Digging for the Solution

Yonathan Mizrachi*

(Translation of article published article in The Marker in Hebrew)

Recently, The Marker published a detailed article  (in Hebrew) examining the use made by the Israel Antiquities Authority of archaeological excavations as a financial resource and the conflict of interest manifest therein.  The article examined what is driving the huge increase in the of volume archaeological excavations in Israel in recent years.  Some of the sites excavated are multi-layered archaeological mounds, each of which requires the work of dozens of archaeologists over a period of many years.  The increase in the number of excavations brings into focus the question of the Antiquities Authority’s intended role and responsibility on the one hand, and pressure applied by the Ministry of Finance and other interested parties, to turn over rescue excavations to private entities, on the other.

The Antiquities Authority is a statutory body responsible for antiquities in Israel.  Some of the roles of the Authority include protecting antiquities from destruction, performing rescue excavations in accordance with development needs, releasing areas for construction and supervising construction work at antiquities sites.  The professional discretion is entirely in the hands of the Authority. The need to protect antiquities from destruction, while at the same time conducting excavations paid for by the developer places the Authority in a conflict of interest.

As stated in the article, the issue of the Antiquities Authority’s conflict of interest is nothing new.  The State Comptroller and Ombudsman expressed his opinion on the subject in his official report in 2005.  Since that time, it seems the situation has only become more serious.  Among the central reasons for this is the decision to excavate multi-layered mounds, such as Tel el-Asawir, Motza and Beit Shemesh.  These are sites of exceptional archaeological importance and their excavation for the purpose of development condemns them to irreversible destruction.  From the perspective of the Antiquities Authority, each of these excavations brings in revenues of tens of millions of shekels, sums that cannot easily be turned down.

The Antiquities Authority Law grants the director of the Authority the authority to make all professional decisions.  The director is a political appointee of the Minister of Culture and generally the director does not have a background in archaeology. The director has the authority to decide where to excavate, whether to release an area for development and when to allow researchers to publish their studies.  As such, the professional considerations of the Authority’s archaeologists are subordinate to the director’s decisions, who, in turn, is faced with political pressures.

Many archaeologists (including those interviewed for the article in The Marker), in an attempt to resolve the inherent conflict of the Antiquities Authority, avail themselves of the easy solution of privatizing archaeological excavations.  On the face of it, this is an effective merging of academic rigor and sound economics.  On the one hand, the archaeological excavations will be conducted by contractors dependent upon universities who will, therefore, be committed to publishing their finds at a high standard, and on the other hand, the competition will impel the companies to complete the excavations quickly and at minimal cost.

However, privatization is not always the solution.  In this case, privatization means exacerbating the destruction of antiquities, and undermining the professional standing of the archaeologists.

For the universities, the private contractors are the stepchildren that bring in revenue and enable archaeology students to work and acquire experience, but they are not part of the academic research front.  Faculty members focus on the sites they are excavating in the framework of their academic research.  They have no interest in conducting rescue excavations or in ensuring that the level of the excavation and publication meet accepted professional standards.  In the final analysis, the private excavation companies are profit oriented contractors where money is the determining factor.

If antiquities are a national asset, then the question is: what is the best way to preserve antiquities for the benefit of the public today and for future generations?  The ideal solution is to split the Authority into two entities with government financing, one with supervisory responsibilities and the other to carry out excavations.  Unfortunately, in the present financial and political reality, this is not a realistic proposal.

It seems that the realistic solution is to strengthen the Antiquities Authority itself.  The Authority has the largest reserve of researchers and experience in every kind of excavation.  An internal division should be created within the Authority between a supervisory arm and one in charge with conducting excavations. At the same time, clear standards should be set regarding excavation policy, supervision and release of areas for development which are not subject to political pressures, but are, rather, based upon professional considerations.  These standards should be guided by research a commitment to prevent damage to multi-layered mounds and to the preservation of unique cultural sites.

Thirty years after the enactment of the Antiquities Authority Law, it seems that its manner of implementation merits reconsideration.  But the  proposed solution of  privatization will not serve the objective of the law and certainly will not protect the antiquities.

*  Yonathan Mizrachi is an archaeologist and the director of Emek Shaveh.