‘Archaeology in Israel is a popular movement,” Amos Elon wrote in his 1971 book The Israelis: Founders and Sons. “It is almost a national sport. Not a passive spectator sport but the thrilling, active pastime of many thousands of people, as perhaps fishing in the Canadian Lake Country or hunting in the French Massif Central.”
Those words, published a half-century ago, reverberated this week as dramatic archaeological finds hit the front pages of the newspapers, and squeezed into prime-time television and radio news shows.
While it has been a long time since one could honestly say they felt that same fervor for archaeology among the masses as Elon described, the fact that the media did devote so much attention to these findings on Tuesday – in a week dominated by political news – indicates that the embers still burn from the country’s once great passion for excavations.
On Tuesday, the Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced a trove of finds from a wide-scale archaeological operation ongoing since 2017 in hidden caves in the Judean Desert, in cooperation with the Civil Administration’s Archaeological Department.
Among the finds were an ancient woven basket, believed to be some 10,500 years old, and the 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child. Those were the “universal” finds. Of more particular Jewish interest were the discovery of fragments of ancient scrolls of the biblical books of Zechariah and Nahum, as well as coins dating to the Bar-Kochba revolt in 132 CE.
And these findings come just a week after another archaeological story was highlighted in the media: an 11-year-old boy hiking with his family in the Negev discovered a figurine, believed to be a fertility amulet, dating to the First Temple period.
The findings announced on Tuesday from the Judean Desert were not just stumbled upon this week. The findings were announced on Tuesday, but the artifacts themselves were discovered over a year ago.
Why is that important? Because the IAA seem to have made a decision to announce the findings together – both those of a universal character and those particularly Jewish.
And why is that significant? Because Israeli archaeologists have often been accused of focusing on finds that would validate Jewish claims to the Land of Israel, at the expense of highlighting discoveries – such as the 10,500-year-old basket and 6,000-year-old skeleton – that do not have an “Israeli angle.”
“For the disquieted Israeli, the moral comforts of archaeology are considerable,” Elon wrote 50 years ago. “In the political culture of Israel, the symbolic role of archaeology is immediately evident. Israeli archaeologists, professionals and amateurs are not merely digging for knowledge and objects, but for the reassurance of roots, which they find in the ancient Israelite remains scattered throughout the country.”
It is only natural that a people, accused far and wide of being interlopers in a land not its own, would find comfort in artifacts testifying to its presence in that land going back more than three millennia.
From Masada to the City of David to Tel Shiloh, whenever Israeli archeologists make a startling discovery shedding light on biblical or Jewish history, they are accused of searching for and finding only Jewish artifacts in an attempt to whitewash the history of other peoples that historically roamed and resided in this land.
But finding Jewish artifacts – or even focusing on the discovery of Jewish archaeological sites – does not deny the presence of other civilizations here. What those finds are able to do, however, is to refute the arguments of those who deny that Jews were among all those people who did roam and reside here, including in Jerusalem.
It was, for instance, Yasser Arafat who told US president Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 that there was no Temple on the Temple Mount, but that it was rather in Nablus. And in 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a resolution that referred to the Temple Mount exclusively by its Arabic name – Haram al-Sharif – thereby erasing any Jewish link to the site or to Jerusalem.
By unveiling both Jewish and general archaeological discoveries on the same day, the IAA made a statement: we are interested and focused on both Jewish and general discoveries.
But as significant as the discovery of the woven basket and that ancient mummified skeleton were, for most Israeli Jews the particular Jewish findings likely resonated more loudly.
The bones of early man can be found in the plains of Tanzania; ancient woven baskets can be located in the pyramids of Peru. But only in Israel will you find a Greek translation of Zechariah, with the word “God” written in ancient Hebrew, and only in Israel will you find coins minted to commemorate the last great stab at Jewish independence.
And what was one of the biblical fragments discovered and painstakingly reconstructed? A verse from Zechariah (8:16-17) eerily relevant as Israel gears up for Tuesday’s election:
“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.”
Giving voice to the feelings of many who were excited and even moved by the findings, Ofer Sion, head of the Antiquities Surveys Departments, said in a Channel 13 interview that “within hand’s reach” is a fragment “that a Jew, one of your forefathers, one of your great-grandparents, read from.”Calling this the “apex,” he said that after 1,900 years of “horrible exile,” artifacts such as those found in the Judean Desert are “the closest we can come to our forefathers.”