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The Gravediggers

By David Arkin

According to a recent news report on Ynet (Israel’s largest news website), there are about 300 archaeological digs being undertaken around the country in any given year. Over 90% of all land in Israel is defined as State land, under the authority of the Israel Land Authority (ILA). This means that any land lessee of the ILA has an obligation to report any antiquities found on their property, and allow for their excavation, preservation and conservation. This implies that any antiquity automatically becomes the property of the State. The professional body overseeing this is the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA).

My understanding is that the cost of excavation is also borne by the land lessee, although if you do find hidden treasures in your back yard, while you are compelled to report it, you are not compelled to extract it immediately. Which, I am thinking is logical, because if an artefact or grave has been lying buried for hundreds of years, what harm can be done to leave it safely intact and submerged in the ground? Case-in-point is a recent excavation that took place in early March at the Migdal Zedek quarry, which lies in between Elad to the south and Rosh Haayin to the north, off road 444. It’s also next to the National Park of Migdal Afek, which has structures dating back to the time of the Roman settlement. There is a large fortress visible from the road (apparently road 444 follows part of the ancient trade route known as the “Via Maris” from Egypt all the way north to Syria) hence the proximity of the settlement in the area. Given the fortress, as well as other tombs and burial caves from the Crusader and Ottoman eras also in the vicinity, I suppose it was not a huge surprise when a large compound of 32 graves was discovered in the early 1990’s in the southern side of the quarry.

And there they remained buried for another twenty plus years. As the graves were not near the proximity of the quarrying area, no further action was taken at the time. But in early 2017, a new quarry extension was approved, and the graves were now situated slap bang in the middle of the planned quarrying area. The IAA was called in for an assessment. It is not the first time antiquities have been found in a quarry in Israel: there is a current archaeological dig in the quarry of Nesher, the Israel Cement manufacturer, at its main production site at Ramla. Unlike at Nesher, the grave compound at Migdal Zedek was isolated of any other settlement activity, and a decision was taken to excavate them as soon as possible.

So how much does a grave excavation cost? Not surprisingly, with the number of digs per year, the IAA has a price list. Standard price is a bargain at ILS 31,000. Multiplied by 32 and you get close to ILS 1 million (with no allowance for a bulk discount). Add 12% for unexpected costs for complexities on site, plus FEL (front end loader) and security costs, and one is budgeting for a project close to ILS 1.3 million. Perhaps it was simply an option to leave them untouched? Except that meant not quarrying around four million tons of high-grade aggregates, or leaving at least ILS 50 million (in today’s prices) as buried profit in the ground.

Putting the costs and business aside, the core issue was actually one of legal compliance. The Antiquities Law requires any individual or company to discontinue operations on their land with a discovery of an antiquity thereon. On the other hand, the quarry plan needed to be adhered to. With the commercial side of the project settled, attention turned to logistics. According to the IAA, a dig of this magnitude normally takes a month on average to complete. It was finished in four days. The strict timetable and haste of the operation was mainly out of fear to avoid any potential interference and demonstrations from Atra Kadisha. This is an extremist, fringe, ultra-Orthodox organisation, whose name is Aramaic for “holy site”. It had clashed violently with police and archaeologists in the past at various sites around the country. While the organisation believes that graves and tombs should be left untouched, basing it on the value of respect and dignity for the dead, their violent protests and archaic methods usually quelled any sympathy to their cause. There was a distinct possibility that a prolonged dig may attract attention, and that this group would attempt to block access to the quarry, and that violent protests may break out and create a media circus for the company’s management and local authorities to deal with. There had been plenty of precedents of violent demonstrations from around the country for this risk assessment.

In the end, the excavation was concluded without incident - four days must be a world record pace for a dig of this magnitude? A group comprising of no less than seventy (archaeologists and volunteers) dug the graves up and removed them safely to storage (the top soil layers were removed first by a FEL). The Jewish soldier turned historian, Josephus Flavius, wrote first-hand of the Jewish revolt against the Romans that began in 66 CE, and which lasted for four years, culminating with the destruction of the Second Temple. He mentions fighting at Migdal Afek, and the Romans laying waste and burning neighbouring villages. However, the preliminary IAA report states the graves date back to the later Byzantine period (referencing findings of jar fragments, bronze bells, and a pendant with a cross). I am sure the gravediggers will dig out and report all the details.