Beneath the Earth: Archaeological Adventures in the Land of Israel

February 10, 2022 in Library Corner

Inhabited for millennia, Israel sits atop layers upon layers of a rich, buried past – long irresistible to archaeologists. For a lively, colorful history of archaeological expeditions, read Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler, an acclaimed science journalist. And then, for a fictional perspective on an archaeological dig, try the crazily clever graphic novel Tunnels by Ruti Modan, Israel’s renowned comic-book artist. Both books illuminate the bravery, fanatical obsession, and competing interests that fuel underground exploration in this ancient land.

Under Jerusalem

In 1863, a French senator, Louis-Félicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy, led the first official archaeological expedition in Jerusalem. As Lawler recounts, de Saulcy’s workers discovered a hidden chamber in the Tomb of Kings. There, they found a stone sarcophagus containing a woman’s remains. Despite fierce Jewish opposition, de Saulcy won permission from the Ottoman governor to ship the casket to the Louvre. He declared that the dead woman was a Judean queen of the seventh century BCE, although scientists of the time dated the sarcophagus only to the first century CE. Nonetheless, museum visitors eagerly lined up to see this ancient artifact, and European nations launched competing archaeological expeditions to unearth more treasures from the land of the Bible.

One eccentric archaeologist profiled in Under Jerusalem is British Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker, who set off in 1908 to find the long-lost Ark of the Covenant. Parker’s motley crew included a Finnish poet, a Swiss psychic, and a Swedish steamboat captain. When permitted digging yielded no results, Parker bribed guards at the Dome of the Rock and began secret nighttime digs there. To escape the ensuing uproar, Parker hastily set sail for England.

More recently, Israeli archaeologists have made stunning finds, including a stone inscribed in Hebrew: “the place of the trumpeting.” Experts believe this stone once marked the place along the wall of Herod’s Temple complex where priests proclaimed the start and close of Shabbat.

Throughout Under Jerusalem, Lawler underscores that archaeology is a source of continual controversy and frequent violence. Excavations have stoked tensions between secular and religious Jews and pitted Christians, Muslims, and Jews against each other. In one gripping segment, Lawler describes the fraught Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations towards the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Although the parties reached agreement on many difficult points, one intractable issue was control of the underground territory beneath the Temple Mount.


Like Captain Parker, the protagonists in this madcap graphic novel are obsessed with finding the Ark of the Covenant. Nili is the daughter of an Israeli Jewish archaeologist suffering from dementia. In the 1980s, he found an ancient stone inscription identifying the Ark’s underground hiding place, but his West Bank excavation was interrupted by the Intifada. Nili is determined to complete her father’s mission by unearthing the Ark. She wants recognition for her father for this and other discoveries wrested from him by a jealous academic colleague.

Nili persuades a shady antiquities dealer to fund her rogue archaeological dig. She gets equipment and labor from religious settlers and underground access to the West Bank from Arab residents who used to work with her father. Each party in this witty, zany farce has different goals – fame, riches, proof of an ancient Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, or cover for a smuggling tunnel. One irrepressible character is the Jewish settlers’ leader, Shmuel Gedanken, who has a biblical quote for every occasion and wears a shofar round his neck, ever ready to rally his team. Even if you think you don’t like graphic novels, try this one.