Some recent announcements have been tainted with "exaggeration and speculation the likes of which haven't been seen since pieces of the 'true cross' were found all across Europe in the Middle Ages," said Jim West, adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology and moderator of an influential online forum for Bible scholars.
The latest possible case in point came this week, when Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University announced that she had unearthed "the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem" after sifting debris from a site between the Temple Mount and the City of David, in Jerusalem. The fragment of clay tablet about 1 inch square is inscribed with cuneiform lettering in ancient Akkadian, the everyday language of Jerusalem in the 14th century B.C.
The claims Mazar's team attached to that tiny shard, however, were massive. Mazar said the discovery provides "solid evidence of the importance of Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age" and "lends weight to the importance that accrued to the city in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E." Her colleague Wayne Horowitz said there was "a great likelihood, because of its fine script and the fact it was discovered adjacent to in the acropolis area of the ancient city" that the fragment was part of "royal missive." Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University said the clay used testified "to the likelihood that it was part of a tablet from a royal archive in Jerusalem containing copies of tablets sent by the king of Jerusalem to Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt."
Within hours, experts on ancient Jerusalem were wondering how such a tiny fragment could produce such a wealth of history.
"We already knew there was a king in Jerusalem at the time," says Meir Ben-Dov, a veteran archaeologist who explored the same area with Mazar's grandfather from 1968 onward. "It's the first time they've found a little shard here, but it doesn't tell us anything we didn't know already. This find has no significance."
This is not the first time Mazar has come under fire from colleagues for making grandiose claims. In August 2005, she unearthed an impressive building from the 10th century B.C. and tagged it as the palace of King David. Earlier this year, she said a large stone wall discovered by her grandfather and Ben-Dov was built by Solomon, provoking a withering response from the scholarly community.
But Mazar is hardly an exception. Many scholars are concerned that archaeology is being used to score political points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And nowhere more so than around the City of David, a rich archaeological mound just south of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque identified in the 19th century as the possible site of King David's ancient city, now covered with crowded Palestinian housing.
The City of David is in the village of Silwan in east Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War but which Palestinians considered the only acceptable capital of an independent Palestinian state. Because of its historical significance, the site has been declared an Israeli national park, but it is managed by El-ad, a right-wing Israeli group that also seeks to move Israeli residents into the contentious neighborhood. Some find the mix of politics and archaeology combustible.
"My primary concern is that archaeology is being turned to political use and as nothing but a means to raise funds for ideologically driven projects. This certainly seems to be the case in the City of David dig," Quartz Hill's West says.
Last Sunday, Ir Amim, a Jerusalem co-existence group, petitioned Israel's High Court to end El-ad's control of the site and return it to the National Parks Authority. "The state of Israel has privatized one of the most sensitive historic sites in the country -- and transferred it to the hands of a private organization with a clear political agenda," says Yehudit Oppenheimer, the group's director.
But bullhorn archaeology isn't the sole domain of the Israeli right. Shimon Gibson of the independent Albright Institute of Archaeological Research was greeted with loud skepticism in 2004 when he declared a cave west of Jerusalem to be the hiding place of John the Baptist. Earlier this month, professor Adam Zertal of Haifa University identified a site as "Sisera's hometown, as mentioned in the book of Judges" based on the discovery of a single bronze linchpin from a chariot wheel. Further afield, Christian archaeologists have made numerous contested claims to having found Noah's Ark in Turkey.
While El-ad tries to prove King David's ancient links to Jerusalem, Palestinians are trying to do the opposite. Thousands of tons of debris potentially rich in archaeological treasures have been hauled off the Temple Mount without proper supervision during mosque renovations in the past decade. Until recently, an official guide to the mosque for visitors denied that Solomon's Temple had ever stood there.
There have been riots over unfounded claims by Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel headed by Sheikh Raed Salah that Israeli excavations are undermining the foundations of Al-Aqsa, threatening it with collapse.