The origins of Biblical Archaeology Review
In 1972 Hershel Shanks took a sabbatical from his legal practice in Washington, D.C. He and his family went to Jerusalem for a year. Once there, the Shanks family became part of a network of friends and colleagues who comprised some of the archaeological luminaries in the Holy Land at the time. That year proved to be the catalyst for the creation of the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) and its flagship publication, Biblical Archaeology Review. Hershel reflects below on the birth, evolution and legacy of BAR.
I spent 1972–1973 with my wife and two daughters living in Israel. Julia (or Yael, as she was called for that year) was three and Elizabeth (or Elisheva) was six. Every Shabbat my wife Judith (Yehudit), the kids and I would take a tiyyul, or outing, to explore an archaeological site.
By the time we got around to exploring Hazor, the whole family was expert in picking up sherds, the ever-present fragments of pottery at archaeological sites, and deciding whether it was a “diagnostic” sherd—a rim, base or handle—or just a plain body sherd. Before we ascended the tell, we visited the little Hazor museum at the nearby kibbutz. The museum displayed a case of these diagnostic sherds, including handles that had been impressed with seals. Pointing to one of those handles, I told the kids, “See? That’s the kind of thing we want.”
Afterward, we went out to explore the tell. It was not long before Elisheva came running to us with a clay handle less than 1.5 inches long with something incised (or, as we then thought, impressed) into it. Only the sharp eyes of a child close to the ground would have noticed it. At first, I was not sure there was anything deliberately etched into it. After all, lying around for thousands of years, it would not be unusual for a sherd to be scratched and damaged. As I looked and looked at the fragmentary handle, the figure of a man emerged with a pointed hat and upturned shoes. He seemed to hold a long staff in one hand. In the other hand was something that looked like a spear that he was about to hurl.
Suppressing my excitement, I congratulated Elisheva. “You better let me hold it,” I said.
“No,” she screamed. “I found it.”
“Okay,” I said, “but be careful. It could be valuable.”
We proceeded with our exploration of the tell until we came to its water tunnel, which descends by steps carved in the rock nearly 3,000 years ago. To provide a modicum of safety for visitors, wooden slats were built over the ancient rock steps. As we descended, little light penetrated. All of a sudden Elisheva blurted out, “I dropped it.”
“Don’t move,” I said. I dropped to the ground in the dark, moving my hands lightly and cautiously on the wooden slats around her, fearful that if the little sherd fell between the slats it would be lost forever. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve it.
“Now will you let me hold it,” I said sternly. This was not a question. Elisheva, pouting for a moment, accepted my judgment.
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When we returned to Jerusalem, I showed the sherd to Amnon Ben-Tor, now the Yigael Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University and director of the ongoing excavation of Hazor, but then simply a young archaeologist who lived in our building and who was also Yigael Yadin’s assistant.
Yigael Yadin was Israel’s most famous, glamorous and charismatic archaeologist. He was Israel’s movie star. He had dug at Masada and at the great mound of Hazor. He had found the Bar-Kochba letters in a cave in the Judean Wilderness (see “Biblical Archaeology in Focus: Yigael Yadin and Crew Make a Discovery”). He was an expert in translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. And he was a war hero: In 1948 he had led the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state army. In no time, Amnon informed me that I had an appointment at Yadin’s home to show the sherd to the great man.
The figure incised on the handle, Yadin told me, was a Syro-Hittite deity from the Late Bronze Age (13th century B.C.) in the pose known as a “Smiting God.” It demonstrated how far south Syro-Hittite influence had penetrated into Canaan. I was bowled over when Yadin suggested that I publish an article on the handle for the Israel Exploration Journal. “I really don’t know if I can,” I said. He offered to help me. I said I would be delighted to have him as the senior author. No, he encouraged me; I could do it, he said. In the end, I did do it, but with considerable help from Yadin. The article appeared shortly after we returned to Washington.1 In a footnote, I duly acknowledged Yadin’s assistance in writing the article and noted that the sherd had been found by six-year-old Elizabeth Shanks, who had donated it to the Hazor Archaeological Expedition. In gratitude for her donation of the sherd, Yadin gave Elizabeth a small juglet from Hazor and a letter of appreciation. It read as follows:
When our extraordinary year in Jerusalem was over, we came back to the States, and I returned to practicing law. But I wanted to maintain some connection with Israel. We felt part of the community. I didn’t want to go back now simply as a tourist, with nothing to do but see sights we had seen before and say hello to old friends. I wanted some business in Israel. So I thought of writing a regular column on Biblical archaeology.
I contacted Charlie Fenyvesi, a friend who edited B’nai B’rith magazine, and proposed the idea to him. “I have too many columns already,” he replied. “Why don’t you start your own magazine?”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
It sounded easy: He advised me to write up a proposal and send it to a variety of people: scholars, academic leaders, businessmen, philanthropists, community leaders, writers, etc. They would all contribute, and there you have it! So that’s what I did.
But only one replied: Samuel Sandmel, a great Bible scholar at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati who had also served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature. Sam, who later became a valued member of our editorial advisory board, has since passed away, so I can’t ask him, but I’ve always wondered whether he might have replied because he had dated my mother-in-law decades earlier when he was serving as a student rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, before she married my father-in-law.
I then sent all the people who had received this proposal a second communication. I thanked them for their warm response and reported that we now had enough interest and money to go ahead. In fact, we had neither.
I wrote the first issue and had it printed for $600, hoping to get enough subscriptions and small ads by the time it came out to pay the printer’s bill. Luckily, I did. (Today it costs several hundred thousand dollars to produce an issue of BAR.)
As for the name, I originally thought of calling it The Biblical Archaeology Newsletter. But then, during a visit with Carol and Eric Meyers, now both senior Biblical and archaeological scholars (Eric has twice served as president of the American Schools of Oriental Research), Carol remarked on the unfortunate acronym that would result: BAN. “Why don’t you call it Biblical Archaeology Review instead?” she said. “The acronym would be just right for a lawyer.” I took the suggestion, and BAR was born.
I had originally conceptualized BAR as a publication that would feature ideas and not pictures. The masthead listed no staff because we had none. The address was my law office. Our first issue of BAR was published in March 1975. Frankly, the little 7-by-10-inch cover is pretty ugly. It somehow reminds me of the comic strip character Alley Oop, a prehistoric cave man. It was printed on cream-colored paper with brown ink and is dated March 1975. It had 16 pages and a single black-and-white picture—or rather a brown-and-cream picture. How wrong I was to think that this was to be the nature of the magazine! By the end of the first year, I realized that BAR had to be a synthesis of ideas accompanied by beautiful pictures—a standard we have adhered to ever since.
Eric and Carol Meyers sit down with Hershel to discuss the past 40 years of the field of Biblical archaeology in “Biblical Archaeology: Whither and Whence.” Read the full interview >>
Over the course of BAR’s history, we have been involved in plenty of controversies. We are often charged with creating controversy. I reject this charge. But I do admit to believing that examining controversies is a good way to learn. I guess this betrays my legal background. I have an almost religious belief that in an examination of reasoned controversy we have the best way to arrive at the truth. BAR’s role in various archaeological controversies and crusades has been well documented on the pages of our magazine for more than three decades (see “BAR’s Crusades”).
Over the years, we’ve tried lots of experiments. Many worked; some didn’t. For a while, we had a Biblical Archaeology Society Newsletter. We had a column called BAR Jr. for younger readers and a technical column, “Scholars’ Corner,” for more advanced readers. We had a photo contest as well as an essay contest, the prize for which was a trip to Israel.
Each year, in our January/February issue (known as our Dig Issue), we tell thousands of potential volunteers how and where to participate in archaeological excavations in the Near East and Mediterranean region.
BAR continues to be controversial, and we welcome the discussion and sharing of ideas that our publication often generates among scholars and laypeople alike. We are proud of our contribution to the field of Biblical archaeology and are both humbled by, and grateful for, the support of our readers, who span all age groups and represent a wide variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. It’s been a wonderful ride, and we’re looking forward to the future with excitement. We hope you’ll come with us as we continue our journey.
“How BAR Was Born” originally appeared in the commemorative 200th issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August September/October 2009).
1. Hershel Shanks, “An Incised Handle from Hazor Depicting a Syro-Hittite Deity,” Israel Exploration Journal 23, no. 4 (1973), p. 234.
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