What are major controversies in archeology


Joseph Croitoru

To person

has a doctorate in history and works as a journalist for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung", among others.

Towards the end of the 19th century, after archeology had long since established itself as a recognized scientific discipline, biblical archeology also developed into a systematic excavation science. In Palestine, which was then ruled by the Ottomans, as well as in other countries in the region, western archaeologists unearthed remains of ancient oriental cultures as well as finds from biblical and pre-biblical times. In its early phase at the beginning of the 20th century, the Zionist movement recognized the importance of archeology as an instrument with which the biblically based claim of the Jews to the Holy Land could be legitimized.

In 1913 the Zionists, who had not been involved in biblical-archaeological research in Palestine up to then, established the Society for the Study of Eretz Israel and its Antiquities. With the beginning of the First World War, she had to interrupt her activities. Overall, however, the war in which the British ended centuries of Ottoman rule in Palestine also had positive consequences for the Zionist settlement work and the archaeologists associated with it. Since English archaeologists had been involved in the region since the last third of the 19th century under the aegis of the British Palestine Exploration Fund, it was only logical that the British Mandate Government created its own archeology agency in Palestine as early as 1920. This marked a new beginning for Zionist archeology, especially since some of the Jewish researchers were employed there and the British were already benevolent towards Zionism.

Early digs

Under the British mandate, the archaeological society founded by the Zionists before the war, known abroad as the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, was now able to continue its activities. Although she was only able to carry out a few excavations due to limited financial resources, even then her research focused on Jerusalem. Two of the earliest Zionist archaeologists, Eliezer Sukenik (1889–1953) and Leo Mayer (1895–1959), dug north of Jerusalem's Old City wall in the 1920s, where they came across remains of ancient walls that they believed were remains the "third wall" that the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus mentioned in his "History of the Jewish War" - but this has not yet been clearly proven.

In the Zionist context, this excavation remained an isolated case for a long time. After all, after being occupied by Jordan in the Israeli-Arab war of 1948, the eastern part of Jerusalem was to remain inaccessible to Israeli researchers for the next few decades. With the victory in the Six Day War in 1967, a new era dawned for Zionist Biblical Archeology. Now one could go in search of traces of the Jewish past in and around the old city of Jerusalem. It was hardly by chance that the first excavation in the conquered eastern part, on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, was led by Benjamin Mazar (1906-1995), one of the older prominent members of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society and co-founder of the so-called Jerusalem School, which was particularly keen on the biblical narrative sought to be confirmed by archeology. However, contrary to what had been hoped, Mazar's excavations between 1967 and 1978 brought to light mainly remains from the Roman-Herodian and Byzantine times and only a few traces of Jewish settlement from the early Islamic era.

The expectations of the Zionist Israeli archaeologists and the public were disappointed. But the archaeological evidence provided by Mazar for the former monumental character of the Herodian temple complex came in very handy, as it fit the image of the new "united Jerusalem" that the Israeli government and Jerusalem's mayor Teddy Kollek built for the city at that time and which it maintains to this day becomes. The demolition of the remains of the former Jewish old town, which was massively destroyed in the war of 1948, also belongs in this context. Its reconstruction, which was soon pushed forward as a symbol of the renewal of Jewish life in Jerusalem, was accompanied by rescue excavations led by the Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad (1905–1992) - but there were hardly any finds from biblical times here either.

Controversies in the 1980s and 1990s

In the early 1980s, the attempts by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz (1924–1995), who was responsible for the Western Wall at the time, to penetrate underground into the area under the mosque area of ​​the Temple Mount, where the remains of the first, des Solomonic, Temple presumed. Attempts to break into this taboo zone were partly repulsed by violence on the part of the Palestinians. When the tunnel system below the Western Wall was gradually expanded from the 1990s onwards, the Israelis refrained from further such adventures. But they still provided the Palestinians with enough ammunition for the conspiracy theory, especially widespread in Islamist circles, that Israel seeks to destroy the Temple Mount mosques from inside the mountain. Rabbi Getz's undertakings were also interpreted as part of a comprehensive settlement and excavation policy aimed at erasing the Islamic character of the city and making it Jewish.

As a result of these entanglements, Biblical Archeology not only lost its reputation in the 1990s, but also gradually lost its importance. A new generation of Israeli archaeologists also began to increasingly question the historical reliability of the biblical tradition. The main question was what the city of Jerusalem actually looked like in the time of David and Solomon. The younger researchers turned against Benjamin Mazar and his colleague Yigal Shiloh (1937–1987) - the latter had dug in the so-called City of David south of the Temple Mount between 1978 and 1985 - who claimed that Jerusalem was built in the tenth century BC. BC, as described in the Bible, was a large city with mighty buildings. This thesis was most vehemently disputed by the Tel Aviv archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who took the view that that biblical Jerusalem was not much larger than a village.

The Israeli public initially paid little attention to this dispute between experts. Her interest in Zionist biblical archeology had also waned over time because hardly any sensational finds had been made since the 1980s. In addition, the new archaeological findings often refuted the biblical story or were contradicting itself, so that its scientific significance was difficult to convey to the general public. Especially in the national religious camp in Israel, the new scientific findings were ignored - here, as before, only the biblical narrative was to be confirmed by archeology. When, however, in October 1999 the Tel Aviv archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog drew attention to the dispute that had long been ruling in the professional world in a newspaper article entitled "There is no evidence of the biblical tradition on site", a vehement public debate broke out .