Archaeology Goes Donor-funded

  • Overseas
  • 1984

Archaeology was born thanks to private funding and passion. Then came a nationalistic phase where governments began to heavily regulate digs, and to fund them. In the past two or three decades, however, government funding in most places has fallen far short of what archaeologists hoped for. Private donors have filled the gap. Of the thousands of major digs around the world, more than half of the funding for American-led excavations now comes from private individuals and foundations, reported Jim Wiseman, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, in 2006.

Financier Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, were major donors to this effort. Every year since 1985 they have supported a massive dig at Ashkelon, Israel, one of the most important ancient seaports in the eastern Mediterranean, with a history extending from the Bronze Age to the Crusaders. Most years, Shelby White participates in the digs herself, along with students of the Harvard professors overseeing the project. White is also paying for the crucial publications analyzing what has been found at the site—an eventual ten-volume set. In addition, White gave $200 million to New York University in 2006 to establish an Institute for the Study of the Ancient World that supports scholarship in archaeology and anthropology dating to ancient times.

Another New York financier who has funded important overseas digs, and the follow-up scholarship needed to make sense of them, is Roger Hertog. Starting in 2005 he provided several hundred thousand dollars to make possible a four-year excavation in Jerusalem which discovered, using clues from the Bible, what is thought to be King David’s palace. Hertog described his support as “venture philanthropy—you have the opportunity for intellectual speculation, to fund something that is a work of great consequence.” In this case, showing “that the Bible reflects Jewish history.” Roger and Susan Hertog are also donating the resources for the Temple Mount Excavations Publication Project, a multi-volume work of scholarship sharing the findings of archaeologist Benjamin Mazar’s historic digs in the epicenter of Jerusalem.

Other enthusiastic donors like Leon Reinhart, Artemis Joukowsky, the Packard Foundation, and Charles Williams have likewise funded academics investigating the physical remains of Mayan, Inca, Greek, Nabataean, Roman, and other civilizations.