Archaeology Conditions Nearly Desperate in Mideast

By Andrea Stone
for USA Today in Megiddo, Israel
June 20, 2002

The New Testament says this peaceful rise overlooking the lush Jezreel Valley is the site of Armageddon, the last great battle between good and evil at the end of days.

Biblical scholars surmise that the author of the Book of Revelation placed the ultimate conflict at this crossroad between Egypt and Mesopotamia because many real battles were fought here. The latest conflict at this site was to be a war of words: Archaeologists had planned to renew a debate this month over whether the Hebrew Bible's King Solomon ruled over a great united kingdom or something much smaller. But on June 5, a car bomb blew up a bus near here, killing 17 people. It was the latest reminder of a modern-day apocalypse: the 21-month Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Virtually no foreign archaeological expeditions will travel to the Holy Land for this year's summer excavation season, a situation archaeologists say is unprecedented since Israel was founded in 1948. Of more than 25 scheduled university-sponsored excavations, all but three have been canceled. The remaining three digs have been severely scaled back. No American groups, which account for 80 percent of the 1,200 to 1,500 foreign volunteers who usually dig in Israel each year, are coming.

''This is the worst season in 50 years,'' says Israel Finkelstein, who directs the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. For the first time since he began digging here in 1992, Finkelstein has been forced to cancel excavations in Megiddo.

In the West Bank and Gaza, where there are thousands of historical sites, archaeological conditions verge on desperate. Palestinian officials say the collapse of the economy and disintegration of Yasser Arafat's security forces have fueled looting by people who have no other way to make money. Israel's recent military offensive in the West Bank aimed at arresting suspected militants damaged cultural sites in several Palestinian cities.

No one here says these setbacks to archaeological research and preservation can be compared to the destruction wrought by suicide bombings and military sieges. But the violence has rocked the archaeological community in ways that reverberate around the world. Israel and the Palestinian territories—the crossroads of ancient civilizations and cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are the world's most densely excavated areas. Ancient ruins and biblical history are the bedrock of Israel's tourism industry, which has plummeted to almost nothing since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

''Nobody lives and dies by archaeological research,'' says Seymour Gitin, director of Jerusalem's W. F. Albright Institute. The institute was the first U.S. archaeological research center in the Middle East when it was founded in 1900 as the American School for Oriental Research. ''But this inhibits the acquisition of new knowledge.''

With the exception of world wars, European and American archaeologists have been digging almost without interruption in what are now Israel and the Palestinian territories for 150 years. They dominated the field until their Israeli counterparts began catching up in the '60s. But half of all excavations that don't involve rescuing structures and artifacts uncovered by developers are co-sponsored by foreign universities and research groups working alone or with Israeli partners. Most are U.S. institutions such as Harvard, which canceled a major excavation at Ashkelon, site of an early Philistine seaport. Penn State co-sponsors the Megiddo dig.

All the projects rely on unpaid volunteers who use pickaxes, brushes and dental tools to do the backbreaking and time-consuming work of excavation. Most are students majoring in ancient history or archaeology. They pay as much as U.S. $2,500 to work up to eight weeks for experience and college credit. ''These are serious students,'' not tourists, says Finkelstein. ''They attend lectures, are taught how to dig, learn the history. Those specializing in biblical archaeology need to come here.''

This year, most are heeding U.S. State Department warnings against travel to the Middle East. A few Indiana Jones wannabes will come on their own, but experts say the schools have balked at higher insurance premiums and fear lawsuits if a student is injured or killed in an attack.

In fact, most digs are in rural areas far from suicide attacks and military operations. Yet expedition directors concede that students could be at risk during their off-hours, when they sightsee and party in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other targeted cities.

Continued on Next Page >>


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