The Chronicle #60/2002
Dr. Avraham Biran Awarded Israel Prize, The State of Israel's Highest Honor
"It gives me the greatest joy to congratulate our teacher Professor Avraham Biran on this Yom Ha'atz'ma'ut (Israel Independence Day). He is so richly deserving of the prestigious Israel Pirze, and we at the College-Institute bask in the rays of his glory and celebrate his accomplishments on this day. His work in the field of archaeology has brought great distinction to HUC-JIR, and has contributed so richly to the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. We applaud Professor Biran today, and give thanks for his energy, his character, and his knowledge. In the words of our tradition, we thank God, 'she-halak meihachmato li'rei'av -- who shared divine wisdom with humans.' May Professor Biran continue to grow from strength to strength."
- Dr. David Ellenson, President
Avraham Biran, a third generation Israeli, received his M.A. and
Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University under William Foxwell Albright and
was Thayer Fellow in the American Schools of Oriental Research, Jerusalem,
1935-37. Formerly Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities
and Museums, he is Director of HUC-JIR's Nelson Glueck School of Biblical
Archaeology in Jerusalem. He participated in the excavations of the
University of Pennsylvania in Iraz, Tepe Gawra near Mosul, and Khafaje
near Baghdad, and in the American Schools of Oriental Research excavations
near Irbid in Jordan. He accompanied Nelson Glueck in his epoch-making
discoveries at the head of the Gulf of Eilat. Professor Biran directed
the excavations of Anathoth, Tel Zippor, Ira, Aroer, the synagogue
of Yesud Hama'alah, and the longest ongoing excavations in Israel
at Tel Dan (1966 to the present day).
Dr. Avraham Biran
Awarded Israel Prize,
The State of Israel's Highest Honor
Prominently located at the most copious of the Jordan River's
headwaters, Tel Dan has intrigued generations of explorers and archaeologists.
Its identification with Biblical Dan by Edward Robinson in 1838
conjured up images of a thriving Israelite cult center rivaling
the temple in Jerusalem. In 1966, with the site threatened by military
activities related to its forward position on the Syrian border,
Dr. Biran, then director of the Israel Department of Antiquities
and Museums, embarked upon salvage excavations which developed into
a full-fledged and still active research project. Tel Dan has revealed
an almost uninterrupted sequence of occupation from the Neolithic
period through the late Roman period in a series of unique discoveries
whose full implications are only just beginning to be understood.
Dr. Biran's book, Biblical Dan (Israel Exploration
Society/Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1994)
is a chronicle of Tel Dan's history: its initial settlement at the
dawn of civilization, its first urban episode in the Early Bronze
Age, the massive earthwork fortifications and unique mud-brick gate
of the Middle Bronze Age through which Abraham is said to have walked,
the tombs of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, the evidence for the
migration of the tribe of Dan in the early Iron Age, and finally,
the rise of a national cult center in the Israelite period in all
its architectural and artifactual glory. In 1993 at Tel Dan, the
northernmost city in the biblical kingdom of Israel, Dr. Biran discovered
the "House of David" stele. The inscription on this stele,
written in early Aramaic paleo-Hebrew script and dating from the
9th century B.C.E., is the first archaeological evidence supporting
the existence of the House of David.
We began digging at Tel Dan the year before the Six-Day War. We
didn't go there because it was the site of Biblical Dan or even
because that's where we thought it was. It was near the border with
Syria and Lebanon, at the source of the Jordan River. The army had
been digging trenches and putting up gun emplacements facing the
Syrian positions. Some kibbutzniks from Kibbutz Dan, a couple of
miles from the tell, came and told me that the army was destroying
the tell. So we decided to do a quick little excavation to see what
we could learn before either the army destroyed much of the evidence
or who knows what the result of a war could be. If war broke out,
we might not be able to go there. So we rushed to do what we call
a rescue dig. Of course, we knew from the Bible that Jeroboam had
set up the golden calf at Dan [1 Kings 12:28-30]. We thought it
might be interesting to see if we could find the locality where
the golden calf would have been set. Could we find the sanctuary
or the high place where the cult rituals took place?
Deep in your heart, you always think, "Wouldn't it be wonderful
to find the golden calf." We went to the northern edge of the
tell [an ancient mound composed of remains of successive settlements]
where the springs were. We wanted to work there, but the army wouldn't
let us because this faced the Syrian positions. The army said that
if we started working there and bringing in a lot of people, it
might become a cause for war. So we said to the army, "So where
can we dig?" They said on the southern slope. Okay, so we went
to the southern slope. But it is about 200 yards long - where to
begin? We saw two huge rocks - built stones - jutting out of the
slope. So we said if we can cut a trench between these two blocks
of stone, maybe we'll learn something without doing any damage.
It happened that it was a very fortunate choice because we discovered
over the years that these stones were part of the gate from the
Common sense is a very important element in excavating. Obviously
these built stones represented some construction. To remove them
would be against everything that you've been taught. So we chose
an area that was between them.
Whenever you dig, you destroy. All excavation is a destruction.
We cut a trench through the southern slope to see whether we could
learn something about the construction of the ramparts that protected
the city. We could have started at the bottom, at the foot of the
rampart. Had we done that, we might have discovered in 1966 the
inscription that we found in 1993 that mentions the "House
of David." Who knows? It's all chance, whatever you do.
After the Six-Day War, the army said we could dig anywhere we wanted.
We've been digging at Dan now for 36 years. People ask me today,
"When are you going to stop?' I say that it reminds me of an
old Jewish story of a guy desperately fighting with a bear. His
friends keep yelling at him to let go of the bear. "I want
to," he says, "but the bear won't let me go."