Israeli Archaeology (Israel Scene cover story, August 1989)

The editor of Israel Scene made deep cuts in the article and edited it into the third person. Only when the mail poured in after publication, and even casual acquaintances took him aside to say they'd love to read more of this, did he decide that he'd goofed. What follows is the unedited original text.

The person I envy more than anyone else in Israel, I decided during the summer of 1988, is the man, woman or child who lives in the plain green-stucco bungalow nearest the northern exit road at Kibbutz Nahsholim. His home sits at the edge of what remains of the great port city of Dor, where ships were once crafted in rock-cut drydocks and goods were traded and the Romans did noble and impressive things in a grand edifice on the Mediterranean shore, of which only the beautiful stone pediment remains today. At any time you may find knots of local people and amateur antiquarians peering critically at the fenced-in streets and walls, and everyone who comes to the beach sooner or later finds some use for the excavations, whether as a distraction from tanning or a place for unruly children to scramble over. An army radar booth with a small telescope sits on the accumulated ruins of the ancient Phoenician citadel. On the day that I first visited Dor, the soldier on duty was taking advantage of its height to watch two young women bathe topless on an otherwise secluded stretch of beach - one more way to put the nation's archaeological heritage to use. But the man, woman or child in the green bungalow was, I thought, in a particularly favored position, because precisely where his neatly trimmed back lawn ended, the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine basilica began.

Not all that much to look at, really: two or three courses of stone wall, a few water channels, a small cistern, and the weed-infested, sun-faded fragments of what was once a very colorful mosaic floor. Marble columns lay overturned in the bushes near the three or four huge, squat palm trees that had, oddly, shot up over the site. It was not the kind of place anyone would come miles to see, but it was definitely the kind it would be wonderful to have in your backyard. On a starry night adrift in the pounding of small seawaves and the chatter of crickets, you could walk out from your kitchen table to this ancient place of worship, squint, and expand your perspective on this life far beyond the point that television reruns and lecture nights at the community center could take you. Or so I imagined. When, a year after my first visit, I finally gathered up the courage to knock on the green bungalow's door and find out who the lucky tenants were, I discovered a small, pleasant, very tight-lipped and pot-bellied man who had no sublime reflections whatsoever on living next to a Byzantine ruin. "It is not my business," he insisted. I was truly disappointed to find him such a far-from-kindred spirit, but not for long, for as I walked away I noticed that in his front garden he had upturned two marble columns and put flowerpots on top. His style of archaeological appreciation was just a little different from my own.

Like everyone else who has spent any time in Israel, we the visitors to Dor had caught the endemic local fever - the fascination with ruins and their history - in our own peculiar ways. David Ben-Gurion (the archetypal pragmatic politician) used to say the national obsession with archaeology showed that "the distant past is closer to us than the recent past of the last two thousand years," turning the stones into political arguments against resuming diaspora ways of life. The volunteers who dug Massada in the early 1960s (the archetypal romantics) saw in them instead graspable ethnic roots, inspirations to courage and totems of Jewish nationalism. For the Christian pilgrims who came here in centuries past, each new relic was an excuse to build another church; for the modern scientists at Ben-Gurion University, the two-thousand-year-old irrigation systems of the Nabateans have been useful clues in determining how to make the Negev bloom. Probably it was the army commander and archaeologist Yigael Yadin who stumbled on the most creative use of an antiquity: Faced in December 1948 with the unpleasant task of attacking a heavily fortified Egyptian base at al-Auja, near the Sinai border, he happened to notice an ancient bypass road on an old map of Greco-Roman Palestine. He quickly located its remnants and moved his troops along the trace until they were behind the Arab position and could assault it from the rear. His plan of attack was so unforseeable (by anyone but a Roman) that the Egyptian commander did not even have time to change out of his pajamas before the battle became hopeless and he was forced to surrender. We must live in a lucky age, that such idiosyncratic encounters with the past are possible and frequent - but I began to wonder at Dor, with the mosaic squares drying and crumbling beneath my feet, how much would be left for our children and their children. Who was keeping the Byzantine basilicas and Roman roads in adequate repair for creative encounters yet-to-come?


I trusted, of course, that someone was doing it. The Ministry of Education and Culture's small, underfunded Department of Antiquities had nominal responsibility for every ancient site in the country, but it hardly had the manpower to inspect, to repair, to rebuild and develop whenever such work was needed. (I later learned it had usually had scarcely any influence over these things at all.) I assumed that the responsibility must fall to the archaeologists more or less, but speaking with them taught me how wrong I was to assume it fell to anybody.

Israeli archaeology, I learned - and many guide books will attest - is a veritable hotbed of purposeful activity. By the very gradual standards of scientific excavation, it proceeds at what passes for a breakneck pace. While countries like Greece, Turkey and Egypt treat foreign archaeologists with a cautious, not to say suspicious reserve, Israel doles out excavating licenses to anyone with legitimate credentials, a clear research design and enough money to finish off his dig and publish the findings. Its five major archaeological institutes employ thickets of first-rate specialists whose collective activity exceeds the high level set by the foreigners. And besides all the sites that professionals intentionally expose, the country's building contractors, road­workers and farmers turn up others all the time - olive presses and grave sites and even ancient synagogues - enough to keep the Antiquities Department's small cadre of salvage archaeologists busier than they would probably like to be. These all add to the existing stock of melting mud-bricks, fading mosaics, crumbling walls.

But once the ruins are exposed, measured, photographed and recorded, all this sound, fury and momentum evaporate and Chance assumes their place. Who will preserve the site that has so newly been unearthed? "Not I," says the impoverished archaeologist (who has already, on a medium-sized excavation, spent upwards of $100,000 a year just for digging and cannot imagine where he would get the much greater funds that restoration requires). "Not us," say, most likely, the Israeli authorities, who are perpetually short of cash for weightier things than archaeology. If the site happens to be on the National Parks Authority's master list of parks and parks-to-be, it might find protection there. If it seems likely to draw tourists who'll spend dollars, marks or pounds, the Government Tourist Corporation might throw in its support. If a municipal authority finds it interesting - as Kiryat Ata did an olive press that a local apartment builder recently dug up - it might be moved to a public park and carefully restored. If the excavator was especially conscientious or well connected, he might plead for preservation money from his university's trustees. But just as likely the site will go unclaimed and will quickly start to rot. Just last fall, the seaward walls of the great Crusader city of Arsuf crumbled off a frail limestone cliff over the Nof Yam beach and smashed huge, 800-year-old chunks of masonry into the Roman city of Apollonia below. Nature had dramatized the slow, stodgy process of erosion in one quick, spectacular show. The two ancient towns (difficult to save anyway, as are most seaside remains) had simply not fallen under anyone's financial jurisdiction - at least, not anyone with money enough actually to preserve them.

Up to now, the firm grip of legal responsibility for bankrolling a site's preservation has been unlikely to fall on anyone. "The Law of Antiquities says that `the excavator is responsible for preservation,'" Giora Solar, the Antiquities Department's new head of preservation, has told me. "But it was so vague that they might just build a fence and say, ‘that's it.'" In the void there has arisen a quirky sort of anarchy in which tourist promoters and businessmen, pork-barrelling politicians and poor, well-intentioned government agencies have each thrown in their own jagged, piecemeal efforts to rescue archaeology. They have saved the very best sites - and now and then preserved olive presses at the expense of ancient cities. The official who sits right in the vortex, who is supposed to be the mechanic, the regulator, the standard-setter, the fellow with the big picture who sees that everything makes sense, is the head of preservation, now Giora Solar. Since he too has no money he can often only watch while everyone tries to save things in their own strange and different ways.

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