The most important archaeological excavations in Israel -- the first uncovering of remnants from the city that King David made his capital -- has been halted in Jerusalem because the religious establishment claims the site was a Jewish burial ground.
The dispute has evoked echoes of an earlier dispute over burial of the defenders of Masada whose bones were found by archaelogists in the Judean desert mountaintop fortress in the 1960s.
Work on Jerusalem's "City of David" dig has been halted since the site was overrun by Jewish religious zealots when this season's excavations began last month.
Their cause has now been taken up by some leaders of the religious establishment in what political observers here see as fallout from Prime Minister Menachem Begin's coalition agreements with religious parties. In order to from his tenuous oneseat majority in the Knesset, Begin was forced to make far-reaching concessions to these parties.
The disputed site is a steep ridge a few hundred yards south of Jerusalem's walled Old City. The ridge was the site of the original city David captured from the Jebusites about 1000 B.C. It has been the focus of archeological probes for the past 120 years but nothing had been found from the period of David and his son Solomon until last summer, when a five-story-high stepped structure was uncovered.
The director of the dig, Yigal Shilo of Hebrew University, determined the puzzling structure was probably built by Solomon. Israel's foremost archaeologist, Prof. Yigael Yadin (who until just recently was one of Israel's deputy prime ministers), believes it might have been part of the citadel fortress of David.
There have also been more sensational suggestions that the pyramid-like structure might be the long-sought-for royal tombs of the House of David.
When Dr. Shilo resumed his excavations this summer at several sites within the city of David, he planned to place special emphasis on the "pyramid" site -- known as site G -- excavating it to its full depth and plumbing its interior for hollow spaces with electro-magnetic devices. The harassment by ultra-Orthodox elements made this impossible. Shilo, a strapping ex-paratrooper, had his eye blackened in one scuffle but he was able to fight off his attackers.
Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who had been regarded as moderate, surprised the archaeological community this week by calling for halt on site G on the grounds that it lay in a 400-year-old Jewish cemetery.
Professor Yadin termed the argument "irrational." If there had been any graves there, he said, they had been removed decades ago by British archaeologists who had stripped back the upper layers of the site.
In a recent interview, Rabbi Goren indicated that he still had a score to settle with Professor Yadin, going back some years, over the latter's excavations at Masada, the most famous archaeological dig in Israel's history. Yadin discovered the bones of 25 persons, presumably the defenders who held this last outpost against the Roman Army in 73 AD until their mass suicide.
Israel's chief rabbinate demanded that the bones be reinterred on the mountaintop according to Jewish law, which calls for the burial of war victims on the battlefield. Professor Yadin, however, feared this would lead to the mountain's being declared a cemetery, precluding future archaeological excavations. He prevailed on then-Premier David Ben-Gurion, who pressured Goren , then chief Army chaplain, to approve their burial at the foot of the mountain.
Rabbi Goren said this week he was unhappy about having succumbed to that pressure. "The archaeologists have to learn once and for all that it is forbidden to violate cemeteries," he said.
Professor Yadin told an interviewer that submission to religious pressures would return the country to the Middle Ages. "Until now the biggest enemies of our archaeological enterprises have been the Arabs and UNESCO, because they didn't want us to uncover our roots. This [Rabbi Goren's opposition] makes for very strange bedfellows."
Archaeological authorities expressed the hope this week that work on site G would resume before the digging season ends early next month. Political observers expressed doubt that the governme nt would stand up to religious pressure on the issue.