Israeli, Italian Colleges to Collaborate on ‘Bethsaida,’ Etruscan Archaeology

The site where Jesus’ disciplines were born and the birthplace of pre-Roman culture have much to teach archaeologists from the two teams, explains Kinneret College’s Prof. Mordechai Aviam

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E-Tell before it was flooded by the rising Sea of Galilee: This is believed by Prof. Mordechai Aviam to be the site of biblical Bethsaida
E-Tell before it was flooded by the rising Sea of Galilee: This is believed by Prof. Mordechai Aviam to be the site of biblical Bethsaida Credit: Prof. Mordechai Aviam
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Israel’s Kinneret Institute for Galilee Archaeology and Italy’s University of Perugia signed an archaeology collaboration agreement on Tuesday afternoon.

Even though the entire plan is predicated on international travel and exchanging researchers, and later students as well, the agreement was signed by Zoom.

After more than a year of forced inaction because of coronavirus lockdowns, Israeli archaeology is picking up momentum. Conferences are still being held online rather than in person, but following the mass COVID vaccination drive, there are no more restrictions on personal movement within the country.

Signing the collaboration agreement, virtually. From left, Mordechai Aviam, Shimon Gepstein, and Sybil HeilbornCredit: Courtesy of the Kinneret Academic College

Excavations in Israel have been resuming but given the restrictions on international travel, it remains unclear when the Israeli and Italian archaeologists may actually be able to visit each other, says Prof. Mordechai Aviam, head of the Kinneret Institute for Galilee Archaeology.

At this point, the institutions plan to work together on two pet projects, one in each country.

The Israeli project is Beit Habek (aka el-Araj), which Aviam postulates may be the location of the biblical fishing village of Bethsaida. Aviam has been leading the excavation there for years as a joint venture with Prof. Steven Notley of Nyack College, New York – one of two other collaborative ventures the Kinneret College has joined.

Normally, Beit Habek perches on the banks of the Jordan River’s entrance to the Sea of Galilee, which is a freshwater lake. However, after decades of drought and receding water levels in the lake came consecutive winters of heavy rain. The Sea of Galilee rose high and Beit Habek sank beneath the wavelets. The 2020 summer excavation season of the ancient village had to be canceled because of the double whammy of the pandemic lockdowns and flooding.

This year, Aviam and the team plan to overcome and proceed with work at the waterlogged site. How? By pumping out the water on a daily basis. They’ve tested the concept and deem it feasible, Aviam assures Haaretz. Some water leaks back during the night and come the morning they pump it out again and resume, he explains.

Credit: Prof. Mordechai Aviam
Prof. Steven NotleyCredit: YouTube

It bears adding that two other sites are candidates for the real Bethsaida, the other main one being e-Tell. The jury remains out on the conundrum of which it may be. Bethsaida was a Jewish fishing village in the Roman period, dating to the first century, where three of Jesus’ apostles were born, according to Christian tradition, hence the vast interest in researching Beit Habek.

It was in fact the discoveries at Beit Habek, including a very early Christian church, that led to the collaboration. News of the discoveries reached Victoria Mesistrano, an Israeli archaeologist  who had worked on the Hippos-Sussita excavation and who now lives in Italy. Among her goals in life is to initiate twin-city alliances and agreements between academic research institutions, the Kinneret College explains.

The collaborating institute in Perugia is headed by Prof. Lucio Fiorini, who researches Etruscan culture.

Asked what they would gain by exchanging researchers, Aviam explains that their excavation methods differ in some aspects and they have much to learn from one another.

Also, Etruscan culture preceded Roman culture, and greatly influenced it; then in turn Roman culture controlled Israel’s part of the world for centuries, and greatly influenced it too.

“It will enable us to better understand two cultures and how they connect,” Aviam told Haaretz. “The Etruscan roots in Rome run deep, just for instance, in their building methods. The Etruscans built round temples and that eventually reached Israel. Herod’s grave, called the tolus, is round – a style that apparently originated not in Israel but in Etruscan Italy.”

Ultimately, such collaboration helps broaden the archaeologists’ horizon to learn about worlds with which they are unfamiliar, he says: to see their homes, their pottery, their coinage, their things. They can learn about cultural influences going back millennia. When they can travel, that is. Aviam is hopeful they can start implementing the collaboration in July.

"In a famous aphorism, the celebrated English poet Thomas Hood ironically wondered: 'When was ever honey made with one bee in a hive?', meaning that to achieve an excellent result, it is always necessary to have the collaboration of a number of individuals.  Such a truth is all the more "evident" when it comes to the collaboration of scientists, from whose cooperation the good of the community can be furthered," Prof. Fiorino told Haaretz.  

"It will be a great honor for me to collaborate with Prof. Mordechai Aviam, starting with the excavation that I have been directing for years at the Emporium and Sanctuary of Gravisca, port of the Etruscan Tarquinia, which is open to all his students if they want to come," Fiorino added. "Finally, I hope that the desire of my Director, Prof. Giovanni Gigliotti, namely that the twinning that today involves archaeology and history can also involve engineering, architecture and design studies - my own Department - and be extended as a whole to the two institutions we represent,  cooperating for the good of our students."

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