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First Person: The Anonymous Archaeologist, Hershel Shanks, BAR 28:05, Sep-Oct 2002.

Hershel ShanksIt’s time to link the finder with the find

In the 1980s Gershon Edelstein, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, was excavating ancient farms at Ein Yael, outside Jerusalem.(a) These were not jazzy sites (except for a villa where the Roman boss once lived, which contained mosaics(b), but there was a lot to learn anyway—about the ancient food supply and economy, as well as about ancient farming techniques and crafts. As Edelstein wrote, “I was not looking for the kind of breathtaking artifacts that tourists ooh-and-aah about in museums.” Instead, he was interested in investigating terraces built on natural foundations, a wine-producing installation, oil presses, grinding stones, pottery manufacturing techniques, cisterns, water conduits, reservoirs, pathways, fenced enclosures and man-made caves.

Edelstein had a dream. He wanted to make the site into the “living museum” of Ein Yael.(c) With the help of the Jerusalem Foundation, Edelstein realized his dream. Through hands-on workshops and exhibits, visitors of all ages are now introduced to daily life on an ancient farm. In the ceramics workshop, for example, you start by collecting clay from the hillside. You end up with a fired pot. Or you can milk some goats and make goat cheese. Or try spinning sheep’s wool into thread, or throw a shuttle through the warp of a replica of an ancient loom.

I was in Jerusalem recently and picked up a magazine of the Jerusalem Foundation called Windows on Jerusalem that contained an article on the Living Museum at Ein Yael. Despite the difficult situation in the country, more than 90,000 people, mostly school kids, visited Ein Yael in an 18-month period. The article describes the museum and mentions the “extensive archaeological investigations” that were carried out there between 1983 and 1990. But while the names of the donors who supported the museum’s creation are listed in boldface, nowhere are the archaeologists mentioned!

In 1962, 22-year-old Jesse Salsberg was honeymooning in Israel. On a visit to Hazor, he stumbled on a cuneiform tablet on the pebble road of the site. He put it in his pocket. Only years later did he decide to try to learn what he had found. It turned out to be an extremely important text—involving real estate litigation and actually mentioning Hazor! It is more than 3,000 years old, dating from before Hazor became an Israelite city. A bitter dispute ensued regarding the return of the tablet to Israel and whether Salsberg would receive any payment. A written agreement was finally drawn up providing for the tablet’s return without payment, but assuring Salsberg that the museum caption for the tablet would list him as the finder.(d)

Today the tablet is displayed in the Israel Museum; a replica is also displayed in the new Israel Supreme Court building. Despite the agreement, neither display lists Salsberg as the tablet’s finder.

I recently inquired about this. I was told that none of the captions in the Israel Museum list archaeologists who found the artifacts. To me, that policy didn’t seem enough to override an express agreement to the contrary in Salsberg’s case—but that’s not even the point here- I realized that in museums, archaeologists are never identified with their finds!

Many museums note in their captions the donors whose contributions made certain acquisitions possible. So why not the archaeologists who found the objects in the first place?

Certainly many more people are interested in the archaeologists than in the donors. I, for one, would be very interested, especially where there has been more than one expedition at a site. For example, was an artifact from Hazor found by Yigael Yadin’s excavation or by Amnon Ben-Tor’s? I guess donors might stop giving if their names weren’t mentioned—but archaeologists will keep digging even though they remain anonymous in museums.

They say archaeologists will kill for a footnote. Strange! Elisha Qimron, a scholar from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, sued BAR for referring to him only as a “colleague” of John Strugnell’s in reconstructing a Dead Sea Scroll, even though we were being critical and wanted to spare a young untenured professor from the criticism. In short, credit and recognition are immensely important to our heroes.

It surely seems to me that archaeologists are entitled to recognition when artifacts they have discovered are displayed in museums. Why haven’t they complained? Is it their innate modesty? Is it because they think it would be inappropriate? I confess I don’t know. Perhaps some of them will tell us.

a. See Gershon Edelstein and Shimon Gibson, “Ancient Jerusalem’s Rural Food Basket,” BAR 08-04.

b. See Gershon Edelstein, “What’s a Roman Villa Doing Outside Jerusalem?” BAR 16-06.

c. See “The Living Museum at Ein Yael,” sidebar to “What’s a Roman Villa Doing Outside Jerusalem?” BAR 16-06.

d. See “American Tourist Returns ‘Hazor’ Tablet to Israel After 13 Years,” BAR 02-02.

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