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August 23, 2005

Digging Up Proof: Why Archeology is Never Simple
in the Holy Land
by Jon M. Sweeney

There are some places on earth that contain so much history beneath the top soil that you look suspicious just for holding a shovel. Jerusalem is one such place. Usually, any construction project in Jerusalem or in the surrounding area of the Holy Land requires an attendant archeologist. Rubble and dirt isn’t just rubble and dirt when you’re digging where Kings David and Solomon once built and destroyed kingdoms.

A quick glance at archeology in the Holy Land also reveals that, as in all academic work, there is no such thing as pure science or unadulterated fact. The simple decisions of where to look and what items to test indicate the mindset and agenda of the archeologist. Similarly—as in the classic words of “Deep Throat” to Bob Woodward—you always need to follow the money.

Two recent archeological digs in and around Jerusalem have brought these issues to the fore. In each case, research institutes with a particular bent are focused on presenting hypotheses as demonstrable fact in order to further their causes. Also, financiers back each project, as they have become convinced that the results will help causes that they want to support.

In the first case, an Israeli woman by the name of Eilat Mazar has been conducting a major dig in East Jerusalem in search of King David’s tenth century B.C.E. palace. If she can show proof that she has, in fact, found it, then she will accomplish a greater goal, which is to demonstrate that Jerusalem was the capital of the ancient kingdom of the Hebrews. Eilat Mazar’s financiers want to show that the Hebrews have an ancient claim on Jerusalem as the capital city of the Jewish people, and refute Arab claims to the contrary.

Mazar’s work is coming along nicely. The New York Times reported earlier this month that she has unearthed “a major public building from around the 10th century B.C., with pottery shards that date to the time of David and Solomon and a government seal of an official mentioned in the book of Jeremiah” (Aug. 5). That all sounds fairly definitive, but Palestinian archeologists disagree, counter-claiming that there is no way to know for sure what Mazar has found.

Mazar’s dig site is just outside the area known as The Old City of Jerusalem, below the Mount of Olives and near the Kedron Valley, south of the Dome of the Rock. This entire region is shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians as holy ground. Competition for land can be brutal, and competition over historical interpretations just as fierce.

Not far from the Mazar site sits a group of Jewish and Christian archeologists sifting through the rubble that was recently unearthed as part of a Muslim construction project below the Temple Mount, a sacred place in both Islam and Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, the rock of the Temple Mount was laid at the foundation of creation. The world began on that holy place. The Temple Mount is also the site where, both Jews and Christians believe, Abraham bound his son, Isaac.

In 1999, crews moved the dirt by the truckload from under the Temple Mount in order to construct a new mosque. Surprisingly, this massive project was undertaken without archeological supervision, and much of the dirt and debris from the digging was dumped in Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Approximately seventy truckloads of it, however, were salvaged and are now being meticulously sifted through by a group of Jews and Christians.

The group is led by Professor Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University, and, according to an article in Christianity Today (July 21), he called the Muslim crew’s dumping of the dirt “an archeological tragedy.” Barkay’s university is funding this project, apparently for purely academic reasons, but those involved acknowledge that there are probably reasons why the Israeli government, usually so concerned about archeological finds, has shown little interest in this project. According to Barkey, “The [Israeli] Antiquities Authority would prefer the Temple Mount [to] evaporate entirely, because they cannot fulfill their legal obligations to safeguard the archeological remains there.”

In contrast, the sifting of this dirt seems to match the goals of this group of Jewish and Christian archeologists—whatever those goals may, in fact, turn out to be.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is


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