Explore lesser-known Holy Land dig adventures
Thwack, thwack, thwack—the sound of pickaxes and trowels rings out through the sloping hills of Lower Galilee. Looking past the balks of excavation squares, you can practically step into the village of Shikhin that still lies beneath the soil after 1,700 years. Shikhin is not a large archaeological site or the proposed location of a biblical event. Yet, without sites like Shikhin, our picture of the past would be incomplete. Whether it opens a unique window into history or allows for a clearer view of a particular ancient practice, archaeology “off the beaten path” deserves more attention.
When thinking about Holy Land archaeology, we often think about large urban sites (tells), such as Hazor and Shimron, or sites with clear biblical connections, such as Jerusalem’s Ophel (all accepting volunteers this year!). While all these sites are important, there is a whole host of smaller or lesser-known sites that are just as fascinating. So, why is it important to study sites off the beaten path, and what draws some archaeologists to excavate them year after year?
Although ancient cities have a lot to offer archaeologically and historically, they are only part of the Holy Land’s long past. Village, farming, and industrial sites offer a different part of that history, a window into the lives and livelihoods of rural communities. According to Mechael Osband, director of the Majduliyya excavation in the Golan, excavating these small villages allows us to see the “differences in lifestyle and socio-economic relationships in contrast to the larger sites.” James Strange, director of the Shikhin excavation, concurs, “At city sites we tend to get remains of public buildings, streets, and villas of the elite, whereas at villages we tend to get houses, industry, and synagogues of a different social stratum (although a few sites get all of these). We learn immensely from both.”
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Lesser-known sites such as Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley reveal another aspect of the region’s history. Although not a small site, Tsaf is primarily a prehistoric settlement from the Chalcolithic (c. 4500–3300 BCE), a period archaeologists have generally overlooked to focus on Canaanite city-states, Iron Age kingdoms, or Herodian palaces. Yet it is the cultures, peoples, and innovations of these prehistoric periods that provide a look into the development of the region and set the scene for all that would come later. Indeed, it is impossible to gain a full picture of the past without investigating such lesser-known sites.
In terms of methods and tools, there is little that separates the excavation of an ancient city from a small village or a famous biblical site from an obscure prehistoric settlement. However, the excavation of sites off the beaten path allows for something seldom seen at well-excavated ones: clarity and focus. Whether it is their many archaeological layers or the years of previous excavation, large, well-excavated sites tend to be “muddy.” This, in turn, causes the archaeological team to excavate strata and features that were not important to their original plans or to carefully pick through intrusions made by later settlements or even previous excavations.
As put by Danny Rosenberg, co-director of the Tel Tsaf excavation, “Sites ‘off the beaten path’ usually allow one to focus more on specific questions without the ‘danger’ of contamination and complex post-depositional issues.” It is the very nature of these off-the-beaten-path sites that makes them so advantageous. With fewer settlement layers and less modern activity, they allow archaeologists more freedom in choosing their excavation areas and a quicker path to answering research questions related to specific periods.
While excavating a small village or prehistoric town might not sound as glamorous as digging up a Byzantine church or Roman legionary camp, the results obtained are just as important. What’s more, once on site, the thrill of excavation is every bit as intoxicating. So whether you are choosing your next dig or perusing archaeological news, maybe you should try looking off the beaten path, too.
This article first appeared in BAR in the Spring 2023 issue.
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