A leading interior architect and exhibition designer claims he discovered the burial caves at the ancient necropolis in Beit Shearim 73 years ago, not the famed watchman Alexander Zaid.

On Tuesday, the Beit Shearim national park held a ceremony for two newly opened caves whose burial vaults date to Mishnaic times, roughly the first two centuries C.E.

The site's discovery traditionally has been attributed to Zaid, who allegedly went looking for a stray goat and stumbled upon the caves in 1936.

Zaid lived at the site, where he watched over the lands of the Jewish National Fund.

Subsequent excavations at the site uncovered more than 30 catacombs, and more are believed to exist.

Nahum Maron, one of the founders of the Israeli Association of Interior Architects, stayed in the Zaid Hills in the Jezreel Valley, near Kiryat Tivon, in 1936, after immigrating from Berlin in 1934.

"It was Purim 1936. Three of us went for a hike and entered a large deserted cave, which the Arabs used to keep goats in," Maron, 93, said yesterday.

He says he threw a stone at a wall in the cave and heard an echo, indicating a hollow behind it.

"I looked for an opening in the wall, and entered a cave containing sarcophagi, whose walls were inscribed with drawings and Menorahs," he said.

Maron says he called his friends to see the sarcophagi.

'Historic distortion'

"We returned to our camps and reported our discovery to the watchman, Alexander Zaid. He contacted the archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, who came to visit and subsequently the excavations began," said Maron, who now lives in Jerusalem.

Maron's family wants to publish his part in the discovery and end what they call a "historic distortion" - that Zaid accidentally found the catacombs, as had been believed until now.

In his book about the excavations he conducted in Beit Shearim in 1936-1940, Professor Mazar says Zaid discovered the caves by chance while shepherding in the area.

The story was retold at the caves' inauguration ceremony this week.

Meron says that he also participated in the digs, and that Mazar knew he had discovered the caves. "But I didn't make a big deal of it. What did I do, after all, throw a stone? It's more important that the site was discovered. Opening more caves to the public is the important thing ... it's our history," he said.