THE JACOB M. ALKOW DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY
AND ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN CULTURES
Digging through layers of prehistoric and ancient sites and ancient settlements, then employing modern science and long-dead languages to decode the clues they unearth, Tel Aviv University's archeologists piece together our past with a state-of-the-art toolkit.
Location, location, location
Finding proof of a female "king" who ruled a Canaanite city-state. Interpreting cunieform to read an Egyptian pharaoh's diplomatic correspondence. Deciphering the business model of Iron Age communities. Putting the might of Israelite and Judean kings in historical perspective. Walking in the footprints left from the empires of Babylonia, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome.
With eye-opening research like this, TAU's Department of Archaeology attracts more local and international students than any other Israeli university. And TAU archeologists command the nation's most significant archeology sites, including Meggido (Armageddon), Qusem Cave, and Ramat Rachel.
Prof. Oren Tal
"It's undeniable — there are things you can only find in Israel," says Prof. Oren Tal, Chairperson of the Department. "Civilization's deeply connected to the land of Israel. Not far from our classrooms and labs we can find remnants from prehistory, proto-history, Biblical and classical history — everything is rooted underfoot here in Israel, where we work and study," he says.
"Was King David a big king or a small king? The answer won't be found in England."
Re-weaving the fabric of daily life
Reaching across disciplines to partner with physics, chemistry, and art, the Department challenges orthodoxy to help define human history. Employing tools that previous scholars barely dreamt of, its archeologists peel back layers of time — through the great civilizations of the past — to bring the daily reality of the region's first humans to life.
Among the rubble of great kingdoms, TAU archeologists investigate everyday life. Mapping water systems, studying animal bones, and examining flint tools and pottery fragments help them piece together both prehistory and history so we can better see our place in history's arc.
What did people eat? How did they worship their gods? Who ruled when? TAU research illuminates the evolution of cultures, religions, and nations.
Prof. Eyal Zisser, dean of the Entin Faculty of Humanities, calls the Department's work part of the Israeli identity. "We are basing our future on our past," he says, "and here in Israel — under own feet — we are uncovering our history and our collective memory. The importance of the work also reaches beyond the Jewish nation, interesting Christians and Muslims, because we have a shared past."
Digging and dusting
Speaking and reading "dead" languages, such as Hittite, is critical. In what is becoming a rarefied discipline, TAU is internationally recognized for its sophistication in excavation and language analysis. Translating 14th century tablets sent to a Pharaoh, for instance, helped TAU archeologists understand the politics of Canaanite states before the rise of Israel.
This approach has led to volumes of published work; researchers do not shy away from scientific re-interpretation of Bible stories fiercely held by some to be literal history. Tel Aviv, the Department's scholarly journal, is ranked in the field's top 10.
"We like to shake off the dust to uncover the difference between myth and history, and between reality and legend," says Prof. Oded Lipschits, head of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archeology in the Department.
At the Tel Beth-Shemesh dig, for example — where the Philistines returned the Holy Ark of the Covenant after capturing it from the Israelites — Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz found critical evidence of the first female ruler in the region with the discovery of a simple ceramic plaque. At the extensive Megiddo (Armageddon) dig, Prof. Israel Finkelstein is investigating King Solomon's reign by excavating a monumental temple. And Prof. Oded Lipschits is exploring the fall and rise of ancient Jerusalem through everyday objects, like clay seals at Ramat Rahel, near Jerusalem.
High-tech tools from across academia
Prof. Israel Finkelstein
"Our Department goes beyond traditional scholarship to put together clues we find, and for that we partner with other disciplines," says Prof. Finkelstein.
Among the Department's widely respected achievements is the radiocarbon-dating of Iron Age strata to reconstruct ancient and biblical history. Prof. Finkelstein uses zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical data to build constructs of the subsistence and economy of the time. With the tools of the exact and life sciences, he can analyze pollen records to understand the relationship between diet and human genetics. He interprets Hebrew inscriptions from the First Temple Period time using clustering and handwriting recognition algorithms from computer science.
Sharing the ancient world
Although the Department's research is conducted with rigor, there are also opportunities every summer for students and volunteers to get a taste of how it's done. Whether for fun or for credit, taking part in one of Tel Aviv University's seven world-famous digs is an unforgettable experience.
Summer digs attract students from all over the world, with fieldwork experience an important part of the package. "In these courses, students get to brush shoulders with TAU's most distinguished names in archaeology, and piece together some history at the same time," says Prof. Tal.
How you can help
To enhance TAU's contribution to Israel's archeological heritage, funding to expand the Department is vital. Your gift of $300,000 will create a new faculty chair in a significant specialty, such as Provincial Archaeology, Egyptology, Assyriology, or Hittitology. And with a contribution of $25,000 annually, you can support a doctoral or master's student, training a future leader in the field.
Sophisticated tools for exploration are critical to keep Tel Aviv University, and Israel, at the forefront of archaeology. Your gift of $20,000 can provide three-dimensional imaging equipment to "see through the ground," as well as lasers, GIS tools, and high-resolution cameras to help interpret finds onsite and in the lab.
Tel Aviv University "owns" the most important archaeological digs in Israel — Apollonia–Arsuf, Meggido (Armageddon), Qusem Cave, Ramat Rahel, Tel Beth–Shemesh, Tel Beth–Yerah and Yavneh–Yam. Each is deeply meaningful to people of all nations and religions. With a contribution of $1 million, you can adopt a dig and make a substantive difference, uncovering the history of people whose stories are still waiting to be told, and leaving a resonant legacy for all time.
For more information about the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/about_us_department.html.
Department of Archaeology
Currently, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures
"Tel Aviv University research gave me a strong sense of what it means to deal with history," says Dr. Yoram Cohen, a TAU senior lecturer and researcher. "When I applied to Harvard for my Ph.D., people there knew that I was coming from a very good department. They knew the level of scholarship at Tel Aviv University surpasses most institutions, and better prepares students coming to Israel from abroad."
Studying ancient scribes and their scholarship requires an in-depth knowledge of the many diverse languages and scripts of a region, a strength of TAU's Archaeology Department, explains Dr. Cohen. "I am currently studying ancient education and scribal schools of the ancient Near East — researching how reading constructs the identity of the self," he says.
Cohen's interest in the ancient Near East and its cultures began years ago when he earned both a B.A. and an M.A. at Tel Aviv University. "I had excellent teachers who laid the foundation of my scholarship," he recalls. "They taught me how to read texts from clay tablets and how to approach the chronology of the ancient documents that I study today."
Currently, Lecturer and Researcher at Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Culture
Alexander Fantalkin immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and is already considered one of Israeli archaeology's brightest lights.
"There is no doubt — in the area of biblical archaeology, Tel Aviv University is number one in the world. It's almost as if we set the tone and the rest of the world follows our lead and responds to our arguments," says Dr. Fantalkin, a TAU lecturer and researcher.
Fantalkin, who is studying the relationship between the Greeks and the Levantine people from 1000 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E., considers academic freedom and the open-mindedness of its faculty responsible for elevating Tel Aviv University to its preeminence in the field.
"I'm exploring the changing nature of the early Greek contacts with the Levant, trying to create an acceptable chronological correlation between these two regions and to distinguish the possible patterns that may characterize the East-West contacts during the first half of the first Millennium B.C.E.," he says, "and I'm doing it in exactly the right place."