Raising the BAR: The history of the Biblical Archaeology Society
It was 1983; my staff of nine and I were working out of my unfinished basement—fulfilling each of the responsibilities of the publishing arm of an internationally recognized popular magazine, while running a small mail order merchandise program (the product was stored in a different basement three blocks away), and coordinating a small travel/study program. It had been only eight years since the founding of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Someone began walking down the basement stairs—we all looked up. On the stairs to the basement was a little old man. In a thick Israeli accent, he exclaimed, “Oh my God, in Israel we think the Biblical Archaeology Review has a great big building. And look at this!”
We certainly did not look like a sophisticated publishing house capable of producing a “real” magazine. Let’s just say the basement was cramped and somewhat primitive. Our mailroom was a storage closet. There was no need for the intercom button on our phones—we just called across the room. Our printer was a converted teletype machine whizzing along at 33 characters per second. When it reached the end of the line, the carriage whipped back, and it started all over again. We had one computer, an IBM desktop with two 5¼-inch floppy drives and 64KB of RAM. Our mismatched desks were in a line back to back to save space, and we froze in the winter until one day I saw my circulation person typing through her mittens, prompting me to install wall heaters. We’ve come a long way.
Actually, the story of BAR and BAS truly begins in the early 1970s. Hershel Shanks was a partner in a law firm in downtown Washington, D.C. He decided to take his entire family—himself, his wife, and his two young girls(then aged six and three)—to Jerusalem on a year-long sabbatical from September 1972 through 1973. He barely knew anyone in Jerusalem. He had never taken a course in the Bible or archaeology. And yet Hershel spent much of his time wandering around archaeological sites (often through active digs!), writing about his experiences, and meeting the great archaeologists who would later grace the pages of BAR with their wisdom and discoveries.
Hershel had met Bill Dever, then Director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, on a prior trip. Dever introduced Hershel to the larger archaeology community. A month before Hershel left Jerusalem, he connected with his law school buddy, Max Singer, and his wife, Suzanne (Sue), who with family had just arrived to start a year-long sabbatical that stretched into four years. Among his many archaeological adventures, he got involved in a project at the City of David and explored the Siloam (Hezekiah’s) Tunnel. He and his family also took a tour of Hazor excavated by the eminent archaeologist and former army general Yigael Yadin. During his visit to Hazor, Hershel’s older daughter, Elizabeth, found a jar handle incised with a male figure. Later that year, Hershel met Yadin at his home in order to give him his daughter’s find. Yadin talked Hershel into writing an article on it and offered to help him publish it.
The article on the incised handle was eventually published in the Israel Exploration Journal. Hershel also wrote a short guidebook on the City of David. Most important, he developed the idea for contributing a column on Biblical archaeology to a magazine in the U.S. The column was to be his reason for returning to Jerusalem and maintaining a relationship with the archaeological community there.
The column proposal was rejected. Never one to take rejection, Hershel morphed his archaeology column concept into an archaeological newsletter, and then into an archaeology magazine, before pen ever hit paper. Hershel had originally planned to call his publication Biblical Archaeology Newsletter. But one evening in the living room of scholars Carol and Eric Meyers, Carol objected to the negative acronym—BAN—created by Biblical Archaeology Newsletter. She countered that because Hershel wasa lawyer, there was obviously only one choice for the title—Biblical Archaeology Review, or BAR. Just like that, a magazine was born!
By the end of 1974, the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) was incorporated as a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) corporation. BAS’s mission statement described itself as a nondenominational, educational organization dedicated to the dissemination of information about archaeology in the lands of the Bible. I am proud of the fact that we have stayed true to our mission for 43 years—we educate about archaeology and the Bible through BAR, our award-winning website, books, videos, tours, and semi-nars. Our readers rely on us to present the latest that scholarship has to offer in a fair and accessible manner. BAR serves as a credible authority and as an invaluable source of reliable information.
In March 1975, Hershel, working with a freelance graphic designer, published the first issue of BAR. It was 16 pages—7 by 10 inches—with brown ink on cream paper and one sepia-toned photo. Hershel takes full responsibility for the admittedly ugly covers of the first few years. He wrote the entire first issue himself. But soon thereafter, he prevailed upon scholars to write the articles, and Hershel edited them so they would be accessible to the general public.
As early as the first issue, Hershel aimed to connect interested volunteers with excavations throughout the Holy Land. This initiative has figured prominently in BAR ever since, primarily through our annual “Dig” issue (now the January/February issue) that provides information about active excavations in the Biblical lands looking for volunteers.
From the very beginning, Hershel has never been one to run from controversy or shy away from voicing his opinion. Once, when he was denied photos by Nahman Avigad because they had not first been published in a peer-reviewed journal, Hershel published an empty box in the December 1977 issue with a caption stating that the box should have been a picture, but Avigad would not allow for its publication. He broadened his criticism calling for the end of the practice of withholding photographs of archaeological excavations from the public. When he saw that some archaeologists took decades to release final reports of their excavations (with some never publishing at all), he called for them to publish their findings in a timely manner. And Hershel didn’t just complain; he even helped establish funds to support publications in an effort to fix the problem. Hershel believes strongly that the past belongs to everyone—not just the academic elite.
Hershel also believes the past should be protected. Almost immediately, he began campaigning in BAR to preserve and restore archaeological sites. As aresult, he established the society’s Archaeological Preservation Fund in 1977. Although this initiative has not led to the extent of preservation and restoration he had originally envisioned, the urgency of this cause has not lessened over the years.
The core staff—Hershel, Sue Singer, Rob Sugar (head of BAR’s design team), and I (Sue Laden)—came together in the early years of the magazine. We all grew with the magazine. Hershel’s prior publishing experience had been as editor of his high school newspaper and editor of a book on Judge Learned Hand. Sue Singer, a chemistry major, originally was BAR’s Jerusalem Correspondent. When she returned to the States four years later, she became the Managing Editor—with only her experience as Jerusalem Correspondent as applicable credentials.
Rob Sugar, while still a student majoring in graphic design at American University, began designing BAR in 1977. He convinced Hershel with the March/April 1978 issue to increase the size to a standard magazine size, with a full color cover and some color on the inside as well. I remember Phyllis Katz, who was then the Publisher of Archaeology magazine, teasing Hershel, saying she could hardly wait for each issue of BAR to come because she never knew what she would find and where. Rob brought structure to the magazine along with a consistency and a design that is so effective and beautiful, he and his team of designers at AURAS Design still design BAR today.
As a history major and a caseworker for the Department of Public Welfare before staying home with my children for several years, I was hired in 1976 to open envelopes for 10 to 16 hours a week. I began adding staff, namely, housewives and one male. By the time our befuddled Israeli friend appeared on my basement stairs seven years later, the foundation was in place for a consumer publication, merchandise program, and travel/study program, with the flexibility to add other endeavors as well.
In 1984, the District evicted us for running a business in a residential neighborhood. I found space in an old residential/office building across the street from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Sue Singer moved the editorial offices to the new location. My husband teased that we were on the wrong side of the street! He wasn’t far wrong. The wonderful chaos and excitement of creating a meaningful product eagerly anticipated by the public, the organization to support it, and all the other activities of the society brought us years of fun. Our guiding principle was that anything that went out our door, from a promotion to a publication, must be of the highest professional quality. In the 10 years since the founding of BAR, we had gone from zero subscribers to a paid circulation of 110,000, withonly a $2,500 investment that was repaid after the first few months.
During the 10 years we were at the “zoo,” we launched a second magazine—Bible Review, in 1985. Around this time, Hershel left his law practice to devote himself full time to editing. Bible Review developed a very loyal and devoted following, and it ran for 20 years (until 2005).
The BAR travel/study program also flourished. We organized tours to the Middle East, domestic seminars of various sizes, a week-long program at Oxford, as well as seminars on cruise ships to Alaska and the Caribbean. Our largest event, the Bible and Archaeology Fest, was launched in 1987. Now, having just celebrated its 20th year, Fest is still an annual favorite.
The merchandise program grew as well. We published or co-published many books. Hershel was our prime talent. Among the volumes he structured and edited were Ancient Israel, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and Partings. Well-known publishing houses co-published with us, primarily for the purpose of distribution. These three titles, especially Ancient Israel, appeal to the general public and are also used in college classrooms. Hershel also wrote books for Random House and Continuum. Our offerings of CDs and other books increased during this time as well. We even tried Dead Sea Scroll mugs and t-shirts. The lectures from the seminar programs were filmed, and we turned these into videos. In 1991, we hosted a lecture series with the Smithsonian that was quite successful. This was before videotaping had become common. So we transcribed the lectures and turned them into books.
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By this time, BAR was well established. Our circulation was growing, as were the ancillary activities of the society. During the ’80s, Hershel began one of his most important, and most costly, endeavors—a campaign to free the Dead Sea Scrolls from the monopoly of scholars who had held them hostage since their discovery, beginning in 1947.a Although a small team of scholars had been tasked with the assignment of publishing the scrolls, they had published next to nothing in those three decades—sharing neither their transcriptions nor photographs with the greater academic community and public. The first time Hershel commented on the problem was in 1984, and his first call for the scrolls to be made public was in 1985.b He continued this call until 1991, when several events transpired simultaneously, resulting in the end of the monopoly.
First, Marty Abegg had managed to reconstruct the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the publication team’s concordance. His advisor, Ben Zion Wacholder, convinced him to publish his results. They approached Hershel, and the Biblical Archaeology Society decided to take the risk. The first of four volumes of A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls, the reconstructed texts by Abegg and Wacholder, appeared on September 4, 1991.
Second, Hershel was approached by Professor Robert Eisenman of California State University and Professor James M. Robinson of Claremont Graduate School. They had acquired a complete copy of photographs of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and they were having trouble finding a publisher. Hershel jumped at the opportunity. I still remember the excitement when UPS dropped off the grocery store cardboard boxes containing photos of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments from Cave 4. In his lengthy introduction to the two-volume facsimile edition, Hershelincluded the document known as MMT as reconstructed by John Strugnell, the head of the Dead Sea Scroll publication committee, and a young scholar named Elisha Qimron. The volumes were published on November 19, 1991. A press conference was held in New York City. The New York Times, as well as other papers, had us on their front page multiple times. The publicity caused our readership to soar.
Two months prior to our publishing of the two-volume, 900-page facsimile set of photographs, the Huntington Library in California, one of the original repositories for the photos from Cave 4, opened up its collection of photos to qualified scholars. The publication of the Abegg-Wacholder work, the Huntington Library bowing to the inevitable by declassifying their photos, and our publication of the facsimile edition meant the scrolls were finally freed!
Our educational programs were flourishing, circulation was soaring, and we had a little money in the bank. It was at this point that Elisha Qimron sued Hershel Shanks and the Biblical Archaeology Society for copyright infringement of the MMT document he had been researching. After a grueling trial in Israel, we lost the suit. All of this added to our notoriety and public exposure. In the July/August 1993 issue, we announced the verdict with a full-page headshot of Qimron, captioned, “The Victor.”c We continued to report faithfully on the story in subsequent issues.
In 1994, I left the society. The stresses and strains of working with Hershel had caused our relationship to reach a breaking point. I had to leave. Was I fired? I contend yes. Hershel would say no. Either way, I felt I had no choice. All of this coincided with the society’s move to our current address in northwest D.C.
Almost 10 years later, Hershel asked me to come back. My first reaction was shock. I could barely speak. He dropped the subject, and we went on with our lunch. Two weeks later, he brought it up again, and I accepted. To this day, I’m not sure why. We had maintained a casual relationship over the years, occasionally having lunch, and I had stayed close with many on staff. Or maybe it was simply Hershel’s style. No matter how upset one gets with him, often justifiably so, he doesn’t push and has great patience for each situation to turn around. And I, inthis case anyway, learned from him. Over time, we had both cooled down (and it only took 10 years!).
No matter how upset people get with Hershel, he usually turns it around. I remember running into Magen Broshi once at a conference. I mentioned Hershel’s name. He turned beet red, steam came out of his ears, and he sputtered, “Hershel Shanks, yes, a very fine fellow”—not meaning a word of it. And yet, they later again became friends. Magen was not alone.
These were the years—the late ’90s and early 2000s—that Hershel started another magazine. In 1998, he launched Archaeology Odyssey, which dealt with Classical archaeology. During these same years he also brought several new contentious issues to BAR’s readers: (1) He highlighted the minimalist-maximalist debate.d (2) Although he takes a clear stance against looting, Hershel campaigned that unprovenanced artifacts should still be published because they provide invaluable information about the past.e (3) He also addressed so-called forgeries and campaigned that they should be considered innocent until proven guilty. The most famous example of this was the James Ossuary—an unprovenanced artifact that BAR first published in 2002.f The debate about the ossuary’s inscription and its authenticity would turn into the “forgery trial of the century” in Israel, which ultimately ended in the judge ruling that the prosecution had failed to prove that the ossuary was not authentic. He felt this was an issue for the academy, not the courthouse. Hershel rarely takes sides. However, on the issue of the James Ossuary, he feels the inscription is authentic, and he has told BAR readers exactly why.
By the time I returned, in 2004, the magazine world looked very different. There was a computer on every desk; preparing film for the printer with amberlith and X-ACTO knives was a thing of the past. Everything was digitized. Email had become the preferred way of communicating, and the internet was dominating. The Biblical Archaeology Society had a primitive website dating from 1998 and had just finished digitizing all its issues into an archive.
But BAS was in crisis! And we weren’t alone. The entire magazine world was in turmoil. Changes needed to be made. We shut down Bible Review in 2005 and Archaeology Odyssey in 2006, with some elements from each migrating to BAR. Prevailing wisdom in the industry said that magazines would be gone in three to five years. Our staff was reduced, the travel/study program was cut back, and adjustments were made to the merchandise program. It became evident that the web needed to be incorporated more completely into the equation both as a method of delivery and as a purveyor of information.
In 2011, we launched our new site (biblicalarchaeology.org) with a blog, Bible History Daily, which covers key issues from the magazine and the greater world of Biblical archaeology. We also made BAR available to read on iPads, iPhones, and Android devices. All of our offerings are now mobile-friendly. However, as important as the web has become, niche publications like BAR can still have a successful print presence. The predicted doomsday of print magazines did not come to pass.
BAR remains the vibrant magazine it has always been from its very first issue in 1975. Putting the controversies and Hershel’s crusades aside, the solid reporting on archaeology in the lands of the Bible has been consistent. And we are now in a position to be open to new initiatives. A video streaming site is nearing completion, and there are other ventures waiting in line. Through it all, BAR has stayed true to its core mission and will continue to do so.
In 2017, after 43 years of editing Biblical Archaeology Review, our founder and Editor Hershel Shanks, at 87 years old, retired. Our new Editor, Bob Cargill, has already published his first issue(January/February 2018). We feel very fortunate to have him along with our marvelous staff to take us bravely into the future. Hershel, now as Editor Emeritus, will have a column in the magazine when he wants and will continue to make many contributions to the society.
As I conclude this short history, I can’t help but feel exceedingly proud of everyone, past and present, associated with our flagship publication, Biblical Archaeology Review, and of the Biblical Archaeology Society that produces this magazine. There have been many highs and some lows. Foremost, I appreciate the network of people who have lent their expertise, energy, and ingenuity over the years to making Hershel’s vision a reality. Thank you for your contributions. It has been a lot of fun to build a high-quality and sustainable organization with you. I know Hershel’s legacy and entrepreneurial spirit will keep pushing us into new frontiers.
Working with Hershel all these years has been particularly meaningful for me. I have had the opportunity to learn much about our subject matter and about the business of running an organization. What is especially precious to me is what Hershel has helped me learn about myself and, yes, how to deal with difficult people.