The 2016 Percia Schimmel Prize
The 2016 Percia Schimmel Prize for Distinguished Contribution to Archaeology in Eretz Israel and the Lands of the Bible is conferred on Professor Lawrence E. Stager.
Photo: James S. Snyder, Professor Lawrence E. Stager, and Dr. Haim Gitler. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/ by Peter Lanyi
Lawrence (Larry) Stager grew up in Dublin, Ohio, a land of football and farming. Though he excelled in both areas, it was his inquisitive mind that caught the attention of recruiters from Harvard University. There he traded football for the glee club, the farm for ancient languages. He had found his calling.
Larry embraced the study of Near Eastern history, encouraged by his mentor G. Ernest Wright. With Wright, along with Roland de Vaux and Nahman Avigad, Larry focused on the archaeology of ancient Israel. By 1965, he had already met, or was quickly introduced to, the leading scholars in the field. During his year-long fellowship at the Hebrew University, he noticed that the better lectures were in Hebrew and began attending the classes of Trude Dothan and Yigael Yadin – following along from the slides. He took part in field trips with Hebrew Union College, and his own spelunking led to the discovery of his first inscription, found in the spoil pile of a robbed tomb in Jerusalem. Since Larry’s bachelor’s thesis had been on burial customs in the Iron Age, another of his teachers, Frank Moore Cross, advised him to publish the inscription. The resulting article showed that he could handle epigraphy and archaeology with equal aplomb.
Larry continued his graduate studies at Harvard under Wright and Cross, while forging deeper ties with intellectual currents in Israel. First, he excavated at Gezer, then, at Wright’s direction, moved to Tell el-Hesi. He had also taken on Cross’ excavations in the Buqê‘ah Valley – working to publish the older material while conducting excavations of his own. Larry was innovative, bringing together geologists, botanists, and other specialists, and he stood at the forefront of movements in the United States to combine archaeology with the natural sciences. He also found the time to teach ancient Semitic languages.
It quickly became clear that Larry was one of the few who could master such a wide range of data. Though conversant with the latest in archaeological theory, Larry, like his mentor Wright, was never swept away by new fashions. He understood that every aspect of historical investigation – scientific, anthropological, archaeological, and textual – had its role, depending on the question being asked. His 1975 Ph.D. dissertation, Ancient Agriculture in the Judaean Desert: A Case Study of the Buqê‘ah Valley in the Iron Age, still remains fresh in its integration of botany, geomorphology, texts, and ceramics into the study of ancient farmsteads. Indeed, breadth of knowledge and the ability to synthesize elegantly have been the hallmarks of Larry’s career.
Larry began his professional career at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago – first digging at Idalion and then at the commercial port and Tophet at Carthage, expanding from the Southern Levant to the Eastern and Central Mediterranean. But key questions of the ancient Levant continued to intrigue him, and his publications spanned the Early Bronze Age through the period of the ancient Israelite kingdoms. In 1983, Yigael Yadin and Abraham Malamat of the Hebrew University invited him to participate in a year-long seminar at the Institute for Advanced Studies. This seminar proved to be a watershed for Larry and afforded him the opportunity to assemble work on demography, agriculture, and biblical studies into his article “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel.” The article remains foundational to the study of the Iron Age in Israel, both because of the specific ideas presented and, especially, for its modeling of the untapped possibilities of biblical archaeology. Here finally was a person who could move from historical Hebrew grammar to natural sciences with equal ease – and make it pay off.
The time at the Institute also allowed Larry to attend Benjamin Mazar’s weekly salons in Rehavia, where conversation turned to the need for an excavation at Ashkelon. Ashkelon remains the largest ancient port within the bounds of modern Israel, but it is not an easy site. Its dense history, extensive interconnections throughout the Mediterranean, and commercial complexity were going to require remarkable resources and leadership. At the same time, Larry had begun a friendship with Leon Levy and Shelby White. Leon and Shelby were interested in funding an excavation that would advance the field of archaeology; they were looking for a site of great importance and for a scholar with the creativity to integrate its potential. With Levy, White, and Stager, a major excavation at Ashkelon began, one that fulfilled its promise as a site of incredible wealth, one that connected the ancient worlds of Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Israel. The excavation even engendered work in the deep water, where Larry teamed with Robert (Bob) Ballard to uncover eighth-century BCE shipwrecks that highlight the mechanisms of Iron Age trade.
In 1985, Larry was named Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel at Harvard University and President of the Harvard Semitic Museum. At Harvard, Larry has promoted the archaeology of Israel in the United States through articles on the origins of the Philistines, the origins of Israel, the United Monarchy, the world of the Phoenicians, and the chronology of the Bronze Age. He has directed more than fifty successful Ph.D. dissertations, instilling in his students the need for expertise and breadth, always presenting Israel as a vibrant intellectual melting pot.
Larry teamed with Philip King to write one of the most important books in the field of biblical archaeology, Life in Biblical Israel. This tour de force shows that all of the archaeological work on the Bronze and Iron Ages is valuable to the study of the Bible, not as an apologetic exercise, but as a critical interpretive frame, situating the original authors and readers in a context of daily life discovered by archaeologists. With that view, the modern critical reader is able to witness the literary productions of the Iron Age farmer with new eyes.
The promise of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon has borne fruit in final reports, with five of a projected fourteen volumes already published. Ashkelon 3, the Seventh Century BC, received the 2012 Levi-Sala prize for archaeological publications. A summary of the results of this volume, “Buy Low, Sell High: The Marketplace at Ashkelon,” won a Biblical Archaeology Society prize for the best scholarly article in 2013–2014.
Larry Stager has had a career of distinction as an academic, archaeologist, and friend of the archaeology of Israel. He was chosen to give the Schweich Lectures on biblical archaeology at the British Academy in 2004, has been an officer at the American Schools of Oriental Research and American Institute of Archaeology, has served as trustee of the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, has directed publications for the Harvard Semitic Museums, and has worked on the editorial boards of Ägypten und Levante, Eretz-Israel, the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. He is also a corresponding fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. With this prize, the Israel Museum recognizes the outstanding career of Lawrence E. Stager and wishes him great success in his ongoing research into Israel’s cultural heritage.
Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor
Dr. Haim Gitler
Prof. Oren Tal
Prof. David Ussishkin