Archaeologists on Crutches

Yoram Tsafrir (1938–2015) and Adam Zertal (1936–2015)

Read “Archaeologists on Crutches” by Benjamin Arubas, Shay Bar and Hershel Shanks in full as it originally appears in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2016.—Ed.


Yoram Tsafrir. Photo: Hanay/Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Two prominent Israeli archaeologists were connected in death as in life. They died last fall within five weeks of each other. In life, they suffered similar tragedies. And one had an important influence on the other.

Yoram Tsafrir, two years younger and the second to die, was born in 1938 on a moshav (a cooperative Jewish agricultural community) in what would later become central Israel. He was also among the founders of a kibbutz in the Negev. In the mid-1950s, he already participated in archaeological surveys and excavations, including the first expedition to Masada. He then pursued archaeology as a career and was awarded a doctorate summa cum laude in archaeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In the 1967 Six-Day War, Yoram was seriously wounded, most severely in both legs. After multiple surgical procedures, he was able to walk, but only with crutches. He never walked without them again.


Adam Zertal. Photo: Hanay/Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

In this condition he published his first novel in Hebrew under the pseudonym Yoram Avi-Tamar, Injury, a best seller in Israel that was an intimate account of his injury and recovery, both physical and psychological. For this book, he was awarded the Itzhak Sadeh prize for novice writers in military literature. Another book was a historical novel titled Lives of Josephus. Here Yoram offered his personal understanding of the formative historical-archaeological events of the Jewish revolt against Rome until the inevitable tragic end on top of Masada.

Among his many excavations, perhaps the best known is Nysa-Scythopolis, the Roman-Byzantine city of Beth Shean (codirected since the 1980s for 20 years with Gideon Foerster and Benjamin Arubas).

Among his least well known is Sartaba (Alexandrium) (codirected for three seasons in the early 1980s with Yitzhak Magen), the northernmost of a series of Hasmonean/Herodian fortresses that protected the Second Temple period Jewish state on the east. Sartaba’s jagged peaks tower imposingly over the Jordan Valley. I (Hershel) recall visiting Yoram at Sartaba and his showing me a building that had collapsed in an earthquake with sidewalls tilted almost vertically. Using his crutches as support, Yoram fairly leapt over the site with its steep inclines. I wondered whether Yoram had chosen the site for just this reason—a kind of “I’ll show you” attitude, “my injuries won’t stop me.” He jumped over the site like a goat.

In our free eBook Frank Moore Cross: Conversations with a Bible Scholar Hershel Shanks conducts five interviews with the renowned Bible scholar.


Yoram Tsafrir at Gerasa (Jerash), Jordan. Photo: Courtesy Benjamin Arubas.

Central to Yoram’s research were the many monographs and articles on the development of the urban topography of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period through the Roman/Byzantine era up until the period of Muslim control. He was also an expert in Byzantine churches, of which he excavated many.

From 1989 to 1992 he was Head of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, and from 2001 to 2005 he was Director of the Jewish National and University Library. In 2014, he was awarded the EMET Prize for Art, Science and Culture, for his outstanding scholarly achievements.

Adam Zertal, the older of the two men by two years, was born on Kibbutz Ein Shemer in 1936. He too developed an interest in archaeology. He volunteered for a summer with Yigael Yadin at Masada. He had not yet started formal university study in archaeology when the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973. Adam was an officer in the Engineer Corps and was sent to the Suez Canal front where he was badly injured in his legs, hands and one of his eyes. He underwent 12 operations, rehabilitation and skin transplants during a hospitalization of almost a year. During this time he started his studies, with first-year courses in archaeology being brought to his sickbed. He was discharged from the hospital in a wheelchair (with a permanent invalid designation of 84 percent). Eventually, however, he switched from the wheelchair to crutches.

It was during his stay in the hospital that Adam met Yoram Tsafrir. Yoram made it a practice to visit soldiers who like himself had suffered severe leg injuries. Adam was one of them. Under Yoram’s influence, Adam became an archaeologist.

In 1978 Adam began the project that occupied him for the rest of his life—the Manasseh Hill Country Survey that required him to walk meter by meter over the entire territory of the lands of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh. This survey lasted continuously for 38 seasons until his death. He passed away one week before the commencement of the 39th season of the Manasseh Hill Country Survey. This is the longest, most comprehensive and significant of all archaeological surveys conducted in the Land of Israel. The methodology Adam developed in the survey was, and still is, a model for conducting an archaeological survey on foot. The territory includes nearly a thousand square miles, which had been practically untouched archaeologically. More than 3,200 archaeological sites were investigated and recorded, most of them previously unknown. About 2,000 of these sites have been published in five volumes as The Manasseh Hill Country Survey. Three of these volumes have already been translated into English.


Adam Zertal in the field. Courtesy Shay Bar.

For the majority of his academic career, Adam was affiliated with the University of Haifa. From 1996 to 2000 he served as the Head of the Department of Archaeology.

The best-known site he discovered during his survey was what he identified as the Biblical altar on Mt. Ebal (Deuteronomy 27; Joshua 8:30–35). The structure is more than 12 feet high and about 30 by 22 feet on a side. It was built of large uncut stones with a 3-foot-wide and 23-foot-long stone ramp leading up to it. The structure was also surrounded by offering installations. Zertal believed this was the stone altar that Moses instructed the Israelites to build on Mt. Ebal in Deuteronomy 27 when they crossed the Jordan and entered the land, a commandment fulfilled in Joshua 8:30–35 in the ceremony of the Blessings and the Curses. Zertal’s proposal aroused fierce opposition among some scholars.

Less well known, but no less fascinating to the few who have studied them, are the foot-shaped or sandal-shaped enclosures Zertal called gilgalim (“circles [of stones]”), sandalim or footprints. They date to the dawn of the Iron Age, the traditional beginning of the Israelite settlement. Some scholars have proposed that the foot-shaped form was testimony to the religious conviction of the Israelite settlers.

Also in this issue, Ralph K. Hawkins (“Israelite Footprints”) discusses Zertal’s excavation of Mt. Ebal and the gilgalim Zertal also excavated.

“Archaeologists on Crutches” by Benjamin Arubas, Shay Bar and Hershel Shanks originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2016.

benny-arubasBenjamin Arubas is pursuing his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was codirector of the Beth Shean Archaeological Project with Yoram Tsafrir.

shay-barShay Bar is a Research Fellow at the Zinmin Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. He is currently heading excavations at Tel Esur, Tel Shiqmona, the Fazael Valley Protohistoric Project and the Manasseh Hill Country Survey. He worked with Adam Zertal for more than 15 years.


Read articles by Yoram Tsafrir and Adam Zertal in the BAS Library:

Yoram Tsafrir, “Ancient Churches in the Holy Land,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1993.

Adam Zertal, “Evidence for Dating the Mt. Ebal Altar,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1985.

Adam Zertal, “Has Joshua’s Altar Been Found on Mt. Ebal?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1985.

Adam Zertal, “The Trek of the Tribes as They Settled in Canaan,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1991.

Adam Zertal, “Israel Enters Canaan—Following the Pottery Trail,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1991.

Adam Zertal, “Philistine Kin Found in Early Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2002.

Adam Zertal, “Sardinians in Israel?” Archaeology Odyssey, March/April 2003.

Adam Zertal, “Debate: Sticking to the Facts,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2004.

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  1. Dvora says

    They were great men and great archaeologists. So sad!

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