Last July, Joe Zias, along with 65 other employees of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), was fired. But Joe is not just anybody. He was the IAA’s—and one of Israel’s—leading physical anthropologists. He studies bones—including human bones.

Trained as an accountant, Zias did not turn to archaeology until he underwent what he calls an early “mid-life crisis,” at age 22. To escape the draft during the Vietnam war, Zias had traveled from the United States to Israel in 1966 on a Jewish peace corps program. Working the fields of a kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast, near Mount Carmel—a region where archaeologists have found remains dating back at least 100,000 years—Zias regularly overturned prehistoric artifacts. The “tremendous mystique” of holding something people had used tens of thousands of years ago led Zias, upon returning home to Detroit, to enroll at Wayne State University as an anthropology and sociology student.

In 1972, armed with a master’s degree in anthropology, Zias returned to Israel to work as a curator of prehistoric remains for what was then the Israel Department of Antiquities. One day, early in his tenure, Zias was walking through an excavation site with the renowned Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran, long-time excavator of Tel Dan, who was then the director of the Department of Antiquities.b Pointing out the quantities of bones that had been dug up, Biran expressed the department’s need for an expert in bones. On Biran’s suggestion, Zias began studying physical anthropology at Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem.

Zias became fascinated with paleopathology—the study of ancient diseases. Over the years, his articles on ancient dentistry, leprosy, lice, tapeworms and scurvy have appeared in dozens of journals, ranging from the Paleopathology Newsletter to The Journal of the American Dental Association to Biblical Archaeology Review.c At the Israel Antiquities Authority, he has examined human and animal bones from Jericho, Jerusalem, Beth-Shemesh and Masada, among other sites.

Zias says that his work with human remains has brought him immense personal satisfaction; it has also provided insights critical for the control of diseases today. When his work at the IAA ended abruptly this past summer, Zias was researching tuberculosis: the number-one killer disease in the world. By examining DNA from the remains of humans who died of tuberculosis in ancient times, Zias hopes to help determine who may be susceptible to the disease today. “If you want to know what’s coming down the line,” he says, “you have to know the past.” But no one with his experience remains at the IAA to carry on his work.

Perhaps Joe Zias will now be able to sleep uninterrupted. No longer will he be awakened in the early morning hours by anonymous callers. “At one time, I was getting a lot of obscene phone calls between 1 and 5 a.m. They would say, ‘You and your family should die. Your kids should get cancer. Your bones should get dug up.’ I’d put the answering machine on, and they would leave these long messages,” he says.

“My car has been vandalized many times. Eventually I took the sticker of the Israel Antiquities Authority off, and that helped a little.” Now he has removed it permanently.