Archaeologist Ehud Netzer has unearthed the plush, recreational
hub of King Herod's summer palace. His latest excavation of the
2,000-year-old compound uncovered swimming pools, saunas, and baths
embellished with mosaics and frescoes.
Dr. Netzer is still looking for the tomb of the "King of Judea."
Roman historical sources say that Herod is buried here at the
enormous retreat that he built for himself. But Netzer, a Herodian
expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has been working on
this site on and off since 1972, may never fulfill his dream of
finding the king's burial place.
Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, scholars, and curators
are waging a quiet battle for ownership of ancient sites and
artifacts that make the soil here as rich with history as other
Middle Eastern countries are with oil.
With 18,000 known points of interest, Israel and the Occupied
Territories have a higher concentration of archaeological sites
than anywhere else in the world. Herod constructed more than a few.
Though Christian and Jewish Scriptures depict Herod - who ruled
from 37 BC until around the time of Jesus' birth - as a ruthless
despot, archaeologists credit the "Great Builder" with dotting the
Holy Land and other reaches of the Roman Empire with structures.
Some lie in modern-day political hot spots. Herodium, southeast
of Bethlehem in the West Bank, is surrounded by Palestinian and
Bedouin Arab villages. Though this is "Area C," according to the
Oslo peace accords, and will temporarily remain under Israeli
control, its ownership is up for negotiation. Palestinians expect
to gain it in a peace settlement.
"This area is open to different wishes and different ideas,"
Netzer says as he looks west to the hills of Jerusalem and
Bethlehem on the horizon. "I think archaeology is above
everything," things like politics and borders, he adds.
Battle for digging rights
But in a place where two peoples are still trying to work out a
way to share one land, it's difficult to keep politics out of
academics. Though this is a discipline where rocks are dug and not
thrown, the two sides' positions seem ages apart, and won't be
resolved until the political leaders restart the peace process and
commence "final status" talks. In recent days, the United States
has increased pressure on the sides to reach a final settlement
Palestinians have traditionally said that they view all Israeli
digging in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by
Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, as illegal. Arabs accuse
Israelis of treasure-hunting and using archaeology to confiscate
land and make nationalistic claims.
But relations between the two sides have evolved somewhat. A
section on archaeology in the Oslo accords tried to pave the way
for issues to be negotiated amicably.
Yousef Abu Taa, deputy head of the Palestinian Department of
Antiquities, says the accords do allow Israeli digs in Area C at
places such as Herodium. However, according to the Palestinian
Authority (PA) interpretation of the accords, any artifacts the
Israelis uncover must be documented and eventually transferred to
the Palestinians. "Everything must be returned when the occupation
is over," Mr. Taa says in a conversation at the PA's new
archaeology headquarters in Ramallah. …