Having a fun dig at the past

As fans of the TV show ‘The Naked Archaeologist’ will attest, unearthing history is exciting stuff.

The Naked Archaeologist (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Naked Archaeologist
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even if your knowledge of archeology is limited to watching Harrison Ford’s derring-do exploits in the Raiders of the Lost Ark trilogy, you will have gotten the notion that we are talking about a fascinating world of discovery. The reality of getting your hands – and everything else – dirty while excavating in all weathers and conditions may be very different from Ford’s adventuresome cinematic forays into the unknown, but as Simcha Jacobovici portrays in no uncertain terms, unearthing the past is an exciting business.
Jacobovici is co-host, along with Avri Gilad, of The Naked Archaeologist series currently in its second season on Channel 8. In the States and Canada, the series is now its third season – sans Gilad – and has brought Israeli-born Canadian-bred Jacobovici all sorts of plaudits to go with three previous Emmy Awards for his no-nonsense approach to investigative journalism, including a report on an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus and a daring examination of trafficking in women.
The latter experience stands him in good stead as he works his way across the excavated history of the ancient world, which naturally includes sites in Israel. “I didn’t study archeology, I studied naked archeology – I go for the naked truth,” says the 57-year-old host in typically forthright style. “My goal is to demystify the Bible in general, and archeology in particular; to brush away the cobwebs and burst academic bubbles.”
Jacobovici calls his approach “irreverent” and puts the emphasis very much on entertainment. “In one episode, I do a stand-up routine while eating felafel,” he laughs, quickly adding – lest anyone doubt his integrity – that he treats archeology and the history it brings to life very seriously.
“I am not an archeologist, but I bring the tools of investigative journalism into the world of archeology. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only ones who do that.”
Given his lack of relevant academic training, Jacobovici calls on various scholars to provide a learned overview of the sites in question and their historical context and significance. “The expert is the star of the episode. What he or she says goes, and that sets what I do in The Naked Archaeologist apart from social documentaries or political documentaries.
You could be the president of the United States, but if you say something I disagree with, I the journalist will challenge you. In investigative journalism. the journalist plays an active part in uncovering the story.”
The Naked Archaeologist presents history in a highly palatable, even sexy, way. One of Jacobovici’s declared intents is to rekindle an interest in our past and our origins. “We are dealing here with the stories of the Bible and of the Christian Bible. These are really the stories that are the foundation of Western civilization. In recent decades these stories, which were part and parcel of people’s fundamental culture – in painting and in music – even if they did not relate to them religiously, have become a matter of expertise, so people have become disengaged from them. It’s like they say, unless you are an expert on the Philistines, you can’t look into the David and Goliath story.”
Then there is the political minefield that is, willy-nilly, the lot of practically every area of study and life in this part of the world. Indeed, archeology is often construed – or misconstrued – as packing some political punch and as a means of proving or disproving historic sovereignty over some piece of land.
“Archeology has been politicized and theologized,” notes Jacobovici. So is the presenter wary of venturing into choppy waters? “The general answer is yes, it does affect my work, and there’s a specific answer that has to do with The Naked Archaeologist. All the episodes of the series have serious content, but the style is very light. We use blackand- white archival footage from silent Hollywood films. I challenge professors. but instead of crossexamining them, I question them in a very light-hearted way. I am non-confrontational.”
The Naked Archaeologist has given Jacobovici something of a minicelebrity status here, and he says he is often recognized on the street, generally with welcome results. “I was walking along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv a while ago with my family when two archeology students from Tel Aviv University jumped up and asked for my autograph.
They said they study with Prof. [Israel] Finkelstein. I said, ‘Finkelstein doesn’t agree with anything I say,’ and they said. ‘We don’t either.’ So I asked them why they were so excited about getting my autograph and they said, ‘Before you, we were nerds; now we’re cool.’ “That was nice. That meant that they and their friends are watching the series. I think it also means that people who would theologically have their guard up, if you present something in a light-hearted way, they are willing to entertain ideas they normally wouldn’t. I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.”
The Naked Archaeologist airs on HOT Channel 8 (H8) on Saturdays at 11 a.m and 7:05 p.m.