In the inner sanctum of archaeology

In the inner sanctum of archaeology

300 sites are excavated in Israel every year. The finds, an estimated 40 annually.000, are stored centrally in an inconspicuous hall in Beit Shemesh. A site visit to the paradise of archaeology enthusiasts.

Indistinguishably, the building blends into the desolate charm of the industrial area south of Beit Shemesh. Nothing about its unaming exterior suggests its precious core: With a million finds from several millennia, the building holds 5.000 square meters the holy of holies of Israeli archaeology. About a third of them testify to the ancient Christian presence in the Holy Land and the rich cultural flowering that sprouted with the early Christian pilgrims. The collection is growing steadily: With 300 excavations a year, Israel is one of the best archaeological places to visit.

Clay vases fill the ceiling-high metal shelves. Blue plastic boxes with oil lamps stand next to rows of shelves full of oaria. From the Stone Age through the various phases of the Iron and Bronze Ages, from Roman times through the Persians to the Islamic era and the Crusaders, the history of the Holy Land is here by the meter. By law, all artifacts belonging to the State of Israel are stored in the Central Repository of Antiquities, the "National Treasury," explains Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Inconspicuous warehouse

Exceptions are "B-finds," which are stored in a huge warehouse under a highway intersection, and particularly sensitive coin and text finds, for whose climate-controlled storage the Israel Museum offers better conditions. Finds from the period before the founding of the state in 1948 are another exception. Everything else, however, is stored in the inconspicuous warehouse in Beit Shemesh, about 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem. Its custodians say there is no second place like it – and it will soon be bursting at the seams.

Actually, says curator Deborah Ben-Ami, the National Archaeological Treasury has a liberal policy: the collection is open to researchers, students and, within the limits of its possibilities, interested laymen. The limit of these possibilities is simply the lack of space. The new building, twice the size of the previous one, currently under construction in Jerusalem, is intended to give the Israeli public easier access to their country’s collected antiquities. The funds needed to complete the future home of the finds are still lacking.

Accurate reconstruction

For the curator, the advantage of a central repository is obvious: While individual pieces are exhibited in a museum, the centrally managed antiquities treasure with its finds can offer comprehensive insight into a specific era or a specific site. For the time of Jesus, this means, according to Gideon Avni: "We can reconstruct very accurately the daily aspects of Jesus’ life, from the Church of the Nativity to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, from his birth to his crucifixion. Artifacts reveal what he ate, what water and wine he drank, how long it took to get from Jerusalem to Jericho and what fishing was like in the Sea of Galilee."

Not everything written in the Gospels can be backed up archaeologically, according to the scientist. But among the estimated 40.000 new artifacts are also always new finds from the time of Jesus, which expand the archaeological horizon of understanding. So much for the good news. "The bad news is that to this day there is no find among them that we can physically attribute to the person of Jesus."

As described in the Gospel

But this is ultimately no surprise to the archaeologist, since it is not a king or ruler or powerful man: "Jesus was one of a million people of his time in the Holy Land, and only long after his crucifixion became the trigger of a much larger movement."

Following the "young Jew with his interesting ideas" archaeologically on his way through the country is difficult, says Gideon Avni. But at least: "The narrative and the background are correct: we can say today that we can find the places and the society described in the Gospels."

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