Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Ram Shoeff (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

What do you do?

I'm an architect. I'm the head of the Planning Department, which is part of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The IAA is divided into two "semi-departments." One deals mainly with documents and methodology. The other deals mainly with projects. I am in the project semi-department, which is divided into three branches. The first is the Planning Department, where I'm the head. The second is the Implementation Department. The third is the branch that deals with what we call "small science," like mosaics and pieces that need more research and understanding.

How is your department organized?

We distinguish mainly among three phases, or levels, of conservation intervention. In the first one, we follow archaeological excavations, providing solutions for conservation problems in situ. So it's not for the opening of the site for visitors or anything like that, it's just to conserve the finds until the archaeologists decide whether it's going to be shown or covered. We stabilize the finds.

What are the other levels?

The second level is when it is decided to not to conserve the site, but to cover it. Then, there are certain things we do in order to conserve and then to preserve the finds for future generations. The third level is when the site is going to be exposed to the air and opened to the public. Then, the project is completely different. We deal with a lot of projects all around Israel, from north to south, a very broad spectrum of projects, ranging from small sites to mega-plans, such as the master plan for the Old City of Jerusalem. I am part of the team that has been working on this project for about five years now.

How many people are in the Planning Department?

We are about 50. In my branch, there are eight architects. There are no archaeologists in this department. And then the rest are expert conservators.

As an architect, what, specifically, is your role?

One of the main things that the IAA does is to uphold the Antiquities Law, which says we must identify and record sites within the State of Israel that may contain archaeological finds. We record them in a certain way on a map. And if someone wants to build or renovate within an area that is already recorded as a place that might contain archaeological finds, he has to come to the IAA and ask for permission. Then what happens, usually, does not belong to us but to another part of the IAA. An archaeologist goes to the site and sometimes excavates to see if there are any finds. The owner must pay for the excavations, according to the law, and then, depending on what the finds are, we decide how the building should be constructed. Until that point, we're not involved at all. We are involved if that person is willing to conserve the finds or not. But we mainly work with public bodies—city authorities—because they're more aware and more willing to preserve and open to the public archaeological sites within their authority.

Are you currently working at any archaeological sites?

At the site of Lod, for example, we are very much involved. The famous Roman mosaic is going to be taken off the site for a period of about two to three years for the conservation process. It takes a lot of time because it's a huge mosaic with a lot of details. It's really amazing. During this time, we're going to construct a museum for it, which will be on the site, in situ. So it's eventually going to come back to the same site where it was found.


The IAA is planning a museum in the city of Lod, where a stunning Roman mosaic was unearthed in 1996. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Is there anything special you need to take into consideration in planning the museum?

First, there need to be archaeological excavations around the site, to see if there are any finds that might get damaged during the construction of the building. And it's going to be an open museum. It will only be closed each evening with a kind of gate or something. But the main thing is that it will be open for the public. So it will be a very big, public square, except the mosaic will be surrounded with some kind of fence or something. But we hope people will still be able to see it when the museum is closed. It will be something mainly for the public, for the people of the city of Lod. That is for the moment the plan that we hope we'll be able to implement.

What would prevent you?

For now, there is funding for the project, but it depends on the state of the mosaic itself. It was actually covered for about 15 years. So we have first to see what we're going to find. At the moment, it seems perfect. It was conserved when it was found, then it was covered. Now, it's being uncovered again, and we are all very excited to see if everything is okay.

Will the museum also house other finds from the site?

We don't know yet. It will be mainly for the mosaic itself. But I'm sure there will be a small exhibition of the city of Lod.

What other projects are you currently working on?

In Jerusalem, as I said, the master plan for the Old City, which is really big and huge and very, very complicated. We're also working on something similar in the Old City of Beer Sheva, a city from the end of the 19th century, very interesting in its urbanistic structure. We are now doing a survey of the buildings that we think should be conserved within the old structure of the city. We're working a lot in Jerusalem, on the conservation of the ancient city walls. A lot of work around the city.

Street scenes from Jerusalem's Old City, where Shoeff is working on a new master plan

How extensive is the work you're doing to the city walls?

We are conserving them with the least possible intervention. We're trying to give as little as possible a modern touch to the skyline of the walls. Just to conserve them with a lot of mortar work. Many of the original stones we're trying to repair, rather than replace. But there are several points where it is not possible to use the old stones anymore.

Overall, are they still very structurally sound?

Yes, it's really only small problems—a matter of re-pointing the walls. We think it will be safe for years.

There is a beautiful, modern shopping street, just outside the Old City walls, west of the Jaffa Gate. I noticed that the building facades are dotted with worn stones with numbers on them. What is their significance? Is this also an IAA project?

No, that's not ours. If you ask me personally, I think it was done wrong. It was an old street, Mamilla Street. It was the street that led from the city center to the Old City. Mainly, the buildings outside the ancient city walls were from the middle of the 19th century. So it wasn't so old. I believe, the end of the Ottoman period, beginning of the British period, beginning of the 20th century. But it was a very nice and interesting street. And it was all demolished, actually. Several buildings, like those with more historical "value," were documented. Each stone was assigned a number. I don't know if it's still there, but if you go to the beginning of the street on the west side of it, you might still see the plans of these buildings with the numbers. So they weren't demolished, but dismantled into stones, stored for some years, and then now it is rebuilt according to that plan. Each stone is exactly on the same place it was originally. But today, in the conservation world, we do not see this as a conservation work because the structure is completely modern. The walls are completely modern, made with cement and iron. It's more like something you would see in a scene from the theater. It's completely artificial. We prefer not to do this kind of project. Sometimes, we have to do it. We have some examples, mainly for a wine press that we had to move from one place to another, instead of conserving it. But in this case, we tried as much as possible to keep the original material as much as possible to be as...more or less as it was found on site.


On Mamilla Street—as part of a non-IAA project—the facades of brand-new buildings were fashioned with stones of the 19th- and 20th-century structures that stood there before. Each was numbered so it could be put back in the same location. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

So what we see there are just the old facade stones? Why did they leave the numbers facing out?

Yes. It is going to be cleaned! I said, if it was done anyway, the numbers should be kept because it gives at least the character and allows the visitor to maybe understand the process—it was dismantled and rebuilt according to some kind of recording of the building.

As an architect devoted to Jerusalem's ancient cityscape, what do you think of the new bridge [completed in 2008] by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the city's light-rail system?

I like very much Calatrava as an architect. I think he's brilliant. He takes architecture almost to its limit, everything that deals with the architecture engineering. The bridge itself I think as a monument is interesting, it's nice. It was done well, I think. But I'm not sure it is connected very well with the site. It seems like it doesn't have enough space to breathe. And you can see it from everywhere—all around Jerusalem, even from the Old City. It's not easy to achieve. But at the same time, it's kind of stuck there.

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A bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was constructed in Jerusalem in 2008. Its modern look has been controversial in this ancient city. (Photos by Eti Bonn-Muller)

With all the history in this city, it's hard to believe anything gets built. Construction must stop all the time!

It's very difficult to construct anything in Jerusalem. Really difficult. The IAA archaeologists need to be involved in each project. It makes everything much more expensive.

What else can you tell me about Jerusalem master plan?

The topography of the Old City of Jerusalem is very "strong"—you feel it when you walk, when you drive through it in a car. There are ancient hills and valleys that nowadays you really don't see anymore because everything is covered with buildings. Construction used to be limited. It was not possible to build more than two or three stories high. Today, if you build on top of a historical construction, you have to be very careful because we don't know if the foundations are strong enough to carry modern structures. But since it is like this in every direction, we thought that if we made a topographical map of the roofs of the city, we should get something that follows its contours. That was our theory. We didn't know if it was going to be like this.

Did you test it?

We turned it over to the survey office and workshop that deals with the plans to ask them to try and make this kind of plan for the roofs of the Old City. It was difficult to explain to them because we didn't have any examples from other places in the world. We didn't know if we were going to get anything or not. At the end, we see a map—it's not that sharp but it's really amazing. You can actually see the topography on top of the roads. There is a small valley. You don't even feel it when you're walking today, but you can still see it in the roofs of the city.

What are you going to do with this information?

Now, someone who wants to add an addition to his building can come and see if he's planning for the right height. We can tell him in a short period of time if he should start with the process of building or if it's not worth the money.

What else is involved with the master plan?

We're also doing an urban survey. We estimate that we have about 5,000 buildings in the Old City of Jerusalem. But we don't know. No one knows, actually. It's not possible. We don't have the budget or the time to do it. Also, when we survey a building in Jerusalem, we get into more details. It's a lot of work to record each building. So what we're going to do is just to survey two small areas within small city blocks, actually, and then, through them, learn better the structure, the ability of design, and rebuilding or adding new buildings to the structure. It will be a pilot project. And then we'll establish methodology for the future.

How do you currently record buildings in Jerusalem?

We fill out a card for each building and indicate its degree scale: "A" is for an extraordinary building—in Jerusalem, we have lots of them. "B" is for a building that is interesting in its details but has suffered from previous additions that actually damaged the original structure. "C" is for a building that is important because it's part of the city structure, but it doesn't by itself have a specific value. "D" is for a building that should get help as soon as possible—a kind of intervention by demolition or rebuilding—something should happen with it.

How do people who live in Jerusalem feel about the importance of preserving the Old City's historical buildings?

We have to educate the public. It's very difficult to explain that someone should create a budget for this kind of research when he actually wants to rebuild a new building and do his project and this is it. A lot of money is involved. Sometimes it means people can't construct what they planned. In many cases, we can come and say, okay this building is very valuable but the value is to the public. So you cannot actually touch it. And it means that the constructor might possibly not be able to carry out his plans.

You mentioned Lod, but do you have any other active projects now outside of Jerusalem?

We also work at several archaeological sites in the Golan. One is the site of an ancient synagogue. It's an amazing site. We made a program for it and now we're starting the actual planning and designing for visitors—how the public will come, the road, the signs, how everything will be explained to the public. I think that the architects should be involved as much as possible to bring public safety to the site, to give visitors the ability to learn about and understand the site. Whenever possible, we try not to reconstruct sites, unless doing so really gives visitors more clues to understanding them. Today, we prefer to leave archaeological sites as is. Their value, in part, is the place itself. It's important for visitors to understand how they were found, through archaeological excavations.

Many of the famous sites I've seen in Israel, such as Masada, have been heavily reconstructed...

I think that Masada is too extreme. It was rebuilt from the beginning. The site is amazing but the reconstruction is really without any connection, I think, to the research. We don't do it anymore like this, not at all. We now decide if we want to give visitors the ability to understand what used to be built here—with a sign that says it's a reconstruction. So they can see a building and then also make the connection by themselves because, who knows? In 10 years, another archaeologist can come up with another theory and according to him the reconstruction would be completely different. And then, to replace a sign, it's nothing, but to demolish a building, that's damaging. Today we try to touch as little as possible.

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The site of Masada was heavily reconstructed, which is not how IAA conservators prefer to do things today. (Photos by Eti Bonn-Muller)

What is a good example of a site that you think was recently done right?

There is an interesting project in the Galilee, half an hour from Haifa. There's an archaeological "tell," which in Hebrew, closely translates to "hill." It's a very interesting one. It was excavated years ago. But over the last two years, work was done with the elementary school in the city of Yokneam. The students came several times to visit the tell. They studied its different historical levels and phases, and each class made pictures of each phase of the tell. The children's drawings were placed along the main road. And then, one of our architects made different stations, so the children could actually come and play with things from each historical period.

How does that work?

In one area, for example, there is a box with sand where they can dig and recover a model of a tell. In another place, they can play with wooden cubes and different historical maps, re-creating the tell, like a puzzle. Everything was planned together with the children. And what happened is that lately they have started returning with their families because they feel connected to this site. It's part of them and part of the character of the city. It's connected now very much with the city. There's going to be like a third phase with the schools, when we will let them touch the artifacts. At the IAA, the archaeologists are divided into different areas in Israel—the north, middle, south, and Jerusalem—and each has a small department of education. So we are very much involved with education and the understanding of archaeological sites in the State of Israel. We're very much in the schools.

Your job is also very important to you personally?

I have three children, ages 5, 8, and 10. They're very much involved with my work. They know what I do. They see me work. My wife is also an architect who deals with these issues. We're like a house that is built around conservation.