Israel to Begin Privatizing Large-scale Archaeological Excavations

Senior archaeologists warn the decision will lead to unprecedented destruction of archaeological findings and serious harm to archaeology as a science in Israel

The Tel Beit Shemesh archaeological dig.
Olivier Fitoussi

Netivei Israel, the government-owned roads and infrastructure company, has begun a major undertaking to privatize archeological salvage excavations for the roads projects it undertakes. The company has issued tenders without involving the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The IAA, along with academic institutions, has decided to bid on the tenders. Senior archeologists from both within the Authority and outside it warn that the decision to privatize such archeological rescue digs will lead to an unprecedented destruction of archeological findings and serious harm to the entire science of archeology in Israel.

Archeologist and journalist Shimon Riklin, who is thought to be very close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is considering bidding for one of the archeological excavations.

Archeological excavations in Israel are generally divided into two types. The first are academic excavations carried out for research purposes; and the second are salvage digs carried out to rescue archeological finds before development work, such as road construction, is carried out a specific locations.

Most archeological excavations conducted in Israel are salvage digs. Most are carried out by the Antiquities Authority itself or by academic institutions, supervised by the Authority. Netivei Israel carries out all the infrastructure development for roads in Israel and is the largest commissioner of salvage digs.

The company plans three huge excavations over the next two years in preparation for various projects: The Motza interchange on Route 1 near the entrance to Jerusalem; the Mishmar Hagvul interchange for the entrance road to the city of Harish; and the Route 38 interchange near Beit Shemesh. Each of these excavations includes hundreds of “squares,” each five meters square.

The biggest excavation is in Motza and is expected to cover 1,549 squares. To put this in perspective, this one dig is larger than all the salvage digs conducted in Israel on average in a single year. The Beit Shemesh road dig will cover 428 squares and the Mishmar Hagvul excavation is 978 squares.

The three excavations are being carried out in areas considered to be extremely sensitive from an archeological perspective: Previous salvage digs in Motza for the upgrade to Route 1 revealed a Neolithic period prehistoric village; in the Harish area a large series of Chalcolithic and Early Bronze era villages were found; while the digs near Beit Shemesh are expected to reveal finds from the Byzantine and later periods.

In light of the size of these projects, Netivei Israel expects the digs to use up a large part of the projects’ budgets and delay work for a long time. As a result, the company decided – after consulting with senior officials in the Transportation Ministry to try and bypass the Antiquities Authority. Until now, the authority has been a partner in writing such tenders, but this time the bids were issued without it – and it was invited to compete for the tenders, the same as any other body.

The Antiquities Authority and university archeological institutes were shocked to discover the conditions included in the bidding process. The contractor is required to meet strict deadlines, for example in the Motza dig, the authority estimated just the initial stage would take about a year; while the tender requires the entire dig to be completed in seven months – with almost no taking into account of the findings. In addition, the experience required for the archeologist n charge of the excavation is minimal, only 10 squares over the past 10 years. Now the archeologist will be required to dig hundreds of squares in a few months. “It’s like taking a home renovator to build the runway at Ben-Gurion Airport,” said someone involved in the matter.

Another problem is that the tenders do not require the scientific publication of the findings, which means the results might not be available to scholars in the future, say archeologists. The bids also do not specify the depths of the excavations, giving the contractors an incentive to dig as little as possible and discover as little as possible to keep to the tight schedule.

The Archeological Council of Israel called a meeting with senior archeologists and Antiquities Authority officials on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Two weeks ago Netivei Israel held a tour of the Motza site for potential bidders in which three private companies participated, including Riklin’s.

Riklin told Haaretz that he may not even bid on the tenders, saying it has been a long time since he last dug – and the periods involved are ones that he has less expertise in. In addition, the bids are very difficult to price and he does not want to lose “his home on it.” If he does bid, he will hire graduate students who are experts in the appropriate periods to manage the digs on the ground. But Riklin said he is in favor of privatizing digs in principle, which could significantly lower the costs of development and construction.

Netivei Israel said the company operates according to the Tenders Law, so it cannot comment on tenders in process in the media, and can only speak to the potential bidders directly. In addition, the Antiquities Authority can act within its legal authority to prevent any damage to archeological science and tradition.