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What’s it like Studying Archaeology in the Holy Land

As I write that I can’t believe that I have the privilege of pursuing my M.A. degree here.

My former professor and current boss was leaning back in her chair so that it stood only on two legs, like bored kids do in their 4th grade English grammar classes. She was, in my mind, not young enough to be doing that, so I kept on thinking please stop please don’t fall oh man oh man please don’t tip over.

I was so preoccupied with these thoughts that I didn’t catch what she was saying.

“Wait, come again?”

“...I have a full scholarship for you to get your Archaeology M.A. degree in Israel - do you want it?”

That’s how I, a white Gentile with no Jewish ancestry and no ties to Israel whatsoever, ended up at Tel Aviv University (TAU).

This small sliver of land west of the Jordan River in the southern Levant is the most archaeologically studied region in the world. As I write that I can’t believe that I have the privilege of pursuing my M.A. degree here. The domestication of wild plants and animals, the rise of cities and urban civilization, the first alphabetic language—all of this history is etched into the landscape of Israel.

It’s easy to romanticize archaeology in Israel in 2023. But it’s important to approach the topic carefully and from multiple perspectives. Otherwise, you run the risk of contributing to increasingly polarized archaeological approaches that are used as pseudo-scientific tools for political or financial agendas.

For example, In one class I spent a full month studying the different strata (layers of human occupation) of Shechem before I learned that Shechem is modern-day Nablus, in Palestine. Usually, when archaeologists analyze a site they start by presenting its entire history, but in this case Shechem seemed to just softly fade into the mist after the Roman period, as if it didn’t have a rich history as the city of Nablus following the rise of Islam in the 7th century C.E.

Tel Aviv University isn’t perfect in this regard, and I want to acknowledge that. It’s impossible to conduct field work in Israel without aligning yourself with a political side, usually related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. What’s important to me, however, is that TAU and the archaeology faculty recognise their own inherent biases and tendencies, identifying them honestly and working to bring more equitable practices. So though I wouldn’t call the TAU archaeology program entirely ‘holistic,’ I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in the history of the Near East and southern Levant. It’s not at all an exaggeration to call this region of the world the ‘cradle of civilization.’

The benefit of studying in Israel compared to other places in the world is that you get to be here, where tens of thousands of years of rich history are sitting beneath your feet. The opportunity to dig through that intense and utterly complex concentration of human material culture has made Israeli archaeologists some of the most technically proficient excavators on the planet.

The theoretical practices are perhaps not as deeply explored as they are in the US, but that is slowly and steadily changing. And, obviously, there is literally no place like Israel for those interested in Biblical archaeology.

If you find your heart beating just a little bit faster as you read this, and you fall into one of those categories I listed above, then you should consider coming to TAU to chase those ambitions.

Grady studies archaeology at TAU and in his free time you’ll find him at the beach playing spike ball. Connect with him on Instagram or Facebook.

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