Sixty Years in Israeli and Biblical Archaeology
By William G. Dever
(Atlanta: SBL Press, 2020), pp. 233, 57 figures
Reviewed by Thomas E. Levy
First, there was W.F. Albright, then G. Ernest Wright and Nelson Glueck, and then there was William G. Dever. For many, these are the great American scholars of the 20th century who played a central role in shaping the field of biblical archaeology. Professor Dever’s recently published autobiography, My Nine Lives: Sixty Years in Israeli and Biblical Archaeology, clearly situates him as the intellectual heir of the field’s founders. The book is meant to be part of the annals of the history of archaeological research in the Holy Land and highlights both Dever’s contribution to the field as well as his adventures working in this unique place on the planet.
Dever crafts his story like the strata of an ancient Middle Eastern mound or tell, where each phase of his life is carefully measured in decades of time. Like Dusty Springfield’s famous song, William (“Bill”) Dever was the “son of a preacher man,” born in Louisville, Kentucky, his father a preacher and pastor in the Churches of Christ. From his father, he inherited a “big voice” and used it to good advantage when Bill himself became a man of the cloth, beginning his studies as a teenager at Milligan College in Elizabethton, Tennessee. By age 17, Bill became a “boy preacher” at the Oak Grove Christian Church in Powder Branch, Tennessee, where several years later, he and his young wife, Norma Spangler, cared for their parishioners who numbered over 150 most Sundays.
In 1957, thanks to his college teacher, Toyozo Watanabi Nakarai, who was a Japanese Buddhist and Zionist that converted to Christianity and taught Biblical Hebrew, the way was paved for Dever to travel to Israel for the first time. With Norma’s support, Bill saved up his meager earnings and took a loan for what would be an ecumenical trip to the Holy Land for Christian clergy to experience the newly established State of Israel. On that trip, Dever’s pious group went to Martin Buber’s house in Jerusalem for lunch, met for conversation with 56-year-old Golda Meir at the President’s house, and visited key archaeological sites that planted the seed for his lifelong interest in archaeology, what Dever calls his life’s “vocation.”
While still a clergyman, Dever was accepted for graduate studies at Harvard University, working with G. Ernest Wright as his major professor and Frank Moore Cross (at age 36 already a leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ugaritic, and the Hebrew Bible) his minor professor. At Harvard, his first field experience was in 1957 at biblical Shechem near the town of Nablus in the West Bank.
Dever’s turn toward a career excavating in Israel started in 1964 when Wright became the second annual director of the new Hebrew Union College (HUC) campus in Jerusalem. Pioneering archaeologist Nelson Glueck had established the HUC campus and was eager to build a graduate-level research institute in biblical archaeology, similar to the American School of Oriental Research in East Jerusalem where he had served as director in the 1930s and early 1940s.
With Glueck’s and HUC support, Wright, Dever, and H. Darrel Lance carried out the college’s first excavation at Tell Gezer. By 1965, Glueck was already urging Bill to take over the project. As Dever tells it, at a desert bar in Be’er Sheva, Glueck told him, “Ernest and I have talked. I want you to come back to HUC and direct the Gezer project. If you finish your degree next spring, I’ll appoint you senior archaeological fellow at HUC, and a year or two later you’ll become director.” Soon after, in 1966, Dever successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation. And so it came to pass that in that same year, Dever became the director of the HUC Biblical and Archaeology School in Jerusalem.
The Tell Gezer excavations (1966–1971) represent a mostly forgotten benchmark in the archaeology of the Holy Land. Gezer was one of the first excavations in the southern Levant to be truly multidisciplinary, with full-time specialists working in the field, including a geologist, archaeozoologist, paleobotanist, ethnographer, and on-site photographer. Borrowing from Yigael Yadin’s work at Masada, Dever’s excavations at Gezer also perfected the practice of recruiting student volunteers, both to train new generations and to help fund the excavation. Another Gezer innovation was implementation of the Wheeler-Kenyon recording system that used carefully recorded section drawings coupled with precision mapping of exposed architecture.
By 1970, Dever published the first final monograph of the initial Gezer excavations. This was an impressive achievement for a young, 37-year-old scholar, so soon after the excavations concluded. This was the beginning of Dever’s highly productive publication trajectory, something noticed and respected by Israeli and international scholars alike. What is more, many Gezer-trained archaeologists went on to lead their own major expeditions and train subsequent generations of archaeologists.
In 1971, during his last season at Gezer, Bill and his family moved to the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (the new name of the American School of Oriental Research) to take on its directorship. Dever was following in the footsteps of Nelson Glueck. At times when most foreigners abruptly left Israel during its 1967 and 1973 Yom Kippur Wars, Dever and Norma chose to stay, throwing in their lot with their Israeli friends no matter what the outcome. During this period, the Devers made the Albright Institute an elegant and welcoming setting where Israelis, Arabs, and foreigners felt welcome, including a Washington, D.C. lawyer by the name of Hershel Shanks who had traveled to Israel in 1972 to explore his burgeoning interest in biblical archaeology.
In 1975, Dever left the Albright and took a position in the Judaic Studies program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. As Dever puts it, “The mandate was simple: Establish a world-class program in the archaeology of Israel and put Arizona on the map in that branch of archaeology.” During his Tucson years, Dever would supervise 28 Ph.D. students, many of whom went on to professorships in archaeology.
In 1978, Bill, together with Rudolf (“Rudi”) Cohen, the chief archaeologist of the Negev for the Department of Antiquities of Israel (now the Israel Antiquities Authority), launched the Central Negev Highlands Project (CNHP) that focused on human settlement in the southern Levant’s marginal desert zone during the Early Bronze Age IV (c. 2300–2000 B.C.E.) period. This would be Dever’s last directorship of a field project (1978–1981). While Rudy had generously “sampled” almost every EB IV mega-village site in the central Negev, Bill brought the careful excavation methodology he had honed at Gezer to one of these sites, Be’er Resisim. Thanks to their excavations, Be’er Resisim still provides key data for understanding the nature of the enigmatic EB IV period, its relations with the metals trade that emanated out of Jordan’s Wadi Faynan region, and the connectivity between the Negev and southern Judean mountains.
The CNHP took place shortly after Dever joined the University of Arizona, one of the leading U.S. universities for study and research in the “New Archaeology” movement that had developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Determined to leave “classical” biblical archaeology behind and adapt to the new intellectual environment, Dever renamed the discipline “Syro-Palestinian” archaeology, with the aim of making it more “ecumenical.” Today, while most scholars prefer the term “Levantine” archaeology, the public in many parts of the world still love and identify with the notion of an archaeology that aims to reveal the biblical past. Ironically, after his retirement from Arizona in 2002, Bill became one of the most vocal proponents of biblical archaeology, writing many synthetic and popular books about the relationship between archaeology and the Hebrew Bible.
Blessed with a long life he enjoys with his second wife, Pamela Gaber, Dever remains an observer of Israeli archaeology, as exemplified by this fascinating and personal account of the evolution of the field, particularly in the 20th century. Professor Dever still has much to say about how archaeologists can and should integrate the Hebrew Bible into their research—a must for anyone interested in doing or understanding Bronze and Iron Age archaeology in the southern Levant.
Thomas E. Levy is Professor of Anthropology and Judaic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he holds the Norma Kershaw Endowed Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands.
Watch a full-length lecture by University of Arizona and Lycoming College scholar William Dever online for free.
A worldwide crisis in Biblical studies has been brewing for a generation. The eminent Bible scholar Lester Grabbe put the matter succinctly in the title of a book he edited: Can a ‘History of Israel’ Be Written? No mainstream history of Israel in English has been written during the past…
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.