At Yadin's side

Exploration Society President Yosef Aviram recalls 70 years of archaeological adventures.

Yosef Aviram 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Yosef Aviram 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
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 fathering Yadin.)
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 nod.
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 abilities.
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,” says Aviram.
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 Aharoni.)
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 [1984] 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 establishment.”
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.
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