Hole truths

October 11, 1996

John Davies reports on the problems archaeologists face in Jerusalem. The odd thing is it's sometimes called an archaeological tunnel in the press. But the tunnelling work has always been in the hands of the ministry of religious affairs and been opposed by the archaeological establishment. You could call it an anti-archaeological tunnel." So says Graham Auld, of New College, Edinburgh, whose knowledge of Jerusalem - and of the problems of studying its archaeology - goes back some 30 years. He is talking of the tunnel whose additional opening into a Muslim area has sparked Palestinian anger and a breakdown in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

The tunnel runs parallel to, but outside, the western side of the enclosed area known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary). "It linked up with an ancient underground aqueduct rediscovered in the 19th century as a sewer," explains Richard Harper, director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem.

The city's Muslims, however, have been mistrustful. Auld recalls that in the late 1960s "it was a cause cel bre even then. When Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967 there was a big plaza cleared in front of the Wailing Wall; of course there was anger about that demolition. And when tunnelling began under medieval Arab properties of architectural historical interest, there was suspicion that it would be convenient if some of these buildings fell down".

In such a situation it is no surprise that fieldwork does not thrive in Jerusalem, for all its wealth of history. In fact, there are good reasons not to dig. "Unesco rules that no change, including archaeological change, should take place in an area where there's no recognised government," says Harper. Israel's occupation of Jerusalem is not fully recognised, "so there can be no excavation that would be approved internationally".

Although by Israeli law no new building can go ahead until an initial archaeological investigation has been carried out, such laws do not apply to the government itself, which is how the ministry of religious affairs was able to go ahead with the tunnel in the first place.

To add to archaeologists' problems, not only do Muslims fear anything that seems to threaten holy sites (Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the southern side of Haram al-Sharif, is the third most holy place in Islam), but also extreme orthodox Jews believe that no burial site containing Jewish bones, however old, can be disturbed. The religious parties with which the Netanyahu government is allied have called for new laws against the desecration of Jewish burial sites; while it has not yielded to that demand, Harper notes that the previous government, under Shimon Peres, declared human remains not to be antiquities.

"It's a very sad situation that is the despair of a number of Israeli archaeologists," says Kay Prag of Manchester University, editor of the Blue Guide to Jerusalem. "But one is not entirely inhibited by the political situation."

She instances her own work on the archive of British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, whose research in Jerusalem from 1961 to 1967 "gave the first scientific foundation for the location of the ancient city". Prag was in Jerusalem earlier this year working on Kenyon-excavated material that is in storage. Except for her final season, after the Six Day War, Kenyon (who died in 1978) worked in a divided Jerusalem: the eastern half was under the government of Jordan that was (and is) "very encouraging" to archaeologists. She ran, in Harper's words, "what we'd now call an urban rescue unit, digging on sites which were being developed. She had to try to understand the archaeology from what she could work in - she couldn't choose places".

Away from the Temple Mount area, Martin Biddle of Hertford College, Oxford, and his wife are continuing a research project on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the city's Christian quarter. Biddle says: "We've had problems but you have to be sensible. Sometimes you hear the susurration of the mob and you make yourself scarce."

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