Giant of the Persian Period

Ephraim Stern (1934–2018)

Ephraim Stern

Professor Ephraim Stern was one of Israel’s foremost archaeologists, a pioneer in his field with numerous achievements to his credit and an international reputation as a scholar. Alongside his academic pursuits, he devoted considerable effort to promoting public interest in archaeological excavations and research.

Ephraim was born in Haifa, where he was educated until his military service. In 1955, he began his studies in the Departments of Archaeology and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1968, he completed his doctorate dealing with the Persian period in the Land of Israel with high honors. This work remains of great importance to this day. It synthesizes and analyzes finds from the Persian period, which was until then an elusive episode in the history and material culture of the Land of Israel, with which Ephraim remains identified. He was among the first instructors in the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University following its establishment. In 1971, he returned to the Department of Archaeology (later to become the Institute of Archaeology) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught for many years, teaching and training several generations of archaeologists, some of whom have become current leaders in the field.

Simultaneous to his teaching duties, Ephraim conducted archaeological excavations and research in several areas—and continued to do so after retiring from his teaching post in 2002. He was a regular visitor at archaeological excavations, always keeping up to date on the latest discoveries, including those from periods outside his own specialization. In recent years, he took a particular interest in excavations underway in Jerusalem, which he visited frequently and discussed with their excavators to better understand the city’s history. In his own subtle way, he would often remark on the paucity of finds dated to the Persian period in Jerusalem.

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Ephraim began his archaeological career as a staff member at important excavations, including those at En Gedi, Masada, Hazor, Tel Mor, and Beer-Sheba. He later directed excavations at Kedesh and Tel Mevorakh, culminating in extensive excavations that he directed from 1980 to 2000 at Tel Dor, one of Israel’s major archaeological sites. This was one of the largest and longest excavation campaigns conducted in Israel. It exposed remains of a multicultural port city, which was settled from the Bronze and Iron Ages through the Roman period. He created a model excavation project engaging hundreds of volunteers from Israel and abroad. It was at Dor that Ephraim became fully aware of the remains of a material culture belonging to the Northern Sea Peoples and Phoenicians, topics that would engage him in future research. Fully aware that the secrets of Tel Dor would require further excavation, and committed to publishing the results of his excavations, he passed the direction of fieldwork at the site on to his students, who continue to work there.


LORD OF THE SEA PEOPLES. Ephraim Stern surveys excavations at Tel Dor. Photo: Courtesy of the Tel Dor Project.

Although he is known as a foremost scholar of the Iron Age and Persian period and of the Phoenicians, Ephraim’s broad knowledge of the archaeology of the Land of Israel resulted in his appointment as editor-in-chief of the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, (Hebrew edition, 1992; English edition, 1993; an English supplementary volume was published in 2008). His abundant energy, devotion, and involvement in every aspect of this important reference work led to its successful completion. The encyclopedia provides summaries of the results of archaeological excavations conducted at hundreds of sites in Israel for more than 150 years. It is a compendium of archaeological data from the Land of Israel in all periods of human activity, from prehistory through modern times. The bibliographies accompanying each entry are detailed and up to date.

The many books and articles published by Ephraim covering a wide range of topics brought recognition of his contribution to archaeological science in Israel. He was invited to present papers at scholarly gatherings and international congresses. His scientific achievements and contribution to archaeological research won him the prestigious EMET prize, sponsored by the A.M.N. Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Art and Culture in Israel, under the auspices of and in cooperation with the prime minister of Israel, and several other awards, including the Israel Museum’s Percia Schimmel Prize, the Irene Levi-Sala Book Prize on behalf of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and awards by Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Ephraim’s public activity found expression in his many years as chairman of the Archaeological Council, a scientific advisory body to the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Ephraim also served for many years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Israel Exploration Society (IES) and from 2005 as its chairperson. In this role, he devoted time and energy to promote the society and its projects. The IES’s success was foremost in his mind, and he met the challenges of guiding and lecturing at the society’s conventions and editing its publications. Ephraim is identified above all with the journal Qadmoniot, published by the IES. From its initial appearance, he served as deputy editor and, from 1978 (except the years 1994–1998), as the journal’s editor. He maintained its scientific integrity and aesthetic presentation, achieving its status as the major Hebrew-language publication presenting archaeological research and discoveries in the Land of Israel and neighboring lands in a popular scientific format.

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In appreciation of Ephraim’s contribution to IES projects, Volume 29 of its flagship Eretz-Israel series was published in his honor on his 75th birthday.

As we worked closely together over many years, I can attest to Ephraim’s positive outlook and love of life. Always pleasant to work with, he was a sociable person who developed personal friendships with colleagues and all he came in contact with, remained modest in spite of his lofty professional status, and was always ready to share his knowledge and experience with young archaeologists. In addition to his intensive archaeological and public activity, he found time for enjoyment of diverse cultural forms, including classical music and art.

Ephraim’s passing while still engaged in intensive activity has left a vacuum in the archaeological community and at the Israel Exploration Society.

May his memory be blessed.

“Giant of the Persian Period: Ephraim Stern (1934–2018)” is excerpted from the article “‘The Nobles of the People Dug It’: Remembering Three Archaeological Giants” in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

More on Ephraim Stern’s work in Bible History Daily:

Who Were the Phoenicians?

The “Philistines” to the North

The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Supplementary Volume 5
Reviewed by Philip J. King


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