The Qumran archeological site in the West Bank, with the Dead Sea and Jordan in the background. (Wikimedia Commons)
March 4, 2013
Finding the elusive, unregulated Israeli bureaucrat who lets American evangelicals run amok in the Palestinian territories.
A line of rental cars crawled up the side of ribbed sandstone formations, mounded high like giant termite nests. In the distance, the city lights of modern Jericho twinkled on the northern horizon. In this haunted landscape where the West Bank meets the Jordan River, the Dead Sea Scrolls–the oldest-known biblical record–remained hidden for millennia.
The discovery of the scrolls 50 years ago galvanized a resurgent evangelical movement, many of whose members heralded the creation of Israel as evidence of the coming rapture. Since then, the Holy Land has attracted a long succession of academic zealots seeking to tether stories in the Bible to the archaeological record.
For Randall Price, a mid-50′s, sun-reddened pastor from Texas with a neat side part and a booming voice, archaeology is both a scientific and a devotional endeavor. "This was the area where great men of God were tested," he said. "When you’re excavating there it puts you in touch, physically, with the reality of those events." Price has spent the last ten years searching for remains of an ascetic Jewish priesthood whom he believes settled in the desert wilderness of Qumran to await the coming of the Messiah and the End of Days. These remains, he said, could provide unprecedented evidence of a biblical text.
At first blush, Price seems like an unlikely candidate to head excavations amid one of the bitterest land disputes in the modern world. Though he never actually received a degree in archaeology, he built a global network around his brand of Near East biblical scholarship with an apocalyptic bent. He has written extensively for the website RaptureReady.com, given lectures suggesting that Iran is fulfilling the role of Antichrist, and has openly called for the United States to declare war on Islam.
Price says his own work underwrites Israeli precedence in some Palestinian land. "Despite the fact that Qumran is probably on the map as the Palestinians’, the fact is we’re unearthing ancient Jewish heritage," he said. "There’s nothing here that speaks to any other people."
Price’s politics are unlikely to disrupt his access to the Qumran plateau, however. Located in the West Bank, permits to excavate around Qumran are not issued by the Palestinian Authority, but rather by Israel’s Civil Administration. It’s a bizarre arrangement, which critics say allows Israeli officials and religious pseudo-scientists to cooperate in raiding cultural treasures.
Archaeology in the West Bank–specifically, who has the right to dig, interpret, and store artifacts–is a wedge issue that ties into broader struggles over resource control in the occupied territory. "Are we trying to be nationalist?" Price said. "In this conflict of religious ideas that affect the political situation, you have to take a side somewhere."
The notion that the modern state of Israel exists within a prophetic framework is one example of how religion and archaeology are injected into the politics of the region. In fact, they are historically inseparable.
Biblical archeology began as a largely evangelical academic movement about 200 years ago. Its most influential advocate, an American scholar named William Albright, spent the early 20th century building what became known as the Albrightian Consensus, the convention that archaeology provides physical evidence for the Old Testament–which, conversely, can be used as historical source material in planning and conducting digs.
Initial "proofs" included burned rubble near Jericho, which was attributed to the dramatic story in the Book of Joshua in which the Israelites brought down the city’s walls using trumpets. Though Albright’s movement was ultimately discredited, it continues to influence new generations of religious scholars who, as one popular adage goes, "hold the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other."
Backed by church funding, today’s biblical archaeologists are often under pressure to deliver distinctly biblical discoveries. "There’s so much riding on that," said Raphael Greenberg, a prominent Israeli archaeologist and a public critic of the biblical approach. "People feel like if they can’t turn out that information, it defeats their national aspirations or their religious beliefs," he said.
Though subjected to heavy criticism, the biblical archaeology movement has helped to shape the history of the region. Early writings from the American cohort prompted the creation of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a British society, in 1865. This society was financed by archaeologists as well as clergy to conduct surveys and photograph Ottoman-controlled Palestine, but doubled as an intelligence gathering service for the British Army.
Today, Greenberg estimates the majority of funding for excavations in Israel and Palestine comes from religious sources. As a result, he said, researchers are plagued by financial pressure to produce religiously significant discoveries. Recent years have seen multiple claims of finding Noah’s Ark, the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant, and most recently, a fraudulent ossuary that was claimed to contain the bones of Jesus’ family.
Actual discoveries in the region rarely make headlines. Cultural strata in Israel and Palestine lack the lavish treasures and mystique associated with the power centers of the ancient world, such as Egypt or Mesopotamia. The goods commonly unearthed in the region — coins, provincial tools, and bits of pottery "don’t have much intrinsic value," Greenberg said, "But they have the value of being from the Holy Land."
Price believes that DNA from charred goat bones he discovered at Qumran will prove a genetic match for the leather skins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He theorizes that the bone deposits are in fact evidence of an ancient ritualized feast that anticipated the coming messiah. Many of his supporters take the claim further, saying Price has hit on evidence of the Last Supper–an interpretation he is careful to distance himself from, though he won’t deny the possibility. "You can see where this is heading," Greenberg said. "There is no way he can set up a scientific structure of proof. If you find bones you can say anything about that."
As he spoke, Greenberg set down his empty mug. "Somebody could find this coffee cup and say the Prime Minister of Israel was here." He listed off proofs: "He drinks coffee. We’re in Israel. Maybe he is known to come to this cafe."
"Science doesn’t work by building up a house of cards and trying to prove it," Greenberg said. "Science works by ruling out all possibilities until only one is left."
Over his career, Greenberg said he has observed an unsettling willingness on part of Israel’s Civil Administration to grant access to fringe applicants like Price. Many of them are denied permits to dig within Israel, with its strong regulatory system, only to be approved to excavate in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank, he said.
For those allowed to dig, however, strict guidelines exist to facilitate the transfer of any artifacts discovered to Israeli military control. According to Ziad al-Khatib, Bethlehem regional commander for the Palestinian Antiquities Police, "The Civil Administration works within the borders of the West Bank and moves items into the Israeli areas," he said. "They decide which items to be kept, which to move out of the country."
Al-Khatib describes this system as "legal theft." Though the Hague Convention disallows moving artifacts out of occupied territory, the Civil Administration transfers huge numbers of them to storage units in disputed Israeli settlement blocs, and others to universities and museums inside Israel. The officer behind these operations works in tandem with foreign archaeologists like Price in a system that discreetly siphons thousands of artifacts out of the Palestinian territories.
The entrance to the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration (ADCA) is an unassuming steel gate tucked between rows of flowering hedges. The compound consists of three flat-topped units arranged in a "C", their walls painted a blinding shade of white with thick blue lines along the top. In the middle, a rock and flower garden is arranged inside a lawn of dusty synthetic turf.
The ADCA is a notoriously secretive organization whose leader, the Staff Officer for Archaeology (SOA) — an elusive man named Hananya Hizmi — enjoys a staggering amount of power within his jurisdiction. He is immune from oversight, exempt from excavation licenses for his own digs, enjoys a lifetime term, and is not required to publish his finds, the majority of which reside in storage facilities under his sole control. The West Bank is, in effect, his personal sandbox, and he is loath to divulge information about his operations.
I had hoped to access one of Hizmi’s facilities, huge warehouses that contain tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of artifacts — the spoils of 40 years of military-administered excavations. They include materials discovered by Dr. Price and other international teams that dig in the West Bank.
In three months of attempting to contact Hizmi, I received no email response and my calls went unanswered. Finally, I showed up at ADCA headquarters and told the posted sentry that I had an appointment. After a confused exchange with security guards and some pointed questions about the scheduling of my meeting, a woman appeared and ushered me in.
Hananya Hizmi sat behind a tidy desk in a gray polo shirt and matching golfer’s hat. A gold medal stamped with the word "BOSS," a gift from his 24-year-old son, rested on a shelf by the front door. Hizmi is an uncompromising man, but not unfriendly; he waves off most requests with a smile. Allowing me access to the storage facility, for example, was politely out of the question.
"This is Israeli national property," he said, referring to his cache of artifacts gathered exclusively from the West Bank. "It’s like walking inside someone’s house and asking to look around."
"You just said it’s national property, it’s not private," I replied. "So why not let people see it?"
"It’s not for the public or for students. Even for Israeli students, they cannot come in," he said.
I switched tack. "What is the policy that determines whether I can go inside?"
"The policy is it’s up to the management."
"But the management is you."
"Yeah, it’s me."
"So, may I please see it?" I asked.
His lips curled into a smile. "No."
In 2007 Greenberg sued the previous SOA to force him to disclose information about his activities. The resulting document was stunning. "I discovered this sort of parallel universe," he said–an expansive list of more than 6,000 sites that had been surveyed or excavated, kept out of sight from both the public and the academy.
Greenberg’s concern about the secrecy surrounding the ADCA extends beyond simplyaccess to data. Internal documents from the Archaeology Advisory Committee — the committee that screens permit applications from foreign archaeologists — revealed a startling lack of discussion about policy, he said.
One applicant, Vendyl Jones (since deceased), had previously been barred from digging anywhere under Israeli control due to his extremely destructive methods. In her book Unholy Business, reporter Nina Burleigh described an episode in which Jones used a bulldozer to clear a road to one of his excavations, doing unknown damage to archaeological remains. Despite the ban against him, Jones was approved to excavate in the West Bank.
At a glance, the approval of biblical pseudo-scientists like Jones seems to reveal a glaring inability on part of the ADCA to uphold its own mission of preserving cultural antiquities. In reality, it underscores the unchecked power that the organization, and Hizmi in particular, enjoys. "The requests appear to be approved automatically once they have the support of the SOA," Greenberg said, after reviewing the documents. "They rubber stamped it."
"The site that is most often discussed is, of course, Qumran," Greenberg said, "which attracts no end of oddballs."
With just days to go before the end of his 10-year exploration of Qumran, Price gathered his team of volunteers in a semi-circle around him, and began to preach. The pre-dawn sermons and prayers had become a daily ritual to steel them for hours of digging in 100-degree heat.
"If you are a member of the Qumran community and you transported to now, what question should you be asking?" Price said to the group. "Why didn’t [the Messiah] come as expected? Well, from our perspective, he came."
There were head nods and sounds of praise. To the group, Price is more than a scholar; he is a spiritual leader, more often referred to as "pastor" than "doctor." And their work went beyond the study of an obscure priesthood from antiquity; it connected them directly to thousands of years of living revelation. "Two thousand years later you see a Jewish nation, enemies on all sides, and nations like Iran threatening them," he said. "It comes down to a plan, just like this dig."
A young woman asked God to curse the "evil men" who wished to stop Price’s work. The sound of devotional singing filled the air as Price led the group in a round of "Great is Thy Faithfulness," timed with the rising of the morning sun. "All right, to your tents, oh Israel, and let’s get to work!" he said, followed promptly by the scraping of shovels, the warbling thunder of wheelbarrows, the thud of picks against hard earth.
For some, the mood of discovery was feverish. David, a squat, graying man with a walking stick and thick glasses, knelt on the ground in front of Price. He laid down a piece of sandstone and cracked it open with a hammer.
"What’s really exciting to me is the smell when you strike it," he said, holding the rock up to Price’s face. "It’s that crude oil smell. These are the exact rocks we have out in Tennessee. It proves the flood!" David made a round of the camp, stopping to let people smell his rock.
Elsewhere around the site, work banter drifted from Israel’s controversial fence, which cuts deeply into the West Bank, to the 1993 siege at Waco, Texas, to a debate over the meaning of the word "cult."
By the time lunch break rolled around, David had filled up his vest and pants pockets with rocks. To make more room in his bag, he publicly presented Price with his treasured 20-year-old mini sledgehammer. Holding a slip of paper high above his head, David announced, "It’s a 300 year contract. I made him sign it!"
"David, I’ll leave it here because within the millenniumthis is probably where we’re coming," Price said.
"Amen! Come Jesus!" David cheered.
As the dig wrapped up, Price tallied his finds, making precise notes about the depth and location of each artifact: pottery, bird and goat bones, some bits of charcoal from what appear to be refuse dumps. The items were transported to his personal storage unit in Jerusalem, from there to labs, and eventually to an undisclosed location, in the hands of Hananya Hizmi. To everyone else–Israeli researchers who may want to conduct independent tests or Palestinians who challenge the right of others to remove artifacts in the first place–they will remain locked away.
It is unknown how Price’s work may strengthen Israeli claims to the land around the Dead Sea, which it has controlled since 1967. What is certain is that the physical and cultural landscape of Qumran has been permanently altered. "The heritage of a country is a finite resource," Greenberg said. "Whatever is pulled out of the ground is gone and you can’t put it back the way it was. Every excavation is a final act."
Produced in association with the U.C. Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program and a News21 grant.