Excavator of Hazor and leading biblical archaeologist
Amnon Ben-Tor, one of the giants of biblical archaeology and long-time excavator of the important biblical site of Hazor in northern Israel, passed away on August 22, 2023. He was 87 years old.
Amnon belonged to the first generation of Israeli archaeologists who was trained in the State of Israel. He began his studies in 1955 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he participated in his first study excavation at Hazor, which was then directed by Yigael Yadin. During the excavation, he became closely acquainted with Yadin and Ruth Amiran, two of the leading figures in Israeli archaeology. Hazor was also the site where he later met his wife, Daphna, who would go on to become a prominent Egyptologist.
Between 1963 and 1965, he participated in Yadin’s excavations at the Herodian palace fortress of Masada, which he always described as the most beautiful years of his life. Despite his concentration in Bronze and Iron Age archaeology, Amnon always enjoyed visiting Masada. He celebrated his retirement at the site and even wrote a popular book, Back to Masada (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2009), about its history and archaeology.
In 1969, Amnon completed his Ph.D. and became a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. He was named the Yigael Yadin Professor in the Archaeology of Eretz Israel in 1988, a position he held until his retirement in 2003. During his career, generations of students benefited from his broad knowledge and sharp sense of humor. Amnon was a demanding teacher who always stressed the importance of knowing the evidence but also challenging received scholarly interpretations, including his own. But he never took scholarly disagreement personally and was always happy to engage in the key debates in the field, from the historicity of David and Solomon to who destroyed Canaanite Hazor. These characteristics, along with his dedication to teaching and training, allowed him to mentor an entire generation of archaeologists, many of whom now hold key positions in universities, museums, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Amnon was among the first archaeologists in Israel to study sites in a regional context. From 1977 to 1988, he conducted the Western Jezreel Valley Regional Project, which included the excavation of not just the large mound of Yoqneam and two smaller sites (Tel Qiri and Tel Qashish) but also a survey of the valley. He also believed strongly that archaeologists must publish their excavations, and being a person of action, he turned this belief into practice. In addition to completing the publication of Yadin’s Hazor excavations, he published all of the excavations he directed, including Yarmuth, Azor, Tel Qiri, Tel Qashish, Tel Yoqneam, and two additional volumes on his own excavations at Hazor. Even until the time of his passing, he was fully engaged in publishing the eighth volume of the Hazor excavations.
Of course, Amnon was best known for directing the Hazor excavations, which he renewed in 1990 after inheriting the project from Yadin. For Amnon, Hazor was not just a site. As he used to say, “There is Hazor, and then there are all the other sites.” This is probably why Amnon worked so tirelessly on the site’s excavation and publication, and why he made sure it continued to be the flagship project of the Hebrew University.
His excavations were a great success, uncovering monumental architecture from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (second millennium BCE). Among the most notable finds his teams uncovered were the city’s ceremonial precinct, a compound of standing stones, the ancient road that connected the upper and lower cities, and the entrance to the main administrative palace. Amnon’s excavations also revealed important finds from the Iron Age (first millennium BCE), including fortifications, storage houses, and domestic structures. These finds contributed significantly to our understanding of ancient Israelite society and to debates on the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and especially the time of King Solomon.
For Amnon, it was not enough simply to excavate a site. Throughout his career, he invested considerable effort and resources in conserving and restoring excavated structures so they could be enjoyed and appreciated by the public. It is fitting that one of the last projects that Amnon completed was an updated version of his popular book Hazor: Canaanite Metropolis, Israelite City (Israel Exploration Society, 2023), which was published just two weeks before his death.
Amnon was a formidable archaeologist who shaped the field of biblical archaeology as we know it today. Although this wonderful, charismatic teacher is gone, his legacy lives on through his students, his publications, and the future excavations of Hazor.
Igor Kreimerman is Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a specialist in the archaeology of the Bronze and Iron Age Levant and is Director of the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin.
1 Amnon Ben-Tor, “Who Destroyed Canaanite Hazor?” BAR, July/August 2013.
2 Amnon Ben-Tor, “The Regional Study: A New Approach to Archaeological Investigation,” BAR, March/April 1980.
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