Obituary'One of the most important researchers on ancient Jerusalem'

Fearless pioneering biblical archaeologist Eilat Mazar dies at 64

Hebrew University scholar who unearthed ‘King David’s palace’ leaves a lasting contribution to the understanding of the archaeology and history of ancient Israel and Jerusalem

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar and several of her prominent finds. (Hebrew University/Ouria Tadmor)
Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar and several of her prominent finds. (Hebrew University/Ouria Tadmor)

Leading biblical archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, 64, died on Tuesday after a long illness.

Known for her discovery of “King David’s palace” in the City of David and biblically tied artifacts and constructions, Mazar was the scion of an Israeli archaeological dynasty. She led excavations in several sites, including most notably in two locations in the City of David ridge: above the Gihon spring and in the “Ophel” on the lower slope of the Temple Mount or Al-Aqsa compound.

Mazar was a field archaeologist, a scholar and a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem where she completed all her degrees. Her finds include some of the earliest known artifacts in the ancient city, dating as far back as the 12th and 11th centuries BCE, according to Mazar, who proposed they provide scientifically excavated evidence of the biblical united monarchy.

During her childhood, Mazar accompanied her grandfather, Prof. Benjamin Mazar, in his excavations of ancient Jerusalem, particularly in the City of David and in the Robinson’s Arch area near the Western Wall, the findings of which she saw to publication. After earning her BA, she worked on Dr. Yigal Shiloh’s excavation expedition from 1981-1985, which uncovered the Royal Quarter of ancient Jerusalem in the City of David. She was quickly made a supervisor.

A young Eilat Mazar at an excavation. (courtesy Hebrew University)

In a career dotted by clashes over interpretation with her academic colleagues, the large structure she excavated in 2005 in the City of David that is ascribed as King David’s palace is one of her more controversial finds. Its location in the City of David National Park, she wrote in a 2006 Biblical Archaeological Review article, was based on the work of another stalwart female archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon, who dug in the area in the 1960s.

In her BAR article, Mazar described her general philosophy about the historicity of the biblical text as a blueprint for academic archaeological excavation. “One of the many things I learned from my grandfather was how to relate to the biblical text: Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality. It is not a simple matter to differentiate the layers of textual sources that have been piled one atop the other over generations; we don’t always have the tools to do it. But it is clear that concealed within the biblical text are grains of detailed historical truth.”

This idea of using the Bible as a source for historical truth has become increasingly controversial in the halls of Israeli academia. Mazar likewise championed the need for archaeological supervision on the Temple Mount and Israeli sovereignty for the several tonnes of earth that were illegally excavated there — several hills-worth of which remain on the mount that could garner historical finds in the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Mazar was also vocal in the need to preserve the archaeology in the Robinson’s Arch archaeological park, which had been in danger during government talks over the construction of a pluralistic prayer platform.

Illustrative: Two parts of the mounds of ancient dirt illegally excavated on the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Alongside a continuing disagreement of perspectives, however, Mazar’s peers recall her as both a good friend and passionate colleague.

Tel Aviv University Prof. Israel Finkelstein told The Times of Israel that “despite our interpretational differences, I have respected her work; we were good friends and shared a passion for the past of the Land of Israel.”

Mazar, said Finkelstein, was “one of the most prominent and influential Israeli archaeologists, well-known and respected both at home and on the world stage. She contributed greatly to our understanding of the archaeology and history of Ancient Israel, especially regarding Jerusalem in biblical times. The results of these projects enabled reconstructing the layout of the city, its material culture and its impact on Judah and beyond.”

Prof. Aren Maeir, head of The Institute of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, agreed, stating, “She was, without a doubt, one of the most important researchers on ancient Jerusalem, who contributed substantially to our understanding of the city in many periods. Even though some of her interpretations were not accepted by all, her contribution is very substantial.”

Standing in front of the Ophel excavation are (from left) Suzanne Singer, the former BAR Managing Editor; Israeli archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay; Hershel Shanks, BAR Editor Emeritus who recently died; and Israeli archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar. (Eilat Mazar)

When The Times of Israel sat down with Mazar in her jam-packed Hebrew University office located in the institute’s beautiful stone edifice on Mount Scopus several years ago, her support for her colleagues — and a new young crop of archaeologists — was clear.

“Israeli archaeologists are world-class researchers, many of whom are women, by the way. In a field that is considered ‘macho,’ there are many female archaeologists in Israel,” said Mazar.

In a field that is considered ‘macho,’ there are many female archaeologists in Israel

“I see [among Israeli researchers] the study and recognition of dynamic processes, different cultures that overlapped — the study of what influences what,” said Mazar, pointing to noteworthy work being carried out in the field of prehistory by a team of “homegrown” researchers, often women, she pointed out, who were reared within the institute.

“Of course, at the forefront of our cultural curiosity is ourselves… We [the Jewish people] are here and place ourselves at the center, but really there are researchers from every field, depth and period,” she said.

It’s the Christian’s heritage, too

Another somewhat controversial step in Mazar’s career was her willingness to partner with Christian allies and financial supporters in continuing her work. For her 2018 dig at the Ophel alone, the Philadelphia Church of God poured half a million dollars into supporting the renewed excavations.

At a 2018 gala King David Hotel event in Jerusalem that launched an exhibition of rare First Temple period artifacts and unique seal impressions with biblical names at the Armstrong Auditorium in far away Edmond, Oklahoma, she emphasized her family’s long ties with the Christian community.

Herbert W. Armstrong College students participating in Dr. Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the Ophel, Jerusalem. (courtesy)

“Exactly 50 years, right after the unification of Jerusalem, in February 1968, Prof. Benjamin Mazar, my grandfather, started archaeological excavations on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem right at the foot of the walls of that 2,000-year-old Temple Mount compound. At the end of that year, Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Ambassador Cultural Foundation, became the most significant financial supporter of the excavations,” said Mazar.

At the King David event, Mazar described how Armstrong, after meeting her grandfather in 1968, began sending over hundreds of Ambassador College students, “thus enabling the excavations to be carried out for 10 continuous years as the largest excavations in Israel.

“But something else had happened of no less importance: A miraculous bond of friendship, love and esteem was created right from the beginning between Mr. Armstrong and Prof. Mazar. Such a strong bond that not only lasted until the end of their lives, but continued to inspire us all,” said Mazar.

Among Mazar’s finds

Tourists visiting the Israel Museum can view one of Mazar’s stunning finds, a rare trove of Byzantine-era gold and silver artifacts, the most impressive of which is a 10-centimeter solid gold medallion emblazoned with a menorah and other Jewish iconography.

A Byzantine-era solid gold menorah medallion found near the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount during an excavation led by Dr. Eilat Mazar in 2013. (Hebrew University)

But much of her physical legacy is found in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park, which houses the Ophel, and in the City of David National Park. It took almost a decade, however, for Mazar to find a sponsor and support for her landmark 2005 excavation at the City of David.

“To be frank, it would take a certain amount of courage, as well as money, to support this excavation. My position, to put it mildly, had not received sweeping support from the archaeological community,” writes Mazar in BAR.

My position, to put it mildly, had not received sweeping support from the archaeological community

However, after discovering a treasure trove of very early construction, pottery and other First Temple finds, her hunch based on Kenyon’s work was seemingly vindicated. Among the artifacts was an inscribed bulla (a clay seal) with a biblical link.

She describes deciphering it in her trademark modest, frank manner in the BAR article. “Well into the night, when the children [three sons and a daughter] were asleep and the house was quiet, I began to study it. Slowly, I deciphered the name in the first line: Yehuchal. Could it be a biblical name? I did not recall any Yehuchal in the Bible. Perhaps my reading of the name was wrong. But just to make sure I pulled from the shelf a biblical encyclopedia. There he was, as large as life—in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: King Zedekiah sent Yehuchal (Jehucal in English Bibles) son of Shelemiah to the prophet Jeremiah to pray for the people (Jeremiah 37:3).”

Archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, February 22, 2010. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

CEO of the City of David and Israel Prize winner David Be’eri said on Wednesday: “I remember the phone call late at night, when she called me about discovering the seal of one of King Zedekiah’s ministers. She was gripped by excitement. She was so happy about having the privilege of being part of revealing findings that correspond exactly with the verses of the Bible and to see with her own eyes the Bible being brought to life. Eilat will forever be remembered as a pioneer standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest scholars of Jerusalem throughout the ages. May her memory be a blessing.”

Years later, a few meters from the Yehuchal bulla, she found a seal impression belonging to a second high-ranking official, “Gedaliah, son of Pashur,” who is also found in the book of Jeremiah.

Other inscribed seal impressions followed in subsequent excavations. Most recently in 2018, her team uncovered an 8th century BCE seal impression discovered in First Temple remains near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Its interpretation, too, was not without controversy: The oval-shaped bulla was not intact and on its legible portion, there is an inscription with First Temple Hebrew letters that seem to spell out the name l’Yesha’yah[u] (Belonging to Isaiah). On a line below, there is the partial word nvy, which could potentially spell out “prophet.”

King Hezekiah Bulla on show at the Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond, Oklahoma, June 2018. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo: Reese Zoellner/Watch Jerusalem)

It was found only meters away from where in 2009 Mazar’s team discovered a unique, intact bulla with the inscription “of King Hezekiah of Judah.” The find was only published in 2015.

At the 2018 King David Hotel event, Mazar said: “The identification of the seal impression of King Hezekiah is very certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, as you can read for yourself. ‘Belonging to King Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, King of Judah.’” The Isaiah seal, she said, acknowledging scholars’ critiques, is much less certain. In her presentation, Mazar herself introduced the find as “maybe the seal impression by Prophet Isaiah.”

Robert Cargill, a religious studies assistant professor at the University of Iowa and the former editor of BAR, praised Mazar’s “careful, responsible treatment.” “She didn’t rush to conclusively say she had found the seal of Isaiah… In our article she gives the possible alternatives,” said Cargill.

Isaiah bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression that may have belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar)

Regardless of abiding differences in interpretation, Finkelstein said, “Excavating in Jerusalem is a complicated task, which calls for special personal skills. Eilat Mazar’s strong character and resolve were essential to her success in the field.

“Eilat Mazar’s impacts on the archaeology of Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular will always be counted among the cornerstones of the archaeology of Israel. She will be greatly missed,” said Finkelstein.

With contributions from Times of Israel staff.

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