Archaeology is a young science. Three hundred years ago no one cared about digging up, studying and preserving the past. The material remains of the past were only interesting as raw materials for the present. Learning about ancient structures and artifacts was culled from books as the centers of scientific learning were far away from the cradle of civilization.
With globalization and the ability to travel relatively easily, Europeans – the champions of science in modern times – spread out over the globe. One major goal was colonization, the control of trade routes, resources and people. As Europeans became exposed to the wonders of the Old World, their interest in discovering and controlling the past grew.
During those early days of archaeology in the 19th century, identification of sites from the past, especially Biblical sites, became a target for quests. Here, finally, was a way to connect to the biblical narrative in a visceral way. The Holy Land was scoured to identify as many ancient sites as possible and match them with writings about them which had been passed down through the ages. Digs in Jerusalem, Azekah, Gezer, Beit Shemesh, Beit Shean, Ashkelon, Emmaus, Masada and many other sites in ancient Israel matched places to names found in ancient sources.
Because everything was accessible, it could be assumed that Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, would have given up all her places relatively quickly. How difficult could it be?
So it is a bit surprising that the site of a dramatic story, important at the end of the Second Temple Era, was only conclusively identified 50 years ago. Gamla, a Jewish town in the Golan Heights 2000 years ago, was described in two ancient sources, Josephus, the Jewish/Roman historian; and Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist. In Gamla, the Jewish population, revolted against the Romans; and when their defeat was certain, threw themselves from the cliffs instead of surrender. Josephus and Pliny differ in their description of the location of the town. They also refer to landmarks which existed 2000 years ago but do not exist today, and whose exact location is unclear. So, this important town with its moving story, alluded archaeologists.
Most early archaeologists gave more credence to the accounts of Pliny and went by his description in the hunt for Gamla. Only after the Six Day War in 1968, did the search for Gamla, come to an end. The Golan Heights underwent a proper archaeological survey after the war. Shmaryahu Gutman was surveying the land with kibbutznik and history buff Yitzchaki Gal. As Gutman recalls,
“One day, Yitzchaki climbed up a certain height in the Golan, he examined his surroundings and decided, ‘Here was Gamla.’ He brought me to the village Deir Kruch and turned my gaze westward, into the Daliyot stream which splits into a southern branch and a northern branch; and in the distance – the Ginnosar Valley. We saw a spine with a northern slope, a southern slope, a cliff to the west and the possibility of a footpath going down to the east – exactly as Josephus wrote.”
Archaeologists spend most of their time today examining finds and rethinking ancient structures. They dig new areas of old sites or apply new technologies to get a more in-depth picture of the past.
It is refreshing to think that there still might be new frontiers in archaeology; still places waiting to be discovered for those who open their eyes and read the texts carefully. Abraham, to whom God told to walk the land to really understand it, and archaeologist Adam Zartal, may his memory a blessing, who said, “There is no high-tech solution for walking the land, meter by meter, with your own two feet,” give a model for discovery using the best tools we have – our feet, our eyes and our open mind.