Faculty Profile: Thomas Levy

by Zev Horowitz, Spring 2015

Thomas Levy

Prof. Tom Levy knows what it’s like to get his hands dirty on the job.

Levy, who holds the Norma Kershaw Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands in the UCSD Judaic Studies Program, focuses on furthering our understanding of biblical times through hands-on archaeological expeditions in Israel and Jordan.

“The main source of new data in biblical studies comes from archaeology,” he said. “To really understand the Bible, you have to have firsthand experience of the land of the Bible. You can’t fully appreciate a biblical text about some part of the Holy Land until you actually go there.”

Levy originally joined the faculty at UCSD in 1992 to establish a biblical archaeology unit within the Judaic Studies Program. The on-going partnership between UCSD and Jordan that allows for the expeditions began two years after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994.

Nearly every year, Levy leads a team of students to a dig site in the Edom region of Jordan to further uncover new data about Bible-era civilization.

Despite the political climates of the surrounding governments, Levy’s expeditions to the Middle East are strictly apolitical.

“I’m a firm believer in building bridges,” he said. “Whatever we can do to bring researchers together, wherever they come from, is the way to go.”

Though he also worked in Israel, Levy says his interest in Jordan is due in part to the large potential for discovery.

If you’re talking about archaeology in the biblical world, Jordan is terra incognita. A lot of new data can emerge from these expeditions.

“If you’re talking about archaeology in the biblical world, Jordan is terra incognita,” Levy said. “A lot of new data can emerge from these expeditions.”

Levy’s teams travel to Jordan through the Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP) which brings UCSD students — usually graduate-level, but sometimes undergraduate — for a fully intensive dig project. Groups go for months at a time, Levy says, sleeping in tents and waking up before dawn to start the day’s work.

Levy says his most significant venture into uncharted Jordanian archaeology was several years back, when he and his team revisited a site called “Khirbat en-Nahas” (Arabic for Ruins of Copper) that had originally been discovered by the American archaeologist Rabbi Nelson Glueck. Levy’s large-scale dig of the area in 2006 led to the discovery of the most compelling evidence for biblical-era copper smelting in the Southeast Mediterranean.

“Our research became embroiled in a lot of scholarly debate about the historicity of David and Solomon,” Levy said. “It provided a new lens to see the rise of the Edomite Kingdom in ways previous researchers never knew.”  

Levy returned from a month-long project in Jordan with five Ph.D. candidates last month and will likely go back to Jordan in the next academic year.

This quarter, Professor Levy teaches an undergraduate course called “Foundations in Anthropological Archaeology” and a graduate seminar on the “Iron Age of Jordan.”