For thirty years, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon has excavated at the ancient seaport of Ashkelon in Israel. Below, Dr. Tracy Hoffman provides a midseason update on the 2015 excavation at Ashkelon. For more on Ashkelon’s 2015 field season, read “Digging into Ancient Ashkelon: The 2015 Season” and “Wrapping Up Ashkelon’s 2015 Season.”
It’s midseason in Ashkelon! It seems like only yesterday volunteers were picking up a trowel for the first time and tentatively poking at the dirt, anxious not to do too much harm. Now, they are seasoned professionals—wielding trowels, picks and patiches with equal authority. They’ve even shared their new-found skills with students from local schools who spent a day on-site learning about archaeology at Ashkelon.
In the field, work has transformed each of the excavation areas. Every day, the material record of human endeavor is uncovered, and students come face to face with the past. Nowhere is this encounter more dramatic then in Grid 51. It’s one thing to hear about the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Ashkelon and to know of the marketplace destroyed in neighboring Grid 50, and it’s another to see and excavate the devastation his armies wrought. Volunteers in Grid 51 witness the violence of this event daily as they uncover a building destroyed in 604 B.C.E. Collapsed walls, shattered vessels littering floors and signs of upheaval are everywhere.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer on an archaeological dig? I Volunteered For This?! Life on an Archaeological Dig is a free eBook that gives you the lowdown on what to expect from life at a dig site. You’ll be glad to have this informative, amusing and sometimes touching collection of articles by archaeological dig volunteers.
On the North Tell, volunteers confront the heights of human ambition in an equally visual, albeit different, way. Tasked with establishing the occupational sequence in this area of the site, the team in Grid 16 has uncovered a massive mudbrick wall that now spans the entirety of their excavation area. It stands more than 1.5 meters tall and is almost 10 meters wide. Undaunted, the excavators have expanded the area as they try to establish the full dimensions of the wall and determine it’s date. With each meter they uncover, they add more to what we know about ancient Ashkelon.
At the start of the third week of excavation, volunteers in Grid 25 learned an important lesson: You just never know what you might—or might not—find in the dirt. Over the previous two weeks of careful excavation, an Islamic period residential building with doorways, thresholds, door sockets and a staircase was exposed. After that promising start, everything changed when the excavation of a destruction layer within the building revealed sand—lots and lots of sand—underneath. To determine the extent of the sand and its purpose, a series of probes were dug. Excavators quickly realized the sand was everywhere and that the cardo, the reason for digging in this particular area, was nowhere to be found. With that information in hand, they reached an inescapable conclusion: Time to rethink the strategy.
Archaeology is not for the faint of heart. It requires a willingness to do back-breaking work in heat, sun and sand. It demands intellectual and scientific rigor, as well as the fortitude to have hypotheses challenged and expectations upset. The trick to surviving such conditions is to embrace them wholeheartedly, to relish the uncertainty, and to work diligently, inexorably, to pry the secrets from the dirt. Thrilling, frustrating and wildly unexpected, the 2015 field season at Ashkelon has something for everyone.
Tracy Hoffman is a senior member of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon’s professional staff, serving as the supervisor for Grid 25 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 19th year excavating at Tel Ashkelon, Israel.
Learn more about Ashkelon in the BAS Library:
Strata: “Altar-ed Theories at Ashkelon,” BAR, May/June 2012.
Mordechai E. Kislev and Ehud Weiss, “Weeds & Seeds,” BAR, November/December 2004.
Michael R. Shurkin, “The Dog Days of Ashkelon,” Bible Review, April 2004.
Lawrence E. Stager, “The Fury of Babylon: Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction,” BAR, January/February 1996.
Lawrence E. Stager, “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon,” BAR, July/August 1991.
Lawrence E. Stager, “Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?” BAR, May/June 1991.
Lawrence E. Stager, “When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon,” BAR, March/April 1991.
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