This Day in Jewish History

1905: A Father of Biblical Archaeology in Israel Is Born

Nahman Avigad, one of the first biblical archaeologists in modern Israel, revealed much of the history of the Jewish Quarter of the Second Temple and Byzantine periods.

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September 25, 1905, is the birthdate of Nahman Avigad, one of the leading members of the first generation of biblical archaeologists in modern Israel. Avigad’s excavations in Jerusalem following the Six-Day War revealed much of the history of the Jewish Quarter of the Second Temple and Byzantine periods; he also interpreted one of the Dead Sea Scrolls and dug at Masada and Beit She’arim, among other places.

Avigad was born Nahman Reiss in Zawalow, Austria – today Zavaliv, Ukraine. After receiving a degree in architecture at a university in Brno, Czechoslovakia, he emigrated to Mandatory Palestine, in 1925. In a commemorative article written about him after his death in 1992, Eric Myers recounted how Avigad had told him that his interest in archaeology had been kindled by his participation as a youth group leader after his arrival in the country: “He recalled an unforgettable hike down the Wadi Qelt to the site of what is today known as ‘Old Testament’ Jericho… Avigad’s youth group camped out by the site and his guide told stories about events of biblical and Jewish history that were believed to have happened in that very location. After that evening Avigad knew he would spend the rest of his life uncovering the details of the history of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.”

Avigad studied archaeology at the Hebrew University, earning his master’s degree in 1949, and his Ph.D. three years later, writing his thesis on the epigraphy of graves found in the Kidron Valley, east of the Old City of Jerusalem.

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Early excavations in which Avigad participated were at the catacombs in Beit She’arim (near Nazareth), where he identified what he concluded was the family tomb of Judah Hanasi, the 2nd-century C.E. rabbi and chief editor of the Mishna, and at the Hammat Gader synagogue, in the southern Golan Heights.     

Working together with Yigael Yadin – son of his former mentor E.L. Sukenik – at the Hebrew University, Avigad published his interpretation of the last of the seven major Dead Sea Scrolls, called the Genesis Apocryphon, which tells of the time Abraham spent in Egypt. Eric Myers describes Avigad as “without peer in the general field of epigraphy and palaeography." Also with Yadin, he excavated at Masada, in the 1950s.

But it is for his work in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he excavated between 1969 and 1983, that Avigad is best remembered. When the task of finding the Herodian “Upper City” was offered to him, two years after East Jerusalem came under Israeli sovereignty, Avigad was already contemplating retirement. He dug up the Cardo, the Byzantine-era road that linked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the Nea Church, and that was previously known by its depiction in the Madaba Map mosaic; the “Broad Wall,” constructed after the return from the Babylonian Exile; and the Iron Age (prior to the 6th century B.C.E.) Israelite Tower. Avigad also found and dug up the so-called Burnt House.

Moshe Gilad

The latter was a Second Temple-period private residence that was destroyed shortly after the Temple itself. Its remains, which included a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and coins not only of Roman mintage but also others produced by Jewish rebels during the period of 67-69 C.E., were found under a layer of ash, confirming the written descriptions of historian Flavius Josephus of the Romans’ destruction of the city. Avigad and his colleagues also uncovered a wall featuring an engraved image of the menorah that had burned in the Temple.

Archaeological work proceeded at the same time that the commercial and residential development of the Jewish Quarter was under way, and dictated the pace of that development. As a consequence, however, today there is an archaeological museum underneath Yeshivat Hakotel, which serves as an excellent introduction to life in Second Temple-era Jewish Jerusalem, and a number of other historical sites that can be visited, and that are integrated into the Quarter, among its shops and homes.

Avigad’s publications include the scholarly “Corpus of Northwest Semitic Seals,” published only after his death, and his popular “Discovering Jerusalem,” about his excavations in the Jewish Quarter.  

Nahman Avigad, who is remembered also for his gentle disposition and his tendency to keep political considerations out of his scholarly work, died in Jerusalem on January 28, 1992.