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Professor helps uncover possible ancient tunnel in Israel

Editor's note: The following story appeared in the March 9 issue of the Eau Claire Leader Telegram and is reprinted with permission. Photo contributed by Dr. Harry Jol.

By Eric Lindquist, Leader-Telegram staff

Archaeologists excavating this winter at an ancient site in Israel uncovered what they believe may be an escape tunnel used by royal elites living in an Iron Age palace.  

The discovery, which generated headlines in Popular Archaeology and Bible History Daily, was aided by a UW-Eau Claire professor who is a world-renowned expert in the use of ground-penetrating radar. 

Harry Jol, a geography and anthropology professor at the university, was the researcher wielding the radar devices that yielded images offering evidence of a royal escape tunnel extending from an ancient palace structure out to an outer city wall. Jol, whose latest trip was for three weeks in January, has been doing research since 1999 at the site best known as Bethsaida near the Sea of Galilee.

Bethsaida, the Bible indicates, was a fishing village Jesus visited in the 1st century and was the hometown of several of his apostles, according to Popular Archaeology. It is where the New Testament indicates Jesus healed a blind man and fed the multitude. 

The magazine also points out that below Bethsaida the site has yielded the structural and artifact remains of a much older city, believed to be the likely capital city of the ninth-10th century B.C. kingdom of Geshur, an ally of the Kingdom of Israel mentioned in biblical accounts.  

Extensive finds have been uncovered at the site from both time periods, including evidence of a palace, a massive gate complex and inner and outer defensive walls from the older, Iron Age city, Popular Archaeology reported. The suspected tunnel is thought to be associated with Geshur.

"This finding suggests that people escaped through tunnels all the way through history," Jol said, noting that much of the renewed interest stems from the revelations last summer about an extensive network of tunnels built by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. "We know we see them in modern times, and this shows we likely had them in ancient times too."  

While archaeologists haven't confirmed the tunnel theory yet through digs, Jol said his radar data shows what appears to be a collapsed structure, or a void, that seems consistent with a tunnel.

"It's always exciting, for myself, anytime you can help a group such as this learn more about a site and then, if they hit stuff when they dig, gain more insights into the people of that time," Jol said of the Bethsaida research team led by project director Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska. Arav identified the site in 1987 as the likely location of Bethsaida, a finding reinforced by radar data.  

Tunnel exposed

In the case of Geshur, Arav reportedly was excavating a room in the palace when the ground suddenly collapsed, exposing a tunnel entrance. 

"Ground-penetrating radar revealed that the tunnel leads to the space in between the outer and inner city walls," Arav told Bible History Daily. "It looks like an escape tunnel and recalls to mind a similar escape way mentioned in 2 Kings 25:4."

That passage reads like this: "Then a breach was made in the city wall;the king (Zedekiah) with all the soldiers fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king's garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city."

The team plans to excavate the tunnel later this year after solving safety and technical challenges, Bible History Daily reported.  

Ground-penetrating radar sends electromagnetic waves into the ground that reflect off various layers, giving Jol real-time data about what could be located under the earth's surface that he can share with archaeologists.

In that way, Jol said he is able to guide researchers about what are likely to be the most fruitful spots to dig. 

"If we can help archaeologists avoid areas that will be unproductive, that is a huge return on investment," he said. "That could save them 20 or 30 years of unproductive archaeological investigations."  

Jol also led a group including eight current and former UW-Eau Claire students to Bethsaida and several other archaeological sites in northern Israel last summer. Such trips, he said, offer a great opportunity for students to work jointly with individuals from a variety of cultures, faiths and countries.

Jenny Bushnell, a lecturer in UW-Eau Claire's philosophy and religious studies department and youth pastor at Lake Street Methodist Church, has joined Jol at local public presentations about the excavations and said she finds it fascinating to hear different people's perspectives on the meaning of the discoveries.

"Part of the frustration and excitement all at the same time is that it's all speculation," Bushnell said. "I figure the more we can learn about the time and place, the better we can understand those texts and what they might have meant 2,000 years ago and what they mean today for people of faith and for others."

Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209 or  

Photo cutline: Harry Jol, right, professor of geography and anthropology at UW-Eau Claire, performs ground-penetrating radar research with UW-Eau Claire student Claire Lind, left, and Professor Maha Darawsha  of the University of Connecticut, center, last summer at the Bethsaida archaeological dig site in northern Israel.