Collected by the late Israeli general and amateur archaeologist Moshe Dayan, who died in 1981, the more than 1,000 pieces comprise a stunning and important assemblage, all agree. It is generally acknowledged, however, that many of the pieces purchased by Dayan had come from illegal excavations; others were actually illegally excavated by the dashing, sometimes above-the-law general and political leader himself.
Outside the museum on opening night, leaders of the newly formed Association of Archaeologists in Israel picketed. The nearly 50 pickets included archaeologists and scholars from Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A contingent of students from Tel Aviv University swelled the ranks of the protesters.
A statement issued by the AAI charged that the Dayan collection was “partly illegally collected.” The statement continued- “We are obliged publicly and professionally to protest against antiquity robbing and theft. This clandestine activity is still practiced by collectors, public figures and leaders like the late Moshe Dayan. The exhibition of the collection in a special exhibit could be understood as a legitimization of their activities.”
Members of Israel’s Department of Antiquities and Museums protested by their absence- They stayed away from the opening of the exhibition. Neither Avi Eitan, the director of the department, nor archaeologists on his staff attended.
Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, chairman of the board of governors of the Israel Museum, characterized the picketing as the yapping of small dogs long after the caravan has passed by. According to museum curator Ya’akov Meshorer, only about 15 percent of the collection was acquired illegally by Dayan.
Dayan’s defenders claim most of Dayan’s illegal digging was done at sites already excavated by archaeologists. In one well-known case, an Arab near Gaza accidentally came upon a 14th- to 13th-century B.C. cemetery containing fantastic life-size anthropoid coffins with faces depicted on the lids. Dayan acquired over 20 of the coffins—the stars of the show—before allowing archaeologists to excavate three still-uncovered coffins. But, many say, had it not been for Dayan, the cemetery site would have been destroyed by bulldozers or remained unknown.
Some who objected to the exhibition claimed the collection should have been confiscated in a legal proceeding, not purchased. Dayan’s widow was paid one million dollars for the collection, thereby assuring that the collection would remain together. The collection is said to be worth far more if it were sold piece by piece at auction.
Others objected to the fact that the allegedly illegal assemblage was maintained and exhibited separately rather than integrated into the museum’s own archaeological collection. According to museum sources, the assemblage will eventually be dispersed throughout the museum’s collection.
a. “The Dayan Saga—The Man and His Archaeological Collection,” BAR 08-05, by Leroy Aarons.