First Person: BAR Gives Away $50,000

As published in the September/October 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review

hershel-shanksBAR is giving $50,000 in grants to professional archaeological excavations in Israel. How that came to be has got to be one of the strangest stories in archaeological history.

It all began with a dear friend, the world’s leading expert on archaeology related to Herod the Great, king of Judea. For 35 years Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had been searching for Herod’s tomb. We know where Herod was buried; the Jewish historian Josephus tells us: Herodium. But where at Herodium? Finally, Ehud found a mausoleum on the side of Herodium that contained several sarcophagi. Ehud thought this mausoleum was Herod’s tomb and that one of the sarcophagi belonged to him. Then tragedy struck. A wooden railing at Herodium against which Ehud leaned gave way, and he fell to his death.a

A number of prominent archaeologists doubted that this mausoleum had belonged to King Herod. And they seemed convincing to me. One theory is that Herod was in fact interred not on the side of the mountain but in a large tower at the site. Although the tower appears to be solid, there is a possibility that it contains, or did contain, cavities or chambers.b


The palatial fortress atop Herodium. Photo: The Herodium Expedition.

When BAR reader Wayne Shepard of Florida sent me a check for $20,000 to test the theory, I decided that BAR would add $5,000 to the pot. Ehud Netzer had long been assisted in managing the dig at Herodium by one of his doctoral students, Roi Porat. My plan to explore the inside of the tower was presented on BAR’s behalf to Porat by Danny Herman, one of Israel’s leading tour guides and an instructor in the Hebrew University’s summer archaeology programs. Danny reported to me Porat’s reaction to BAR’s proposal. It was refused on two grounds: (1) Porat wanted absolute control over the funds; the money should be disbursed simply on his request; and (2) Porat did not want the money to be funded by BAR because if we did find Herod’s tomb, BAR would “sensationalize” the discovery. So the BAR grant was refused.c

At this point I decided that BAR would accept applications for the funds. We placed a notice in BAR, and we received numerous applications from some wonderful archaeologists. In the end we decided that we would split the $25,000 pot among three excavations: (1) $10,000 for Abel Beth Maacah in northern Galilee, an excavation led by Hebrew University’s Nava Panitz-Cohen and Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University; (2) $10,000 for el-Araj on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee led by Steven Notley of Nyack College and Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College in Israel; and (3) $5,000 for ‘Einot Amitai in the Galilee led by Yonatan Adler of Ariel University.


Tel Abel Beth Maacah. Photo: Courtesy Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations.

For many years, Nava Panitz-Cohen had been Amihai Mazar’s chief assistant at the important excavation at Tel Rehov, which was financed by the best-selling novelist John Sandford, whose real name is John Camp. He had not helped finance Abel Beth Maacah, however. So I called John and told him BAR would make a $10,000 grant to Nava if he would make a matching grant. He instantly agreed and sent me his check the next day.

Next I called Steven Notley and Yonatan Adler and told them that they would get a $10,000 and a $5,000 grant, respectively, if they could raise a matching grant. To make a long story short, each was successful. We are delighted to be able to report two grants of $20,000 and one grant of $10,000.

If you’re up for it, let me tell you a little about each of these excavations and the people involved.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

Abel Beth Maacah is located 4.5 miles west of Tel Dan and lies close to Israel’s borders with both Lebanon and Syria. It was first surveyed in 1973 by William G. Dever, who suggested the site was occupied from the Early Bronze Age through the Iron Age. Abel Beth Maacah is mentioned in the Bible three times (2 Samuel 20:14, 1 Kings 15:20 and 2 Kings 15:29), the first of which involved David’s general Joab besieging Abel Beth Maacah to capture Sheba, son of Bichri, the leader of a rebellion against David’s throne. The inhabitants of the city turned on Sheba, however, cut off his head and threw it out to Joab so he would leave the city unharmed.

Two seasons of excavation were conducted in 2013 and 2014, and the team led by Nava and Robert hope to focus future seasons on looking for tenth–ninth centuries B.C.E. levels, a controversial period, as some claim the region was uninhabited during that time.

Abel Beth Maacah’s location as a border site provides a unique opportunity to study interactions between the Israelites, Arameans and Phoenicians. The excavations funded through BAR’s grant hopefully will help shed light on the relationship of Abel Beth Maacah to its neighbors and highlight whether the region was occupied during David’s time.

Steven Notley and Mordechai Aviam intend to use their $20,000 to support their excavation at el-Araj, a site on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. el-Araj is but one contender—the other being et-Tell, excavated by Rami Arav and his team—for the Biblical site of Bethsaida.d


El-Araj. Photo: Duby Tal and Moni Haramat/Albatross.

Bethsaida is mentioned in the Gospels more often than any city except Jerusalem and Capernaum, yet the site has been lost to history. Bethsaida is referenced as the site of three of Jesus’ miracles—the feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9:12–17), walking on water (Mark 6:45–51) and curing a blind man (Mark 8:22–25)—and the home of the disciples Philip, Andrew and Peter (John 1:44).

Mordechai (Motti) and Steven (Steve) intend to lead three seasons of excavations at the site of el-Araj, perhaps uncovering evidence that the site is Biblical Bethsaida. In any event, they hope to find the remains of a Second Temple Jewish fishing village—or even of a Jewish presence. A shovel-test—a method of archaeology survey that involves a series of test holes intended to determine if there are any cultural remains not visible on the surface—has uncovered several pieces of late Hellenistic and Roman pottery sherds. Oil lamps and a “heart-shaped” pillar (in profile) have been unearthed in previous surveys.

With the grant money provided by BAR, Yonatan Adler plans to subsidize the cost for about 20 students to excavate his site at ‘Einot Amitai, a subterranean cave located just south of Kafr Kanna in the Galilee.e ‘Einot Amitai is not mentioned in the Bible, but it does have a Biblical connection—it served as a production center for chalkstone vessels. In John 2:6 when Jesus transforms water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the water was held within six stone jars “for the Jewish rites of purification.” Stone vessels are well-known in Jewish law because they are not subject to impurity and therefore were widely used by Jews at this time. ‘Einot Amitai is the only known chalkstone vessel production site located in the Galilee. ‘Einot Amitai is located a little more than a mile from Cana, so it’s fair to assume that the vessels mentioned in the Gospel of John came from there.


Volunteers excavating at Einot Amitai. Photo: Courtesy Yonatan Adler.

Yonatan intends to address the issue of Jewish purification rites by excavating at ‘Einot Amitai. According to the purity laws of Leviticus 11, if any unclean animal should touch an earthenware vessel (pottery), all of the vessel is considered unclean and must be broken. Stone, however, was considered immune to impurity and thus could be used again if it came into contact with something unpure and was cleaned. Yonatan hopes that by studying stone vessel production at ‘Einot Amitai, he can learn more about the production of stone items.

“First Person: BAR Gives Away $50,000” by Hershel Shanks was originally published in Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2016.



a. Ehud Netzer, “In Search of Herod’s Tomb,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2011; Strata: “Milestones: Ehud Netzer (1934–2010),” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2011.

b. Hershel Shanks, “Was Herod’s Tomb Really Found?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2014.

c. Queries and Comments: “Fund-raising for Finding Herod’s Tomb,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2014; Hershel Shanks, “First Person: What Should We Do with $25,000?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2015.

d. Rami Arav, Richard A. Freund and John F. Shroder, Jr., “Bethsaida Rediscovered,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2000.

e. Tom McCollough, “Searching for Cana: Where Jesus Turned Water into Wine,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2015.


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