Shmarya Gutmann: Self-Made Archaeologist

By Danny Syon

Sidebar to: Gamla: Portrait of a Rebellion

No account of the excavations at Gamla would be complete without speaking about its unique director, Shmarya Gutmann. Now 82, with little and late formal archaeological training, Shmarya has become a legend. As a self-made archaeologist, he is a somewhat controversial figure in Israeli archaeology, but a much-admired public figure.

Born in Scotland to Russian immigrant parents, Gutmann came to Palestine when he was just three. Since age 17, he has lived at Kibbutz Na’an, where, most of the time, he has been a farmer. A Zionist activist since the 1930s, Gutmann served as an emissary to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, encouraging them to emigrate to Palestine before it was too late. Before the state of Israel was established in 1948, Gutmann held high positions in military intelligence, heading a top-secret unit of the Haganah, the military arm of the pre-state Jewish settlement. Later he conducted confidential diplomatic negotiations for the new state and succeeded in rescuing and bringing to Israel large numbers of Iraqi Jews.

Like a Pied Piper, he led thousands of young people on hikes to all areas of the country, sharing his devotion to the land. Some of these trips took him to the unexcavated fortress and palaces of Masada. He returned again and again over ten years to survey the mountain site, eventually discovering the ancient Snake Path used by the Jewish defenders to reach the summit.

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