No account of the excavations at Gamla would be complete without speaking about its unique director, Shmarya Gutmann. Now 82, with little and late formal archaeological training, Shmarya has become a legend. As a self-made archaeologist, he is a somewhat controversial figure in Israeli archaeology, but a much-admired public figure.
Born in Scotland to Russian immigrant parents, Gutmann came to Palestine when he was just three. Since age 17, he has lived at Kibbutz Na’an, where, most of the time, he has been a farmer. A Zionist activist since the 1930s, Gutmann served as an emissary to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, encouraging them to emigrate to Palestine before it was too late. Before the state of Israel was established in 1948, Gutmann held high positions in military intelligence, heading a top-secret unit of the Haganah, the military arm of the pre-state Jewish settlement. Later he conducted confidential diplomatic negotiations for the new state and succeeded in rescuing and bringing to Israel large numbers of Iraqi Jews.
Like a Pied Piper, he led thousands of young people on hikes to all areas of the country, sharing his devotion to the land. Some of these trips took him to the unexcavated fortress and palaces of Masada. He returned again and again over ten years to survey the mountain site, eventually discovering the ancient Snake Path used by the Jewish defenders to reach the summit.
When in 1963 the late Yigael Yadin launched his massive effort to excavate Masada, Gutmann became part of Yadin’s team, and it was he who uncovered the famous inscribed sherds, thought to be the lots drawn before the mass suicide of the Jewish defenders.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Jewish settlement of the Golan was renewed. An interest in the Jewish past on the Golan spurred efforts to locate Gamla. In 1968 a survey of the area was conducted by the Israel Nature Reserves Authority. One of the surveyors, a young kibbutznik named Yitzhaki Gal reached the very rock where Josephus may have stood watching the battle of Gamla. Looking at the spur in front of him and comparing that to Josephus’ description, Gal, not quite believing himself, proposed that the site was Gamla.
Shmarya Gutmann determined to raise Gamla from its ruins. For over six years he searched for funding until in 1976 the committee of the Golan settlements—now the regional council—provided the necessary financial support to start the excavation. Today, as work continues, Gutmann is more convinced than ever that Gamla is a missing link in the history of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome and a site of no less significance than Masada.