JERUSALEM (2) : A license to dig


A license to dig

The Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out excavations at the Mugrabi Gate and elsewhere in Jerusalem. A debate held by the Israel Archaeological Council reveal that many digs are carried out without its supervision.

Meron Rapoport

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Over the last few days, Israel Antiquities Authority workers have uncovered some interesting archaeological findings in the excavations next to the Mugrabi Gate. The items are not remnants from the First or Second Temple era, or even from the Byzantine, Crusader or Mameluk period. They found a jar of jam. Even without conducting precise scientific investigations, the researchers are able to speculate with a large degree of certainty that it is a jar dating from the late Palestinian era. It dates back to an era when the Mugrabi Ascent was part of the Mugrabi quarter, a poor Arab neighborhood that bordered the Western Wall and was completely razed by Israel in June 1967 in order to make room for the Western Wall plaza.

The jam jar indicates that the excavations at the Mugrabi ascent have not gotten very far. Right now, they reveal the remnants of the lives of the neighborhood's residents, who were evacuated from their homes immediately after the Six-Day War and transferred outside the Old City. Now the excavators are deliberating whether to raze the remnants of the Mugrabi quarter's homes to reach lower strata.

This is a tough decision for the researchers, who began the dig in order to make way for the support pillars of the bridge to be built there. However, in the meantime, the bridge plans have been suspended (Jerusalem municipality officials say the project may be discarded completely), and the Antiquities Authority is stuck with an excavation at the most sensitive place in the world. The authority has become a key player in the story of the Mugrabi Gate. It was a party to the plans to build the bridge and gave its blessing to them. As soon as there was an international outcry over the bridge and the excavations, the Antiquities Authority was left practically all alone on the battlefield. The Jerusalem municipality absolved itself of any association with the project; the entities that had ostensibly commissioned the bridge's construction disappeared.

Now it turns out that the Israel Archaeological Council, the government body that is supposed to advise the Antiquities Authority and to a certain extent supervise its work, also has a lot to criticize about the excavations at the Mugrabi Ascent in particular, and about the behavior of the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem in general. The Antiquities Authority should not have agreed to the construction of the Mugrabi Bridge, said some key speakers at the Archaeological Council's meeting on February 20, which was convened after its members visited the excavations at the Mugrabi Ascent and in the City of David.

Other speakers criticized the Antiquities Authority for not obtaining formal excavation permits for the digs in Jerusalem, not reporting them as required, capitulating to pressure from developers and using methods of excavation that are disputed from a scientific point of view. The chairman of the Council, Prof. Ephraim Stern, said at the conclusion of the meeting: "There is some truth to the members' claims that in Jerusalem no work is done with the Council's consent."

The Archaeological Council is an advisory body appointed by the minister of culture and among its members are some of Israel's most senior archaeologists. By law, the Antiquities Authority must consult with the council before each dig. Every dig in Israel is supposed to obtain a permit from the license committee, in which representatives of the Archaeological Council have a majority. Such a license is obtained only after the objectives of the dig are presented, along with the expected duration, precise location and other scientific information.

Only if it is a "rescue dig," required before constructing a house or paving a road, can the Antiquities Authority issue itself "permission" to dig without obtaining a license. In practice, a large share of the digs are defined as "rescue digs" and the Archaeological Council does not supervise them.

That is how most of the digs in the Old City are defined: The dig at the Silwan pool in the City of David and the planned excavations in the Givati parking lot opposite the Dung Gate, the excavations at the Flower Gate and at the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue adjacent to the Temple Mount, the excavations in the Western Wall plaza ahead of the construction of a new police post and the dig at the Mugrabi Ascent.

Is there an excavating license?

Archaeologists are a cautious lot by nature. When one of the participants at the meeting, Prof. Eliezer Oren of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, was asked about the tensions that arose in the meeting between the Antiquities Authority and the Archaeological Council, he first said that there were no tensions. After the comments he made at the meeting were read to him, he agreed that, "Jerusalem is an important and central place and it is only appropriate that excavations in Jerusalem should merit a more professional status."

This cautiousness is perhaps the reason why at the end of the discussion, Yosef Aviram, the secretary of the Company for the Excavation of the Land of Israel, suggested expressing support for the Antiquities Authority, even though he himself sharply criticized it during the meeting.

The meeting was also attended by Prof. David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Joseph Patrich and Prof. Yoram Tzafrir of the Hebrew University and Prof. Amos Kloner of Bar-Ilan University. The Antiquities Authority was represented by its director, Shuka Dorfman; his deputy, Dr. Uzi Dahari; the director of the excavations division, Dr. Gideon Avni; Prof. Roni Reich, who manages the excavations in the City of David; and the Jerusalem district archaeologist, Yuval Baruch. The remarks quoted here are taken from the minutes of the meeting with some of them having been shortened and essential explanations added.

Prof. Oren: "I would like to raise an issue which I consider to be problematic. To me, it seems inappropriate that the Archaeological Council does not issue licenses for the most important digs. I think the director of the Antiquities Authority has to obey the decisions of the Council, as befits its status."

Dorfman: "Every case is judged separately. We reached understandings whereby the members of the council receive a report on all digs conducted by the Antiquities Authority via email. Likewise, you are invited to ask questions and make comments when necessary. As for the City of David, the dig started as a rescue dig after a sewerage cistern was damaged."

Oren: "Your answer is not convincing. My comments remain."

Aviram: "Firstly, I'm very upset that the Antiquities Authority is involved in this matter, that the public thinks it is responsible for the uproar. Secondly, I would like to react to Dorfman's remarks to the effect that at the Mugrabi Ascent the Antiquities Authority is behaving as it does in every other dig. Jerusalem is not identical to any other place and it has special sensitivities that we must be aware of. I think it would be right if the Authority would request the archaeologists who are members of the Council to propose their own suggestions."

Prof. Kloner (who has dug a lot in Jerusalem and recently became famous in the wake of the Jesus' tomb incident): "I object to the Antiquities Authority's consent to the revised plan (for the bridge - M.R.), which would mean building inside the archaeological garden - which is the most important area when it comes to antiquities in Jerusalem. Other proposals must be adopted, and thereby prevent the creation of a bridge inside the archaeological garden. I'm worried about the reputation of the Antiquities Authority. At the moment, I'm pleased the plan was halted. I suggest that the Antiquities Authority waive its consent."

Regarding opposition to the Mugrabi Bridge, Kloner was supported by the chairman of the council, Prof. Stern, and also by Aviram.

Should we issue a statement of support?

After the Mugrabi Gate, the discussion moved to the question of excavations in other locations in Jerusalem, primarily the City of David. The Antiquities Authority has been digging in the area for years now, with funding from the Elad Association. Among other things, the association works to judaize Jerusalem and received responsibility from the state for managing the City of David. Last year the Authority began digging a tunnel 10-meters deep, which runs from the pool of Silwan to the walls of the Temple Mount. Prof. Reich, who manages the excavations in the City of David, presented the findings to the Archaeological Council's members. The Antiquities Authority managers claimed this was "a rescue dig." The Council members had a hard time accepting this claim.

Prof. Ussishkin: "I protest the director's remarks. I don't think it can be argued that this is a rescue dig, when it has already been going on for 10 years. This is an initiated dig in every respect. And it can be called such, but I don't agree that this is a rescue dig."

Prof. Stern: "I agree in principle with Ussishkin on the matter of licenses. Apart from Eilat Mazar's dig (which, according to her, uncovered King David's palace - M.R.), all of the digs presented started as rescue digs. I think there is a need for instituting procedure in the digs in Jerusalem, which is standard practice in all digs around Israel. This means that every five years, the digger must submit a request and meet the requirements for processing the findings and publishing them, just like in any other place."

Prof. Tzafrir, who is waging a battle against the influence of organizations such as Elad over the Antiquities Authority: "The greater problem is the concern that the Antiquities Authority will not withstand the pressure. I recognize the right of Elad or of any other body to raise money and dig. I'm concerned about a sense of fatigue with dealing with the pressures, for example at Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah's dig (excavations near the Dung Gate ahead of the construction of a parking lot for visitors to the City of David - M.R.). It has been said that there is a plan ready and the possibility that construction will not be possible has not even been raised - I am awaiting greater determination. Nothing has been said about the continuation of the excavation and therefore my concern is the expectations of the planning bodies, as they are also the financing bodies."

Dorfman: "My actions are relevant and not politically oriented. It should be understood that when it comes to Jerusalem, I must listen to all sides. As for the Givati parking lot, it will be built in the end, because there is a parking shortage. I don't oppose raising the issue for discussion in the Archaeological Council, but this entails a very long process."

Tzafrir also raised a professional point. According to him, the excavation method being used in the tunnel is not scientific, as today it is standard practice to excavate from the top to the bottom, while exposing all the strata along the way. Tzafrir mentioned that Prof. Reich himself, in one chapter of an archaeology guidebook he wrote, noted that the lengthwise excavation method adopted in the tunnel is a 19th century practice and not accepted today. "There have been many objections to this excavation method," said Tzafrir. "I think this should be discussed in the Archaeological Council."

District Archaeologist Yuval Baruch: "As far as the excavations in the tunnel are concerned, there have been many discussions and decisions made unintentionally. We are aware that this is not the ideal method [and therefore] there will be openings for criticism."

Tzafrir: "I think it's possible to learn enough from the exposure of part of the street and there is no need to excavate everything."

The council chairman summarized the discussion: "I think there is something to the members' claims that in Jerusalem work is not done with the Council's consent. I request that one of the recommendations be that this takes place in Jerusalem as well. When we reach a crossroads in excavations, we want to be more involved - for example in the continuation of excavations at the pool."

At this point Aviram intervened and suggested issuing a press release by the Antiquities Authority stating that the Archaeological Council backs the Authority, "with the goal of enhancing the status of the Council." The proposal was accepted and a press release along those lines was issued by the Antiquities Authority.

The Antiquities Authority said in response that it does not deem it appropriate to respond to questions from Haaretz. The Prime Minister's Office did not address the matter of pressure on the Authority to dig and in the past stated: "Rescue digs are conducted by the Antiquities Authority anywhere in Israel where there is concern over damage to archaeological sites or where it has been decided to carry out work on them. After the government decided to build a bridge to replace the ramp that collapsed in November 2004, the next step is to conduct a rescue dig."