Shallow and brutal archaeology
Most of the archaeological research in Jerusalem is being driven by pressures from politically interested groups and individuals with the aim of "proving" our historical rights in the city or clearing an area for construction.
As usual during the Jewish holidays, the Israeli public has been inundated with reports of "amazing discoveries" in excavations in Jerusalem. One might dismiss them as a combination of public relations and the need to fill the holiday newspapers, but in fact they attest to a worrying process whereby archaeological research in Jerusalem is being made shallow and subordinated to narrow interests of time and place.
After a period of official and programmatic archaeology following the unification of the city in 1967, it appeared that Israeli archaeology had found the correct balance between the desire to uncover and protect the city's antiquities and the demands of modern scientific research. The symbol of this balance was Yigal Shiloh's excavation project in the City of David.
Now this balance has been disrupted and most of the archaeological research in Jerusalem is being driven by pressures from politically interested groups and individuals with the aim of "proving" our historical rights in the city or clearing an area for construction. The outcome is "fast archaeology" that satisfies the consumer's hunger but damages archaeological assets under Israel's responsibility.
The best archaeology, the kind practiced at the world's leading archaeological centers, is slow archaeology that gives excavators time to deepen their familiarity with each site's unique problems and digest the results of their actions so they can repair and improve. Every excavation is planned and documented destruction, so the destroyer has a great responsibility. Therefore, the most advanced archaeology is also transparent and open to criticism, undertaken in an atmosphere of openness. And here and now, in the Israel of 2009, the opposite is the case.
Much of the archaeology in the center of Jerusalem's "holy basin" is fast archaeology, swallowing up more than it is capable of digesting. It is no coincidence that the top archaeologists from this country's leading institutes are refraining from taking part in excavations in Jerusalem. I would not send my students to apprentice there.
This archaeology is being carried out under time pressure and is subordinate to the desires of landlords who are not scholars; usually these are religious, ideological or tourist organizations, or contractors. The work is carried out nonstop, without pause for researchers to understand their findings. Thus, for example, most of the Antiquities Authority's archaeological activities around the City of David's water system have been delegated to a duo of archaeologists who have not yet published a serious report on these excavations.
Moreover, for several years now, excavations in these areas have been carried out in tunnels in horizontal digs - contrary to every accepted practice. During the excavations, many tons of dirt are discarded along with a considerable part of their archaeological contents (and this comes as, with trumpet blasts, an expensive project is underway to sift dirt the Waqf is taking out of the Temple Mount). There is no external oversight of the excavators: The Antiquities Authority is both carrying out the work and supervising it.
Near the Western Wall, too, excavations have been completed recently that went on for three years without pause, and, for more than a year now, extensive excavations have been going on beneath the Western Wall tunnels in accordance with a demand by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
These excavations are being carried out under secret agreements with the various authorities, without comprehensive planning and external oversight.
A shallow archaeology is developing in Jerusalem that is giving Israeli science a bad reputation. After 40 years of controlling the city, we are digging as if there were no tomorrow.
The writer teaches archaeology at Tel Aviv University and has worked on the City of David excavations.