Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Jon Seligman (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

What's a typical day like for you?

There's no such thing as a typical day. There are days I'm in the office all day, days I'm in meetings all day, and days I'm visiting sites. There are other days I'm working on my own publications, going to the library, and excavating every now and then. The Antiquities Authority is spread over a lot of buildings in the city, which is not very good. We spend some of our days driving between offices just to have internal meetings. Then there's office stuff to be done—correspondence, writing. I'm also working on new plans for the Old City. It's a real mixture of different kinds of activities.

Do you enjoy it, though, or would you prefer being out in the field?

Look, as an archaeologist, I'd love to be doing archaeology the whole time. But, on the other hand, this job is deeply involved in the decision-making policies of how archaeology functions in Jerusalem—what we preserve, what we conserve—and it's an exciting city, archaeologically. So it's still interesting. In the last few years I've moved into publishing on subjects that cover not only archaeology, but also heritage management. I'm trying to learn more about heritage management because as an archaeologist you don't learn about planning, things like that. None of us were trained as managers. I've come across quite a few people who may have been good archaeologists but it doesn't mean they know how to operate a heritage management project.


The Jerusalem Regional Office's beloved cat (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Can you give me a broad overview of the IAA?

It's quite a large organization. This is just the Jerusalem department—one of many—and there are 45 people here. Our mission statement basically covers the main areas of what we do. It states that the Antiquities Authority is the leading archaeological establishment in Israel that is responsible for the country's antiquities and antiquities sites—their exposure, protection, preservation, research, and publication—and the administration of Israel's national Antiquities Law. The essential tenet of my work is to safeguard, preserve, and research Jerusalem's archaeological heritage while balancing national development with the protection of the state's antiquities. How do you balance, on the one hand, a city where people have to live and, on the other, the fact that the city is 6,000 years old and every time you put a spade into the ground you're going to find antiquities?

How do you balance it?

We try to do it as intelligently as we can—and with as much respect for the ancient remains as we can—while making sense of what is important and what is more of the same. Do I have to protect every ancient grave in the city of Jerusalem from future development? The answer is no. The thing is that you make sure that you have a representative sample that you can preserve for the future. You also have to excavate, fully document, publish—and that's the preservation of that particular site. It's not done in the physical sense. That's the balance. Sometimes, it's much more difficult, for example, building roads with kinks in them. Roads can't do a zigzag, but we can move buildings.

So you've actually moved a building before?

Oh, many times. For example, in a new neighborhood north of Jerusalem, we moved whole buildings and people's homes because the finds were so important. At the moment, we're digging in a village to the west of Jerusalem and they've come across an important Chalcolithic site. Some people had plots of land there, which we've actually canceled to try and preserve the antiquities. In a situation like that, we excavated, and then we made the decision, which, of course, was somewhat difficult. In that case, we made the decision prior to the excavation. We did a test pit and saw that the information was complex. We told them they were going to have to change their plans.

How, exactly, do you make that decision?

First of all, you speak with people to determine what the consequences of a decision like that would be. You also have to make an internal judgment, which is a judgment of the value of the antiquities—to see if they have some kind of value that is beyond the mundane. That's the sort of thing that happens quite regularly. We are deeply involved in all the planning processes in the city of Jerusalem and also outside the city. Every plan that goes to the planning authorities and commissions comes through the Antiquities Authority at some point—more than one point—to be fully coordinated with us. We try to coordinate with the planners and the architects when they're in their preliminary stage, prior, even, to concept. Because to change an architect's plans once he's gone beyond the concept stage is like meddling with what an artist has on his canvas.

Do you ever get involved with aspects of the design? For example, if someone wanted to build a modern structure in the heart of the Old City, can you prevent that?

We judge our level of involvement by the importance of the location. The places of real importance in Jerusalem are in the Old City area. My level of dealing with things outside the Old City would be to see whether digging the foundations would cause any damage to antiquities, which are subterranean. I wouldn't be dealing, for example, with the skyline. In the Old City, however, I would be involved in the skyline—to determine if something is architecturally unacceptable.

How do the architects take that kind of input?

We now go in very, very early. The architects used to bring us in late and then the battles would start! So what they have tried to do in the last few years is to change the way they work with the planning authorities so they don't wait until the last second. Come prior and plan in it, rather than having to plan against it. So that's the way we deal with it. There are all sorts of things we do—surveys, test pits, soundings—all the regular archaeological things. Of course, a city like Jerusalem has been so heavily researched that there's all sorts of information.

Are there ever any surprises, even with all that information?

Oh, always. That's archaeology! Otherwise, it wouldn't be interesting. It's not so much finding a site or an ancient tomb by surprise, though that happens quite frequently as well. The thing is the finds within the sites, which are always surprising. For example, we have an excavation just south of the Old City where in 2008 we found a hoard of 264 identical gold coins of Heraclius, the last Byzantine emperor who ruled in Jerusalem. A few weeks ago, we stumbled upon an Armenian mosaic. I mean, these things happen on quite a regular basis in a place like Jerusalem where there's such a long history.

There is an impressively long history here. According to the Antiquities Law, what defines an "antiquity"?

The Antiquities Law is our working document. This means we have the statutory authority that goes beyond just being an organization. The law defines "antiquities" as anything made before 1700. This is a rather crazy definition, though. It's an inheritance from the British Mandate. It's problematic.


The Jerusalem Division headquarters (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

How so?

Because what is 1700? Nothing happened in 1700! I mean, it's a very nice year, I'm sure, because there was probably very good wine in that year. But it has no meaning. Why is something from 1699 an antiquity and why is something from 1701 not an antiquity? There's no logic to it. Many countries have shifted from a date like that to a moving barrier, like anything that is 100 years old is an antiquity. And that shifts, of course, with time. But we have this fixed date, which, I say, is an antiquity in itself.

Do you think that will ever change?

There's now a move to try and shift it to 1840. Why 1840? Because 1840 was the first year that modern building materials—cement, structural iron—were brought into Palestine. It was a complete change of the building techniques. Well, so, 1840? I can say I don't understand it either. I think it should be a moving point. But that's open to discussion. What is important is the subsequent sentence in the Antiquities Law that states: "Any object, whether detached or fixed, which was made by man before the year 1700 of the general era, and includes anything subsequently added thereto which forms an integral part thereof." The important phrase for us here is, "an integral part thereof." What that does mean in a place like the Old City of Jerusalem, which is a mixture of many periods and many things that are beyond the year 1700? It means we can institute the Antiquities Law on the whole of the Old City, even on buildings built after 1700 because they're an "integral part" of the Old City.

So there is a loophole! And this also applies to private property?

Antiquities in Israel are state property. There is no private ownership of antiquities. That means if we find antiquities on private land, the land belongs to the person but the antiquities themselves belong to the state. That's not similar to, for example, the Anglo-Saxon law, which is very much to consider private property as a "divine right." [Here], if a piece of ancient pottery is found in somebody's garden, it doesn't belong to the person, it belongs to the state. The person then has to return it to the state.

Are people pretty good about that?

Eh...I wouldn't say they're great about that. But that does mean that if somebody buys a piece of land, it's their right to use that piece of land for housing, but it doesn't give them the right to excavate it for antiquities. It doesn't give them the right to own the antiquities on that site—or the oil for that matter. It's an inheritance of the colonial law from our British period. In England, of course, antiquities belong to the individual person, privately. But when you come to dealing with natives, you can say it belongs to the state so thank goodness for this law—we're very happy to keep it. In this department, the most important clause of the Antiquities Law is number 29, which is an all-encompassing law saying what you can do or not do in an antiquities site.

What does it say?

So when I talked before about dealing with planning, it's all based on this clause of the Antiquities Law: "The person shall not carry out or be allowed to carry out any of the following without permission or approval of the director" and it has a list of things you can't do on a site, building, etcetera. Then, if we've forgotten anything, it says, "anything else designated by the director." That means, if we've declared a site to be an antiquities site by the Antiquities Law, anybody doing any activity on that piece of land—and most of the area of Jerusalem is an antiquities site—it has to get the approval of the Antiquities Authority. That's the basis of our activity. In Jerusalem, since it's an antiquities site, it means anybody doing activities in any of these designated areas has to get our permission.

Would the owner of the building or land be responsible for the cost of IAA excavations?

Of course!

Even on the land of your own, private house?

You don't pay the full price for it but you pay a certain...what we call a "license fee." It used to be that the state would pay it but when [economist] Milton Friedman arrived on the world scene, everything changed. It now has to be paid by the individual.

Is it a substantial amount?

It's not insignificant. I think you pay 400 sheqels [about $100] a square meter. So if you have a house that's over 100 square meters, it's a lot of money.

That must be frustrating for the they have to wait for the archaeological work to be completed, right?

They have to wait for it to be finished, yes. If you ask me personally, I think it's completely unfair because there's no inherent..."result" for the person to see from it. He pays for something for which he gets nothing—except for the possibility to build his house. That's a deep problem.

And there's no way for someone to build a house without you guys knowing?

Not today. You can sometimes get away with it, but it's pretty tough.

That's a lot to keep track of. How is the IAA organized?

The Antiquities Authority has a director who has a number of sub-departments. I am in a regional department, which is divided up by north, south, central, and Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is divided up into the Jerusalem district, which is just the city of Jerusalem, and the Judea district, which is the area to the west of Jerusalem. We only work in the pre-'67 borders. In the West Bank, there is a different organization belonging to the Civil Administration.

Do you work with them at all?

We work with them. But we don't have any organizational connections beyond logistics. They work under the Jordanian law of's a completely separate organization.

I have a scientific advisor who's in charge of our section of archaeologists that work just in the city of Jerusalem. The archaeologists in the regions are usually the junior- or middle-level archaeologists. When you get a PhD, you move from the regional into the national body. The director of archaeology is in charge of all the scientific departments—excavations and surveys. Archaeology is the major body, the largest department in the Antiquities Authority. The director is also the person who deals with the licenses for excavations run by foreigners, from foreign universities. That's an important department.

How does that work?

All excavations in Israel have to be licensed by the Antiquities Authority. Every university has to run each project through our Licensing Department and prove that they have the financial ability to carry through the project. They also have to show that the person in charge of the project is an archaeologist—and that he comes from an archaeological institution. This is not so simple with the Americans, especially, because many of them do not come from archaeological institutions. Many of them come from theological or anthropological departments. And that's not acceptable under Israeli rules as a department that can carry out an excavation, and sometimes that's a problem. We have suffered too much from people who have come, excavated, and disappeared—never to reappear, never to publish, etcetera, so we want to make sure that the institutions themselves are committed to that work. They guarantee that that person has the ability and also the institutional capacity to carry out an excavation and publish it. We expect institutions to guarantee that it does go through.

So how many foreign digs are approved here each year?

I think there are about 48 across the whole country. Jerusalem's got a problem because of our politics. You may have noticed there are politics in Jerusalem. Many foreign institutions do not want to be involved in excavations east of the pre-'67 border. So they will not apply for excavations in that area, which means that in Jerusalem excavations by foreign institutions are very limited. We have one at the moment. They're dong an excavation near Mount Zion. But that's the only one in the Jerusalem area.

How do you handle the conservation of finds from all these sites?

The Conservation Department has been greatly expanded in the last few years. It deals with both the conservation and preservation of archaeological sites and the treatment of finds. There's a thin line between those two fields because when do you end conservation in the field and when do you start treating the finds? The conservators basically say it's when they start sticking the ceramics together.

What kind of research resources does the IAA have?

We also have a very important library. In Jerusalem there are a number of very important archaeological libraries. But ours is 70 years old. It's one of the biggest library collections of archaeology probably anywhere in the Middle East. And then there are the archives. They're important as well because they contain information, continual information, from the early part of the 20th century of all the sites in the state and they really are very important. They're from the British Mandate period. It's almost unique. In Israel almost everything was started tabula rasa in 1948 but we're one of the only departments that is a continuation of the British Mandate department.

Do you also have an active publications program?

We have a number of publications. We have the preliminary or "short" publication series, which is all the Israeli excavation news. It's only on the Internet, for good or bad. It's a free service. For us dinosaurs, we still like to see things on paper. But it's continually updated. The next level up is Atiqot, which is a journal with articles published mostly in English but also in Hebrew. The final one is the monographic series, which is done by people with large excavations—that's the publication.

How are the finds themselves processed? Where are they stored?

Every find that goes through the process from the find stream to the national collection to museums is brought to our research facility in Beth Shemesh. And every find belongs to the State Collection of Antiquities. For example, the Israel Museum has its own collection, but most of the pieces on exhibition there belong to the Antiquities Authority. Most museums in Israel—their complete collections aren't their collections. They belong to the state collection, which is then lent out for exhibition to other museums or internationally. For example, we have a roaming exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls. This, again, is belongs to the state collection. In the meantime, everything is stored at the research facility. Scholars can go there and study the material.

What is one of the largest citywide projects the IAA is involved with today?

We've been working very, very actively with the light railway planning and execution since 1995, since its initial stages. There's been a lot of work and excavation along the line, which is all above ground. There have been many, many finds, especially as you get close to the Old City. Our inspector follows every inch of it. It's supposed to be completed by the end of 2010. At one of the sites, we found a Jewish bathhouse and village, which showed that there was continued Jewish presence in Jerusalem up until the year 135 at least. This was very important because before we always believed that after the destruction of the temple, Jews were expelled from the city. Another interesting thing we found was that the whole of the area surrounding this Antiquities Authority office was a Roman legionary camp during the second century.

That must have been exciting...

It was very interesting. It wasn't the camp itself. It was the logistics base of the Roman legion. They had all the kilns here to make the ceramics for the camp itself, including for the buildings themselves that were all stamped with the seal of the Roman army. You've got to remember that the 10th Roman legion was stationed here for 200 years—not a short period of time—and then it was replaced by the next Roman legion so we're talking about Roman legions that were stationed in Jerusalem from about the year 70 until around about 638. It was quite fun. The other important area was around the Old City where we found a large number of monasteries of the Byzantine period. To the north of the city, we uncovered a 12th-century village, but its construction began in the second century. Of course, we're excavating only the width of the light-rail lines. We usually have a 500-meter-long cut, though. The excavations are in the middle of the road with cars going by on either side. So far, these are the major finds.

Light Railway Excavation

Which period interests you the most personally?

The Byzantine period. But one of the things you learn working in a place like the Antiquities Authority is the lack of any possibility to really specialize. Our excavations are not regular university-type excavations where you have a research model and you go to a site and try to show some sort of specific idea. Most of our excavations—80, 90 percent—are salvage excavations, so you have to deal with whatever comes up comes up.

That doesn't sound easy...

I try to match my staff as much as I can to their particular interests. But it's not always possible. Sometimes we have a prehistorian dealing with a Roman tomb and they're expected to cope with it! They get help, obviously. We don't expect them to produce a great volume from that. But we do expect them to be able to...theoretically, you can take an archaeologist and throw them anywhere in the world. Whether they understand the pottery is another thing. But technically, they should be able to excavate professionally and understand the stratigraphy. And obviously, they have more information than that. So they're expected to be able to understand the information at least at a very basic level. And that certainly happens.

I'd imagine to be an archaeologist in a city like Jerusalem where all the historical periods are just piled on top of each other, you couldn't just know one...

You have no choice, yes. We always say that while the universities might have the edge on us in the micro, we have the edge on them in the macro. Often we're pushed also to excavate at speeds we'd not necessarily like to do in a research environment. But when you're dealing with working on a little street with hundreds of cars going past you and things like that, you've got to make, sometimes, a compromise. In 2008, we did about 80 excavations in Jerusalem, which was quite a lot.


On a salvage dig, Seligman excavated a 10th-century church in the basement of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

There's so much interesting material here...

There was construction work being done inside the foundations of a building in the Old City where the Jerusalem City Museum wanted to build a new educational center. They wanted to dig down to create more space. In the excavation, we found what were, in fact, the foundations of the palace of King Herod. Things like that. I did an excavation in the Holy Sepulchre a few years ago, in an underground space underneath it.

Why were you digging there?

In this case, it was the Coptic patriarchy that was doing renovations there. We found out that they were working. We stopped them and said, "Look, this is information that's important to you, too." We found part of what we believe is a church from the 10th century, which is an interesting period because it's one of the Muslim periods. To see a church that's being built during a period of Muslim dominance is important. It shows the Christian communities were continuing their development during that period as well.

After a site is excavated, who's in charge? How is it run?

It's worth noting that the Antiquities Authority doesn't operate archaeological sites. That is the responsibility of the National Parks Authority. This is an anomaly. We instruct the Parks Authority to operate their own parks, which is a very strange way of working it. But that's the way it works. We are, however, involved in the development of those parks. The Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which is the area to the south of the Temple Mount, is an area that we excavated and fully developed as an archaeological park.


The IAA works with the National Parks Authority to create archaeological parks, such as this one in Jerusalem at the base of the Temple Mount. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Do you find the general public is interested in these archaeological parks? How do you engage them?

The Antiquities Authority also has education component. We try to get children involved in archaeology, so they can see it's not a profession to get into because they don't get paid enough! [laughs] Seriously, though, it's a matter of what you do. There's a delicate balance between...they have "Dig for a Day" in Jerusalem, which is some touristy thing. It's done by a commercial company that licenses through the IAA. And if a tourist comes to a site and doesn't find anything, then the day's been a failure. And so they are eager to find the balance between doing that and not making it equally a charade.

I noticed that there is a lot of renovation work being done on the ancient walls surrounding the Old City. Is the IAA also involved with that project?

Yes, at the moment, there is a large, six-year conservation project underway on the city walls. We worked, for example, on the Zion Gate, which was also where one of the battles took place during the War of Independence in 1948. The conservators spotted bullet holes—the Jordanians were on one side and the Israelis were on the other. The bullets themselves, besides damaging the stone, were actually often still stuck in the wall. And because they're made of iron, what happens is as the iron starts to corrode, it does double damage. Originally, each bullet caused the mechanical damage of hitting the wall. Now, as the iron in each bullet starts to corrode, it's "exploding" and destroying the stone from the inside. There was a big discussion on what to do about that! Whether or not we should remove all the things and repair all the stones.

What did you decide?

We decided that the whole thing was a historical layer in itself—and so we left it. We cleaned out each bullet hole and did grouting and all the other work that needs to be done. But the bullets are part of the history of the gate, so we left them there, as they were.

Sounds reasonable...

"Absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence," Donald Rumsfeld once said. He was talking about Iraq, obviously, but it's absolutely true for archaeology.