Better late than never, the Public Works Authority is finally converting the busy grade-level railroad crossing at the eastern entrance to Acco into a viaduct. This is a major project that will involve many months of drilling, pouring concrete, redirecting traffic, etc. Recently, I noticed in the middle of the excavations the tell-tale canopies of sunscreen fabric that mark an archaeological excavation. There, surrounded by massive drilling and earthmoving equipment, sat a group of workers applying hand trowels and whisk-brooms to the sandy soil. This is a rescue dig: if any hint of ancient occupation is encountered in the process of excavating for a construction project, the Antiquities Authority moves in to investigate and document the site before it is destroyed; on several occasions foundation digging has revealed rich finds, as in the case of a mosaic floor that turned up in Lod a couple of years ago. The antiquities are so dense in this country that the sight of the archaeologists on their hands and knees, scraping away in the middle of a highway paving project, hardly even attracts notice. We take it for granted.
We have taken our archaeology seriously for a long time. Sometime around 625 BCE, young King Josiah ordered a large scale remodeling project in the Temple. In the course of the work by carpenters, laborers and masons, it seems that an ancient scroll was uncovered. The high priest gave it to the kings representative, who read it to the king, who tore his clothes in grief, declaring, great indeed must be the wrath of the Lord that has been kindled against us, because our fathers did not obey the words of this scroll to do all that has been prescribed for us. Josiah went on to carry out a general religious reform, purging his realm of idol worship and re-establishing practices (e.g., the Passover sacrifice) that had been abandoned (II Kings 22-23). Many scholars think that the scroll that caused such a commotion was the Book of Deuteronomy (and some say the reformers had it written and found for the occasion). In any case, now, as then, archaeology is not just a dry academic discipline, but rather an activity that seems inseparable from current religious and ideological discourse.
Archaeology is an important component of modern Israeli culture. Some have called it our national sport; others see it as a kind of secular religion. I would estimate that an archaeological find or controversy makes it to the front page of the daily paper at least once a month. Its hard to imagine a family vacation or an annual school trip that does not include at least one site. The whole national park system is supported by the income from admission fees to the Masada excavations. A number of archaeologists have become celebrities, like Yigal Yadin, the army chief of staff who went on to lead the excavations at Masada. Perhaps the most famous amateur archaeologist and owner of one of the largest illegal collections of artifacts - was Moshe Dayan, who was nearly killed in the collapse of a structure he was excavating.
Why the fascination? Because Jews are obsessed with the past? Because we simply encounter remains of ancient life everywhere we turn? Because our insecurity drives us to prove to ourselves and others that we really do have roots here, deep in history? Because in re-forging Jewish identity as secular nationalism, we needed to find an authentic, geographically-based past that was independent of exile-based religion? All of the above? Interestingly, we are not alone in our digging for connections with the past in the soil of our homeland; other modern nation states, like Greece and Turkey and Egypt, have worked hard to discover the links between their glorious ancient cultures and present-day reality.
And dig as we do to find our roots, others are digging to find different roots in the same soil: a couple of years ago an Arab friend mentioned that he had volunteered for a year to work on the excavations under El Aksa mosque in Jerusalem, carried out by the Wakf, the Moslem religious trust. And I learned something very interesting, he said, that it turns out that there is no evidence of any Jewish occupation or building on that mountain! [i.e., the Temple Mount!].
I guess wed better keep our shovels dry; we cant stop digging.