Guardians of the underground

Guardians of the undergr

October 22, 2009 14:59

We were on our way to see how Jerusalem's buried past is being protected from the engines of progress - in this case, from a construction crew laying a sewage pipe - when the car phone rang. "I think I've found something. Do you have a camera with you?" asked Shimrit Elia on the other end of the line. Elia is an Antiquities Authority archeologist whose job for the last two weeks had been to monitor the construction crew's work in Nahal Tzofim near Mount Scopus. "No, all I've got is my video camera. What did you find?" asked Semyon Gendler, the authority's roving field archeologist in the capital, driving the work van. "I'll tell you when you get here," said Elia. "Good for you," said Gendler, perking up, impatient now to get around midday traffic to the construction site. Entering a pine forest, we drove along a dry river bed where the tractors were digging up the earth for the sewage pipe. We passed a configuration of stone blocks sticking out of the dirt. Elia, 27, dressed like your classic archeologist in hiking boots, T-shirt, khakis and floppy hat, led us up the hill to what looked like a cave covered by a slab of rock. "It's a cistern," she said - basically a huge bowl to catch rainwater. Gendler thought it might be from the Byzantine era, and by the plaster he scraped off the sides, he figured it might have been in use until sometime in the 19th century. "Very nice," he told Elia. She'd found the cistern while hiking around. Otherwise, she'd been sitting on a chair under the trees watching the crew at work, making sure nothing emerged from the ground that might have archeological value. The configuration of blocks further back was a stone-cutting instrument probably from the Second Temple era, said Gendler. Since it lay beyond the route of the sewage pipe, as did the cistern, it would not be harmed by the construction crew. Additional antiquities - such as wine presses, olive presses, wells and ceramic pieces - were expected to turn up before the construction crew was finished, which is why Elia was there. Whatever was found would be documented and thus added to the store of knowledge about Jerusalem's ancient past. Elia recently completed a diving course and plans to become an undersea archeologist off the coasts of Jaffa, Ashkelon, Acre and other ancient port cities. Of her current job, she said: "It's boring sitting out here day after day. But when you finally find something interesting, it makes all the boredom worthwhile." Elia and Gendler work in salvage excavation, the branch of archeology that just about every construction worker, contractor and developer - especially in Jerusalem - is familiar with. The Antiquities Authority inspects most construction sites, public and private, in the country to try to make sure that the treasures of the past are preserved. "We try to be involved in every project that cracks the ground," said Jon Seligman, the authority's Jerusalem regional archeologist. Archeologists accompany construction projects throughout the country, but they are ubiquitous at projects in the capital, whose underground, in Seligman's words, is "essentially one big antiquities site." (However, salvage excavation, Seligman said, has nothing to do with the two major controversies involving archeology in Jerusalem: the dig underneath City of David/Silwan, which local Palestinians say endangers their homes, and the claim by Israeli Islamic leader Ra'ed Salah that "al-Aksa is in danger" due in part to supposed excavation underneath the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The dig underneath City of David/Silwan isn't meant to salvage antiquities uncovered by construction workers, but rather is meant directly for archeological purposes. As for digs underneath the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, there are none, said Seligman.) In the last year or so, salvage excavations in Jerusalem have turned up such extraordinary finds as a Second Temple pool in Silwan, which was uncovered during the laying of a sewage pipe in an open field, and a Middle Bronze Age cemetery, uncovered during work on the Holy Land housing project. The Jerusalem Light Rail project has recently yielded some important discoveries, including a Byzantine monastery near the Mandelbaum Gate, and near the central bus station, a Second Temple village, a Roman legion camp and pottery kilns. The Silwan pool will become a tourist site, necessitating the rerouting of the sewage pipe. In the case of the Light Rail discoveries, Seligman said: "We can't force the Light Rail to detour around every antiquities discovery we make, so we documented these findings and had them covered up with gravel. The idea is to preserve them, and then, say, in 200 years if someone decides they want to extract these pieces from the ground, they can." ANOTHER FERTILE site for antiquities discoveries is Har Homa, the hilly region at the southern edge of the city where a gigantic new neighborhood has been under construction for many years. Amid the new buildings, scaffolding, bulldozers and concrete dust, two Byzantine monasteries excavated several decades ago stand untouched, off-limits to construction crews. In fact, one tractor got too close to the wall of one of the monasteries, damaged it, and as a result will have to pay for a salvage excavation at the monastery, said Gendler. These archeologists have become a huge expense for developers since 1990, when the Antiquities Authority began charging for its services instead of picking up the tab itself. An on-site archeologist such as Elia at Nahal Tzofim costs the government NIS 900 a day if it's a public works project, or, if it's a private project, costs the developer NIS 400 a day. If the archeologist sees evidence of important antiquities becoming endangered by the bulldozers and tractors, he can order the project stopped for further archeological inspection. If the Antiquities Authority then decides that the site must be excavated to identify and preserve antiquities, it can order a full-scale excavation - at the developer's expense. "The archeological costs to the builders of Route 6, for instance, ran into millions of shekels. The Light Rail project is certainly costing the developers hundreds of thousands of shekels," said Seligman. Major commercial developments like hotels, apartment complexes or shopping malls can easily run up archeology bills in the tens of thousands of shekels. From all the archeological surveys that have been done - throughout the country, but especially in Jerusalem - archeologists have at least a rough idea of what lies underneath a given parcel of land, but they can't know for sure until the digging begins. By law, the authority has a say in where developers can and can't build; to the extent possible, it warns the developer in the planning stage of the likely presence of antiquities at the building site. But very often there are surprises, which make developers groan. "Clearly, developers and contractors are not overjoyed to see us around," said Gendler. "We cost them money. We're liable to temporarily shut down their jobs." There are times when developers and contractors are so unhappy to see archeologists at their building sites that they get downright nasty. "I've been cursed every way you can imagine," said Seligman. "I was called names I don't want to repeat to you when I once ordered a contractor to stop work on a house a few years ago," said Anna Eirikh-Rose, the Antiquities Authority's supervisor for west Jerusalem. "We got a court order to shut down the job. I also pressed charges for interfering with the work of a public official, but nothing ever came of that." Gendler said that last year he went to a house in Jerusalem where construction was taking place without a permit, and where ancient mosaics had been destroyed in the process. "I told the owners - a couple of young brothers - to stop the tractors, and they wouldn't, so I called my office, and these two guys came and grabbed the cellphone out of my hand and threw it away. I got into the van and started to drive away and they started kicking the doors." Eventually Gendler got hold of Eirikh-Rose, who knew the owners, calmed them down and prevailed upon them to stop work until the antiquities on the land could be safeguarded. "The law is on our side," Gendler noted. Said Seligman: "I always tell my people to walk away if things get heated, to call the police if they have to. Archeology is not worth getting killed over." For all the altercations with builders, though, Gendler estimated that 85 percent of them obey stop-work orders from archeologists. At Nahal Tzofim, he said the head of the construction crew laying the sewage pipe once called him to a construction site after seeing some pottery pieces and other ancient-looking things in his tractor's path. "You don't want to ruin all that history," said the crew chief, a Jerusalem Arab named Maher Shweiki. Nearby, one of his Muslim workers was kneeling on his prayer mat for afternoon prayers. A wandering Jew in a dirty black coat bummed a cigarette from Gendler and headed over to a cave said to be the burial place of an old tzadik. Archeology in Jerusalem isn't always a divisive issue. The diggers from the Antiquities Authority used to get into terrible disputes with haredim, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, over the excavation of old Jewish graves, but these have stopped in the last decade since a "truce" was reached. Now haredi sensitivities have much greater weight in the authority's decisions, said officials. As for its disputes with the city's Palestinians over salvage excavation, these are "political" only in an indirect way - mainly they involve the shutting down of construction jobs in east Jerusalem when antiquities are endangered. "This is no different from what we do in west Jerusalem," said Seligman. An archeologist notices things other people miss. On a hill covered with rocks and olive trees overlooking the construction going on in Har Homa, Eirikh-Rose, 36, and Gendler, 30, picked up little chips of what looked like rock but which were in fact ceramic, possibly from the Roman era, possibly earlier, they said. On the hillside stood jagged sections of old rock walls, and while most had been built by Arab farmers sometime before 1967, some were the bases of watchtowers built many centuries ago, said Gendler. We drove to a neighborhood where, next to the stairway that ran between two tall apartment buildings, a Byzantine wine press had been unearthed. A tractor was rumbling nearby. "We're going to put up a fence around the wine press with a plaque explaining its origins, so when people pass by on the stairs, they'll see it," said Gendler. We drove past an apartment high-rise under construction. "You see that hill right behind it? They can't build over there. It's filled with antiquities from the Second Temple era, the Roman era, all the way through the Ottoman era." I asked him why he became an archeologist. "I've always been intrigued by the past, I've always wanted to understand what really happened. Archeology is like practicing forensic science on history," said Gendler, who commutes daily to his job from Beersheba. Driving along the ridges of Har Homa, he said, "Those hills are filled with evidence. It's in there, you just can't see it." Not yet, anyway.

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