The altar at Mt. Ebal near Nablus
The altar at Mt. Ebal near Nablus Photo by Daniel Ventura
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At 4:30 A.M. every Friday, archaeologist Adam Zertal leaves his home at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, drives to Megiddo Junction, picks up volunteers and continues into Samaria in the West Bank. They reach their destination and begin walking - their eyes peeled to the ground. They scour the soil until 4 P.M.

The search began in 1978 near Beit She'an. One wadi after another, hill after hill, they have slowly walked southward. Today, 34 years later, they have almost reached Jericho.

"It could be said there isn't a meter we haven't covered," says Prof. Zertal, who walks using crutches, a remnant of an injury from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "Walking is my rehabilitation. I walk slowly with crutches. The younger guys go much faster."

This is how the national archaeological survey, one of Israel's longest-running scientific projects, is being carried out. The aim is to clamber down every ravine, scale every hill and walk through every furrow in the country.

The Israel Antiquities Authority seeks to precisely map every historical and archaeological site west of the Jordan. The project, which began in 1964, is due to end - if at all - in a few decades.

Six years ago the authority stopped publishing thick volumes of the survey's results; it now uploads the data onto the Internet. It recently launched a revamped website containing 3,000 archaeological sites out of the 25,000 sites mapped to date in half the country.

Both archaeologists and the general public typically think that excavating a site - a long, laborious task that could take dozens of digging seasons - is the height of archaeology. Zertal thinks otherwise.

"An excavation is much easier to publicize. One dig can uncover many nice objects, but you can only understand the processes when you look at the wider space. You can't excavate in Ein Shemer and understand everything about Zionism," says Zertal.

"You receive a fragmented picture. Most archaeologists prefer a single site to a wider perspective. That's because a survey takes many years and demands physical work, mostly walking."

According to archaeologist Ofer Sion, "We're the brigade's commando unit. How many archaeologists know how to navigate using a map? To walk around the area, to get to know the animals and plants? The surveyor is a type of Bedouin who knows the land intimately. A sort of Lawrence of Arabia," says Sion, who heads the authority's survey division.

The history of archaeology in the Land of Israel is very much the history of it archaeological surveys. The first surveys were carried out in the 19th century, funded by a British foundation.

Since the state's independence in 1948, surveys have been held with varying success. In 1964, a group of archaeologists formed the Israel Archaeological Survey Society, which secured funding and conducted systematic scientific surveys.

In 1967, with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the Six-Day War, hundreds of square kilometers were added, packed with archaeological sites waiting to be explored. Soon after the war an emergency survey was held to familiarize Israeli archaeologists with the land before it was returned.

It turned out there was enough time to survey the whole area, meter after meter. The society became part of the antiquities authority when it was founded in 1990.

Conducting a survey looks simple - walking slowly, searching for and documenting every man-made object, whether water holes, water troughs, potsherds, flint tools, remnants of buildings or even complete settlements that have vanished from sight. The findings span thousands of years, from prehistoric stone vessels to deserted Palestinian villages from 1948.

The survey's managers divided the country into 267 squares, each 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers. Some extend beyond the coast. The first square is Achziv Beach in the north, and the last square covers Eilat.

Sion estimates he needs 30 people working full-time every day a year to properly map a square. After that, another two years are needed to produce a detailed map and accompanying literature.

The result is a detailed list of sites including descriptions and datings. A completion of the survey would allow a "three-dimensional" map to be drawn, incorporating the time dimension of every square. One would be able to view settlements at various stages of history.

The survey's map of the Nahalal area, for example, features 22 sites from the Chalcolithic period (4000 to 3150 BCE ), 32 sites from the ancient Canaanite period (3150 to 2200 BCE ), and 133 sites from the Byzantine period (324 to 638 CE ). The richest square to date is the Amatzia-Beit Jubrin area, which has no fewer than 800 documented ancient sites.

In its 34 years, the survey has brought to light thousands of new findings, some of them dramatic. Zertal's survey in Samaria, for example, provides fodder for archaeologists arguing over biblical texts and their connection to archaeology.

One Friday in January 1980, Zertal found a rujum, or pile of stones, on Mount Eival. "As usual, at the 90th minute the surprise of the day," he wrote in his diary that day. "It's already clear that this site is from the settlement period. At the top there's a small ellipse-shaped site with a large rujum at its center."

Eventually he identified the site as the altar of Mount Eival - in his opinion, the altar referred to in the Book of Deuteronomy. According to the scriptures, during a ceremony there, the desert people turned into the People of Israel.

For many years, the altar has been at the center of a debate among archaeologists. Zertal says the survey revealed hundreds of sites that fit the biblical version.

Another exciting discovery came when Zertal uncovered the site of Khirbat al-Hamam, which he says is the location of a Roman city - "an antiquities site the size of Masada that wasn't known to researchers."

Although most of his work takes place over the Green Line, Zertal says his mission is scientific rather than political. "Apart from a few instances of slashed tires, we've encountered almost no hostility," he says.