Sunday, June 27, 2010

Masada – The excavations

Enthusiasm for archeology in Israel is well known – and the finds became an important element of the Israeli ethos. Archeology was strongly used by the Zionist ideology to support claim to the land and help provide further evidence for the legitimization of the State of Israel.

The case of Masada seemed to be an exception.

The start of the excavation received extended media coverage. Bamaale, the monthly newspaper of one of the youth movements (Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed - “Youth who Work and Study”) published the article “Masada - History or Existence?” on wake of the first publication of the results in the major excavation on the site.

Fearing that the excavations will not support the accepted account of events on Masada the report suggests that one should not surrender to archeological authority: “The important thing is not to lose a sense of proportion and not to become enslaved to ...authority. With all due respect, there are things larger than archeology. For the human truth we create, archeology is but one ingredient.”

From the very beginning of the first massive excavation on Masada thousands of volunteers from Israel participated during the two years between 1963 and 1965. The Israeli army also helped with manpower, assisted in the logistics of the operation, and provided equipment. Besides the constant public interest, and overwhelming national exposure Masada also became the focus of international interest, with an astrological sum for budget provided by private donors from abroad and the British newspaper The Observer.

Yigael Yadin, leading archeologist of large-scale sites, and in charge for the Masada project, evaluated this great local interest as follows:

“The public’s interest in the antiquities of the land is. …phenomenal. ..This big interest does not stem from interest in archeology as such. Everyone feels and knows that he is discovering and excavating findings and artifacts from the days of his fathers. And every finding bears witness to the connection and covenant between the people and the land. From this aspect, the archeological research added an important national dimension. ..Archeology in my view reinforces the Hebraic consciousness, let us say - the identification and the connection with ancient Judaism and Jewish consciousness.” (in Bamache March 18, 1969)

The excavation uncovered almost all the territory, and also restored many buildings. The largest building found on the site was one of Herod’s palaces, known as a western palace. It contained scores of rooms and installations, and was a self-sufficient unit. Its large reception hall had a magnificient richly colored mosaic pavement with circles and border ornaments of plant and geometric designs. A mikve (religious bath - meeting all the standards) and a synagogue from this period was also found. For the description of the archeological findings during the different periods consult Yadin's book "Masada" that tells the fascinating story of the excavations itself and provides great illustrations. .

Herod’s luxurious palaces and small number of dwelling rooms were used later as command posts and public buildings, and were partitioned to serve also as dwellings for large numbers of families.

Yadin’s personality also added a whole new dimension to the excavations. A born performer, a natural media person who came through in his media experiences as an articulate, self-assured professional who knew what he was talking about. His convincing qualities added to the credibility of the interpretation of the findings, and to the “selling” of the nation myth version. With his enthusiasm he could draw people into the process of myth making, and into a deeply felt communal consciousness.

The drama in progress, the excavation of Masada and the virtuoso performance of Yadin with which he conveyed the discoveries to the public made the project as much an exercise in patriotic inspiration as in scientific research.

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