 article for the Institute On Aging Newsletter. But, she went on, he "writes with equal clarity and grace for expert and general reader." He published over 20 books and monographs as well as dozens of articles during his active career.

Two of his best-known works are The Ancient Near East Texts and a companion The Ancient Near East in Texts and Pictures , two prime examples of work that is important to scholars but also accessible to the general reader. Two general works on his own excavations are Gibeon, Where the Sun Stood Still (1962) and Recovering Sarepta, a Phoenician City (1978). To make Biblical archaeology scholarship accessible in other ways, Dr. Pritchard was advisor/participant in a 12-part BBC documentary series, and served as consultant on several projects of the National Geographic Society, Time -Life Books, and the Reader's Digest. He was also Hays-Fulbright Professor of Archaeology at the American University of Beirut in 1967, and served as a trustee there in 1970-79.

Among his numerous honors have been a medal from King Hussein for the achievements made during his seven excavations in Jordan; the gold medal of the Archaeologists Institute of America, where he was once president; the Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society; the 500th Anniversary medallion of the University of Uppsala in Sweden; and an honorary degree from Penn.

More recently, SAS and the Museum named an endowed chair the James B. Pritchard Chair for Biblical Archaeology and Related Fields, a Curator/Professor position with Biblical archaeology on its curatorial side.

In retirement Dr. Pritchard continued to write and publish ( Tell es-Sa'idiyeh, Excavations on the Tell came out in 1985 and Sarepta 4 in 1988) and to work on two Atlases of the Bible (a full-size one published in 1987, a concise edition in 1991). By the time the second came out, the first was appearing in five languages with more translations to come.

Dr. Pritchard is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Anne Cassedy Pritchard; two daughters, Sally Hayman and Mary Mitchell; four grandchildren; and a sister.

For forty years, James Bennett Pritchard has illuminated Near Eastern archaeology for his colleagues and students with erudition and charm. His excavations, classrooms and lecture halls have been lively fora, where he has shared his knowledge and insight with friends of many nationalities. In all his professional activities, he has been a model of unfailing generosity, stimulation and grace, a proud record for a scholar of broad achievement. -- Archaeological Institute of America, 1983

Photo above: Dr. Pritchard, c. 1971 ; Photo courtesy of the University Museum


Volume 43 Number 17
January 14, 1997

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