Israel's Archeological Triumphs Through the Eyes of a Man Who Was Always There

Joseph Aviram, 97, brought David Ben-Gurion one of the Dead Sea Scrolls and took Yigael Yadin up to Masada in the 1960s.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In the world of Israeli archaeology, Joseph Aviram is the man who was there. He was there when Alexander Zaid [a founder of Hashomer, a Jewish defense organization] arrived on horseback to show a group of students the Beit She'arim excavations in the 1930s. He organized the first professional Jewish digs in the 1940s. He brought David Ben-Gurion one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that was found in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, and he took Yigael Yadin up to Masada in the 1960s.

Aviram, who is 97, probably holds the record for successive employment at the same place of work. For 70 years he has been with the Israel Exploration Society (previously known as the Society for the Reclamation of Antiquities ). Next month, the IES will celebrate its centenary, an achievement matched only by a handful of institutions in Israel.

Aviram started working for the IES in 1943 as a secretary, at a salary of one Palestine pound a month. For most of the subsequent period, he headed the society while also holding various posts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Even today, he continues to come to his office - located in the basement of a residential building in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood - every day. His memory is lucid, the stories he tells riveting.

"I immigrated in 1936 from Poland, where I had graduated from the Hebrew teachers' college in Vilna," Aviram recalls. "So why was I in archaeology? I was actually a teacher, but on the ship I saw a small notice: 'This evening, Prof. Moshe Schwabe will lecture on the Beit She'arim excavations.' I didn't know what it was about but I told myself, 'We'll go to the talk.' He brought many pictures, but there was no 'magic lantern' [slide projector]. He explained how it all began and how he was invited to read the Greek inscriptions. I was very much taken by the whole story.

"A year later, when I was at the university - while there was a break in events [the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939] - I saw a notice about a trip for students to the Upper Galilee, to be guided by Haim Bardaroma. It wasn't expensive, so I signed up. The roads were not like they are now, and stones were thrown at us in Beit She'an, but we got to Beit She'arim, and Alexander Zaid showed up on a horse. He sat on the horse and told how he had taken [Yitzhak] Ben-Zvi and Maisler [Benjamin Mazar, one of the fathers of Israeli archaeology] there at night, because they were afraid the rabbis would not allow them to dig. Even then the rabbis were opposed. Zaid brought a ladder. We were not allowed to enter, but he let us peek into the cave and we saw the menorah. That's what made me decide to go into archaeology."

The Society for the Reclamation of Antiquities was established toward the end of the Ottoman period of rule in Palestine. "Everyone had already explored here - the Americans, the French, the British, the Russians," Aviram says. "So the Jews said, 'What's going on here? This is the land of our forefathers, and all the foreigners are excavating. We will establish a Jewish society to explore the Land of Israel.'"

The society was formed, even though there wasn't an archaeologist in the country at the time. Among the founders were the geographer Avraham Yaakov Brawer, the pedagogue David Yellin and the ophthalmologist Aharon Meir Mazie. Public figures such as future Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, poet Haim Nahman Bialik and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of Hebrew, joined later.

The society disbanded at the beginning of World War I, as its members feared it would be accused of espionage by the Turks, and was reconstituted in 1920, now under British auspices. By then, the founders realized that the Yishuv - the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine - needed a Jewish archaeologist. Accordingly, Eleazar Lipa Sukenik (the father of Yigael Yadin ) was sent to Berlin to study archaeology, at the society's expense.

When Sukenik left the society to join the newly founded Hebrew University in 1925, an all-out war broke out among Jerusalem's Jewish "aristocracy." "The war went on until 1943," Aviram recalls. It was in that year that he was appointed secretary of the society. Between the battles, the society conducted archaeological digs. The most important before Israel's establishment was at Beit She'arim, an ancient Jewish town in the Lower Galilee. The society's historical role, however, lay in imparting what is known in Hebrew as "knowledge of the land" to the public at large. The society played an important part in formulating the central Zionist narrative of the return to the Land of the Patriarchs.

"I remember a meeting with Ben-Zvi, Mazar and Schwabe," Aviram says. "Ben-Zvi asked me what my name was. 'Yosef Avramsky,' I told him. 'Avrahami - that will now be your name,’ he said. Afterward I changed it to Aviram. Moshe Stekelis and Michael Avi-Yonah [both later professors of archaeology at the Hebrew University] were also at the meeting. They said the society must not remain the preserve of the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv elite, but must work among the public. That was the origin of the first archaeological conference.”

These conferences became the high point of the society’s endeavors. They proved a surprising attraction, with thousands of people from all over the country flocking to them. “This is still continuing, but unfortunately not on the same scale, because people died and the younger generation did not carry it on in the same way,” Aviram notes. “In 1947, there was a large conference in Tiberias, just before the start of the War of Independence. In the middle of the conference, people started to say they would not be able to get back home, because a war would break out. I went to Sukenik and told him to call Yigael [Yadin, his son], who was then chief of operations in the Haganah, and ask him what to do. Sukenik sat himself down in the hotel and started to look for him. When he reached his son, Yadin told his father, ‘One does not stop Torah [learning], so continue and you will be able to get home.’ And so it was.

“In 1949, the keynote speaker was Abba Eban. In 1956 there was the ‘conference of blood.’ The Arab Legion opened fire during a tour of Ramat Rachel, in Jerusalem, and four people were killed and 19 wounded.”

Glory days

The 1950s and 1960s were the glory days of Israeli archaeology, between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the excavations at Masada. “In 1954, Shmarya Guttman and Micha Livneh − who were in charge of taking youth groups up to Masada − came to us,” Aviram recalls. “They showed us very interesting photographs from the site. We invited the education minister, Ben-Zion Dinur, to Mazar’s home, and he decided that a scientific delegation must be sent to Masada.”

The result was the first Jewish exploration delegation, consisting of students and volunteers, to the Dead Sea site. Aviram was in charge of supplies and managing the delegation. The chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, sent the IDF to help. A convoy of Bedouin-led pack mules made the arduous climb up the Snake Path every day, carrying food and water.

“Amazing things were found there in those two weeks,” Aviram says. “Afterward, there was a meeting with Ben-Zvi, who was already president, about how to proceed. Everyone said the excavation of Masada was a huge project and that there was only one person who could do it: Yigael Yadin, who had just completed his term as chief of staff. We sent a delegation to meet with him. I remember he sat with his legs on the table. But he told us that he was already committed to a four-year dig at the largest tel in the country, Hatzor. So we dropped the idea.”

It was not until 10 years later that Yadin began to excavate at Masada. What persuaded him, says Aviram − who was a close friend − was a rescue dig by the IES to find more scrolls in the Judean Desert. “One day in 1960, Yigael invited me to his home. The director of the American School of Oriental Research [renamed the Albright Institute in 1970] was there. He said Bedouin were selling fragments of ancient scrolls to anyone who wanted them, in the Old City of Jerusalem. They said the fragments came from Wadi Tziel − Nahal Tze’elim, which was on our side [of the Green Line]. I asked Yadin what we should do. He said he would go to Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion told him to ask the chief of staff, Haim Laskov, and he, Ben-Gurion, would accept whatever Laskov suggested.

“Laskov said a large operation should be mounted to check all the caves. We were given an elite unit, Golani. The soldiers laughed at first, but when they saw what we found they became enthusiastic. The work itself was horrible − it was very dangerous to go down with ropes. But we found some extraordinary things. When a fine scroll was discovered, Yadin said we should show it to Ben-Gurion, so he would see that there was something to it. Ben-Gurion looked at the scroll and told me, ‘It is very important, but tell Yigael that I need him in the government. Others can also find these things.’ That was the prelude to the Masada project. When Yadin saw the finds from the desert, he realized there must be even more at Masada.”

Iconic excavation

In 1964, Yadin led an excavation team to Masada, in a project that assumed the dimensions of an iconic myth in Israeli archaeology. Once more, Aviram was the delegation’s administrative director. Even earlier, Yadin invited Aviram to London for a dramatic meeting: “He told me there was something else but made me swear not to tell a soul. He took me into a room and showed me a box with a small scroll fragment inside. He said it was part of the longest scroll that existed. An American middleman was asking for a downpayment of $10,000. Yigael didn’t have it, but he got it from a donor and paid the man. The middleman said, ‘You will hear from me.’ Two years went by and he heard nothing. The money was spent for nothing, he thought. “But in the Six-Day War, when Yigael was in the Pit [the IDF war room, in Tel Aviv], he received certain reports and sent a group of officers to the home of an antiquities dealer from Bethlehem,” Aviram continues. “The man was afraid and brought a shoebox from his basement. The scroll was inside. The next day, I get a phone call: Come to the German Colony [in Jerusalem], to the home of Dudu Shenhav, who was then with the Israel Museum. He had a big living room and the scroll covered the whole of the floor. Yigael was there. I asked him to show me the place from which the fragment we saw in London had come, and he showed me the exact spot. It is the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Temple Scroll. He worked on it for 10 years.”

Aviram also vividly recalls the more dubious legacy of another chief of staff who dabbled in archaeology. “Moshe Dayan helped us a great deal,” he says, “but very regrettably he engaged in robbery digs. He always wanted us to come to his house in Zahala to show us vessels. We knew about the stealing. Everyone knew. He was even caught a few times.”

Aviram declines to say more. Nor is he eager to talk about the “wars of the archaeologists,” which began in the 1970s. The most heated dispute of all continues to simmer today, at one level or another: It was between Yadin, as the representative of the biblical approach − those who find evidence for the Bible narrative in excavations − and the critical approach, which finds mainly contradictions between archaeological finds and the Scriptures.

“As long as there were no archaeologists, there were no arguments,” Aviram adds. “But suddenly there is a young generation. Well, arguments started. After the great success came the great arguments. Did Joshua capture Hatzor or not? Scientific disputes are fine, but it became personal and opposing camps sprang up. I always reassured Yadin. When he read something that [Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology head] Yohanan Aharoni wrote against him, it would drive him crazy, and he would fire off an angry letter. But his wife, who typed up the letters, told me she didn’t send them. There was a file of angry letters in the house that were never sent.”

Aviram remembers clearly Yadin’s last adventure, in politics, as head of the Democratic Movement for Change, which became a fiasco. “The politicians gave him no rest. [Ariel] Sharon and everyone would come to him and say, ‘You are sitting on Mount Olympus in archaeology, but look at the condition of the country.’ As long as his wife was alive, she did not let him [stand]. In 1976, after his wife died, there was a large gap in his life. But there was also the Agranat Commission [to investigate the intelligence failure leading up to the Yom Kippur War; Yadin was a member of the commission]. He would call me after sessions of the commission at 10 P.M.: ‘Maybe you’d like to go out to eat something with me?’ We went to Shemesh Restaurant [a former Jerusalem landmark]. He was very depressed by what he had heard in the commission, but he told me nothing.”

In the 1977 election, Yadin ran for the Knesset at the head of the DMC. The party won 15 seats, but did not live up to its promise. In 1981, Yadin, left politics and went back to archaeology. His dream of undertaking new digs was cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1984. He was 68.

“Yadin was the big star of Israeli archaeology. He was the one who made it known to the whole world,” Aviram says, noting, “The whole generation of the 1940s and also the ‘50s is gone. I am the last survivor. These days, if there is a scandal, the public takes note, but the everyday [archaeological] work doesn’t interest the young generation. Everything is computers and Facebook, and all that. It’s difficult work, but there are also no discoveries today like there once were. The City of David is fine, but it’s not Masada. It’s not the same as it used to be.”

Aviram, right, brought Ben-Gurion, second from left, a scroll, led Yadin, third from left, up Masada.Credit: Reproduction by Emil Salman
Aviram. Became an archaeologist after he "peeked into the 9th cave and say the menorah."Credit: Emil Salman

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