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Archaeologist Benyamin Storchan stands on a Byzantine mosaic floor uncovered in Beit Shemesh.
Archaeologist Benyamin Storchan stands on a Byzantine mosaic floor uncovered in Beit Shemesh.

Can You Dig It?

Rob Streit JN Intern

Former Detroiter follows his passion to an archaeology post in Israel.

Benyamin Storchan says he feels like an Israeli who was mistakenly born in America. The 34-year-old Michigan native realized this during his first visit to Israel at age 16 while he was on a Jewish Federation teen mission.

“I felt a great inner peace from both the people and the land,” Storchan says. “After that trip, I got the bug and said, ‘That’s it; I want to live in Israel.’”

And that’s where he finds himself today. Storchan works for the Israel Antiquities Authority as a research excavation archaeologist in the Judean Hills region. In that role, he conducts excavations and catalogues any artifacts his team finds.

Construction projects in the region often turn up ancient remains and Storchan is called in to help preserve history.

“Many roads and settlements are built on antiquity sites,” he says. “In Israel, there are more than 30,000 registered antiquity sites, all protected by law.”

Storchan grew up in West Bloomfield, attended Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills and his family belonged to the Orthodox Ohel Moed of Shomrey Emunah. After graduating from West Bloomfield High School, Storchan spent his freshman year in the overseas student program at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. He stumbled upon an archaeology lab in his dorm’s basement and met an American working as an archaeologist.

“I was fascinated that it could actually be a career. I made the decision to come back to America and finish my degree at MSU,” Storchan says.

Studying anthropology with a focus on archaeology, Storchan went back to Israel during summer breaks to excavate at dig sites. When he finished his degree, he told his parents, Howard and Lorraine, he was moving back to Israel. After some protest, they relented.

“I said, ‘You sent me to a Jewish school where I got a Jewish education, and this is the fruit of that.’ And they said, ‘You’re right,’” Storchan says, crediting his parents for allowing him to pursue his passion.

Excavating The Past

Senior excavating and research archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority Dr. Amir Golani has known Storchan since 2007.

“Benyamin was a typical nice Jewish kid just out of college with a B.A. in anthropology from Michigan State and very minimal experience in archaeology, just getting over his beer hangover from his previous days at college,” Golani says. “Benyamin sobered up quickly and learned fast how to work together at a dig.”

Golani says he is proud Storchan is now managing large digs of his own.

Head of the Central District at the Israel Antiquities Authority Dr. Doron Ben-Ami says Storchan is now one of the leading archaeologists at the organization.

Much of Storchan’s work has focused on ancient oil burning lamps. These lamps help archaeologists identify what happened to Jews after the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 2nd century. During this time, Romans pushed Jews out of Judea, but Storchan’s work with lamps has shown that the Jewish population was not totally displaced.

Lamps are also an early medium where Jews began including religious iconography in their crafts.

“At one excavation in the Judean Shfela region, we uncovered a lamp workshop where they were producing lamps with seven-branched menorahs,” Storchan says.

During another excavation that uncovered the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church, Storchan found a large piece of an inscribed jar. People of the era would inscribe pottery when they had no parchment to write on.

“It had Hebrew letters that stated what kind of wine was in the jar and who it was for,” Storchan says. “I thought it was so fascinating that I could come to Israel, dig up such a thing and no one had to teach me an ancient language to read it.”

The archaeologist sometimes finds his work at odds with his spirituality. He admits that the two aspects of his life are on the polar extremes, but he doesn’t always try to bridge the gap. For Storchan, the belief begins when the proving ends.

“Judaism says the world was created around 6,000 years ago, but I can tell you that 12,000 years ago there was the first farming in Israel,” Storchan says. “How can a man with a kippah say such a thing? I have like a split brain.”

Storchan still feels a connection to Michigan and comes home on occasion.

“I’m very much a Hockey Town boy. Whether or not I get to see the games, it’s still in my blood,” Storchan says. “I miss proper winters — you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

Storchan is finishing his master’s thesis and lives in Geva Binyamin, an Israeli settlement just outside of Jerusalem.

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