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Nahman Avigad, 1905–1992, Hershel Shanks, BAR 18:03, May-Jun 1992.

Nahman Avigad II

Nahman Avigad is dead. He died of cancer on January 28, 1992, at age 86. For much of his professional life he lived in the shadow of E. L. Sukenik, Yigael Yadin’s father, whom he served as assistant in such excavations as Beth Alpha and Hammat Gader. Sukenik, from all reports, was a demanding, often autocratic man; Avigad was quiet, shy and retiring.

Sukenik died in 1953. Avigad blossomed. Between 1953 and 1955, Avigad directed excavations at Beth She‘arim, uncovering a series of catacombs containing Jewish burials of the second and third centuries C.E., including what may be the tomb of Judah ha-Nasi, the compiler of the Mishnah. In 1956 he published with Yigael Yadin the Dead Sea Scroll known as the Genesis Apocryphon.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel began to rebuild the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, much of which had been destroyed during the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan controlled the Old City. But before any rebuilding could take place, the area had to be examined to determine whether archaeological excavations should be undertaken. At age 62, Avigad was appointed to head this project, reluctantly agreeing to direct archaeological excavations where called for. For 14 years this excavation became his passion. He excavated in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City from 1969 to 1983.

Not only were the finds extraordinary (see “A Thousand Years Of History In Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter,” in this issue), but the excavation had the justified reputation of being as meticulous as any in Israel. This reflected two of Avigad’s many exemplary characteristics- His ability to adapt and his perfectionism.

Archaeological methodology was transformed in his lifetime—sometimes in small steps, sometimes by sea changes. Yet his stratigraphical excavation of the Jewish Quarter met the highest and latest standards. It was widely regarded as beyond reproach or criticism.

I remember Nahman Avigad from BAR’s earliest days. His vast knowledge and empyrean reputation made him seem almost unapproachable. Later I became his editor, his sometime adversary, his agent, his never-flagging admirer and, in recent years, his friend.

Soon after BAR began publication, I was concerned about the inaccessibility of so-called unpublished finds. When a beautiful, nearly complete kernos(a) was found at Kibbutz Sasa, a report of the find and a picture of it appeared in the Jerusalem Post. I asked the Department of Antiquities for a copy of the picture so we too could report the find to out readers. I was told that we could not have a picture of it because it was “unpublished”; that is, the scientific report on the find had not yet been published The Jerusalem Post could print a picture of it, we were told, because the Post was a newspaper; we were a magazine. I complained editorially in the fourth issue of the magazine.(b)
I knew rules like this were bad for the press and bad for archaeology, especially because decades often passed before finds were published.

The next time the issue arose was during Professor Avigad’s dig in the Jewish Quarter. He declined to give us a picture of a mosaic he had uncovered. I wished this had not occurred with an archaeologist so universally liked and respected as Professor Avigad. But I felt I had to be true to my principles. I printed an empty frame with a caption explaining that this is where I would have printed a picture of the mosaic if Professor Avigad had given it to me.

Professor Avigad wrote me a highly critical letter that I printed on a two page spread under a title taken from the letter- “Your Journal Is Not to My Taste,” BAR 04-02.

I had nothing but high regard for Professor Avigad, but I did disagree with him on this point. I came to understand that perfectionism motivated his reluctance to release the picture. He wanted to be sure that what was said about the mosaic was accurate.

But times were changing. And he changed with them. In the years that followed, he was generous and helpful. After a time, we became friends, and no trip to Jerusalem was complete without a visit with him and his wife Shulamit in their Rehavia apartment. I was flattered when Professor Avigad asked me to serve as his agent to find a publisher for his popular book on the Jewish Quarter excavations. Entitled Discovering Jerusalem (Thomas Nelson 1983), the book received rave reviews; Harvard Professor Frank Cross called it a “masterpiece.”

Alas, like so many archaeologists before him, Professor Avigad (even after we became friends, I never addressed him nor referred to him other than as Professor Avigad) died without completing the final report on his Jewish Quarter excavation. That will no doubt be completed by his able assistant, Hillel Geva.

Avigad was not only an archaeologist. He was an epigraphist nonpareil. He was renowned among scholars for his ability to decipher and analyze ancient inscriptions. Perhaps the most illustrious of the inscriptions he deciphered was a long-known tomb inscription from Silwan opposite the Ophel hill in Jerusalem (drawing, above). Other scholars declared this inscription “hopelessly damaged” and “impossible” to read. Discovered in 1870 by the famous French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the inscription teased and puzzled scholars for more than 80 years, until Avigad brilliantly deciphered it and restored its lacunae. In all probability the tomb on which it was carved is referred to in the Bible itself—by Isaiah, who rebukes Shebna, King Hezekiah’s vizier, for making himself a too-lavish tomb. Isaiah says to “Shebna who is over the house”-

“What have you here, and whom have you here,

That you have hewn out a tomb for yourself here?—

O you who have hewn your tomb on high;

O you who have hollowed out for yourself an abode in the cliff!

The Lord is about to shake you.”

Isaiah 22-16–17

The tomb itself, its location and the inscription all point to this as the tomb of the Biblical Shebna who received this stunning rebuke from the prophet concerning this very tomb.(c)

Avigad was also an expert on ancient inscribed Semitic seals, especially Hebrew seals. At his death, he had almost completed his magnum opus on Northwest Semitic seals.

I will end on another personal note. A few years before he died, I heard that Professor Avigad would be amenable to an interview for BAR. I pursued the matter, but he declined to be interviewed without having the questions in advance, in writing, not just the subject matter—another example of his perfectionism. He wanted to prepare the answers to assure that they would be accurate and precise. He didn’t trust his off-the-cuff replies. In his case, I intended to accede—and now it is too late.

In rereading this, I see that I have not spoken of Professor Avigad’s gentle charm, his puckish humor. True, he was a shy man, not easy to get to know. It took time. But somehow, he grew on you—on everyone, really. He was not only highly respected, he was also universally liked. It has been said that archaeology is not a discipline; it is a vendetta. Nahman Avigad never participated in that aspect of the field. His death reminds us that a wonderful generation of scholars is passing—too quickly. We will miss him; Nahman Avigad is truly irreplaceable.

a. A kernos is a hollow pottery ring, usually about 2 inches in diameter, with various hollow pottery objects sitting on the ring and attached to it.

b. See “Two Cases of Discrimination,” BAR 01-04.

c. See Nahman Avigad, “The Epitaph of a Royal Steward from Siloam Village,” Israel Exploration Journal 3 (1953), pp. 137–152.

Posted in: Bible and Beyond

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