For almost thirty years, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon has excavated at the ancient seaport of Ashkelon in Israel. Below, Dr. Tracy Hoffman describes the end of the 2014 field season, which was cut short by dramatic events in the region. For more on Ashkelon in 2014, read about the start of the excavation and about the dig’s midseason progress.
The 2014 field season of the Leon Levy Expedition was completely changed in a single day. In the middle of our fifth week of excavation (the second week of July), the conflict between Israel and Hamas flared up, and the city of Ashkelon came under fire. Suddenly, the goals of the season were not about ancient dirt and artifacts—but about the safety of the entire team. At the same time, the excavation was still committed to teaching the volunteers who had traveled so far about excavation methods and to curating the ancient artifacts that we had taken from the ground.
When any North American excavation in Israel or the West Bank faces a situation like this, there is one institution that is at the center of the discussion: the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. This institute houses archaeologists throughout the year and in the summer, its courtyard serving as an information hub for excavators, particularly during its traditional daily teatime. But in times of crisis, this information hub becomes a lifeline for excavations. As soon as the situation changed in Ashkelon, the Albright Institute, under its new director Matthew J. Adams, served a key role in facilitating the logistics of every step that followed.
Our first move was to take a tour of northern Israel. This not only dealt with the immediate questions of safety but also gave the entire team a chance to place ancient Ashkelon, and our work at the site, within the larger context of the history and archaeology of Israel. Since Ashkelon was inhabited from the Bronze Age through the Crusades, the excavation staff included experts in many of these periods. Excavation director Daniel Master of Wheaton College helped the students compare the arched Canaanite Gate at Ashkelon to the arched Canaanite Gate at Tel Dan, while R. Denys Pringle of Cardiff University explained the architecture and history of Nimrod’s Fortress and Belvoir. Students also hiked around the Arbel Cliffs and Gamla while visiting Hazor, Beth Shean, the synagogue at Beth Alpha and Megiddo. Like the excavations at Ashkelon itself, this tour allowed students to experience the entire chronological sweep of the ancient Southern Levant.
By the end of the tour, however, it was clear that we would not be able to return to Ashkelon in July. Some took this opportunity to return home, but Israel Finkelstein and Eric Cline of the Tel Megiddo excavations offered every student excavator the opportunity to continue digging at the site of Megiddo. About a dozen students, accompanied by experienced Ashkelon staff members, took advantage of this opportunity (and had a marvelous week with the Megiddo team). This type of offer from the Megiddo team shows the type of camaraderie shared by archaeologists digging in Israel. We may duke it out in the pages of BAR over the details of history, but in our personal relationships and in our professional collaborations, there is no tighter community of archaeologists.
At the same time, the bulk of the staff of the Leon Levy Expedition made its way to Jerusalem to finish out the season’s work at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem. Every member of the staff felt the burden of curating the objects that we had taken from the field. For some team members this meant finishing plans and reports. For others, it was creating an inventory of the season’s finds. And for yet another group, it was cleaning some of the most delicate discoveries of the season, so that they could be safely stored without deteriorating. This all took research space, and the Albright Institute offered that space. Some staff stayed for a weekend, others for two and a half weeks. Matt Adams, director of the Albright, was able to mitigate the archaeological consequences of the Gaza conflict. He and his staff provided a home to an excavation in need. We could not have finished our season without them.
There is still much to do in Ashkelon. Once the conflict is over, we hope that life in Ashkelon will return to its peaceful rhythms. Only then can we start to think again about our questions of the past. There is much we want to know. What is the extent of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction? Can a step trench reveal Ashkelon’s earliest city? Can we finally figure out the intricacies of the classical city plan? The answers to these questions have been under the soil for millennia. They can wait a little longer. We hope that the coming fall and year ahead will be safe for everyone in the region. Perhaps then we can work together to uncover the stories of Ashkelon’s glorious past.
Read about the Philistine marketplace at Ashkelon in Bible History Daily.
Tracy Hoffman is a senior member of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon’s professional staff, serving as the supervisor for Grid 32 and as part of the publication team. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. This will be her 18th year excavating at Tel Ashkelon, Israel.