November 29, 1947. Even as the United Nations voted to end British Mandatory rule and establish two states — Jewish and Arab — in Palestine, the founder of Jewish archaeology in the Land of Israel held in his hands one of the greatest historical treasures of all time: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In his journal that evening, Prof. Eleazar Sukenik wrote, “Today I have been shown a piece of a scroll. I do not dare to write down what I think of it.”
The next day, Jewish settlements throughout the land were attacked, but the Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor knew that, before the window of opportunity closed, he must travel to Bethlehem and purchase whatever fragments he could.
Quickly, Sukenik sought safe passage advice from his son, an underground Jewish defense officer named Yigael Yadin (later a general, then a politician, who eventually followed in his father’s archaeological footprints).
According to the transcript of a 1950s lecture, Yadin told his father, “As a military man, I answered that he ought not to make the journey; as an archaeologist that he ought to go; as his son — that my opinion had to be reserved.”
Sukenik retrieved the other scrolls and fragments held by a Bethlehem antiquities dealer. After careful study, he held a press conference to share his initial findings in the Jewish Agency building in the middle of war-torn Jerusalem. A lengthy 1955 New Yorker article paints a picture of daily shelling of New Jerusalem neighborhoods, “between three and five every afternoon” — exactly the time and location of the press event.
“To attend it required some nerve. An American correspondent fainted in the street on the way, and had to be carried in by his colleagues. The reporters were flabbergasted when Sukenik, who seemed quite unperturbed by the flashing and banging about him, announced the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls,” writes journalist Edmund Wilson.
As Sukenik described his discovery, “a shell burst. The reporters had at first been rather peevish at having been asked to risk their skins for old manuscripts, but they ended by being impressed by the scholar’s overmastering enthusiasm.”
Today, the Dead Sea Scrolls are widely heralded as the archaeological find of the 20th century. In parallel to the field of Israeli archaeology itself, entire scientific methods of study and technological innovations advancing their preservation have developed since the scrolls’ dramatic discoveries.
Whereas scholars once sat, cigarettes drooping between their lips, touching the ancient scraps with their bare hands (and often seeing them disintegrate between their fingers), today the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls laboratory has a decidedly space-age feel. And little wonder: headed by Pnina Shor, the immaculate unit uses high-tech imaging techniques that stem directly from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Though the jewel in the crown of Israeli archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls are just one piece of an ancient puzzle researchers are deciphering as they revisit the past to paint a clearer picture of those who walked the land well before the founding of the Jewish state.
Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, The Times of Israel asked leading archaeologists what they view as the most important finds or developments in the field of Israeli archaeology — and why.
Israeli archaeology is a team sport
When not excavating near Jerusalem’s Old City, Dr. Eilat Mazar sits in the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology at the Mount Scopus campus. A beautiful stone building, it’s almost a family estate. The groundbreaking researcher is the granddaughter of pioneering Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, a former president of the university, who led what is arguably the most significant excavation of a biblical site in Israel: his 1968-78 dig in the areas abutting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
While the younger Mazar has uncovered some of the most headline-grabbing finds in recent years in her work in the City of David, that is not what she would highlight when speaking about 70 years of Israeli archaeology, but rather the field’s breadth and diversity.
“The entire field is important — its research, education, heritage — and spans from today to millions of years ago,” said Mazar. “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.”
Due to Israel’s location as a crossroads between continents, said Mazar, “our land is a significant intercultural center, from prehistory until today.”
“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 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.
Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren M. Maeir goes one step further. The director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project said that in the past few decades, the field has moved from an “old-fashioned, parochial version of the archaeological profession” to a high-tech version. “The cutting-edge character of the ‘Startup Nation’ is seen, full blown, in Israeli archaeology,” he said.
“The inter- and multi-disciplinary research, the willingness to recheck seemingly established paradigms, and the advancements, in leaps and bounds, through diverse methods, in understanding the past is very impressive,” said the New York-born archaeologist.
Among the institutions promoting this interdisciplinary method of archaeological study is Tel Aviv University, which houses archaeozoology, archaeobotany, petrography and metallurgy laboratories.
Leading Tel Aviv University Prof. Israel Finkelstein predicts the field will continue to move in this high-tech, interdisciplinary direction. One of his teams from Tel Aviv University recently used multispectral imaging and discovered never-before-seen Hebrew inscriptions on a First Temple-era shard using a modified household digital camera and a revolutionary new technique.
“The turn of archaeology to methods of the exact and life sciences – this will continue to impact the discipline in the coming years, especially in the field of ancient DNA,” Finkelstein said.
One young researcher looking very closely at the physical remnants of Israel’s past cultures is Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Dafna Langgut. Also curator of pollen, wood, charcoals and archaeobotanical collections of the soon-to-open Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Langgut’s discipline of archaeobotany involves the identification of botanical remains in archeological contexts. For example, she and her team discovered pollen from the citron fruit in a private garden in Jerusalem which dates back to the First Temple period.
“The archaeology of ancient Israel until recently, has dealt mainly with the macroscopic evidence, that is, what can be seen by the naked eye – mainly flint, animal bones, architecture, pottery and so on,” Langgut told The Times of Israel.
“A lot of additional information can however be extracted from the micro-archaeological record – the record that is revealed with the help of microscopes. This includes, for example, fossil pollen grains and phytoliths (the mineralized bodies that plants produce), which can provide information on the use of plant materials,” said Langgut.
“Microscopic parasite remains such as eggs and cysts can shed light on ancient diseases,” said Langgut. Knowing what killed our ancestors can illuminate their lives as well.
Another leading “hybrid” scientist in the profession is Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, head of the Laboratory of Archaeozoology at the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology.
“I’m a biologist who works with archaeological material to answer anthropological questions. My main research efforts deal with developing and apply novel methods that are used for reconstructing in high resolution the culture and environmental landscape of extinct/past societies,” said Bar-Oz.
“Since we can never directly meet and talk with the people that we study, we instead develop multiple, independent lines of evidence that are used as proxies to reconstruct the human past,” said Bar-Oz. This includes what ancient cultures ate and how they cultivated their food. “We invest much of our research activities to extracting data from genomes of ancient plants and animals.”
“Now, for the first time in history, the tide is turning in our favor by actively reclaiming this lost knowledge, capitalizing on a new wave of technological breakthroughs in our ability to crack the code of ancient deteriorating genomes,” said Bar-Oz.
Among the projects Bar-Oz is involved in is the bio-archaeological project in the Negev Desert which is attempting to understand conditions of life there during the Byzantine period, from agriculture to wine making. Eventually, the researchers hope to “revive and restore the ancient breeds and cultivars of ancient crops and animals,” he said.
“State-of-the-art ongoing projects in such directions cover the critical areas of disease resistance, food security and biodiversity, as well as restoring the genomes of extinct species of plants and animals. Hybrid archaeology with its strong community of Israeli archaeological scientists aim to lead this novel and concrete role in contemporary societal advancement and in securing a more sustainable future,” said Bar-Oz.
Should archaeologists ‘prove’ the Bible?
Much ink has been spilled on a passionate ongoing conversation surrounding the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Regarding biblical archaeology, some of us have been liberated from an uncritical reading of the text
In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Tel Aviv University’s Finkelstein pithily explains what is, for him personally, revolutionary in the current field of Israeli archaeology: “Regarding biblical archaeology, some of us have been liberated from an uncritical reading of the text,” he wrote.
“Biblical traditions should be read on the background of their time of composition, the ideology of the authors,” Finkelstein said in an earlier correspondence surrounding a renewed quest for the tabernacle at Shiloh.
“I strongly believe that one needs to conduct archaeological research in the best of methods and carry out biblical exegesis in the best of methods. There is no need to start from a perspective of either confirming or dismissing the historicity of a given biblical text,” Finkelstein said.
Finkelstein is one of several scholars in contemporary archaeology who are taking the Bible not as a blueprint but rather as one of several local sources of information. Cutting through nuance, one may say that two general schools of thought have emerged, with “new” Israel, Tel Aviv, being on the side of no preconceived notions in research, versus Jerusalem’s more Bible-and-spade approach.
Still considered controversial in some segments of international biblical scholarship, Tel Aviv’s critical school of thought has made inroads in the past several decades.
“Most (but not all…) Israeli professional archaeologists are no longer in an ideological ‘bind’ to use their research to prove national ideologies,” explained Bar-Ilan University’s Maeir.
“The one-to-one connection that was often made in the past (and at times, even today), between archaeological finds and their political/ideological meaning, is much less felt among professional archaeologists,” Maeir said.
“It is, though, still very much alive in the general public,” he added. (A recent Biblical Archaeology Review article charted 40 years of debate on the “minimalist-maximalist” controversy.)
Finds that bear out historical Biblical ‘memories’
The conversation is also very much alive in Jerusalem.
“A major debate in the last 40 years is the historicity of the Hebrew Bible,” Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, head of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, told The Times of Israel when asked his opinion on the important finds and developments of the past 70 years.
In recent decades, there have been several discoveries that could be interpreted to shore up a biblical narrative, several of which were found in Jerusalem’s ancient Old City. The most recent among them was a clay seal impression bearing what could be the name of the Prophet Isaiah, discovered by Mazar in her recently renewed Jerusalem excavations.
A major debate in the last 40 years is the historicity of the Hebrew Bible
“We appear to have discovered a seal impression, which may have belonged to the prophet Isaiah, in a scientific, archaeological excavation,” said Mazar in a February press release announcing the find.
Garfinkel gives The Times of Israel several other examples of archaeological evidence in support of the biblical narrative.
“A few finds indicate that the Bible indeed bears historical memories,” said Garfinkel, who is directing archaeological expeditions to Khirbet Qeiyafa, Tel Lachish and Khirbet er-Rai.
Garfinkel said excavations of the fortified city of Khirbet Qeiyafa “indicates urban society in Judah at the time of King David.” A portable shrine found at Khirbet Qeiyafa “indicates royal architecture in Judah at the time of David and Solomon.” According to Garfinkel, “the biblical text described [similar] architecture that was used at that era.”
Among other finds of biblical interest, Maeir points to the two-horned stone altar from his excavation, the Philistine Tell es-Safi/Gath, as well as the “Patgaya” temple inscription from Philistine Tel Miqne-Ekron.
But foremost among the findings Maeir and Garfinkel both highlight is the Tel Dan stele discovered in secondary use in 1993 bearing an inscription on a 9th-century BCE stone slab that mentions “House of David.” The stone and its fragmentary inscription is called by some the “first historical evidence of King David.”
While not naming the fabled king specifically, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, it does recount the victory of an Aramean king over his two southern neighbors: the “king of Israel” and the “king of the House of David.”
Archaeologists without borders?
The place of discovery of the most famous fruit of Israeli archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, actually lies outside the border of the State of Israel.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls have been described as the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century – and I agree with that,” wrote University of North Carolina Prof. Jodi Magness in an email exchange with The Times of Israel.
“The first scrolls were discovered in 1946-47, before the establishment of the State of Israel, but most of them were discovered after 1948. Of course, Qumran (where the scrolls were found) is in the West Bank,” wrote Magness.
Magness, author of the prize-winning book “The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” is currently directing the excavations of a Roman-era synagogue in Huqoq, which has garnered startlingly beautiful and unusual mosaics which illustrate biblical scenes, including the first depiction of Jonah in an ancient synagogue. “All of these are revolutionizing our understanding of Judaism in the Talmudic period and Jewish settlement in Late Roman-Byzantine Galilee,” she wrote of her current dig.
But for Magness, the 2007 discovery of Herod’s tomb at Herodium by the late Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer is the most important recent find.
Again, Magness wondered: “I am not sure if you would count this [as the most important find] as Herodium of course lies in the West Bank, outside the Green Line.”
Likewise, one of the most developed and enjoyable archaeological parks in Israel today, Jerusalem’s City of David, is built on land annexed by the State of Israel following the 1967 Six Day War. For some, this, and the fact that it is administered by Elad, an organization which promotes a Jewish connection to Jerusalem, even in traditionally Arab neighborhoods, mires the historical heritage site in political controversy.
But for former IAA Jerusalem district archeologist Prof. Dan Bahat, who excavated the Western Wall tunnels in the mid-1980s, the “whole story” of Israeli archaeology in the capital could only truly begin after the 1967 war. Only then did ancient portions of Jerusalem become available for scientific research.
Although there had been excavations in East Jerusalem sites prior to the end of the British Mandate, “many of the questions from the work before 1967 only got their answers after.”
In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Bahat recalled an early visit to a part of the City of David called Area G “when there was almost nothing to see.” Today, he said, “a visit to the City of David takes at least half a day, if not more, and it’s very exciting to visit there.”
He called the Davidson Archaeological Park “the pearl in the crown” of Jerusalem archaeology, referring to the area abutting the Western Wall that is slated to accommodate a government plan for a pluralistic prayer pavilion. (Bahat has a pending petition to the High Court to stop its construction.)
For the now retired archaeologist, the segment of the park commonly called Robinson’s Arch is of utmost import. “There is nowhere where you can so clearly see the results of the 70 CE Roman conquest, really feel how everything ended,” said Bahat.
The bigger picture
This past summer, a team of IAA archaeologists unveiled a massive eight-meter-deep section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, unseen for 1,700 years. Capturing international headlines, the world was moved by this first glimpse of another huge, underground portion of the wall that has come to symbolize Judaism’s holiest site for prayer.
But for the archaeologists, said dig director Joe Uziel, the “real drama” was the discovery of a Roman theater-like structure, which they called a never-before-seen window into daily public life in the newly Roman-conquered city following its destruction in 70 CE.
Noted by Josephus Flavius and other ancient sources, the small 200- to 300-seat theater has eluded Jerusalem excavations for some 150 years. It is the first rediscovered example of a Roman public building in Jerusalem, the archaeologists said at a subterranean press conference last summer.
When asked recently by The Times of Israel for his opinion as to the most important archaeological find in the past 70 years, Uziel said it was “impossible” to answer.
“Because in my mind, archaeology is a puzzle that we are trying to piece together and every piece is of importance. Even if you have the biggest pieces, if you are missing the small piece that connects them — they won’t make sense,” said Uziel.
“Even if we had the Dead Sea Scrolls — definitely an extremely important piece of archaeological research — but we didn’t know about what was going on in Jerusalem, or Qumran, at that time, then we would understand them much less,” said Uziel.
Each unprecedented artifact is of “extreme importance,” he said, in that it completes a link in the chain of understanding human activity.
“So in my mind, the most important ‘find’ is the continuum of research being conducted and published, which allows for the next piece of the puzzle to fit,” said Uziel.