Israel's Tel Hatzor Archaeological Museum Desperately Trying to Pick Up the Pieces

The Tel Hazor Archaeological Museum, a prime example of David Reznik's Brutalist architectural style, is at risk of succumbing to a declining interest in archaeology and the ravages of earthquakes and inadequate maintenance.

The Tel Hazor Archaeological Museum, situated at the western edge of Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, in the Upper Galilee, was founded amid an impressive wave of optimism. Archaeology was very popular in Israel in the 1960s: High schoolers, scout troops and volunteers from various kibbutzim enthusiastically took part in digs. Many kibbutzim exhibited finds from local excavations in the dining hall or social center.

But at Tel Hazor (also called Hatzor), the idea for a proper museum in which to house and display the finds began with the start of the excavations, in the mid-1950s. It took several more years, however, to raise the necessary funds. Thanks to a donation by the Israeli-Canadian art collector and philanthropist Ayala Zacks work on the building, which was designed by the Israeli architect David Reznik, began in 1962, but afterward construction was suspended for two years until additional funds were found.

The excavations, which cover an area of 200 acres and represent thousands of years of history beginning in the Bronze Age, continue to this day. This summer the annual excavation carried out by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is exploring the remains of the Caananite palace on the northern slope of the tel. Students and archaeology enthusiasts from around the world take part in the dig. A Hebrew and English website, titled The Tale of Hazor, offers educational materials aimed at spurring interest and involvement in the site as well as in the field in general.

During the Canaanite period Hazor was the largest city in the region, with an estimated population of 15,000. By the ninth century B.C.E. it had doubled in size. Mentions of the city have been found from Mesopotamia to Egypt, from the early second millennium B.C.E. until the first century C.E. The sources make clear the city’s importance in the Fertile Crescent, and it played a role in numerous biblical accounts, including the wars of Joshua and the fortifications carried out by King Solomon.

Despite ongoing educational activities at the site, archaeology seems to have lost some of its popularity; the flood of visitors has dwindled to a trickle. The site itself, Tel Hazor National Canaanite Park, is open to visitors year-round (there is an entrance fee), but visits to the museum, at the entrance to Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, must be arranged in advance. The kibbutz is halfway between Kiryat Shmona and Tiberias.

In 2005 Tel Hazor, together with Tel Megiddo and Tel Be’er Sheva, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said then that the Hazor museum exhibits and building were in need of renovation.

While the building has been protected as part of the protection extended to national park structures, the museum is slated for preservation as part of a new master plan for the park. The hope is that Reznik's impressive Brutalist structure can be preserved. Time, inadequate maintenance and a series of earthquakes have taken a toll on the building; there are cracks in the exterior walls and signs of rust on the roof.

Yigael Yadin, who headed the initial excavations at Tel Hazor, was also the force behind the establishment of the museum. Referring to the principle that guided his design of the project, Reznik said at the time: “I told Yadin: I will design a structure such that when they dig here a thousand years from now, they won’t misidentify the period in which it was built.” (The quotation appears in the exhibition catalog for a Reznik retrospective curated by Sophia Dekel-Caspi).

In a conscious homage to Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, Reznik designed a low building of modest dimensions that opens up against the backdrop of the excavations. It does not overwhelm the adjacent kibbutz structures, but is radically different from them.

While the museum's exhibits were dug up from the bowels of the earth, Reznik’s building creates the impression of a mass floating above four concrete pillars.

The ground-floor space is a hexagon with glass walls that reveal the Galilee landscape beyond. A spiral staircase leads to the second-story gallery and allows reflected light from the ground floor to illuminate the space, together with indirect overhead lighting from a raised ceiling.

The angled walls, of a reddish calcium-silicate brick, create an illusion of greater space while helping to support the flat roof.

These silicate walls, which produce an almost elastic look, differ from the concrete construction holding up the structure through which the architect sculpted the forces at play in engineering. It’s apparent that Resnick gave much thought to integrating the structural elements designed by engineer Oscar Sirkovic into the overall architectural work, which reinforced it as an expression of material purposefulness – a feature of the Brutalist style of architecture that Reznik, who died in November at the age of 88, practiced.

Museums needs visitors, but in their near absence the Hazor museum serves as a temple that carefully preserves the exhibits and the land on which it stands.

“Since these objects came from the earth,” wrote Reznik in the mission statement of his project, “we decided to elevate the structure above the ground and leave the earth in peace.”

Yael Engelhart
Eyal Warshavsky