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Judea and Palestine May 23, 2005
by Mark Rose

A new book surveys the region's key ancient sites.


The Archaeology of Ancient Judea and Palestine
Ariel Lewin
(Getty Publications, 2005) 204 pages, $39.95
ISBN 0-89236-800-4

Within some limitations and with a few caveats, The Archaeology of Ancient Judea and Palestine is a good introduction to the region's major ancient sites. A translation from Italian of Giudea e Palestina by Ariel Lewin (University Basilicata), the volume is an interesting hybrid of coffee-table book and historical-archaeological overview.

In addition to the long Introduction (divided into "Jewish Origins" and "Roman Judea and Palestine") there are 19 chapters. Most of these deal with individual sites: Jerusalem, Capernaum, Tiberias, Sepphoris, Hammat Gader, Scythopolis (Beth Shean), Samaria-Sebaste (Shomeron), Neapolis, Jericho, Herodion, Qumran, Masada, Bethlehem, Hebron and Mamre, Caesarea, Ashkelon, and Gaza. Two chapters deal with collective subjects: Towns of the Negev and Synagogues, Churches, and Monasteries. The text is paired with photographs that are generally excellent (they are credited on the book's jacket to Dinu, Sandu, and Radu Mendrea).

In her preface, Lewin explains the selection of sites, including those within the boundaries of Israel and the occupied territories, but excluding those in neighboring countries. This reliance on modern political and national demarcations makes for a partial view of the ancient reality. Another limitation is that coverage of the sites basically ends after Christian rule in late antiquity. Islamic and Crusader-era remains are discussed only in relation to the earlier period (the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a photograph showing Roman columns in the Crusader wall at Ashkelon). Here and there in the text there are references to what visitors to sites see today. At least at some level, I think, there was consideration of the usefulness that The Archaeology of Ancient Judea and Palestine would have for those planning to travel to this region. But do not take this as a comprehensive guidebook.

The chapters are variable in terms of their depth. Most sites are given about six pages, but Jerusalem and Masada are substantially longer. After the detailed overview in the introduction, the chapter on Jerusalem (22 pages) seems mired in yet more historical particulars (I say this knowing that the "particulars" are not trivial gauged in an absolute way but only relative to the introduction and the scope of the volume in its entirety). Masada's length (12 pages) is the result of siege of the fortress at the end of the Jewish rebellion against Rome (to my mind the least interesting aspect of the site). The omnibus chapters on the Negev towns and Christian and Jewish religious sites are also longer (both 12 pages), and perhaps because they cover topics rather than individual sites are among the more successful ones. Some of the shorter chapters are also among the nicer ones. The chapter on Hammat Gader, an ancient thermal resort linked to the city Gadara, is quite brief, but it is a site I was unfamiliar with, so its inclusion was welcome.

Much of this volume can be described as the archaeology of monuments--the date and history of structures--rather than social or cultural archaeology. This approach is reinforced by the selection of photographs, most of which are of ancient monuments or of landscapes including ancient remains; the few artifacts shown are exclusively mosaics and coins. There are exceptions: notably in the chapters on sites where extensive archaeological investigations geared toward elucidating a cultural perspective have taken place (Sepphoris and Scythopolis come to mind).

In some chapters, biblical accounts are given uncritically. Generally this happens at the beginning of the chapter, where the site is set into its historical context. For example, the introductory section "Jewish Origins" takes an archaeologically informed position on the supposed mass exodus from Egypt and conquest, and it notes that the historical reality of Saul, David, and Solomon is debated. This contrasts with the opening sentence of the Jerusalem chapter: "Jerusalem was chosen as the capital of Israel by King David around 1000 B.C." There are other cases of this. Samaria, we learn at outset of its chapter, "was founded by Omri about 878 B.C."

The illustrations might have been used more effectively. In places there might have been greater coordination between the text and photographs. In the chapter about Jerusalem, for example, special mention is made of excavations in the Jewish Quarter following the Six Day War, yet there are no images of those excavations. Elsewhere, there could have been closer linkage between the text and the site plans. For example, in the chapter on Scythopolis the temples of Zeus and Nysa are note as important in the text but do not appear on the site plan, which is limited to remains of the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The layout of the volume includes wide margins, and these could accommodate deep captions expanding on the text and linking the photographs to it closely. Unfortunately, the captions are often just bare identifications. For example, a beautifully carved Roman sarcophagus from Ashkelon is noted only as "Roman sarcophagus." There is no indication of precise date, no context of the find, and no interpretation of the scene depicted on it.

There are occasions where adherence to the design of the book overrides commonsense. One instance of this is in the Caesarea chapter in which the site plans are the left side of the left-hand page and the keys to them are on the right side of the right page. A reader has to cross the full spread of the book--back and forth--to decipher the layout of the ancient city's remains. This is wrong. The design of a book should service the needs and ease of the reader.

If I have highlighted a number of flaws here, it is partly out of frustration. With a bit more effort, this could have been a great book. But don't be put off. The text is generally clear and concise. The introduction is a good overview of the region's history and the individual chapters generally provide a good summary of each site. Some of the photographs are exceptional (there's a wonderful view of the Mar Saba monastery in the Kidron Valley). Within its limitations, The Archaeology of Ancient Judea and Palestine is a good survey of the region.

Mark Rose is executive editor/online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America