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Controversy Surrounding Bone Recovery in Israel

Because burial is such a central ritual to the Jewish faith, there has been mounting tension over the past few decades between archaeologists and ultra-Orthodox Jewish individuals, over the fate of human remains uncovered in archaeological digs. This controversy stems from the fact that members of ultra-Orthodox Judaism believe that archaeological excavations of human tombs and ossuaries are a defilement of ancient Jewish graves. Conversely, archaeologists argue that excavation is an imperative tool in the understanding of ancient cultures and religions and to the advancement of archaeology as a science.

This tension between archaeologists and ultra-Orthodox Jewish people has increased in light of the increased role of ultra-Orthodox Jewish followers in the Israeli parliament (the Knesset). These individuals have asserted their belief that ultra-Orthodox rabbis be given jurisdiction to halt archaeological digs where human graves are discovered in order to protect these bones from any unintended harm.

At the crux of this conflict between the archaeologists’ desire is to study human bones uncovered in tombs and ossuaries discovered in digs before they are reburied and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish individuals’, and in particular, ultra-Orthodox rabbis’, desire that the bones be handed over to religious authorities promptly upon their discovery so that they may be reburied according to Jewish law.

The 1978 Antiquities Law, sometimes referred to as the “dry-bones law”, distinguished human remains from the category of antiquities in an attempt to resolve this conflict. Established by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Antiquities Law made it illegal to excavate known burial sites, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Therefore, if archaeologists accidentally uncover human bones, the bones are to be turned over promptly to the Religious Affairs Ministry.

In 1994, legislation was passed so that archaeologists had to discern whether bones found during excavations were humans or not on site; human remains could only be moved to the lab for analysis if it was impossible to distinguish whether bones were human or non-human onsite. This law also stated that if human remains during excavations, they were to be handed over to religious authorities promptly: “Archaeologists must show proper “respect …in handling the bones of corpses,” and human bones must “be forwarded, after their examination, to the Ministry for Religious Affairs for burial” (July 22, 1994, directive of Israeli attorney general Michael Ben-Yair). This law was extended to include all gravesites, whether Jewish, Christian, Roman, Phoenician or Stone Age.

However, in practice prehistoric remains have in certain instances been transported to the laboratory for study; a fact that continues to draw protest from ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who want bones to be promptly reburied when found in tombs and ossuaries in order to respect the burial customs of their religion.

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