Ninety-five-year-old Yosef Aviram, at the center of archeological research here for 70 years, has a surprising answer when asked why archeology has disappeared as the country’s national pastime.
“The death of Yigael Yadin. There has been no one else with his charisma.”
Charisma, scholarship, luck and, especially, Yadin’s exceptional ability to turn dry fact into high drama succeeded for decades in mobilizing the broad Israeli public in the hunt for the nation’s roots. Enthusiasm was measured in large headlines, passionate public debates and overflowing lecture halls. Through it all, Aviram, a non-archeologist, was at Yadin’s right hand as his administrative support and close confidant. The excitement of the era would endure long after Yadin’s death, 27 years ago.
Still vigorous, Aviram occupies the desk at the Israel Exploration
Society (IES), where he reigned as secretary until last year when he was
appointed president, a change in title that has not reduced his
five-day-aweek, nine-to-five work schedule.
“My main interest now is preparing for the society’s centenary in two years, if I should live so long,” he says.
The society was founded in Jerusalem in 1913 – only three years before
Aviram was born in Poland – by a group of Jewish intellectuals including
David Yellin, founder of what is today the Yellin Teachers’ Seminary in
Jerusalem, and geographer Avraham Brawer. Foreign researchers had
established a number of archeological centers in the Holy Land – most
notably the Britishbased Palestine Exploration Fund – and the Jerusalem
group decided to launch a counterpart that would focus on the land’s
Jewish past. They chose the name Jewish Palestine Exploration Fund, but
given the absence of archeologists among them, the members confined
themselves to research in history and geography.
A year later, World War I broke out, suspending the society’s activities
until 1920, when the Mandatory authorities granted it an excavation
permit when antiquities were uncovered during road building south of
Lake Kinneret. The group dispatched one of its members, a linguist, to
conduct the dig, in which a stone candelabra was found.
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In 1922, the society sent a Jerusalem schoolteacher with an interest in
antiquities, Eleazar Sukenik, to the University of Berlin to study
archeology. He was the first member of the Jewish community in Palestine
to receive academic training in the subject. Twenty-six years later, in
an embattled Jerusalem, Sukenik would examine, and authenticate, the
first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Apart from recognizing the importance of
the scrolls, his most important contribution to Israeli archeology was
The profession took on growing weight with the immigration of Jewish
university graduates from Europe who turned to archeology after their
arrival. Among them were historian Benjamin Mazar and architect Nahman
Avigad, the men who would conduct the massive excavations in Jerusalem’s
Old City after the Six Day War.
Aviram arrived in Palestine in 1936 and enrolled at the Hebrew
University. Having completed a Hebrew-language teacher’s seminary in
Vilna, he found a teaching position in Jerusalem. He subsequently worked
as a part-time policeman.
In 1940 he began working at the Exploration Society. During Succot in
1944, he helped organize its first congress, with lectures open to the
public. Such forums would become an annual event, drawing ever larger
crowds. In 1947, the congress was held in Tiberias. With Arab-Jewish
tensions peaking, Aviram recalls, Sukenik asked his son, Yigael, a key
figure in the Hagana, on the third day of the week-long congress whether
the security situation permitted it to continue. Yigael gave it the
The younger Sukenik, who would change his family name to Yadin – his nom
de guerre in the Hagana – had followed in his father’s steps and
graduated as an archeologist from the Hebrew University. However, his
career was put on hold even before it began as he rose within the ranks
of the Hagana to become chief of operations. With the illness of chief
of staff Ya’acov Dori during the War of Independence, Yadin in effect
took over his role. At war’s end, prime minister David Ben-Gurion
appointed him the IDF’s second chief of staff.
As secretary of the IES, Aviam eagerly awaited Yadin’s return to
civilian life. For the newborn state, archeology was a major instrument
of nation-building, and the IES was its major promoter. The elder
Sukenik put it succinctly at a meeting of the society: “Every new
discovery of antiquities in the country gives strength to our claims and
our rights to the Land of Israel.” Besides sponsoring digs, the IES
raised public consciousness through symposia, lectures and publications.
There was no one better suited than Yadin, with his military laurels and
star quality, to capture the public imagination and to raise the funds
necessary to conduct the massive excavations now possible. Yadin had yet
to put a spade in the ground as a professional archeologist, but as a
general he had amply demonstrated his organizational and analytical
He also had a remarkable talent for telling a story, something that
became even more apparent when he began weaving spellbinding human tales
out of dirt-covered artifacts. Prime minister Levi Eshkol once compared
Yadin as a speaker with his brother, Yossi Yadin, a well-known stage
actor: “Yossi is an actor, but Yigael, he is an artist.”
Masada, the last redoubt of the Great Revolt against the Romans, had
been at the top of the IES’s excavation wish list for years. With a few
colleagues, Aviram had spent two weeks atop the mount studying the site
and was astonished at how much of the ancient palace-fortress remained.
It was at Masada that he and the IES chairman, Mazar, wanted Yadin to
carry out his first dig. “He refused,” says Aviram. “He wanted to start
with the largest biblical tel in the country – Hatzor.”
The Hatzor expedition was launched in 1955 with military thoroughness.
The government provided 250 laborers, new immigrants who might otherwise
have been employed planting trees. Yadin obtained the financial backing
of the Rothschild family in London. Secured on his logistical flanks,
he assembled a large staff, including young archeologists and archeology
students who would become the backbone of the profession in the coming
decades. “Hatzor was a university for a generation of archeologists,”
Yadin’s dig lasted four seasons. It made only a tiny dent in the
enormous tel, and Yadin would have another crack at it years later, as
would others. He believed that the excavations confirmed the accuracy of
the biblical account of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under
Joshua and their destruction of Hatzor. However, another archeologist on
the dig, Yohanan Aharoni, who would become Yadin’s leading rival,
argued that the excavations proved the contrary – that the Israelite
tribes had not crossed the Jordan as a conquering army but had
infiltrated the land peacefully over time. (The consensus that would
emerge among younger Israeli scholars in later years sided with
In the early 1960s, Israeli archeologists learned from an American
scholar working in Jordanian Jerusalem that Beduin were selling to
antiquities dealers fragments of ancient scrolls found in caves in the
Judean Desert – the part between Arad and Ein Gedi that was inside
Israel. “We decided to stage a major expedition in an attempt to
retrieve what was left before the Beduin got to them,” recalls Aviram.
Four archeological teams were formed early in 1960 to carry out
simultaneous searches of caves in adjacent wadis. With Ben-Gurion’s
blessing, the army provided logistical support, including transport to
the remote ravines, setting up base camps with generators and
communications and installing ropes that would permit descent to caves
on vertical cliff faces. Access to these caves in antiquity had been on
paths which had since eroded away.
The teams were headed by Yadin, Avigad, Aharoni and Pesach Bar-Adon.
Aviram was appointed coordinator of the operation and was provided with a
Piper Cub that flew him from base camp to base camp. He also served as
liaison with the media.
Yadin had drawn the short straw in the choice of wadis, the three other
team leaders having had their pick. But it was he who came up with the
jackpot. From a deep crevice in one of his caves, a team member handed
up to him a packet of papyrus scrolls, which turned out to be messages
written by none other than the commander of the last Jewish revolt
against the Romans, Shimon Ben-Kosiba. Popularly known as Bar- Kochba,
he titled himself in the letters “Prince of Israel [Nassi Yisrael].”
Yadin did not make the find public until a ceremony at the residence of
president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi a month later, to which Aviram had invited the
political and cultural leaders of the country, as well as the local and
international media. After the leaders of the other three teams had
described their finds, Yadin rose to present a riveting account of the
last days of the second century CE revolt attested to by human remains
and numerous artifacts found in the cave. Then, turning to Ben-Zvi,
whose presidential title was likewise nassi, he said “Your Excellency, I
have the honor to inform you that we have discovered 15 dispatches
written or dictated by the last nassi of Israel 1,800 years ago.”
It was an electrifying moment that linked the modern State of Israel to its ancient roots with an almost audible click.
When Yadin lectured on his finds at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, some 3,000 persons packed the hall.
In 1963 Aviram flew to London to visit with Yadin, who was there on
sabbatical. Aviram repeated his request that the archeologist come to
grips with Masada. Yadin, who relied on Aviram as an organizer and
administrator, said, “I’m ready to do it now if you join me.”
Says Aviram: “He decided to base the expedition this time not on
laborers but on hundreds of volunteers from all over the world – not to
save money but to harness the volunteers’ zeal.”
When, at a dinner party in London, Yadin mentioned his plans to the
editor of The Observer, David Astor, the newsman responded with
enthusiasm. His newspaper would underwrite much of the cost of the
expedition in return for exclusive stories and photographs.
The compelling but contentious symbolism of Masada – a blend of heroism
and fanaticism – and the dazzling setting of the site made for a
spectacular narrative. The excavation between 1963 and 1965 was carried
out in two seasons, each of half a year, opening the way for the desert
mount’s becoming a major tourist site.
On the eve of the Six Day War, Yadin was recalled to national service as
military adviser to Eshkol. On the war’s second day, Aviram received a
call from Yadin’s wife, Carmella, with a message from her husband. A
paratroop brigade had crossed into Jordanian Jerusalem and was fighting
its way toward the Rockefeller Museum, where the Jordanian archeological
authorities had stored those Dead Sea Scrolls in their possession.
Yadin asked Aviram, Avigad and Prof. Avraham Biran to get to the museum
and ensure the safety of the scrolls.
Getting a lift in an army half-track, the three reached the back
entrance to the museum as heavy fire was being exchanged from the
Rockefeller’s tower with Jordanian soldiers on the Old City wall
opposite. Bullets were coming through the windows as they searched the
galleries, but they could find no sign of the scrolls. When they
returned the next day, they found them in the basement, where they had
been placed for protection when the war broke out.
The 1967 war opened a new chapter for Israeli archeology. Says Aviram:
“[Jerusalem mayor Teddy] Kollek came to us and said, ‘Start digging.’”
The capture of east Jerusalem had made it possible for the Jews to probe
the heart of their ancient capital. Mazar, the dean of local
archeologists, agreed to undertake excavations on the southwestern
fringe of the Temple Mount, and Avigad began digging in the Jewish
Quarter – the Upper City of biblical Jerusalem.
Neither man thought the digs would continue very long. But they would
continue for close to a decade, not in seasons of two or three months as
with conventional excavations but year round. A similar dig under Yigal
Shiloh would follow at the City of David. The wealth of finds,
particularly from the Second Temple period, would represent for Israel
its incontestable title deed to the land, at least in historic terms.
The war also opened up the rest of the West Bank – the landscape of
biblical Israel – to important archeological exploration. This, however,
would largely cease when the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987
made it too dangerous.
Yadin, meanwhile, had abandoned archeology, at least temporarily, for
politics, founding the Democratic Movement for Change party in 1977 and
joining Menachem Begin’s government. There were withdrawal symptoms.
“He would call me from time to time,” says Aviram, “and we’d go to a
restaurant at night, where I’d bring him up to date about what’s
happening in archeology.”
After leaving politics, Yadin planned to return to Hatzor for one more
season. “He was certain he knew where the royal archives were located.
We sat together in June  to plan the dig. The next day he died.”
Yadin, 67, had collapsed outside his brother’s seaside cottage in Michmoret.
Aviram’s work with the society was for decades voluntary, since he was
already drawing a salary from Hebrew University, where he was academic
secretary of the Humanities Faculty and then director of the Institute
of Archeology. It was only with his retirement from the university in
1983 that he formally became an employee of the IES. That full-time
track, which he began at 67, has thus far lasted 28 years.
The society has long since stopped initiating new excavations, leaving
that task to the archeological institutes established at most of the
country’s universities. The IES’s responsibilities remain the
publication of excavation reports and other archeological books,
administrative assistance to both Israeli and foreign archeological
teams and organization of conferences and other public activity.
Says archeologist Dan Bahat: “Yosef’s always been someone who gets
things done, and he does it gently. He’s a pillar of the archeological
Aviram’s office in central Jerusalem is just below street level, and the
only thing that can be seen from his window is an endless shuffle of
pedestrians’ feet. However, his view remains that of a bird’s eye, fixed
as it has been for 70 years on history being wrested from this land. firstname.lastname@example.org
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