I was putting the finishing touches on this installment when I saw Todd Bolen’s post in my inbox pointing folks to a very interesting interview with antiquities collector Oded Golan published today in the “Week’s End” section of Haaretz. Noted also was a shorter “sidebar” about archaeologist Ronny Reich’s role in assessing the authenticity of the objects which Golan was accused — and has now been acquitted — of forging. Interestingly, I had seen the same sidebar in today’s “Haaretz Magazine” print edition — but attached to an entirely different article, about Reich himself. So, in today’s Haaretz: two profile/interview pieces (and the sidebar) — all worth reading.
My intent here is to highlight the profile of, and wide-ranging interview with, Prof. Ronny Reich by Haaretz staff writer Nir Hasson. Again, it is from Haaretz Magazine and found on-line HERE. Besides some biographical background, the piece focuses on the work for which Reich is probably best known, the excavations carried out with colleague Eli Shukron in (and especially under) the City of David, in the mostly Arab neighborhood of Silwan. The article reviews the many important finds, both large and small, that have come out of Reich and Shukron’s work over the past 15 years (many have been highlighted on this web-log — see my archive). The discovery that Reich considers most interesting, however, may surprise you!
Since most of Reich’s work in Silwan has been carried out on behalf of the Elad settler organization, it thus impinges directly on the larger Israeli-Palestinian politics of Jerusalem. Some of the issues involved have been commented on in this space previously, here and here and here. However, the various controversies surrounding the City of David excavations — toward which Reich assumes an air of resignation and detachment — are not the exclusive focus of the interview by any means. I have included below some excerpts which I found especially interesting:
… the discovery Reich is most proud of is actually a pile of fish bones dating from the First Temple period. He admits that these bones excite him more than the Roman sword [from the ancient sewer], which may have been used to cut down Jews during the days of the Great Revolt. …
“But the fish bones? When we started to find quantities of them … well, what can I tell you? I was excited. Not in the sense that it made my heart beat faster, but because it meant we learned something new about the diet of the people who lived in Jerusalem. … What excites me is contributing new knowledge, coloring in another blank area on our map of knowledge.” (…)
Reich got into archaeology almost by chance. As an only child of a widowed mother, he deferred his army service and enrolled in university. … “I wanted to study geography and natural sciences but there was no room in the labs, so they told me to come back the next year,” he relates. “And then they told me that I could do geography and humanities but had to pick another major. When I went outside, I met a friend who said, ‘Come study archaeology with me.’ So I went back inside and told the secretary to write down archaeology.”
Between the time he began studying for his bachelor’s degree and the time he completed his army service in 1969, the field of archaeology opened up, especially in Jerusalem. “All of a sudden there was work in archaeology,” he recalls.
In the 1970s, he was involved in the major excavations of the Jewish Quarter, under the direction of Prof. Nahman Avigad, and subsequently he helped to establish the IAA. He applied to become part of the faculty in the prestigious Hebrew University archaeology department but was not accepted, and eventually found his place at the University of Haifa. In 1995, when the IAA was asked to conduct an excavation of City of David in honor of Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary celebrations, Amir Drori, the authority’s first director general, suggested the dig to the Hebrew University people, but they turned it down. (…)
When asked about politics, Reich asserts, “I grew up in an apolitical household, I grew up in a nonreligious household. We didn’t talk about politics or religion at home. Not at all. My mother was antireligious. … I don’t take the political side of things to heart. I’m not that way. What can I do?” Despite his close cooperation with the Elad organization, Reich describes himself as a “leftist who thinks this country should be divided. I also think the Palestinians are unfortunate and should be helped, so they don’t get to the point where they have nothing to lose.”
Asked how this worldview can be reconciled with his extensive scientific activity – that has effectively helped a rightist organization Judaize parts of Silwan – he replies: “Some will say I’m playing into Elad’s hands. … So yes, they use what I do. As far as I’m concerned, if it turns out that David was never there, I won’t care. What’s come out is what there is. I have no agenda to find any particular thing. Besides, if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. And he would uncover the same artifacts. So what’s the difference?” (…)
The archaeological artifacts ostensibly give the people from Elad the most powerful seal of approval for their being here. And Reich, with his talent, supplies the necessary archaeological goods. Meanwhile, Elad provides Reich, and the other archaeologists who work with him, working conditions that are the envy of colleagues at every other major dig in Israel.
“I never chased after money to finance excavations,” he says. “I don’t manage or sign any receipts for anything. We need another truck? The next day there’s a truck. We need three more workers? Then we get three more workers. Another three tons of iron or wood? Fine. It’s not because of my talent. It’s Jerusalem, it’s the City of David. That’s why.”
Reich and Elad are insistent that the political tendencies of those financing the excavations have never influenced the scientific findings. “In the first year they drove me crazy, constantly asking: ‘Nu, did you find something from David?’ I promised them that if I found anything, they’d be the first to know. So far I haven’t had any need to call them. What can I do?” (…)
“Archaeologists are sometimes asked, usually by the media, what is their biggest discovery ever. For me, the peak has to be the quarried pool − its excavation and its artifacts,” he wrote.
The excavation of the pool [near the Gihon Spring], like many other efforts in the area, required just as much engineering know-how as archaeological skills. Over the centuries it had been filled up with dirt and waste. Two years were spent building a large structure with metal beams to hold up the ceiling, so it would be possible to dig underneath. Numerous shards were found around the pool but the most important findings, Reich explains, were mud seals bearing drawings and inscriptions which were used for trade, and thousands of fish bones that corroborated new theories relating to the diet of Jerusalem’s inhabitants in biblical times. The fish, which obviously had to have been brought from afar, attest to the existence of trade relations and a well-off elite that could purchase the imported goods. … Most of the fish that were found were mullet and sea bream, but there were also Nile perch bones. “That’s a lot of bones. Somebody must have really loved to eat fish,” says Reich. “Here we’ve colored in another little patch in the history of Jerusalem.”
Just a word about the sidebar mentioned above. It highlights Reich’s role in the long-running controversy and trial over allegedly forged antiquities, the most prominent being the now infamous James ossuary, but also including the Jehoash inscription. Reich served on one of the two committees formed by the IAA to judge the artefacts’ authenticity, the one tasked with looking at the epigraphic/palaeographic issues. Although he was later persuaded otherwise, based on evidence from the materials committee,
Reich was the only member of the IAA expert committees to raise the possibility that the objects were indeed authentic. … At the committee’s final meeting, Reich told his colleagues that he believed the [ossuary] inscription was authentic, “unless he could be convinced otherwise.” “His colleagues on the committee did not convince him otherwise,” the judge wrote in his ruling.