Another victim of the coronavirus in Israel: archaeological excavations

“Usually around this time we would have about 50 excavations organized by universities from abroad...[but] this year everything got cancelled," said Gideon Avni.

Excavations at Tel Azekah
Starting on Sunday, the pastoral hill of Tel Azekah, located in the Judean lowlands some 10 kilometers south of Beit Shemesh, will be buzzing with life. For a period of four weeks, the area will welcome several dozen people to excavate its unique archaeological remains dating back to millennia, under the direction of Prof. Oded Lipshits, the director of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.
Any other year the event would be anything but unusual: Israel boasts about 30,000 archaeological sites and every summer – and to a lesser degree in other periods of the year – dozens of excavations are carried out by local and international universities in the country.
However, the coronavirus crisis has led to the collapse of the system, as explained to The Jerusalem Post by Gideon Avni, the head of the Archaeological Division at the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is in charge of authorizing and supervising any archaeological digging in the country.
“Usually around this time we would have about 50 excavations organized by universities from abroad, mostly from the United States and Europe, with some 2,000 students and volunteers flying in and spending a significant amount of time in Israel,” he said. “This year everything got canceled, it is the complete collapse of everything. We were hoping that some excavations would be able to open at the end of the summer or in the fall, but after the coronavirus cases started to spike again we understood that it was not going to happen.”
Avni explained that the situation has far-reaching implications for the academic institutions. Participating in excavations represents not only a hands-on experience for archaeology students, but also the equivalent of a course for which they are charged tuition and receive credits. Canceling the excavations therefore has a financial impact and might also discourage people to sign up for programs in the future.
“There is a great uncertainty also for next year. Nobody knows if universities will be able to bring students here even then. This has never happened before. Even during wars or the Intifada, archaeological expeditions were constantly coming and digging in the summer,” he added. “In the past few years, with so much unrest in our neighboring countries, more and more schools had started coming to us.”
While many excavations conducted by the IAA, including salvage excavations, are still happening in spite of the health emergency, Israeli universities are facing challenges as well. According to Avni, they usually organize about 25 field projects in the summer, the vast majority of which have been canceled.
Tel Azekah is one of the few exceptions.
In past seasons, the project saw the involvement of several foreign institutions, including the University of Tübingen in Germany, Charles University in the Czech Republic, Notre Dame University in the US and Université Laval in Canada, with about 100 people taking part in the excavation.
For 2020, the group will be smaller, but TAU still managed to get organized to open, Lipshits told the Post.
“About 45 students will participate, including some who managed to come from abroad because they have Israeli citizenship,” he said. “We are going to follow all the coronavirus regulations, such as working in capsules and avoiding big gatherings for lectures or meals.”
The students will receive full credit for their work.
Azekah, a site mentioned in the Bible as the setting of the epic battle between the future King David and the Philistine giant Goliath, has been excavated by TAU since 2012.
“We have three main goals for this year: finish excavating a temple and a complete pottery workshop dating back to the Late Bronze Age that we found in previous seasons, and try locating the city gate from the Iron Age,” Lipshits said. “Of course, if the authorities decide to impose a full lockdown, we might face more challenges.”