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Bangs and bones: when archaeology is held in high esteem


by Anna Subich


Opening of the renovated Ottoman Kishle in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo by Tower of David Museum


In early November I caught a few last sunbeams of the year visiting my old friends in Jerusalem, Israel. One fragrant evening, on our way back from the Old City we accidently found ourselves on the opening ceremony of a newly renovated archeological site. 19th century Kishle – Ottoman barracks, situated within David’s Citadel – was hidden from the eyes of general public for almost half a century. Excavations, conducted on the site over the past 10 years, revealed multiple archeological layers, the oldest among them dating back to King Hezekiah’s times (8th century BCE).

 On the foresaid evening Kishle opened its doors for all curious comers: in the inner garden musicians were playing oud and double bass, Middle Eastern pastries were sparkling on the tables laid with snow-white cloths. Coffee, tea and red wine. All for nothing. Museum guides were showing enchanted visitors around the Kishle. A thought of someone’s astonishing generosity flashed in my mind.

At the entrance to the actual excavation site a young guide was explaining enthusiastically: “Chemicals, found in the Crusade layers, suggest that there were dying workshops here. But it is not very interesting. What is very interesting is that at the same time Benjamin of Tudela was travelling to Jerusalem and wrote in his diaries that only few Jewish families were living in the city at the time – and that they were dyers! It seems like our findings confirm Jewish presence in Jerusalem during the Crusaders’ epoch!” With these words snippets of the evening fell into place – and Ottomans, and Crusaders, and music, and wine.

There is nothing new about Israeli archeological science being accused of selling herself to the men in power.


A selection of archaeological evidences and past happenings connected to Jewish history and biblical times is used to support territorial and politic claims based upon precedence of Jews over Arabs 

(Maja Gori, Journal of the World Archaeological Congress)


Archaeology is used politically to push out Jerusalem Palestinians.

(Jonathan Cook,

Leave alone Electronic Intifada website, reputable Israeli archeologists also sound out the issue. Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University points to the fact that

virtually all the excavations carried out in Jerusalem since 1967 have been conducted by Israeli institutions, and virtually none by Palestinians.

Passions are running high around ongoing excavations in the City of David, largely funded by El’ad (Ir David Foundation) – eccentric and fabulously rich NGO, having as its goal fostering the image of Jerusalem as a predominantly Jewish heritage. City of David, containing the most ancient remains of Jerusalem, is also the most intensively excavated site in the region. Diggings in the City of David go hand in hand with building a new Jewish settlement in Silwan village, aimed at pushing out its Arabic inhabitants. It is about this enterprise that Guardian wrote:

That science is being sacrificed to serve a narrow political agenda can be seen from the fact that not one of the historical Muslim buildings in the national park has been preserved, and some were not even documented.

City of David archeological site with Silwan village at the background.   Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

City of David archeological site with Silwan village at the background.
Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

I do not think that the way in which Israel digs its past should be described as “bad archeology” (for exploration of the term google “Vladimir Putin found ancient Greek urns”). But such feature as enhancing the Jewish component in archeological findings is indisputable. The National Heritage Sites Project, adopted in 2010, encourages development of historical sites, confirming Jewish presence in the land throughout the ages.

What also looks to me as a trend is that Israeli authorities suddenly start thinking of the crocks under their feet in the times of escalation with the Arabic neighbors and very easily forget about excavations together with archeologists’ salaries during more stable periods.

When I was in Jerusalem in November, Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, now taking an alarming, still unclear turn, was at the first setout. A terrorist rammed car into crowd on a tram stop in Jerusalem, killing a child. A soldier was stabbed to death in Tel Aviv, and a week later four rabbis were killed with meat cleavers in a synagogue in West Jerusalem. In a situation like this, when the third intifada seems to be near at hand, it is important for Israeli leaders to conduct a somewhat speedy nation-building.

In The politics of Israeli archeology Rachel Hallote and Alexander Joffe explain how since the beginning of statehood archeology has served “a central pillar of the Israeli secular identity”. Today archeology is one of the elegant ways to remind educated and disillusioned audience of her primordial right on the land. Jewish medieval craftsmen versus ever growing tiredness and annoyance of Israeli society.


Protests against El’ad’a settlement project in Silwan. Photo from

Protests against El’ad’a settlement project in Silwan.
Photo from

Yet, a trend, highlighted by Hallote and Joffe is a growing “apathy” of public and politics towards archeology. Only in 2001, direct governmental financing of Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) was reduced by 38%. In this situation scientist are urged to search bread and butter from non-governmental sponsors, who often find themselves rightful to set nationalistic agenda of the excavations. That is how, for example, IAA, previously zealously objecting to El’ad’s settlement ambitions, at once became its sub-contractor and closest ally in City of David diggings.


In this context assertions that there is no politics involved in Israeli archaeology look just ridiculous. According to Jerusalem Post columnist Seth Franzman, accusations in nationalistic biases only serve “legitimisation of anti-Israeli polemics” and

all this pseudo-research about nation-building and…creation of a “mythical” Jewish past is…caught up in the “post-structuralist, anthropological, Marxist interpretation” of nonsense.

Unfortunately, Israeli archeology is about politics. And it would be naïve to hope for its political colouring to be dimmed: there are few other places on earth where two-thousand-year-old stones mean as much for the present day as they do here. What could be given a try is some dilution of political colours. In 2009 an Israeli-Palestinian group of independent archeologists, opposing to El’ad’s activities, launched alternative tours in the City of David, highlighting ethnic diversity of the area and equal role of different cultures in Jerusalem history. And this approach also contains its own political agenda. But this is already a different story. •

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