CULTURE: Archeology

CULTURE: Archeology

    Archeology in Israel involves the systematic investigation of all the remains of the country's past - from prehistory to the end of Ottoman rule. The profusion of material remains is evidence of the many cultures that have left their imprint on the Land.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
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    CULTURE: Archeology CULTURE: Archeology
    Tel Miqne Ekron excavation (Photo: I. Sztulman)

    Aerial view of the Beit She'an excavations (Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Aerial view of the Beit She'an excavations (Israel Antiquities Authority)

    Archeological investigation in the Land of Israel began in the middle of the 19th century, when biblical scholars surveyed the area in search of remains of places mentioned in the Bible. Toward the end of the 19th century, but mainly since the beginning of the 20th century, many mounds (in Hebrew tel) composed of the remains of ancient settlements were excavated, and the foundations for scientific archeological investigation were laid. Archeological activities expanded during the British Mandate period (1917-1948) and have been increased to a large extent since the establishment of the State of Israel.


    The experience gained during the excavations has shaped the methods of stratigraphic research, accompanied by the meticulous study of the development (typology) of the forms of pottery vessels and other artifacts, by which archeological strata and remains may be dated. In recent years, archeological research has been extended to include less-known aspects of the ancient material cultures, such as nutrition, disease, economy, and commerce. These achievements of modern archeological research are being applied in the dozens of sites that are excavated every year.


    Archeology in Israel involves the systematic investigation of all the remains of the country's past - from prehistory to the end of Ottoman rule. The profusion of material remains is evidence of the many cultures that have left their imprint on the Land. The unique geographical features influenced the more ancient cultures: tens of thousands of years ago, the Land served as a land bridge, over which bands of hunters crossed from Africa to Europe. Their camps and living quarters have been found along the Jordan Valley and in the caves of the Carmel range and the Galilee.


    In biblical times, the Land was the bridge between the prosperous cultures of the Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia (today, Iraq) and Egypt. Since its occupation by Alexander the Great, the Land of Israel has served as a geographic and cultural link between east and west.


    Archeological research in Israel accords much importance to the fact that the country is the home of the spiritual heritage of the great monotheistic religions. Above all it clearly reveals the historical link between the Jewish people, the Bible and the Land of Israel, uncovering the remains of the cultural heritage of the Jewish people in its homeland. These visible remains, buried in the soil, constitute the physical link between the past, the present and the future of the Jewish people in its country.


    This unbroken chain of history can be observed at sites all over the country: in the biblical cities of Hatzor, Megiddo, Gezer, Shomron, Be'er Sheva and Dan; in the cities of the Second Temple period - Tiberias, Sepphoris (Tsippori), Gamala - and the fortresses of Masada and Herodion, where the Jews fought for freedom; in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, where the remains of the Essenes' spiritual center were uncovered, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the earliest copies of books of the Bible, were found. From the same period, sites associated with the life of Jesus were uncovered - Capernaum, Tabgha - where there are also remains of churches from the Byzantine period.


    Statue of Dionysos (Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Statue of Dionysos found in Beit She'an (Israel Antiquities Authority)

    The sites of the great Roman and Byzantine cities of Caesarea, Beit She'an, and Banias have been uncovered, as have the Negev towns of Avdat, Halutza, and Mamshit, which prospered at this time. From the Muslim period, there are the remains of the ancient city of Ramle and the palace of Khirbet al-Mafjar (Hisham's Palace) in Jericho. Remains from the Crusader period include many fortresses and towns - Acre, Caesarea, Belvoir and Qal'at Nimrod.


    Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, has been the focus of extensive archeological activity and remains of 5,000 years of history have been revealed: in the City of David, the walls of the Canaanite city and remains of structures from the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel, including sophisticated underground water systems; from the Second Temple period, the remains of public buildings along the retaining walls of the Temple Mount, which stand to this day, the remains of the splendid residences of the Upper City in today's Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the ruins of which remained in situ after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, and hundreds of rock-cut tombs, some lavishly decorated, which testify to the wealth of the city that was destroyed; many churches and religious buildings from the Byzantine period, the most famous among them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; from the period of Muslim rule, the mosques on the Temple  Mount and a government center, the remains of which have been excavated south of the Temple Mount; from the Crusader period, city walls, churches, and covered markets; from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods minarets, which adorn the Old City skyline. The walls of the Old City and the citadel next to the Jaffa Gate were built during the reign of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566).


    There are some 20,000 recognized sites of antiquity in Israel that are protected by law. Every year, dozens of sites from every period of history and in all parts of the country are excavated. Licenses to excavate are issued to expeditions - from Israel and abroad - by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is entrusted with the preservation of the country's antiquities. Israel's Antiquities Law requires every site slated for construction to be examined for archeological remains and a salvage excavation to be conducted if deemed necessary. The state also has the right to preserve finds of public interest; some of the more important of these are exhibited at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The museum also houses the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved, and some are on view to the public.


    Much effort, as well as resources, are also invested in preserving and restoring ancient sites and dozens of them, from all periods of history, have been opened to the public.