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Ten years of making biblical archaeology accessible to laymen

By Pamela GuthmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1984



MORE than a decade ago, Hershel Shanks, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, decided to take a sabbatical from his active practice. He gathered his wife and two small children and moved to Jerusalem for a year. There he joined a Bible study group, involved himself in archaeology, and wrote a book, ''The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem.'' It was an instant success. That was the beginning.

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By the time he returned to the United States, Mr. Shajks had decided he enjoyed his new subject so much that he would try to launch a magazine dealing with it. He wrote a prospectus and sent it to a number of businessmen, scholars , philanthropists, and people in publishing.

''I got one response saying it was a good idea,'' he says. ''Then I sent out another 25 memos to the same people thanking them for their heartwarm)ng response and telling them we now had enough money to go ahead with the magaziNe. We went ahead with no capital.''

Thus the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) was born. The first issue was a 7 -by-10-inch edition of 16 pages. It contained one photograph - in black and white.

This year Biblical Archaeology Review is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Since that humble beginning in 1974 it has won an international audience of 100, 000. Observers of the field say it has filled a niche neglected by the scientific and technical archaeology journals. It does this by offering scholarly and accurate accounts of work in the Mideast in language lay readers can enjoy.

It also prides itself on superb reproduction of color photographs. In addition, it makes a point of highlighting amateur archaeology and carrying information about opportunities for volunteers to participate in digs.

David Noel Freedman, editor of the Anchor Bible series published by Doubleday and a professor of biblical studies at the University of Michigan, says the Biblical Archaeology Review's success may lie in the very fact that Hershel Shanks is not a scholar and therefore understands how to bridge the gap between the specialist and the layman. Freedman calls BAR's success ''quite spectacular.''

Dr. Robert J. Bull, a member of the American School of Oriental Research, comments, ''There's no doubt that BAR is a tremendous service to the ever-widening public interested in archaeology concerned with the Mideast.''

Mr. Shanks recalls that, when he launched the review, ''my thought was to have a magazine of ideas, because I didn't think there was much visual in Palestinian archaeology. Just one rock pile after another,'' he says with a laugh. ''It was because of my willingness to change and get visual that we are now celebrating the 10th anniversary. . . .''

Elaborating on his editorial philosophy, he says, ''We have leading archaeologists around the world writing for us, but we go through an elaborate editorial process, the outcome of which is high-level scholarship that's readable, understandable, and engaging - without looking down on the reader.''

Through its emphasis on volunteer archaeology, the magazine has made another kind of contribution. ''Dig directors tell us,'' says Mr. Shanks, ''that sometimes more than half of their volunteers come from BAR. We're filling a lacuna that no one else has filled.''

Also offered are vacation seminars in which BAR brings people to college campuses for a week to study with biblical scholars. This year six are planned.

Fitting work on the magazine mostly into his evenings and weekends, Mr. Shanks also has an associate editor, business manager, and handful of staff members.

In its first ten years, the review has made a name for itself. Even more significantly, BAR and Hershel Shanks have made biblical archaeology a more familiar subject in the United States. And they've only just begun.