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THE JACOB M. ALKOW DEPARTMENT
OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND ANCIENT
NEAR EASTERN CULTURES

Students in the Department of ArcheologyDigging 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

TabletFinding proof of a female "king" who ruled a Canaanite city-state; interpreting cuneiform 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, and walking in the footprints left from the empires of Babylonia, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome — these are just a handful of the TAU Department of Archaeology's accomplishments.

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) and Qusem Cave.

Prof. Oren Tal  

Prof. Oren Tal

 

"It's undeniable — there are things you can only find in Israel," says Prof. Oren Tal, chairman 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

Pottery found in dig.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.

FigurineWhat 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, and here in Israel — under own feet — we are uncovering our history and our collective memory," he says. "The importance of the work also reaches beyond the Jewish nation, interesting Christians and Muslims, because we have a shared past."

Digging and dusting

Pottery 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.

Student with pottery"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

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

Examining artifactsAlthough 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 course credit, taking part in one of TAU's eight 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.

Click here for more information about the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.

Alumni Say

YORAM COHENYORAM COHEN (PhD, 2003) is currently, senior lecturer and researcher at TAU'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 Cohen. "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." 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."

ALEXANDER FANTALKINALEXANDER FANTALKIN (PhD, 2008) is currently lecturer and researcher at TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Culture. He 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 Fantalkin. 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 TAU 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."

BY THE NUMBERS

1968 Year Founded
150 Undergraduates
50 M.A. Students
25 Ph.D.s
15 Senior Faculty members

One in three graduates learn ancient languages and texts

Eight digs run by TAU:

Joint Site Excavations with:

  • City University of New York
  • George Washington University
  • Indiana University at Bloomington
  • New York University
  • University of Lethbridge, Canada

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