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Israel Exploration Society

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

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Israel Exploration Society

On 7 November 1913, the first general meeting of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society (which became the Israel Exploration Society in 1948) was convened by a group of Jewish intellectuals living in Ottoman Palestine. Until that time investigation of the ancient land of Israel had been the monopoly of foreign scholars and expeditions. In addition to a lecture that evening by Isaiah Press on “The History of Research in the Land of Israel,” the program included an address by the society's chairman, the educator David Yellin, who stressed to the audience that the responsibility of a reborn people in the land of the Patriarchs was to recover its material past and to leave behind “for the generations to come” evidence of the “holy books,” which are “the inheritance of the whole world.”

Although the outbreak of World War I brought a halt to the society's activities, it was reestablished in 1920 under the direction of Nahum Slouschz, an archaeologist, historian, and scholar of Hebrew literature. The society's statutes proclaimed that it would hold lectures and seminars (many geared to the general public), establish a library and a museum in Jerusalem that would be the basis of an institute for the exploration of Palestine, organize tours, carry out scientific excavations, and publish a scientific periodical, books, and pamphlets.

To meet the society's most urgent need, the raising of funds, committees of philanthropic Jews were formed in the United States, London, Paris, The Hague, and Egypt. By 1923, the society could report to the American committee that three excavations were underway and that the ruins of the ancient synagogue at Hammath Tiberias had been cleared. The first ancient menorah discovered in Palestine was found at Hammath Tiberias (the Israel Exploration Society subsequently chose it for its logo). A museum with a specialized library that had been built in 1922 housed the finds from these first excavations, including the menorah and a fine collection of ancient Palestinian coins. This collection eventually formed the nucleus of the archaeology section of the country's national museum in Jerusalem, The Israel Museum. In 1926, the library was moved to the newly formed Department of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In a story published on 6 March 1924, The London Times Weekly Edition gave international recognition to Slouschz's work in Absalom's Tomb and adjacent sepulchral monuments in Jerusalem's Kidron Valley. In 1925, also under the society's auspices, Eleazar Lipa Sukenik and L. A. Mayer began an excavation of the Third Wall in Jerusalem, a project critical to determining Jerusalem's boundaries in the first centuries BCE and CE.

Arab insurrections between 1929 and 1931 resulted in a temporary suspension of activity, but it was renewed in full force in the 1930s with excavations by Benjamin Maisler (Mazar) and Moshe Stekelis at Ramat Raḥel, and by Maisler at Beth-She῾arim, in addition to other, smaller projects. In 1934 the society opened the Institute for the Exploration of the Land of Israel in Tel Aviv, but renewed hostilities in 1936 made convening its classes unfeasible.

Within a decade of its foundation and despite shortages of funds, the society had issued five important publications, including two volumes of its Qobetz series and E. Brandenburg's comprehensive study on 160 caves in the Jerusalem area. What began with the Qobetz series was continued in 1933 by Yediot: Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, the society's first attempt to publish a quarterly devoted entirely to studies of the Land of Israel. In 1968 it was replaced by a new quarterly, Qadmoniot: Quarterly for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands.

In the 1940s, lectures, conferences, and excavations were held without interruption, in spite of the world war and the hostilities that surrounded the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948. Scholars and the general public attended the society's first annual conference in Jerusalem in 1943; its fifth annual conference was held in war-scarred Jerusalem in 1948. With independence, the society became the Israel Exploration Society (IES), under the direction of Maisler (Mazar). For the IES, Maisler carried out the first excavation under the new state at Tell Qasile, near Tel Aviv. To communicate to foreign scholars the results of Israeli scientific investigations in the field, in 1951 the first volume of the English-language quarterly, the Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ), was published. In that same year, the IES initiated a Hebrew (with English summaries) festschrift series, Eretz-Israel: Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Studies. The names of many of the society's founding members, whose work was fundamental to research into the land of Israel, appear as editors and contributors on the covers of the issues.

In 1955 the IES mounted the first large-scale archaeological expedition carried out by local archaeologists at Hazor, under the direction of Yigael Yadin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was Israeli archaeology's first “field school” and its staff members now rank among the country's leading archaeologists. In 1960 the IES organized another large-scale expedition, this time to the Judean Desert Caves. Staffed by Yadin, Yohanan Aharoni, Pessah Bar-Adon, and Nahman Avigad; coordinated by the IES director, Joseph Aviram; and assisted by the Israeli army, the expedition was an organizational feat. Its purpose was to probe caves plundered by bedouins searching for ancient manuscripts. The IES subsequently played a central role in the excavation of the Israelite citadel and Early Bronze Age city of Arad, the Herodian palace-fortress at Masada, the Temple Mount and Upper City in Jerusalem, Beth-Shean, Aphek, Herodium, Lachish, Dor, Elusa, and other sites. Forty-seven years after it was issued a license to excavate the City of David, the ancient kernal of Jerusalem, on its southeastern hill, the IES sponsored Yigal Shiloh's archaeological expedition there. [See Jerusalem.]

In a country where numerous institutions deal with the study of the land, the publications of the IES represent authoritatively the fields of Palestinian archaeology and related studies. In addition to its periodicals (see above), the IES publishes excavation reports (Hazor, Masada, and the Judean Desert expeditions) and special studies both in Hebrew and English.

The IES's annual conferences are intended for the general public, and another annual meeting, during which the latest discoveries are reported, caters to the country's archaeologists. The IES has sponsored two international congresses on biblical archaeology (1984, 1990) in which the state of the art was reviewed and debated by the international scholarly community.

In 1989, seventy-six years after it was established and forty-one years after the creation of the State of Israel, the IES and its director, Joseph Aviram, received the prestigious Israel Prize. It acknowledged the IES as the country's principal and most effective institution for furthering knowledge of its archaeology and history both at home and abroad.

[See also History of the Field, article on Archaeology in Israel; and the biographies of Aharoni, Avigad, Mazar, Shiloh, Stekelis, Sukenik, and Yadin. In addition, most of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Amiran, Ruth. Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (1963). New Brunswick, N.J., 1970.
  • Amiran, Ruth. Early Arad, vol. 1, The Chalcolithic Settlement and Early Bronze Age City, First–Fifth Seasons of Excavations, 1962–1966. Jerusalem, 1978.
  • Amitai, Janet, ed. Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, April 1984. Jerusalem, 1985.
  • Avigad, Nahman. Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah: Remnants of a Burnt Archive. Jerusalem, 1986.
  • Aviram, Joseph, et al., eds. Masada: The Yigael Yadin Excavations, 1963–1965, Final Reports. 4 vols. Jerusalem, 1989–1994.
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon, ed. Hazor III–IV: An Account of the Third and Fourth Seasons of Excavation, 1957–1958. Jerusalem, 1989.
  • Biran, Avraham, and Joseph Aviram, eds. Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, June-July 1990. Jerusalem, 1993.
  • Finkelstein, Israel. The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Jerusalem, 1988.
  • Judean Desert Caves, Survey and Excavations: The Expedition to the Judean Desert, 1960–1961. 2 vols. Jerusalem, 1960–1961.
  • Kempinski, Aharon, and Ronny Reich, eds. The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods. Jerusalem, 1992.
  • Mazar, Benjamin. The Early Biblical Period: Historical Studies. edited by Shmuel Ahituv and Baruch Levine. Jerusalem, 1986.
  • Stern, Ephraim, et al., eds. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. 4 vols. Jerusalem and New York, 1993.
  • Yadin, Yigael, et al. Hazor: An Account of the Excavations, 1955–1958. 4 vols. in 3. Jerusalem, 1958–1961.
  • Yadin, Yigael. The Finds from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters. Jerusalem, 1963.
  • Yadin, Yigael. The Temple Scroll. 3 vols. Jerusalem, 1983.

Janet Amitai

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