Putting aside a planned sabbatical abroad (with retirement soon to follow), archaeologist Nahman Avigad at age 62 took on the challenge of excavating the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Six-Day War of 1967 had brought all of Jerusalem under Jewish control for the first time since its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

For 19 years, from 1948 to 1967, the Quarter had languished under Jordanian rule: Its houses stood empty and its public buildings had been razed. Avigad had to probe beneath this modern-day destruction level to reach even earlier strata bearing Jerusalem’s wounds—poignant remains from the Roman destruction and from the Babylonian assault in 586 B.C.E. The excavations uncovered not only evidence of Jerusalem’s travails but also vivid reminders of the city’s former opulence.

For 14 years, Avigad and his team worked nonstop, even in the rain, under pressure to complete their work so housing construction could begin. At times the work of the archaeologists and of the builders leapfrogged: As soon as the excavators documented a site, it would be covered again so that a building could be erected above it; when the modern structure was complete, the ancient one—now preserved beneath it—would be uncovered once more. Even after the excavations were complete Avigad would return almost weekly to the Jewish Quarter. One visitor, who had the good fortune to have Avigad guide him through the Quarter, remarked, “It was like being taken into the Holy of Holies by the high priest.”