The Shikhin Excavation Project is investigating the site of Shikhin, an ancient village in Jewish Galilee. Referred to as Asochis by the historian Josephus, Shikhin was an important Roman pottery production center closely tied to its larger neighbor, Sepphoris. Below, retired teacher Kay Clements, who is the dig’s registrar, describes how her experiences at Shikhin have opened her eyes to the past. Learn more about the excavations at Shikhin here.
Shikhin was an unknown name for me until three years ago. Today Shikhin is a very special name and place for me. Just thinking or hearing the name evokes the memory of the scent of the soil, the view of the Beit Netofa Valley, the appearance of the rising sun above the low terrace wall and the olive trees, and the heat and wind that come at mid-day. They are as they have been for centuries. These are securely mine.
This change from the known to the unknown is the result of my participation as a volunteer for the past three years on the Shikhin Excavation Project. In 2012, Dr. James Riley Strange, the director of the project, gave a lecture with pictures to my Sunday School Class at All Saints Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. His presentation made me want to join his team as a volunteer amateur archaeologist. This happened just weeks before the scheduled departure date that year. Thus I came to the project as a novice.
Nazareth was home for the next month. We stayed at the Galilee Hotel, which is a hotel that caters to Christian pilgrim groups and is owned by a Muslim family. The hotel and the city are models for peaceful coexistence. Muslims, Christians and Jews share space peaceably. We heard the calls to prayer broadcast from the minarets. We learned which shops were closed on Shabbat and which on Friday and which on Sunday. Our excavation team enjoyed the benefits of this diversity. On Friday evening we observed Kiddish. The group was largely Christian, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Our codirector, Dr. Mordechai Aviam, and his wife are Jewish, as are some of the volunteers. Our group of archaeologists read prayers in Hebrew and in English and sang Hebrew songs. We did this in a largely Muslim city, in Israel, in a Christian pilgrimage hotel owned by a Muslim family.
There are of course tensions among the groups. The Roman Catholic church owns a large portion of the town, which is a source of pique for some Muslims. The Jewish florist down the street from our hotel told me that his sister has immigrated to the U.S. because of her unease over the Middle Eastern situation.
Shikhin is about 8 miles northwest of Nazareth. Each day we passed another archaeological site, Sepphoris or Zippori, which has become a national park. Dr. James F. Strange (the Shikhin director’s father and the dig’s architect) was the director of the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris. We toured Sepphoris before beginning to excavate our own site. Dr. James Riley Strange dug there for many seasons as well. The instruction and information they gave were inspiring and helpful. Here, within just three miles of our site, was an important excavation in which we could see the possibilities that lay ahead of us.
Archaeology is neither glamorous nor easy. Our day begins officially at 4:00 A.M. when we meet for a fine, but light, meal to sustain us until second breakfast at 8:30 A.M., with a fruit break at about 10:30 A.M. We would leave for the site at 4:30 A.M. and return to the hotel at noon to a sumptuous lunch each day.
The early morning darkness on the way to Shikhin enabled some volunteers to doze a minute or two longer. It was also time for the Professors Strange to answer our questions and to give us information. We learned to locate mountains and other features, we heard about the history of the area, both ancient and modern, and enjoyed hearing archaeological anecdotes.
An unexpected experience for me was my feeling of awe and curiosity on first finding a pottery sherd while digging. That particular sherd was merely trash, just a slightly curved, broken piece of an unidentifiable vessel. For me, however, it was a connection across centuries. I was probably the first person to see and hold that fragment of fired clay since the person who dropped it, who broke it. I remember holding it for a time and imagining who that person might have been. A woman preparing to feed her family? A child playing too near the storage jars? Or a careless potter?
That curiosity that I felt, and the possibilities that little sherd presented, have become a real desire today to know the protean aspects of life in Shikhin. For that and for many other possibilities, Shikhin gives us the opportunity to learn more. The team has found a section of a synagogue, walls and doorways, and many oil lamp molds.
Shikhin is a doorway into the past. Perhaps next year we will find walls of houses or find that an already-uncovered wall belongs to a house. Perhaps next year we will find the kiln or kilns where the lamps were fired. Perhaps next year we will find that a true road or a hardened pathway existed between Sepphoris and Shikhin. Dr. James Riley Strange, Dr. “Motti” Aviam, Dr. James F. Strange and my own experiences there have opened my eyes to the past and the joy of discovering it.
Kay Clements is a retired German teacher from Birmingham, Alabama. She is now the dig’s registrar.