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Search for the Past Lies Buried by the Present

Archeology: Violence in the Mideast has deterred foreign volunteers from visiting this summer, leaving key excavation sites to languish.


HAZOR, Israel — Amnon Ben-Tor's job is to uncover the past, to bring to light the secrets of lost civilizations buried under earth and stone.

For 13 years, the noted archeologist has toiled in this corner of northern Israel, looking for traces of the Canaanites who settled here 5,000 years ago. Gazing out over his excavation site, Ben-Tor can see the evidence he has unearthed so far: ruins of a mud-brick palace mentioned in the Bible; a 2,800-year-old, still-functioning olive-oil press.

What Ben-Tor can't see, however, is the legion of foreign students he relies on to help him dig each summer. They're not here. The violence gripping Israel and the Palestinian territories scared most of them away, forcing Ben-Tor to drastically scale back his operations.

The story is the same at dozens of other digs throughout the region, many of which are dependent on the labor of eager volunteers from abroad. As a result, excavations languish, artifacts lie undiscovered, and archeologists are left to lament the involuntary lull.

"The situation [is] the worst I can recall in 30 years of archeology," said Israel Finkelstein, the director of the Institute of Archeology at Tel Aviv University. "And the future is a big question mark."

Besides being one of the world's most contested patches of land, this area is among the most fertile for students of ancient civilizations. The lure of biblical archeology has proven irresistible to experts and amateurs for more than a century.

But the bloody intifada that has raged for two years has brought such research to a screeching halt. Not just human lives but information is being lost, archeologists say, because hardly anyone is around to help gather, document and analyze it. "The whole situation is very depressing," Finkelstein said, "and one small component of it is archeology."

This year, not one of 24 U.S.-sponsored expeditions that have been coming to Israel for years showed up. Volunteers, mostly undergraduate and graduate students, withdrew their applications, and universities from Massachusetts to Michigan to Maryland canceled their digs out of safety and liability concerns.

Unpaid volunteers, attracted by the promise of school credit and the mystique of the Holy Land, have been the mainstay of archeology in the region since the 1960s.

"They're intelligent, they learn quickly, they're eager. They make good workers and very good excavators," said Seymour Gitin, head of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem, which has assisted U.S. expeditions in the region since 1900. "They're a really good source of talent."

The students not only help carry out the digs but help fund them. A volunteer typically pays between $1,500 and $2,500 to join an excavation for six to eight weeks.

The number of students who apply every year is normally in the hundreds. But with each report of a suicide bombing in Israel, and then of military retaliation in the West Bank, the pool of applicants shrank in the past year, until eventually it almost completely dried up.

Ben-Tor, a gruff, no-nonsense professor who teaches at Hebrew University, said he had to fight for every volunteer. "I said if I only have 10 people, I'm going out to dig."

Ben-Tor was luckier than most: He was still able to persuade about 25 foreigners to join him and his Israeli students at Hazor, a lush, hilly area near the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights.

But with 60 people total, Ben-Tor's team was half its normal strength, and some sections of the excavation went untouched.

The site is enormous--about 200 acres--and only a fraction has been explored. Even that fraction has produced some marvelous finds, including stone tablets, ivory, jewelry, an exquisite foot-high bronze statuette and the bust of an Egyptian aristocrat nearly 4,000 years old.

While parts of the site can wait for future seasons, the Canaanite royal palace can't, because once exposed, the fragile mud brick starts decaying. The building is described in the Bible, in the book of Joshua, as having been destroyed by a huge fire. Burn marks in the brick support that account.

Fewer workers mean fewer hands to uncover what remains and to preserve what's already been found. Tarps thrown over the palace to slow decay are "just first aid," Ben-Tor said.

To his frustration, one Swedish and two American universities backed out from sending volunteers to Hazor this year. Another American university, which he declined to identify, was supposed to inaugurate a long-term commitment to the dig this summer but pulled out two months before the summer dig season began.

"I told everybody: 'Listen, we don't care any less about our students than you do about your students. If it's OK for us to be here, it's OK for them,' " Ben-Tor said.

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