Ivor Noël Hume, a pioneering archaeologist of colonial America, died on February 4, 2017. As the New York Times tells it in their remembrance, Hume was an “accidental, self-taught English-born archaeologist who unearthed the earliest traces of British colonial America.” He was the director of archaeology at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation from the mid to near late 20th century, excavating 18th century Williamsburg, as well as 17th century settlements in the area, notably, Wolstenholme Towne, at the Carters Grove estate. Most locals now know of the place as part of Martin’s Hundred, in the neighborhood of the Kingsmill community subdivision.
I only met Mr. Hume a few times growing up as a kid, but my late father, George Alan Morledge, worked with him at Colonial Williamsburg. My dad, an historical architect, had been hired by Colonial Williamsburg vice president, Ed Kendrew, to assist in the team effort with the archaeologist Hume. From digging below ground to restoring 18th century structures above, these historians across various disciplines enjoyed the pursuit of evidence that helped to reconstruct Williamsburg, and other local, historical sites, to paint a portrait of what life really looked like in the early years of colonial Virginia.
Many consider Hume to be the “father of historical archaeology.” As I remember him, mostly through my dad, Ivor Noël Hume was quite a character.
The Accidental Archaeologist, and The Stumbling Blocks for Faith
Ivor Noël Hume had no academic degree in archaeology. A British son of well-to-do, yet soon-to-be divorced, parents, Hume grew up during World War II, as Nazi war planes dropped bombs near his family’s home. Sifting through the surrounding ruble, he gained an interest in collecting objects, including part of the tail of a Messerschmitt 109, with much of the painted swastika still intact. Later, in postwar London, he uncovered many older relics, from the Thames River and the site of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. He even discovered various Roman artifacts found in open pits, made accessible by the German bombing raids.
After attending a Church of England school, Hume eventually made his way to becoming an actor. But after the war, the theatre did not prove to be stable employment. He pursued his interest in artifacts by working at the Guildhall Museum, that finally led to an opportunity “across the pond” to visit Williamsburg, Virginia, for what was originally to be a short visit.
Years later, Hume had forged an extraordinary career, writing over a dozen books, and establishing himself as one of America’s most notable archaeologists. This man had a passion for discovering, cataloguing, and interpreting evidence, as a path towards greater understanding. No comprehensive exploration of America’s colonial past is complete without pondering the historical riches unearthed by Ivor Noël Hume.
As I was glancing through his delightful autobiography, A Passion for the Past: The Odyssey of a Transatlantic Archaeologist, I ran across a passage that gave me some insight into the “spiritual” side of who this man was, this colleague of my father’s. In the Church of England school of his youth, the instruction the young Hume received from the school’s curate, a man named “Vicary,” was the only exposure to Christianity available to Hume. He had recently found a book about the Bible that left him disappointed with what he learned:
“On dipping into it,… I found that it had much to say about misleading passages and euphemisms in the King James version [of the Bible]. Thus, for example, the word ‘feet’ in the line ‘with twain he shall cover his feet’ really meant [the male sexual organ].” (p.73-74. NOTE: Hume has in mind Isaiah 6:2, a Bible passage describing an unusual creature, the seraphim, that the prophet Isaiah sees in a heavenly vision).
But when he asked his school’s curate about what he had read, “Vicary” gave the most annoying, unsympathetic response:
“…He did not take kindly to my primed questions. Feet were feet, and he wasn’t interested in prurient alternatives. Shortly after…, I came upon another [book] that peaked my theological curiosity. It was a modern work that set out to demonstrate that the miracles described in the New Testament either had logical explanations or simply didn’t happen. The rolling away of the stone was dismissed as the product of an earth tremor. ‘The Bible tells us, so we must believe,’ was Vicary’s constant response to the inexplicable. Lacking any homegrown grounding in faith, I found all this very unsatisfactory, and began to try to learn how other religions grappled with history and the hereafter. I read the Koran, and books on Buddhism and Shintoism… The result was a maturing cynicism towards all who peddle faith in preference to proof. Although that critical outlook has served me well as an archaeologist, I’m sure it has denied me much of the contentment and optimism that most people draw from their religious beliefs” (p. 74).
Wow. “The Bible tells us, so we must believe.”
Aside from speculating if the annoyance was mutual, I can not comment further on the “accidental archaeologist’s” atheism, though it saddens me. Yet surely, our brother, “Vicary,” would have had great difficulty, if he had taken some Christian apologetics training, that focused on evidences for the faith!
The tragedy of it all is that this experience for the budding and inquisitive British teenager gave him the most unfortunate impression that faith and the application of critical reason were opposed to one another. Is the search for evidence for faith contrary to that very faith? Must Christians be in the business of peddling “faith in preference to proof?”
I think not.
Does it really matter that the Biblical writers might have chosen to render the description of the seraphim’s sexual organs in a euphemistic manner? Scholars are not entirely positive as to the precise meaning behind the seraphim’s “feet.” They could be exactly that…. “feet.” But for a liturgical text to be read with small children present, it would make sense for the Biblical writer to employ obfuscated language. Furthermore, what was the exact difficulty that “Vicary” had in providing sound evidence supporting the historical Christian claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? How plausible is it to suggest that the rolling away of the the stone, by an earthquake, was merely coincidental to the timing of the Resurrection?
I am reminded of a saying that the late pastor emeritus of my church, Dick Woodward, often said to me, “The Bible is true, but not simply because it says it is true. Rather, the Bible is true,… because it is true.”
Though the archaeologist’s cynicism is understandable, it is woefully misplaced. How confident can we as humans be to know of something as being “true?” Biblical truth is not something that can be judged by the human quest for evidentiary “proof.” Rather, it is the other way around. Biblical truth itself best explains why the human search for evidence can be conducted and enjoyed in the first place. God created the world by the power of His Word, not in an irrational manner, but rather in a manner that can be readily understood by those created in His image.
My concern is that many of the most brilliant people today have been given less than satisfactory answers to their questions regarding the Christian faith. While giving good answers to honest, thoughtful questions does not guarantee that someone will come to believe in Jesus, it lays the groundwork establishing that the faith we have in Christ is a reasonable faith.
Faith and the search for evidence are not contrary to one another. Rather, they complement one another in the journey towards Jesus.
Ivor Noël Hume was surely a brilliant and remarkable man, who will be missed by friends, colleagues, and family, alike. His archaeological contribution to our understanding of the past remains invaluable. He was an atheist throughout his life, as far as I know, but I often wonder what would have happened if “Vicary” had given him a different, and more sympathetic response. Followers of Jesus need to consider that we all have opportunities to creatively respond to the questions that others have, like the young Ivor Noël Hume did, in the bombed out London of World War II, and might be asking in our own day.
A little extra about archaeology and the Bible: The Gospel Coalition has a great post on 4 Reasons (Why) Archaeology Can Not Prove the Bible.