Hershel Shanks: Avi, I’m especially appreciative of this interview because over the years we’ve disagreed about many things, but we’ve remained friends, and we’ve always been able to talk about our differences. And that’s a very gratifying thing. You haven’t liked everything that’s appeared in BAR. But you once told me that it’s the only archaeological magazine that you read from cover to cover. Is that still true?
Avraham Eitan: It’s one of the publications, archaeological magazines, that’s so interesting you can read it from cover to cover, not only because of its archaeological reports and archaeological information, but also because of the other things you include in it—which I might disagree with. But it’s very interesting and provocative.
HS: Before we discuss the things we might disagree about, let’s talk about something that’s even more exciting: the fortress at Vered Jericho, south of the city of Jericho, which you recently excavated. As far as I know, nothing has appeared about it in English yet. Isn’t that true?
HS: And only the tiniest bit even in Hebrew.
HS: Would you be willing to tell me about it?
AE: Why not? The fact that nothing has appeared so far in English is because I haven’t finished the excavation yet. When we have all the data and information we’ll proceed to work on the material and come to final conclusions. Then we’ll publish it. You just referred to it as a fortress. I’m not sure it is a fortress.
HS: It has an unusual plan, doesn’t it?
AE: Yes. It does have an unusual plan. There are no parallels to it. It is a very well-planned building. It has the appearance of a fortress. I heard you visited it. You’ve seen the two towers and the entrance which have the appearance of a fortress.
HS: Yes, I did. What was it, if it wasn’t a fortress?
AE: It is divided into two main parts. The front part includes the towers, the gate entrance and an open courtyard flanked by two long rooms. The other part, the back part of the building, has a pair of four-room houses.
HS: Is there any settlement around the building?
AE: No. It stands alone, although Jericho itself is about five or six kilometers to the north. There’s also another site of the period we discovered—unknown before—about a kilometer and a half to the northwest on the bank of the Wadi Qelt. But nothing around the structure we’ve been discussing.
HS: What is the period we’re talking about?
AE: I’d say the end of the seventh century B.C., the period of Josiah [king of Judah].
HS: About 620 B.C.
AE: Something like that. Let’s say it’s second half of the seventh century. The site I mentioned, about one and a half kilometers to the northwest is a large site, about 30 or 40 dunams [nearly ten acres]. Perhaps there is a connection between this site and our isolated site you called a fortress. There are also Iron Age remains at Qumran. There are also other Iron Age settlements in the area—some excavated by Pessach Bar-Adon along the Dead Sea shore, and some in the Buqe’ah where Larry Stager excavated some buildings that he thought were farm buildings.b And there is another Iron Age building recently excavated up in the hills to the west not far way. I’m not sure whether these are the only Iron Age sites in the area or not. If a systematic survey were carried out, more Iron Age settlements might be found in this area.
HS: Well what do you think this isolated structure you’ve been excavating was if it wasn’t a fortress? It looks so strong and so easily defensible.
AE: At this stage, as I say, we have not yet finished our excavation, but I can put forward several possibilities. It might be a fortified farm. It is located on the edge of the low hills on the border of the Jericho valley. Or it could be a fortress, because it’s situated not far from the road leading down from Jericho 032to the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi. Another possibility, however, is that it might be … I don’t want to go too far at the moment. I have to finish the excavation before I can say more … But somehow I believe it is connected with a cult.
AE: Yes. This would not be something new. We know that the fortress at Arad had a temple, a cultic place in it. There might have been a temple at Beer-Sheva, as well. You know the large altar that was found there. The temple itself was not found. But the altar has been found at Beer-Sheva. So it too had a cult place in it.
HS: Do you have any specific evidence that your Jericho site is a cult place?
AE: Yes. First of all, the plan itself is rather unusual. It was very well planned, very well organized. The interior was very well laid out, well divided to provide for the different functions in the different areas. And then there were the two staircases built on a stepped podium. Have you seen them?
AE: I’m not sure these are actually staircases.
From their form and location, we can’t really understand them as such. They may be, perhaps, altars. The place might be what the Bible calls a beit bamah, a high-place house. It might have served as a cult place for all the Iron Age sites in the area. One of the long rooms flanking the open courtyard has in it a raised, thick, plastered platform. This too suggests something. All this is as yet just hypothesis. The Bible doesn’t give us a description of a beit bamah. It might be that our structure is a kind of beit bamah. This is one possibility. The other possibility is that it has nothing to do with cultic purposes, and is just a fortress or a fortified farm. Or it might be a combination of a fortress and a farm with a cultic place in it.
It was destroyed by fire, especially the towers, the gate, the courtyard and the rooms flanking it. If it was a beit bamah, it may have been destroyed in connection with Josiah’s religious reforms in the late seventh century. We know from the Bible that Josiah destroyed the high places from Geba to Beer-Sheva (2 Kings 23:8). I also have some evidence which is probably connected with this that I cannot 033go into in detail yet.
We’ve found an ostracon, with an inscription of ten lines. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to decipher. At the moment it seems to be a list of something. We’ve also found an iron sword one meter long.
HS: That’s spectacular.
AE: Yes. It is now being cleaned and restored. It was in quite bad shape, but I believe that we have the haft and even the tip.
The haft is of bronze with some wood remains. The wood seems to be some kind of wood from the Negev.
HS: Has a complete sword of this period ever been found before?
AE: No, not of this size. We do know of swords of this size from Assyria [pictured on wall reliefs], but nothing like this, as far as I know, has been found before.
HS: Didn’t you also find an unusual skull?
AE: There was a skull with trepanation of the head. It seems that the person had been operated on and had recovered from the operation. The skull had grown back. We found the remains of several skeletons.
HS: How do you explain these skeletal 034remains? Were the people killed in a battle?
AE: Again there are several possibilities. One is that they were killed when the building was attacked—if it was a fortress. On the other hand—I didn’t want to say it but you have dragged it out of me—it just might be. We know from the Bible that during Josiah’s religious reforms, when he destroyed the bamot [plural form of bamah], he killed the priests on the altars (2 Kings 23:20). That’s why I thought this might have something to do with Josiah’s religious reforms. But it’s all very problematic. We still have a lot of work to do.
As you know, I don’t want to be sensational. There is sometimes an inclination to be sensational about findings when it’s too early. And I believe it’s better to take a little longer and do the necessary research before you come out with conclusions. And even then, if you are not too sure about it, the conclusions should be suggested but with all the necessary reservations.
HS: I agree with you. It’s important to indicate to the public the degree of sureness or unsureness you have in your conclusions.
HS: On the other hand, once you do that, it seems to me that you ought to tell people that we have a possibility, but we have to emphasize that it’s only a possibility. I think you’ve stressed that in your remarks here today.
I’d like to ask you a little about illegal excavations in Israel. There have been studies of illegal excavations in Central America, in Mexico, in Southeast Asia, but nothing that I have been able to find relating to Israel or Jordan or the Middle East, discusses the extent to which illegal excavating is going on in these countries. I’d like to get your feeling about what the situation is in Israel. How much illegal excavation is there? How much of a problem is it? I’ve heard, for example, that the great site of Tel Beit Mirsim, which was excavated in a classical dig by William Foxwell Albright, is being attacked by illegal excavators who have emptied the tombs and are now working on the tell itself.
AE: It has been stopped.
HS: Well, congratulations. Kol ha-kavod [all honor to you]. Tell me about the problem and specifically about Tel Beit Mirsim.
AE: There is a problem of illegal excavations. As you know it is a problem in neighboring countries as well. It is particularly a problem in the Shephelah [the low hill country bordering the Mediterranean coastal plain] and in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. These are the main areas where we have a problem.
HS: Why is it concentrated there?
AE: Those who are involved in illegal excavations are mainly villagers from these areas.
Secondly, we believe there is a connection between illegal excavations and the fact that the law permits antiquities dealers and antiquity dealing to exist. This is a stimulation to illegal excavations. You asked me my feeling about it. Well, my feeling is that one illegal excavation is one too many. You said it is really a problem. To be more accurate, it was a problem. During Jordanian times and even afterwards there were many illegal excavations. But I’m happy to say that after a long and hard effort, we have succeeded in organizing special teams in the Department [of Antiquities] to cope with this problem. These teams are equipped with the necessary equipment—jeeps and walkie-talkies and so on. They walk around the area. And they have had great success. They have caught several illegal excavators. They were prosecuted. Some were jailed and fined as well. We have succeeded in entirely stopping the illegal excavations at Tel Beit Mirsim. As you know, there the village is right next to the site, and the villagers were involved in these illegal excavations. We’ve stopped it now.
HS: Do you feel the situation is completely under control in Israel?
AE: I wouldn’t say completely under control because we still have, as yet, only three teams working in the field—and we need more. In addition, we have one team closely supervising the antiquities dealers.
HS: What do you do with the antiquities dealers?
AE: We supervise them. We go to their shops and look at everything to make sure it is done according to the demands of the law. If an antiquities dealer does not conform to the law, we deal with him accordingly. A complaint is brought to the police and the person is prosecuted according to the law.
HS: What if a villager brings an antiquities dealer some excavated material and offers to sell it?
AE: If the antiquities dealer buys it, it’s illegal, of course. All antiquities recovered since February 1978 belong to the state, according to the new antiquities law.
HS: What is the antiquities dealer supposed to do when a villager comes to him?
AE: He can’t buy it because it belongs to the state.
HS: What is he supposed to do? Just say, “I will not buy it”?
AE: That is correct. Or he could notify the Department [of Antiquities]. But as I said before, ultimately there is a strong connection between illegal excavations and the fact that dealing in antiquities is permitted by law.
HS: Are you saying that, in fact, antiquities dealers do buy illegally excavated artifacts?
AE: We can’t be specific and we can’t generalize because surely there are antiquities dealers who don’t buy illegally excavated artifacts. But there are certainly some dealers who do buy them. They might hide them for a certain period and only afterwards deal with them, and even then not in their shop. It is a problem; it is really a problem. The whole problem is now under discussion by a special subcommittee of the Archaeological Council. After they complete their work they will make recommendations about the problem.
HS: What is your view?
AE: We have this special committee. I expressed my views before it, as did others.
HS: You have indicated to the committee what your view is, but you won’t tell me?
AE: Not yet, because it is under discussion by the committee of the Archaeological Council.
HS: Do museums contribute to the problem by buying illegally excavated antiquities?
AE: If they do, yes. I believe illegal excavations would be extremely reduced without the dealers. If there were no market for such finds, naturally illegal excavations would be reduced.
HS: If the law were enforced against antiquities dealers to insure that they didn’t buy illegally excavated artifacts, would that be adequate?
AE: You have to be realistic. To enforce the law, you need manpower and budget and so 035on. It is very difficult to enforce the law entirely. There will always be those who will find a way not to obey it.
HS: Are there any functions that antiquities dealers provide that are valuable? For example, trading in antiquities that have been excavated 50 years ago before there was a law and providing a market for accidentally found artifacts?
AE: As long as dealing with antiquities is permitted by the law, this is legal.
HS: Are you considering outlawing all dealing in antiquities, even in antiquities that were excavated more than 50 years ago? Do you have any objection to dealing in these artifacts?
AE: I would say it’s part of a much larger topic, dealing in antiquities in general. I won’t answer as yet; I’m just putting forward the question. But the question should be raised. It should be raised.
HS: Do you want to tell us what your view is?
AE: My view is that antiquities are cultural and scientific property; they should not be handled like ordinary property that you can buy and sell.
HS: Do you make a distinction between a unique or important artifact, on the one hand, and a juglet or a lamp of which there are thousands, on the other?
AE: I don’t believe there is a distinction, because the archaeological value of the artifact is in its context, the context of where it 036was found in the excavation, the assemblage and the information you can draw from this context. The find itself might be something to put on your television set. But its scientific value lies in the whole context. And you can’t know today what information might be obtained from this context in the future. Archaeology is still a developing science. You might have thousands of similar artifacts. I don’t think that you can say for sure now even after you have studied the material and published your report—that you have obtained all the knowledge that can be gotten from it. Maybe in 10 years or 20 years, there will be new developments. This happens all the time. With new knowledge, there are new possibilities to extract more information which we can’t now. When you sell it, when it is dispersed, you can’t go back to it again, it is lost.
HS: So you would keep every juglet, every lamp that’s ever been excavated?
AE: If it comes from an excavation, no doubt about it. Of course the Department [of Antiquities] itself gives artifacts to museums. But the material should be kept for students and for scholars to study, not only now but also in the future as well, when new archaeological technologies may be developed.
In many cases, material that was excavated years ago and has been in the storeroom for many years and has been published now provides us with new information. We have new methods with which to extract much more information from this material. For example, thermoluminescence did not exist 20 years ago. Who knows what will happen in a year or ten years from now? Scientific developments not only in archaeology but in other sciences as well might be helpful to archaeology. Today the connections between archaeology and other disciplines are very strong and are becoming stronger and stronger—disciplines like metallurgy, physics, paleobotany, paleozoology, chemistry, all the natural sciences.
HS: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if small collections of artifacts could be placed in local museums, in universities and colleges and churches and synagogues so that people could have the collections on the local scene and could touch them and hold them and study them on a hands-on basis? Given the fact that there are thousands of examples of these artifacts and the fact that the Department of Antiquities, as you said, does give to museums, would you support the idea of hundreds of small museums at local colleges and churches and synagogues?
AE: Not exactly like that. First of all, we have many local museums all over this country, besides the large museums, such as the Israel Museum or the Ha’aretz Museum or the Haifa Museum. There are many local museums. You must somehow draw a line how far you will go.
HS: I’m talking about in the United States, not in Israel.
AE: It’s almost the same. In the universities you have study collections—in Hebrew University, in Tel Aviv University. And as I said, we have a lot of museums. But having a museum, a museum that must serve the public, means budget, manpower and so on. If you have too many of them you restrict the possibility of concentrating manpower and budget. Instead of say, three small museums in a certain area, if you have one museum it would serve the public better.
HS: I’m talking about the United States, and not necessarily students, but just interested people who want to understand the background of the Bible better. It seems they would respond to collections of artifacts, especially since you have thousands of examples here in Israel. Why shouldn’t they be made available to churches and synagogues, for example?
AE: I don’t know specifically about churches and synagogues. You have to check the possibilities. What if they can’t serve the public, and so on? You have big museums in the States and nowadays when travel is very easy, everyone can go to a big museum. But if we have a request from a certain place to have a regional museum and we are assured that they have all the necessary means to have a proper 037museum, we’ll look positively on it.
HS: I understand there is a new organization of archaeologists in Israel called the Association of Archaeologists in Israel.
HS: They have passed a resolution that has been forwarded to you recommending that the department sell antiquities, in order to raise money badly needed for archaeological purposes. Have you responded to that resolution?
AE: This is included within the framework of the discussion by the special subcommittee of the Archaeological Council. And in any case this is a very problematic subject.
HS: What do you mean by problematic?
AE: The question is, besides the other aspects I’ve pointed out, whether selling antiquities that belong to the state would really bring the result you anticipate. We don’t know. One question is whether there is a market for it. Even if the subcommittee recommends that the state sell antiquities, there are other problems—how to deal with it, who decides what can be sold. These are just hints of the problems that are involved in this subject. It’s only a hint. But, as I said, it is now being thoroughly discussed by this subcommittee and we shall have to wait for its recommendations.
HS: When do you think you will have the subcommittee’s recommendations?
AE: I can’t tell you exactly, but it is now working.
HS: Do you think within the next six months?
AE: I can’t tell you exactly when. And it will then have to be brought before the Archaeological Council. And then we shall see what the recommendations are.
HS: Do you think surely within a year?
AE: Again, I wouldn’t limit myself to a time schedule.
HS: Is there some time? Would two years be reasonable?
AE: Maybe, maybe.
HS: Talking about time, it has been almost 40 years since the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered. And there are substantial quantities of Dead Sea Scroll materials that have not yet been published, and so they are not available to scholars. The average person is astounded to learn this. But even more surprising to the average person is that your department won’t permit scholars who are well qualified, who are studying problems of ancient history and language, who need to look at these fragments, to see them. You won’t permit such scholars to look at these materials. People on the outside just don’t understand this. How do you explain that to them?
AE: As you know, after the liberation of Jerusalem the Rockefeller Museum and the fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls that were here in the museum came into Israel’s hands. At that time, a decision was made by the Archaeological Council, together with the Shrine of the Book Foundation, which had been given authority by the Archaeological Council: The publication rights of the scholars previously given by the board of the directors of the Rockefeller Museum, were to be respected and ensured by the Israeli authorities.
HS: You just told me that all archaeological artifacts that have been discovered belong to the state, and now you’re talking about the rights of scholars who have been assigned these publication obligations as if they were personal rights that continue forever.
AE: I’ve told you that according to the antiquities law, archaeological artifacts that have been discovered after February 1978 belong to the state. The fact is that the rights of publication previously given to the scholars were ensured by the Israeli authorities.
HS: Should that happen? Should these rights, as you call them, be ensured forever?
AE: As I said, the publication rights have been ensured by the Israeli authorities.
HS: You mean it can’t be changed?
AE: There was no exact time limit.
HS: You mean there was no time limit at all!
AE: There was no exact time defined.
HS: Was there a general time limit?
AE: A general time limit, I’d say yes.
HS: A lifetime?
AE: The sooner the better.
HS: But that’s not really a time limit.
AE: I haven’t told you my opinion yet. I’m just telling you about the facts.
HS: The fact is that no time limit was set.
AE: We are talking mainly about Qumran Cave 4. The material includes thousands and thousands of tiny fragments.
HS: Also some larger fragments of great significance.
AE: Yes. And the work on such material can take a long time.
HS: Forty years?
AE: Did you talk with Père [Pierre] Benoit, who, following Père [Roland] de Vaux’s death, was appointed the chief editor of the Scrolls?
HS: Père Benoit says that there’s nothing he can do except urge the scholars to publish. That’s quite a different thing from the government of Israel. The government has control and is therefore responsible. The government can set rules as to whether these assignments should be changed.
AE: And now I come to the main point. I’ve of course discussed this with Père Benoit as the chief editor. By the way, you are not entirely correct in your article that there was a committee. There was a chief editor, Père de Vaux and now Père Benoit in charge of the publication.
HS: You mean that there was no committee?
AE: A chief editor, with regard to the publication.
HS: What were the people under him called?
AE: Scholars, the other scholars involved. And as the chief editor he was in charge of the problems of publication. In any case, I have now demanded from Père Benoit, as chief editor, that he submit a detailed report on the progress of the various scholars involved.
HS: When did you do this?
AE: A short time ago, in order to have a 038more detailed indication of the progress of everyone, and when we have this report we’ll have to consider how to go on from there.
HS: When do you expect to get the report?
AE: I do hope in a short time.
HS: Within a matter of months?
AE: I know that Père Benoit wrote to the scholars involved and demanded a detailed report. He asked them to do it very quickly, as soon as possible. I do believe it will not take too long a time.c When we have this report, we’ll have to consider, and of course consult with the Archaeological Council and the Shrine of the Book Foundation, which is also involved, how to proceed further. The fact that the materials are still not published is of course not a good situation.
HS: And the responsibility from this point forward is ultimately that of the Israeli government, isn’t it?
AE: As I said the Israeli authorities ensured the publication rights of these scholars.
HS: According to Yigael Yadin, as stated in his recent book on The Temple Scroll, the publication assignments made by the committee—incidentally, he calls it a committee, which you seem to disagree with—says the committee was permitted to continue its work, but with certain conditions attached; and one of those conditions—this was in 1967, nearly 20 years ago—was that the material would be promptly published. The scholars haven’t met that condition, have they?
AE: I have here some notes taken at that time [in 1967]. First of all, the Archaeological Council [in 1967], Yadin on behalf of the Shrine of the Book and [Avraham] Biran on behalf of the Antiquities Department, ensured the publication rights of the scholars involved. And as I say there was no definite time limit. Of course the idea was to publish as soon as possible. But no definite date was set.
HS: Can I have a copy of that?
AE: No. These are the facts.
HS: I can’t have a copy of the resolution or the minutes of the confirmation of the assignment to the scholars?
AE: These are minutes of the Shrine of the Book Foundation and you’ll have to ask Magen Broshi [curator] if he’s willing to give it. Anyway, it is irrelevant. What I tell you is the fact. The point is, as I told you, that I have now demanded from the chief editor [Père Benoit], and I do hope we have it in a short time, a full detailed report of the progress of the work on the material and the preparation for publication. Then, based on that, we’ll have to consider and consult as to how to proceed further.
HS: I understand that shortly after these Dead Sea Scroll materials were brought to the museum, the scholars working on them made transcriptions of all of the fragments. By transcriptions I mean they copied as well as they could read them, letter for letter, what was on the fragments. Is that correct?
AE: I’m not too familiar with this.
HS: I understand that shortly after these materials were brought to the museum in the 1950s three scholars, two Americans and one Canadian, Ray Brown, Joe Fitzmyer and Will Oxtoby, made a concordance of 25,000 cards with every word that appeared in these Dead Sea Scroll materials. Is that correct?
AE: I must say this is again at a time before I held this position and I’m not familiar with these details. Perhaps you may ask Biran [Mr. Eitan’s predecessor], who might know much more about it.
HS: I understand that concordance now sits in this very building. Is that true?
AE: Maybe so.
HS: Well, the first thing I want to know is whether you can confirm that it exists, and you say you can’t.
AE: No, what I’m saying is you are driving at a certain point. I’d like to know what point you are driving at.
HS: I must say it seems unusual to me and strange that you really don’t want to say whether such a concordance exists. Let me ask you this: If such a concordance exists, wouldn’t it be a very valuable aid to scholars working on Dead Sea Scroll problems?
HS: So if it exists, shouldn’t scholars generally be told that it exists?
AE: That the fragments of the scrolls themselves exist and that they are here is much more important than the fact that a concordance like this exists; much more important to scholars in general.d
HS: But you won’t let scholars in general look at the scroll fragments themselves, will you?
AE: Because the [publication] rights of the scholars have been ensured, as I told you, and we are bound by these rights. I do believe that all the questions that you are now raising will be solved after we get these reports on the progress of work on the material and their preparation for publication. All the problems will be solved.
HS: I’m directing attention right now to this concordance. It would be wonderful if scholars generally could use this concordance. Would you permit them to use this concordance?
AE: Let’s wait until we have the detailed report and see how it comes out, and the timetable.e Then all the problems, all the questions raised, I believe, will find answers after we consult and decide how to go on with it.
The main point, as you said, is to publish the material for the benefit of the entire scholarly world.
HS: That’s true but no matter what you do, it’s still not going to be available for the next five or ten years, even if you act expeditiously. Isn’t that true?
AE: Might be.
HS: In that situation, wouldn’t it help scholars right now, today, to have this concordance available to them?
AE: Maybe after we have this detailed report and if it is decided to let other scholars look at the scroll material itself, then we can decide [about the concordance]. All this is, of course, dependent on the report we get.
I don’t exclude the possibility that if a scholar, or scholars, requests to look at certain material and they ask for it that it would be discussed properly. But no request has been forwarded, but if scholars ask to look at certain material, I do believe that it will be discussed and considered accordingly.
HS: I might say that both Father Fitzmyer and Father Brown have confirmed to me the existence of the concordance and that it’s still here in the Rockefeller. You wouldn’t disagree with that would you?
AE: If they confirm it, they confirm it. Again I must stress this point: Truly, it has taken a long time [to publish the scroll materials]. You are talking about Qumran Cave 4, and you are correct, it should be published as soon as possible for the benefit of the scholarly world. As I told you, that is the reason I asked for a detailed report on the progress of the work being done and with this report, we’ll have to consider how to proceed.
HS: Thank you very much, Avi.
Hershel Shanks: Avi, I’m especially appreciative of this interview because over the years we’ve disagreed about many things, but we’ve remained friends, and we’ve always been able to talk about our differences. And that’s a very gratifying thing. You haven’t liked everything that’s appeared in BAR. But you once told me that it’s the only archaeological magazine that you read from cover to cover. Is that still true? Avraham Eitan: It’s one of the publications, archaeological magazines, that’s so interesting you can read it from cover to cover, not only because of its archaeological reports and archaeological information, but […]