Archaeologists speak against misuse of history on Jerusalem Day

“The history of Jerusalem is much more complicated and more complex than anyone wants to admit in the present day.”

New outdoor archaeological exhibit inaugurated in Jerusalem’s Old City (photo credit: ORIT SHAMIR/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
New outdoor archaeological exhibit inaugurated in Jerusalem’s Old City

On Jerusalem Day, three archaeologists spoke to The Jerusalem Post about what it is like to work in a city with so much history underground and so much politics above ground.

Ronnie Reich

Ronnie Reich, a retired professor of archaeology from the University of Haifa, spent almost his entire career excavating in Jerusalem. He said that “99%” of his excavations have been in Jerusalem, digging through the layers of the city from 1969-2010, starting from “day one after the reunification.”

Reich is almost iconic in Jerusalem archaeology. After working 25 years at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and 20 years at the University of Haifa, he says he has seen “everything.” He has excavated near the Temple Mount in the upper city and in Mamilla where a big open air mall now directs people to the Old City. Most of the sites that he excavated were later turned into tourist sites, which he said is as it should be, especially in Jerusalem.

“First of all I am a scientist and I am a person who is absolutely not religiously observant."

Professor Ronnie Reich

The only thing that drives me is the pursuit of knowledge, to know as much as possible and more about the life of the ancient people of any denomination and any faith who I encounter in my excavations. This is what I did [using] my best scientific expertise and knowledge,” Reich said.

 Exposed section of Hasmonean-age Jerusalem aqueduct. (credit: ALEXANDER WIEGMANN/IAA) Exposed section of Hasmonean-age Jerusalem aqueduct. (credit: ALEXANDER WIEGMANN/IAA)

“On the other hand, I know that wherever I dig, this is Jerusalem, and this a barrel of black powder, and people from all sides... sometimes misuse my findings and my scientific conclusions and sometimes distort them or bring only part of the story [but] not the entire story, the truth but not the entire truth.

“I feel bad in some cases, but what can I do? I will not specify any names or any locations,” he said.

“In this past weekend supplements for Jerusalem Day [in two Hebrew newspapers] everybody writes about hi-tech and medicine and Rami Levi and his part [in developing Jerusalem] and promoting construction projects. But in those 150 pages there was not a single word about the antiquities in Jerusalem… which is what holds tourism in Jerusalem together,” the famed archeologist said.

“Archeology is not what it used to be, especially in Jerusalem. There is less interest… they use it improperly for all kinds of improper uses. They are not interested in it for its face value. What we learn is that the educational framework failed in this, too.”

Matthew Adams

MATTHEW ADAMS, the director of the Albright Institute for Archaeology in east Jerusalem, has been excavating in Israel for 25 years and has been living and working here for eight years. He has excavated at Solomon’s Pools in Bethlehem, which were a part of the water supply system for Jerusalem in later antiquity, as well as in Megiddo and in Egypt. As director of the institute, he said he is in contact with many researchers who are studying Jerusalem’s archaeological past.

“I feel as though for the most part for outsiders such as myself, as Americans or Europeans, there is less pressure when we are dealing with Jerusalem than when a Palestinians or Israeli is doing excavations,” Adam said.

“I know a lot of great scholars who may not be apolitical but who aren’t doing archaeology from a political point of view, but they can’t escape it. A lot of people at the IAA are good people but are seen as in a bad position by the outside world which views any activity in Jerusalem as problematic from a modern political view. But they do good work and someone has to oversee the cultural heritage of Jerusalem and right now whether you like it or not it is the IAA who is taking over that responsibility.

“I don’t think you can [avoid getting sucked into the politics here]. I myself am a-religious. I might have opinions about what is going on here, but it is not my issue but still I can’t escape it. I work at Solomon’s Pool where we have settlers being escorted by the Israeli army visiting the place but the narrative people are telling themselves that the pool is Israelite and Jewish and what we are finding [don’t mesh]. We are finding that the earliest of the pools is Roman and the other ones are even significantly later.

Adam continued, “Not that it actually matters if the pool is Jewish or not because it has no bearing on modern-day borders.

“But you can’t escape people not liking what you are discovering or not being interested in what you are discovering because they already have their narrative set.

“So archaeologists end up being the bad guy unless [the finds] confirm someone’s narrative and it almost never confirms anyone’s narrative. The history of Jerusalem is much more complicated and more complex than anyone wants to admit in the present day.”

Zachi Dvira

ZACHI DVIRA received his graduate degree in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University and has been working in Jerusalem since 2004, co-directing the Temple Sifting Project with Dr. Gabriel Barkay. With the help of volunteers, the project has sifted through 400 truckloads of dirt and debris that were dumped 20 years ago into the Kidron Valley after the Wakf Islamic religious trust conducted some unsupervised digging on the Temple Mount.

Any person can come and volunteer with the project for two hours and help sift through the debris, Dvira said. Half of the people who come are tourists, and half are Israelis. Local Arabs avoid it, he said, but there have been Muslim tourists from England and other countries who have participated in the sifting.

“We are dealing with the most contested site in Jerusalem. It is a big challenge. Gabriel Barkay says that everything in Jerusalem is considered political," said Dvira. “It is really a miracle we managed to establish such a project. In the beginning, it was very difficult.

“Now it has become one of the main tourist projects. We maintain the project with the help of visitors from all over the world. We wouldn’t be able to retrieve the significant information without the help of so many people,” Dvira added.

“It is an art that you develop over the years. At the beginning you don’t do it very well, you might step on some land mines but once everyone understands that your main objective is knowledge, curiosity and saving heritage, then everyone helps.

“We are dealing with the heritage of everyone. It is the heritage of Jerusalem. We are dealing with all cultures, all periods. We are even saving Islamic heritage that was thrown away [with the debris]. We saved the seal of a prominent Islamic judge from the 18th century, from 200 years ago, from the Tammimi family of the Wakf that they actually dumped their own heritage and we are saving and preserving it.”

Dvira explained, “The Temple Mount has never been excavated before because of the political sensitivity and nothing has ever been published on it. So everything we retrieve and publish tells us something more, adds more light to what we known about the Temple Mount. Even though the artifacts are out of context, we get general information about the material culture that took place on the Temple Mount throughout the ages.

“We can compare this statistical data we have from the Temple Mount to other sites in Jerusalem, then we know what the significance was. We have developed methods to overcome the lost context.

“So archaeologically that is the main value of this project. The other thing is heritage. Saving heritage and connecting people to heritage in a tangible way,” Dvira concluded.