Leading archaeologist who dug with Yigael Yadin at Masada and Hazor dies at 88

Amnon Ben-Tor, who won the Israel Prize in 2019, spent decades on major biblical-era site, lectured in top universities around the world

File: Professor Amnon Ben-Tor photographed at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
File: Professor Amnon Ben-Tor photographed at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel Prize-winning archaeologist Amnon Ben-Tor, one of the leaders in his field in the country, died this week at age 88.

Ben-Tor, a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, spent decades researching Tel Hazor, including under former IDF chief of staff Yigael Yadin — himself an archaeologist.

Ben-Tor was born in 1935 in Jerusalem and received his degrees from Hebrew University. He aided Yadin in digs at Masada and later Hazor. After Yadin’s death in 1984, Ben-Tor took over the dig at Hazor.

Hazor has served as a training ground for Israeli archaeologists. In 1955–1958 and 1968-70, celebrity archaeologist Yadin led excavations at the site. Located north of the Sea of Galilee on a trade route connecting Egypt and Babylon, Hazor was the largest biblical-era site in Israel. With an estimated population of 20,000, its size and strategic location made it an important city in antiquity. After its fiery destruction, it was rebuilt by the Israelites, perhaps by King Solomon. Several hundred years later, the Israelite settlement was destroyed by the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BCE.

Throughout his career, Ben-Tor gave lectures around the world, including at Harvard, Yale and the Sorbonne.

Ben-Tor was known for holding the view that the Bible includes faithful historical depictions of ancient Israel — a position he said was based solely on archaeological findings — as opposed to the “minimalist” school that doubts much of the ostensible history described in the religious texts.

The storerooms at Tel Hazor. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Israel Prize Committee in 2019 cited “Amnon’s efforts to pass on the ancient heritage discovered in his excavations to visitors at [Hazor] in the coming generations, and his support for education activity tied to the site,” in their considerations for awarding him the prize.

Ben-Tor died of a rare skin cancer and posited in the past that his lengthy exposure to the sun during his work may have contributed to his illness.

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