In 1987, BAR editor Hershel Shanks interviewed Avraham Biran, then director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College, in Jerusalem, on his 20 years of digging at Tel Dan.
HS: I suppose the greatest criticism I hear about you is that in 18 or 19 years of digging at Dan, you haven’t published a real preliminary report. How do you respond to that?
AB: That is partially true. And I know that famous saying, “Publish or perish.” But I don’t think it’s entirely true. We have brought to the attention of the scholarly world—and not only the scholarly world—everything that we have found. Some of it has appeared in BAR. Now it is true that we have not provided all the details that substantiate what we have found. But there are problems here, too. You know in most textbooks I now find a drawing of the Israelite city gate of Dan, which was published in 1970 or thereabouts. I’m sorry now that I published that plan—because it’s wrong. When we published it, that’s what we had, but subsequently we discovered a major outer gate. There’s always that danger if you publish too soon.
I’ll tell you a secret: If we had stopped digging in 1966, ‘67, ‘68 or ‘69 and published the results, we’d have had an easy time. We’d know all the answers to all the problems that we encountered. But it would all be wrong. We are finishing next year, and then we’ll sit down to produce first—I’ll let you in on another secret: already we have what I call the pre-draft—not the draft, but the pre-draft—of a book on Dan.
HS: I know I’ve talked to you about doing a popular book on Dan. Are you talking about a popular book?
AB: It’s not popular in a strict sense. It’s a semi-popular book. “Popular” is the wrong word because it may imply that it’s not scientific. But it will be a very readable book. After that, we will work slowly to publish the details. I don’t mean publishing 50 plates of collared-rim jars. You don’t have to do that, and besides nobody can afford to anymore. You have to give the various types of collared-rim jars, but no one’s going to learn anything by giving again and again and again the same one or the same cooking pot. You have to draw conclusions based on your evidence. And if scholars are going to be able to test your conclusions, you have to provide them with your material. That we shall do.
HS: Do you plan to publish a final report?
AB: A final report, yes, but I think that we’re going to do it topically. I’ll explain: We found a Mycenaean tomb. Everybody knows about the Mycenaean tomb; there have been some publications about it. True, we haven’t published all the vessels that were recovered, so we’ll do a monograph on the Mycenaean tomb. We’ve already published the three-arched gate from the Middle Bronze Age. Everything I know about that has already been published. I don’t think I can add to that. The sanctuary, or high place, which again is another important item, has been published. So it’s not entirely true, the accusation is not entirely justified, because the most important things have already been published. And these other things will come in due course.
HS: On a topic-by-topic basis rather than area-by-area?
AB: I think so. What I’m trying to do—and this comes back to your question about what we are learning. The “area” is arbitrary. I mean, after all, if I had dug, instead of Area A, let’s say Area X, I might find completely different things. Because we have worked for so long, I think we can look at it in its entirety. The point of publishing is not Area B or Area T or Area A, in all of which we unearthed the Middle Bronze Age rampart, but rather what we know about the rampart together with the Middle Bronze gate that was found with the rampart. I think that would be more of a contribution in understanding the history of the site, the civilization of the people who lived there.
HS: Why are you stopping at 20 years of excavating Tel Dan? Because it’s a round number? Because you’re going to be 77 years old? Because you’ve done enough?
AB: All three together. We have to sit down. You see it’s very difficult to start writing when you know you’re going to have another season. So it’s a good date, and if the good Lord will give us strength, then after we write for a year or two, perhaps we’ll go back when I’m 80.
HS: May he bless you.
AB: Thank you.
Biran did go back and led the Dan expedition until 1999, when he was 90 years old. He retired head of the Nelson Gleuck School in 2002 at the age of 93.