Getting the Most Out of Old Archaeology Dig Sites

Aaron Burke on the importance of publishing old excavations

Getting the Most Out of Old Archaeology Dig Sites

Aaron Burke

Old archaeology dig sites in Israel are a valuable source of information about the ancient past. Earlier generations of archaeologists often chose the most historically significant and centrally located sites. It is crucially important that current and future archaeologists have access to the records—including notes, maps, plans and photographs—that were generated from the excavation of these sites, particularly now that many of these “old” archaeology dig sites are being re-excavated with modern tools and techniques.

As discussed by archaeologist Aaron Burke in his column “An Archaeological Cold Case Solved” in the September/October 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, however, many old archaeology dig sites remain unpublished, including the ancient port city of Jaffa first excavated by Tel Aviv archaeologist Jacob Kaplan decades ago. Many archaeologists, then and now, simply don’t know how to write an archaeological report that provides a complete record of a site’s excavation.

According to Aaron Burke, now codirector of the Jaffa excavations, “Working without the data from earlier, unpublished excavations is akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle knowing that the crucial pieces are misplaced somewhere in the attic.”

For the past four years, Aaron Burke and his colleague Martin Peilstöcker of the Israel Antiquities Authority have been on a quest to reconstruct and publish Kaplan’s Jaffa excavations. For Burke, it is extremely important that archaeologists publishing old archaeology dig sites know how to write an archaeological report that gives as clear a picture of the excavation as possible.

Publishing old excavations, however, is an extremely complicated process, principally because the single most important source of information, the original excavator, is often deceased. In many ways, their efforts resemble detective work. Aaron Burke and Martin Peilstöcker have managed to track down many of the records and documents that Kaplan kept, but they have also interviewed anyone who had any substantive contact with Kaplan, particularly old staff members, to learn as much as they could about his work. They have also written countless e-mails to follow any lead that would help them track down certain objects recovered in the old excavations.

Aaron Burke and Martin Peilstöcker’s investigations have allowed them to learn much more about ancient Jaffa, especially during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.E.), when the city was occupied by an Egyptian garrison. They now know, for example, that the early Egyptian fortress of Jaffa was destroyed in a Canaanite insurrection (possibly remembered in the Egyptian tale of the Capture of Joppa), which left in its wake one of the largest and most significant collections of Egyptian pottery in Late Bronze Age Canaan.

To continue learning about the importance of publishing old excavations, read Aaron Burke’s Archaeological Views column, “An Archaeological Cold Case Solved,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011.

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