Israeli Archaeologists Dodge the Law to Study Human Remains

Ultra-Orthodox Jews jealously guard the religion’s dictates about handling dead bodies, so scientists do what they can to achieve a compromise.

Digging at the Philistine cemetery near Ashkelon, summer 2016.
Gil Cohen-Magen

A month and a half ago the media and the Israeli archaeology world were abuzz over a historic find: a Philistine cemetery discovered near Ashkelon National Park. More than 200 skeletons were dug up over two years by an American team headed by Prof. Daniel M. Master of Wheaton College. It’s a bonanza for historians of Philistine civilization.

Still, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Hasson, was furious about some of the pictures published.

“It was a shocking report,” he told Haaretz. “They sent a picture of a skull in a disposable aluminum tray. This is appallingly insensitive. Important is the scientific conclusion that can be drawn from the skeleton, so why poke a finger in its eye? What do we gain from those pictures?”

Overall, the photos are extraordinary and show how skeletons are excavated, measured and moved from one place to another. The researchers are aware of the sensitivities in Israel about the digging up of skeletons, whether it’s a question of religion or an ethnic minority seeking to be treated equally.

So the scientists worked for two years in secret – a secret that was kept not only from the media and the public but also from the Israeli archaeology world.

Hence the dilemma: What to do when the bones might be human bones? According to the regulations, an archaeologist must report a finding immediately to the Religious Services Ministry, which takes the bones to a suitable burial site. A scientific examination of the skeleton is prohibited, and the law doesn’t consider it an antiquity.

But as science’s ability to obtain knowledge from the bones has grown, so has the archaeologists’ dilemma over whether to keep digging and whether to examine the remains. Many archaeologists acknowledge that in the name of science they bend the rules, take samples and even take bones and skeletons to their laboratories.

Many argue that the regulations impede science and force them to work in a gray area. They say it’s time to find ways to enable research on human bones while respecting the dignity of the dead, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

Ever since archaeology’s launch in the Holy Land in the 19th century, ultra-Orthodox Jews have protested the excavation of Jewish burial sites. The clashes increased after the establishment of the state in 1948, and in the ‘70s riots broke out against archaeologists at Jerusalem excavations.

Since then, nearly every year there has been friction between Atra Kadisha – an ultra-Orthodox group – and archaeologists. And not just in Jerusalem.

A Philistine's skull in a disposable aluminum tray; a controversial photograph, Ashkelon, summer 2016.
Gil Cohen-Magen

In 1994 Atra Kadisha was buoyed when the attorney general ruled that a bone cannot be considered an antiquity and prohibited the study of it. The Antiquities Authority then crafted procedures on the issue.

“In every case of finding bones suspected of being human bones it is necessary to summon to the site a representative of the Religious Affairs Ministry to bury them anew,” the document states. “An anthropologist summoned to the site is authorized to register the number of those buried, their age, sex, diseases and genetic and anthropological characteristics.”

As the procedures put it, “There is an absolute prohibition on physical damage to human bones, including any kind of laboratory test.”

The regulations did not end the controversy, which re-erupted every time it became necessary to empty ancient graves at a construction site. The most famous clash came in 2009 during the building of a new emergency room at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center.

The head of the Antiquities Authority at the time, Yehoshua Dorfman, fell  victim to threats and violence, and antiquity sites around the country were vandalized by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Ashkelon site had to be closely guarded by the police.

Bones in buckets

About four years ago another clash broke out due to the construction of the Beit Shemesh neighborhood Ramat Beit Shemesh. But there was a split in the ultra-Orthodox world. The so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community didn’t accept Atra Kadisha’s interpretations and came out against the protest. Since then, Atra isn’t as good at getting demonstrators out to excavation sites, say sources familiar with the matter.

But ultra-Orthodox politicians have taken up the fight; that’s what has happened over the past year in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. Under the pressure of Interior Minister Arye Dery, neighborhood development projects are expected to need tens of millions more shekels to circumvent the graves.

By and large, grave excavations in Israel are the responsibility of the Antiquities Authority, which is in charge of the “rescue digs” at sites slated for construction. These digs are closely supervised by Atra Kadisha and the Antiquities Authority people themselves, who scrupulously observe the rules prohibiting the study of bones.

But there are also many academic digs by universities’ archaeological institutes and teams from abroad. They strive to steer clear of cemeteries, but graves sometimes crop up unexpectedly. Then archaeologists have to grapple with the dilemma of whether to tell the authorities.

Archaeologists investigating the first unmistakably Philistine burial ground found in Israel, in Ashkelon. July 2016.
Philippe Bohstrom

Instead, many carry out detailed examinations and even laboratory tests, and publish the findings in academic papers. Maybe they figure ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t be reading scientific journals. Some archaeologists admit this, while others say they’ve heard about colleagues doing this.

“I have skeletons lying in buckets in my office,” says an archaeologist at an Israeli university. “Before I retire I’ll find a way to return them. That’s how it is; people are working quietly.”

Another archaeologist says: “Everyone finds his own way of dealing with this – there’s no black and white here.”

According to another archaeologist, “If we find a skeleton, we dig but we don’t initiate any digs at cemeteries. What do I need all that trouble for? It’s no coincidence that Ashkelon is an American dig, not an Israeli dig.”

Another archaeologist adds: “We excavated, were surprised to find a grave and got very worried. The representative of the entity funding the dig was a religious person.”

In this last case it was a Muslim grave and the Arab workers demanded that the bones be taken for reburial, so the bones weren't studied. A year later another grave was excavated, this time with no Arab workers present, and the bones were taken to a laboratory for examination.

Readers of scientific journals know that these cases are far from rare – many archaeologists dig, investigate and publish their research papers.

“This is all done on the sly; you steal a bone here and a bone there,” says one archaeologist. Another adds: “There’s no doubt that in an optimal situation it would be better if our work were done openly in the light of day. But the work gets done.”

Archaeologists know that the law talks about “human bones,” but between the lines is written “bones that belonged to Jews.” When there’s no such suspicion – for example at prehistoric sites – nothing prevents a thorough study of the skeleton along with the preservation of the bones.

Muslims and Christians

Muslim and Christians may not be as sensitive about the treatment of dead bodies as the Jews. Either way, the large Muslim cemetery in Mamilla in central Jerusalem was excavated for the construction of the Museum of Tolerance. The researchers rapidly dug up hundreds of skeletons under a veil of secrecy. Contrary to the usual practice, they worked at night and in stormy weather.

In a book by Dorfman published after his death in 2014, he admitted: “I should have stopped the excavation and not allowed the destruction of that part of the cemetery.”

There was similar maltreatment of Muslim graves found at the City of David, and of Christian graves at other digs in Jerusalem.

“When it turned out that these were Christians, the ultra-Orthodox disappeared and the sacks with the bones were just left lying around outside for months until they were taken away,” Dorfman wrote.

When the ultra-Orthodox began to take an interest in the Philistine cemetery near Ashkelon, the archaeologists could convince them that only Philistines were among the dead. But when Jewish dead are involved, science battles with rabbinical law, and it can have major ramifications for engineering and financing.

In Gilo, the engineering solution for building a new neighborhood on top of graves cost around 100 million shekels ($26 million). In Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev, contractors have had to give up on dozens of housing units.

At a number of places around the country, roads have been paved on pillars in order to distance them from graves. And to this day, in the middle of the Menachem Begin Highway in Jerusalem stands a huge rock that’s actually concrete poured over a burial cave discovered during the construction.

Many archaeologists believe that the damage to science is heavy. After all, many skeletons aren’t studied even though science can extract valuable information from them on the origins of humans; for example, on their diet, health and relation to other hominids.

Second, academic excavation teams stay away from cemeteries, hindering the study of ancient settlements. Third, the entire field of the study of human remains – physical anthropology – has been neglected in Israel.

“The very fact of the law is a scandal – it’s something political that’s typical of Iran or the Middle Ages,” says Prof. Aharon Meir of Bar-Ilan University. “The entire discipline of physical anthropology is getting weaker because it’s a pain in the neck, so why deal with it?”

Meir calls it a discipline in danger of extinction. I too wouldn’t want my bones thrown in the garbage,” he says. “Human remains should be treated with respect, but how do you get from there to it being impossible to study human remains? ... This is very serious damage to our ability to learn who we are.”

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University believes that bone research could provide an answer to one of the most fascinating questions in the history of the Jewish people: Were the ancient Israelites in the days of David and Solomon really different from the earlier inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites? Did they really come in a migration from Egypt or from somewhere else? Or did they arise from the local population?

“These aren’t racist questions. These are scientific questions that are possible to answer,” says Garfinkel, who also warns about another issue. “The problem is that there is no vacuum. Whatever we don’t excavate will be excavated by antiquities robbers, and that happens all the time.”