Hot, dusty days and nights full of learning—this is the life of an archaeologist during the excavation season. Working from dawn to dusk, everyone—from excavation directors to first-year volunteers—contributes to the effort of unearthing and interpreting the past. This is no easy task but requires countless hours of pickaxing, hauling dirt, sweeping floors, measuring, sifting, washing pottery and a host of other duties. Much of this would not be possible without archaeological volunteers. They are the fuel that powers excavations.
Straight from the field to you, hear from the individuals who were awarded BAS scholarships in 2015. They offer insight into what fieldwork at an archaeological excavation really looks like and whether the experience was worthwhile—all the while recognizing that their summer expeditions would not have been possible without the generous donations of the people who funded their scholarships. In 2015, BAS awarded 19 scholarships. Scroll down to read the recipients’ essays.
The BAS Dig Scholarship program is made possible by the generous contributions of donors. Our sincere thanks to the following people, who supported the 2015 volunteers:
Kenneth and Ann Bialkin
Edward and Raynette Boshell
Eugene and Emily Grant
Victor R. Kieser
Leon Levy Foundation, Shelby White, trustee
John and Carol Merrill
Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman
Michael and Judy Steinhardt
Samuel D. Turner
Harry and Gertrude Schwartz Foundation, Jeffery Yablon, trustee
BAS offers scholarships of $1,500 every year to a few people who would otherwise not be able to volunteer. To apply, simply send a resume and a letter to BAS Dig Scholarships, 4710 41st St., NW, Washington, DC 20016, or send it by email to [email protected], stating who you are, where and why you want to excavate, and why you should be selected for a scholarship. We require your mailing address, phone number and email, as well as the names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers of two references. Applications must be received by March 14, 2016.
For more from BAR’s Digs 2016 issue:
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.
Pick axes, hoes, buckets of dirt, latrines and ancient mosaics: all the ingredients of the perfect summer excavation in which I was fortunate enough to participate thanks to a Biblical Archaeology Society scholarship! The location at which these exciting components merged was Huqoq, an ancient village located in Lower Galilee. It was there, thanks to the intercession of Prof. David Vanderhooft at Boston College and the kindness of dig director Prof. Jodi Magness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that I joined archaeologists, students and volunteers to discover what secrets the fifth century C.E. Galilean synagogue at Huqoq held.
Through its history, Huqoq was never a bustling civic center. Rather, it was a village located next to a fresh water spring. Nor was Huqoq a famous Biblical city. It appears only twice in the Bible. According to Joshua 19:32–39, the tribe of Naphtali’s inheritance was as follows: “And its boundary ran from Heleph, from the oak in Zaanannim, and Adami-nekeb, and Jabneel, as far as Lakkum; and it ended at the Jordan; then the boundary turns westward to Aznoth-tabor, and goes from there to Hukkok, touching Zebulun at the south, and Asher on the west, and Judah on the east at the Jordan. The fortified towns are Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, Chinnereth, Adamah, Ramah, Hazor, Kedesh, Edrei, En-hazor, Iron, Migdal-el, Horem, Beth-anath, and Beth-shemesh—nineteen towns with their villages” (NRSV). The second appearance is found in 1 Chronicles and indicates that Huqoq and its pasturelands were given to the Gershomites (1 Chronicles 6:75). Furthermore, Huqoq remains unknown today. As I entered into Israel through customs at the Ben Gurion International Airport, the customs agent asked me if I was in the correct country when I told her where I was excavating. Nevertheless, in Late Antiquity, what this village lacked in prestige its inhabitants compensated for in the construction of what seems to be a unique and highly decorated synagogue.
Initially, the days of excavation were long, hot and dry. For the first two weeks, we moved dirt. A lot of dirt. The work, to say the least, was tedious, and my days were spent counting the number of buckets and wheelbarrows we filled with dirt. During the third week, however, the cry, similar to that of the ancient bridegroom’s, went up: “Mosaics!” At that moment, the discomfort of the Israeli summer heat faded from my thoughts and that of the crew’s, and we were rejuvenated, for we had discovered more mosaics!
Similar to those of previous years, the mosaics we found are breathtaking and, at the same time, history-making. Prof. Magness notes that they are some of the best ever discovered in an ancient synagogue. Adding to the already impressive mosaic uncovered in 2013 and 2014 that depicts the meeting of two men, possibly Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest, this year we uncovered a mosaic that depicts human figures, winged putti (cupids) holding theater masks, a rooster and male and female faces that flank an inscription. What is fascinating about this mosaic (other than its aesthetic beauty) is that the human figures, the putti and the theater masks are associated with Dionysus, the ancient god of wine and the theater. We also unearthed column drums painted with verdant designs, which, according to Prof. Magness, are another discovery unique to Huqoq’s synagogue.
My time at Huqoq working with Prof. Magness and the other archaeologists provided me with an education that is priceless and one that I could not have received in a classroom. Being able to excavate on such an amazing site and with such great archaeologists who took the time to ensure that I knew what I was doing and understood the stratigraphy of our site provided me with a set of tools that I can use for the rest of my academic career.
At our site, we gathered to eat breakfast underneath one of the only olive trees that was located there. Oftentimes, under this lone olive tree, I would think about the following words of one of my academic heroes, Adolf Deissmann, who was a pioneer in applying archaeology to the study of the New Testament, and his reference to a certain tree: “After long years devoted to the study of the ancient records of Paul and their modern interpreters, it was my rare good fortune to find a new teacher to supplement those to whom I shall always look up with gratitude, the old teachers of home. This new teacher is in no sense academic; all that she teaches she dispenses with generous hand in the bright sunshine and open air—she is in fact the world of the South and East, the world of Paul. If the western stranger approach this mistress but reverently beneath the olive-trees, she will gladly, and with a mother’s joy, speak to him of her great son.”1 While I disagree with Deissmann’s German Romantic proclivities and the notion that the world of Paul cannot be academic, I can say that I found a new teacher to supplement my old ones sitting under an olive tree in the Lower Galilean village of Huqoq. It was there that I had the “rare good fortune” to work with Prof. Magness, other archaeologists and my fellow students. All the lessons I learned, however, would not have been possible without the generous grant I received from BAS, for which I am grateful!
1. Adolf Deissmann, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History (reprint; trans. William Wilson; New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. viii.
Huqoq excavation director Jodi Magness and mosaics specialist Karen Britt discuss a new mosaic discovered during the 2014 excavation season in “Huqoq 2014: Update from the Field” in Bible History Daily.
This summer I was able to gain my first experience in the world of field archaeology under the supervision of Prof. Jon Waybright of Virginia Commonwealth University as a part of the Fourth Expedition to Tel Lachish, directed by Dr. Yosef Garfinkel, Dr. Michael Hasel and Dr. Martin Klingbeil. I spent my time there excavating a series of fortification walls in Unit C under the supervision of Sang Yeup Chang of Hebrew University and Dr. Hoo-Goo Kang of Seoul Jangsin University.
While in Unit C, our goal was to further understand and date a series of fortification walls dating from the Persian Period to possibly as early as the Middle Bronze Age. Specifically, we were attempting to date a 2.5 meter-thick stone wall. For nearly my entire stay at the dig, we were finding very little in terms of small finds, but were encountering complex and interesting stratigraphy, leaving us with more questions than answers. On the very last day, we reached the foundation along with evidence that may indicate the wall could have been built in the Iron Age IIA period, roughly 1000 to 925 B.C.E. This cliffhanger ending sealed the deal for me; I am coming back next year to continue volunteering at Lachish.
Excavating at Lachish allowed me to take the often-abstract ideas, theories and methods presented in classrooms and apply them in an ancient real-life context, bringing my education thus far full-circle. While I have taken almost exclusively archaeology courses over the past few years, I feel as though I learned far more reading stratigraphy, taking heights and cleaning pottery and bones in the lab. I know now that I have chosen the right subject to study and cannot wait to return to the field in future seasons.
This year I returned for my second season of excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath in Area P. Located on the eastern edge of the Philistine coastal plains and the western outskirts of the Judean Shephelah, Tell es-Safi is most famously recognized as the Biblical city of Gath (one of the Philistine pentapolis). Continuously settled for over 5,000 years, the vast 100-acre site is filled with finds that range from Early Bronze Age cooking vessels to Ottoman pipes. In particular, Area P (located in the upper city) is defined by a huge Early Bronze Age fortification wall that was later reused in the Late Bronze Age. Over 3 meters deep, the massive EB wall helped to form the shape of the modern tell.
When I first came to Tell es-Safi /Gath in 2014, I helped to uncover many exciting finds, including a lamp and bowl foundation deposit, Egyptian faience beads and the head of a zoomorphic figurine. One could not ignore, however, the war in Gaza. Since we were located within 25 miles of the Gaza Strip, we were constantly bombarded with sirens both on the tell and on the kibbutz. Many of the volunteers left. By the fourth and final week, there were more staff members present than volunteers. I left Safi wishing that I could return and help make the next season a total success. It is thanks to the Biblical Archaeology Society that I was able to fulfill my wish in ways that I never could have imagined.
This time, as a square supervisor in Area P, I had the opportunity to excavate in many different areas, including inner city Late Bronze Age rooms, a Late Bronze Age “alleyway” and a totally new square. I also learned how to use the total station, drew daily top plans, kept field notes, input all basket lists and data in the excavation’s database, and use the dental tool kit upon occasion.
I was also privileged to work with a truly extraordinary team. Many of the senior staff members personally took me under their wing, spending countless hours answering all of my questions and helping me every step of the way. Additionally, I was able to work with an amazing group of volunteers who came from all over the world including: Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Argentina, Italy, Myanmar, Korea, Canada and the United States. Despite our vastly different backgrounds and languages, we immediately bonded over a common passion for history and archaeology.
This season we uncovered some amazing finds in the previously excavated LB levels, including a quartz pendant shaped like a cluster of grapes, an obsidian blade, plaster with worked shell inlay, ostrich shell fragments and phytolith deposits. Additionally, the new square yielded numerous stone tools, loom weights, flint blades, a decorated ivory handle, a complete painted philistine bird and, of course, the continuation of the EB fortification wall with an inner plaster lining. I was also able to be part of the team who helped discover (in the lower city) what is now believed to be the fortifications and monumental city gate of Gath—something not found in all 19 prior years of excavations. In short, the season was a HUGE success.
I am truly grateful to the BAS and the sponsors who made this experience possible.
This June, I was able to join the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) for their excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir in Israel. I am grateful for the excavation scholarship I received from the Biblical Archaeology Society, without which I may not have been able to go on the dig. This was my second time on excavation, and the experience turned out to be both personally and academically rewarding. I was charged with helping uncover the remains of a Late Bronze wall, specifically with identifying the outer face of a city wall.
The 2015 season at Maqatir was the 13th season there for ABR, who are attempting to identify the Biblical site of Ai, mentioned in the Book of Joshua 7–8. In previous seasons, the teams found a (two-chamber) gate complex facing the north, in which was found a large number of sling stones, pottery that spans the Middle Bronze through Iron I periods, a massive two-faced city wall that measured nearly 12 feet wide at its base, evidence of destruction of the city by fire, and an Egyptian scarab, found the previous season, whose iconography displayed a falcon-headed sphinx and was tentatively dated to the reign of Amenhotep II.
I was attracted to Khirbet el-Maqatir because of a fascination with the Conquest Narrative from the Hebrew Bible, as well as an interest in military history and technology in the ancient Near East. In addition to learning more about these, the dig offered numerous excursions to other sites around Jerusalem. Among these were the Old City, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the Garden Tomb and the City of David.
The 2015 season turned out to be a successful one for the dig both in my square and in the squares excavating a first-century B.C.E.–first-century C.E. village at the site. The first-century village yielded many Hellenistic and Roman Era coins, an intricate complex of cisterns and underground silos, and Roman pottery and nails, and underneath one of the floors, a third Egyptian scarab with similar iconography and dated to roughly the same period as the ones found during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. On the last day of excavation, workers in the square adjacent to mine uncovered a layer of ash and calcified limestone, which was able to be dated by Late Bronze potsherds embedded in the burnt debris.
In addition to these discoveries, two small stone weights were found, each bearing an inscription. On the stones, I was able to decipher “N-Z-F” in the paleo-Hebrew script, indicating that they were used as weights.
After having a great experience on the dig in the 2014 season, I was honored that ABR asked me to be an Assistant Square Supervisor for the 2015 season. I ended up digging three of my own squares and gained inestimable experience with the practice of archaeology as a craft, including learning how to identify and record objects, stratigraphy and architectural features. The area in which I was digging yielded an abundance of flint cores and tool/weapon fragments, leading us to speculate that it may have been some sort of production center for the ancient city.
A typical day on the dig began at 4 a.m. with breakfast at our hotel, then a quick bus ride through the modern city of Jerusalem to our site to begin work around 6 a.m. After gathering tools and setting up tents to protect us from the intense sunlight, we worked until lunch at 10:30 a.m. After lunch, we worked until 1:30 p.m. digging, hauling dirt and rocks, sifting, plotting elevations and meticulously recording all of our findings. After returning to the hotel, it was time for pottery-washing and reading until around 5 p.m. Dinner was at 6 p.m., followed by a nightly lecture on various topics from pottery making to ancient architecture at 7 p.m. By 8 p.m. most of us were ready to go straight to bed so that we could do it all over again the next day!
It’s difficult to describe the incredible experience I had during my time at Khirbet el-Maqatir other than to say that I can’t wait to go on another archaeological excavation and hope that I have the opportunity to do so next season. For its part in making this trip happen, I would like to sincerely and humbly thank the Biblical Archaeology Society and its benefactors for their generosity.
How does a dig team work? What do archaeologists look for at a dig? What challenges do they face? In the DVD Biblical Archaeology: From the Ground Down, meet the archaeological pioneers of this field and examine the groundbreaking discoveries and theories that contribute to our understanding of the Biblical past.
With the generous support of a Biblical Archaeology Society dig scholarship, I participated in the fourth season of archaeological expedition at Shikhin from May 23 to June 15, 2015. The project is under the direction of Dr. James R. Strange of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
Located in the Lower Galilees, Shikhin is significant due to its proximity to Sepphoris, a Rabbinic center where the Sages compiled the Mishnah by the beginning of the third century. Shikhin is a relatively new site. In the past several years, evidence of kilns and a synagogue had been discovered there, which confirms that Shikhin was a pottery production center and a flourishing Jewish community in the early centuries of the Common Era. This year, the area of investigation was further expanded, with an aim to understand the scale and the nature of the Jewish presence after the Bar Kokhba period, Galilean village life in relation to the city, and even broader questions about Judaism versus Hellenism.
I was assigned to work with two others in a new square with an aim to locate the interior of the synagogue based on the orientation of architectural features exposed in surface soil nearby, including a threshold and a heart-shaped column base. After two weeks, we reached bedrock, but no trace of the synagogue was found. For the third week, I was assigned to the neighbouring square that contains the threshold, the column and the foundation of part of the synagogue. Like the previous square, bedrock was very close to the surface. There is evidence showing that much of what had remained of the synagogue was depleted at some stage, perhaps for secondary use by the local population. However, in two deep depressions in the square, a large quantity of pottery, coins, lamp fragments, Roman glass and animal bones were found. Most significantly, fresco fragments were unearthed, which indicates that if a synagogue in the early centuries indeed stood here, it had colorful wall(s) painted in orange, green and black, not dissimilar to the first-century synagogue uncovered at Midgal on the shore of Galilee.
As I left one week before the end of the season, much was yet to be discovered. I look forward to hearing more comprehensive updates and a summary of the findings.
Apart from information on the site, another most valuable outcome of the dig was the acquisition of knowledge and skills of archaeology. Dr. Strange and the other staff made a point to train all volunteers in excavation method and procedures so that everyone would be a competent archaeologist should they return to the dig or go to other archaeological sites. On this dig, I learned to differentiate loci, draw square top plans, write daily reports, take elevations and understand the importance of pottery reading.
Beep, beep, beep… It was still dark. I opened my eyes to switch off the annoying sound of my morning alarm. It was 3:50 a.m., the middle of the night. I had 30 minutes until the bus left the kibbutz.
After unpacking stuff on the site and a short warm-up, we started the work. I grabbed my tools and quickly ran to my square with a big grin on my face. I was digging a corner of a building that had already been explored three years earlier. They found a lot of pottery and jewelry here, so there was hope that I would also find something interesting. But between different kinds of mudbrick I only came across stones. Nevertheless , every move of the brush gave me hope for the discovery of something wonderful.
“Bucket chain!” someone yelled, and I rose from my knees to take my position close to the ladder. Seven tons: The number of soil that we threw away every day during work. I felt pleasant pain in my arms and gave the bucket to my neighbor. “It’s the last one! Drink some water!” someone else yelled, and I returned to my square. We still had some time for cookies and a coffee break.
“Shlomit,” someone said, calling for our square supervisor. I stood up because my hole was already too deep and I couldn’t see what was behind the wall. I saw one of the volunteers grab a small juglet in her hands. The vessel was almost complete, missing only its handle. We went back to work…
Tel Hazor is situated near the Sea of Galilee. Excavations at this site are conducted under the direction of Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Together with people from across the world, I dug in Area M situated near the building that, according to research, could be interpreted as a palace.
Although this city played a major role in Biblical history and was one of the biggest cities in the region, we have found only a few textual records here. Because of that, the main objective of the research at Hazor is to find the archive. Logically it is assumed that the archive is located near the palace. Unfortunately, during my stay we did not manage to come across any tracks of the archive.
This year we have taken a closer look at the pillar house from Iron Age, part of the street and building in which we discovered plenty of animal bones. In the middle of the room close to my square, we came across a mysterious installation. The specialist who came to examine it was carrying out tests to check if they contained metal filings. Their content, however, was so low that there was no way to determine the function of the room and installation. Maybe future excavation will help to set down the role of this place and location of the archives.
Thanks to the Biblical Archaeology Society, I was able to make my wish come true this year and participate in the excavation at Tel Hazor. Thank you, BAS, for this amazing opportunity.
Out of all the places in the Bible, there is no other place I would rather excavate than Bethel. However, I was not aware of either an American or British team excavating there—so I had essentially given up on this dream of digging at Bethel. But once I found out that a Japanese team was excavating there, I knew I had to take part in it. I contacted the professor in January, and this summer I lived out this dream.
Bethel is undoubtedly one of the most significant sites in the Hebrew Bible. It is the second-most mentioned place—next to Jerusalem—and it is where some of the most memorable stories in the Bible took place: where Abram built an altar there (Genesis 12:8); where Jacob had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder as he fled from his brother Esau (Genesis 28); and when Jeroboam founded the northern kingdom of Israel, he placed a golden calf at Dan and Bethel to rival the Temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:28–29). It has been excavated by the famous W.F. Albright and James Kelso over 50 years ago (1934–1960). Since then, the final report of the excavation has been criticized by William Dever, and its precise location/identification has been a focus of a fervent debate between David Livingstone and Anson Rainey. Therefore, many have expressed the need for further excavation to be carried out on the site.
This season’s excavation focused on unearthing Burj Beitin, where a large tower and remains of a building were evident on top of a hill east of Bethel. There, an impressive large-scale church dating to the Byzantine period was unearthed (roughly 65 by 100 feet). The building consisted of three pillared gates, walls made with curved ashlar stone, mosaic floors and a water reservoir over 15 feet deep. Because both the location of the church and the site where Abram built an altar in the Bible are east of Bethel (Genesis 12:8), the church is thought to be built in commemoration of this Biblical event.
Through my experience excavating at Bethel, I learned many valuable skills to prepare me to become an archaeologist and also made many unforgettable memories. I would like to thank Dr. Sugimoto and the team of Keio University for allowing me to partake in this experience, and also the Biblical Archaeology Society and the donors who made my dream a reality.
As I return from my second journey to Israel, I recall the last two years of excavations at Tel Lachish and the adventure of archaeological fieldwork. Last year, for the first time, I was able to leave the mundane world behind me on the tarmac and enter an exotic land of rich history and theology. Here, on the Mediterranean and in Israel, a splash of cultures and religions came alive in an amazing collage of wonderful sights, foods and friendly people. Everywhere I went, there was always somebody offering you never-before-seen foods and drink or somewhere to sit in the shade and enjoy a nice micro-brew or glass of fine wine. Either that, or someone in the excavation group was always wanting to go somewhere new and see something else that I hadn’t seen yet. I had always put archaeology and adventure together, but until my travels to Israel, I never realized how close they truly are.
Archaeologists go places and do things that most people only see in picture books. I will always remember how I felt at the Western Wall when I laid my hands on the stones, or walking in the courtyard on the Temple Mount and in the olive groves at Gethsemane. Archaeologists also work behind the scenes and make new finds from Biblical sites across Israel. Some of these date back to the Early Bronze Age. It’s not every day that one gets to peel away thousands of years of history to find the story underneath. These things are what drive me to excavate Israel.
Traveling to the Holy Land has had an incredible impact on my outlook regarding a career in archaeology. Before this expedition, I was unsure if I wanted to pursue field archaeology for my life’s work. This line of work is not notorious for higher salaries; however, after traveling to the Near East and digging in Israel, there is no doubt in my mind that archaeology is my calling. Due to my continued participation in the Fourth Expedition to Lachish, I have expanded my archeological horizons from being an undergraduate volunteer to a returning scholarship awardee. This has opened the door for me to return for more excavation as a staff member on site next year under the study of Dr. Yosef (Yossi) Garfinkel from Hebrew University.
Studying under Yossi at Lachish has also given me the opportunity to excavate Late and Middle Bronze Age fortifications two years in a row. We have been able to identify mudbrick features as well as collapsed and intact stone city walls as well as date them. We have been able to identify different types of pottery by style and structure and have made floral and botanical finds. All of these things can tell us a lot about how people at this site lived and traded. I am pleased to have participated in making these finds.
Overall, while participating in this expedition to Lachish, I have built a network of colleagues whom I can rely on for future opportunities. I now know what I want to study in a graduate program, and I have my excavation experience at Lachish to thank for it. If it weren’t for this return trip to Tel Lachish, I wouldn’t have chosen to study Middle Bronze Age botanicals in a graduate program.
Environmental archaeology should give many insights when excavating Biblical sites, and I would like to pursue these studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.
This summer, thanks to the generous scholarship I received from the Biblical Archaeology Society, I was able to participate in an archaeological excavation at Legio in Israel. This is one of the main digs affiliated with the Jezreel Valley Regional Project (JVRP), an archaeological organization whose goal is to gain a complete understanding of the history of the entire Jezreel Valley region from the Paleolithic through the Ottoman periods. I was excited to partner with this archaeological organization in particular because of their commitment to an integrated and holistic approach to an understanding of not only the most ancient, but also the more recent aspects of the history of the human settlement of the Jezreel Valley. The JVRP is cutting-edge in the sheer scope of their inquiry, their techniques, and their being the first archaeological project to have full cooperation from both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
Legio is located in the Jezreel Valley, in a field just below Tel Megiddo. This was the first full-scale excavation at Legio and the first excavation of any Roman legionary base in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The second and third century C.E. Roman architecture that we were looking for was not far under the earth, and many of the architectural stones we uncovered were scored by the countless plows that had been used in the field for the past nearly 2,000 years since the military camp went out of use. We uncovered extensive pipe works, the remains of several buildings, and what may have been the roads that cut through the encampment. We also found innumerable roof tiles, sometimes stamped with the name of the VIth Ferrata Legion. The JVRP will return to the site in 2017 to expand their excavation in new directions, based on what we uncovered this year.
It was an incredible experience participating in the type of work that I had studied in so many classes. Actually digging in the dirt provides such a different perspective than reading a textbook. The knowledge that I gained on (and in) the ground will be invaluable to my future success in academia and archaeology. I am so incredibly grateful to the Biblical Archaeology Society for making this opportunity possible and to the Jezreel Valley Regional Project for allowing me to join with them in such groundbreaking work.
Read “Legio: Excavations at the Camp of the Roman Sixth Ferrata Legion in Israel” by excavation codirectors Matthew J. Adams, Jonathan David and Yotam Tepper in Bible History Daily.
This was an exciting dig season for me. It was my second time at Tel Gezer, a site located in the Shephelah region of Israel. One of our goals was to clear away the eighth- and ninth-century strata to uncover the tenth century occupation layer.
Since I had some previous experience at the site, I was appointed as one of the assistant area supervisors. This was a major adjustment, since I was responsible for teaching and supervising several volunteers throughout the season, in addition to completing daily paperwork every evening. At first I found this intimidating, but it was rewarding to see the volunteers’ excitement at excavating for the first time.
One of the interesting discoveries we made were portions of plaster surfaces in several areas of the site. Since the plaster was fragile, we had to work very carefully to uncover it. A large part of my job was to show the volunteers how to use their trowels and brushes in the most effective way, and to ensure none of the other workers on site accidentally stepped on the delicate surface patches in our square.
Overall it was an excellent dig season and I am very grateful to the Biblical Archaeology Society for making this opportunity possible.
It is approximately one hour into my first day on the Fourth Expedition to Lachish. I am using a small pick ax and trowel to delineate a large rock that may or may not be significant. The task has not become exhausting yet, but it isn’t particularly stimulating either. I don’t know what I am doing and wonder if I could miss or mess something up if I don’t ask the right questions at the right times.
The back-end of my pick ax falls with a thunk, thunk, thunk, then clank! I know I have hit something solid. I use my trowel to quickly clean up and level the surrounding earth. Whatever it is that I have found, it is small, flat and loose enough that it can be removed without disturbing the integrity of the square’s stratigraphy—a word that I have just learned. I turn to another volunteer who has more experience than I do to try and get some context:
And over the course of the two weeks that I spent at Tel Lachish, I did get used to it. Actually, I came to love the challenges both physical and conceptual that archaeology encompasses. I developed a voracious taste for the day-to-day ritual: Waking early (at 4 a.m.) to avoid the interference of the mid-day heat, watching the sunrise over the tell, taking on the tasks I was given, eating watermelon to keep hydrated, taking afternoon siestas and then participating in pottery readings and lectures. I also learned to better differentiate between objects tooled by people and the many, many, many un-tooled rocks.
As a dancer and aspiring scholar of dance, I found myself particularly interested in understanding the technicality and implications of the labor involved in excavation. I began to see that the way in which one engages in the act of “digging” affects what material “finds” are unearthed and how they are contextualized. The process of excavation is always oriented by what is deemed significant. If an important object is found, the physical tasks to be done shift because of it. And the other things found on the site are re-contextualization in relation to it.
What is one day understood to be a line of stones might the next day, as more courses of stones are uncovered, be considered a wall. After more digging, the wall may be found to connect to other walls to form a room. Rooms might become buildings. Buildings might become houses. A series of houses might become a town. In this way, excavation is as much a process of construction as it a process of taking away.
On my first day at Tel Lachish, dig director Professor Yosef Garfinkel reminded me that there were three previous expeditions to the site, and that completion of the excavation of the tell would take decades. While that seems like a long time to dig, it is nothing compared to the millennia of the tell’s life that might be reconstructed in that time. Now that I have experienced the tell’s excavation firsthand, I look forward to hearing about not only what is found at Tel Lachish, but how it is found and what interpretations are built as a result of that process.
With the help of the BAS scholarship, I was able to volunteer for my third year at the site of Tel Ashkelon. Ashkelon is a unique ancient port city, located about 10 miles north of the modern Gaza/Israel border. It boasts occupation levels dating as early as the Chalcolithic period and as late as the Islamic Period. This year we excavated in levels that ranged across this spectrum: Chalcolithic, Iron Age, Persian Period, Roman Period and Islamic Period. This season was also full of surprises. In Grid 16, what our director originally believed to be a Bronze Age mudbrick fortification turned out to be a natural mud accumulation, or paleosol. We did not learn this until our fifth week, at which point the volunteers in this grid had dug 11 meters straight into it looking for “the other side of the wall.” We were also surprised that after continued searching, we have still not managed to find the Roman cardo or city center from this time. At least we know now where it is not. Finally, we were surprised in Grid 51 by the amount of Persian Period material that covers the 604 B.C.E. destruction layer, which we were desperate to get past. Despite this impediment, more of the destruction layer was able to be revealed and studied.
I had the opportunity this year to help my supervisors with note-taking and photograph-linking on our computer system, as well as learn more about GIS and surveying. I learned a great deal more about pottery forms and how to identify them and the time period they come from thanks to our days spent organizing potsherds in our pottery compound. These were not, however, my favorite days. I prefer to be in the field digging. I love the feeling you have first thing in the morning (5 a.m.). It’s a new day, it’s still relatively cool, and who knows what’s in store, what you will discover. You are always guaranteed to find something, even if it is only a potsherd, and you are the first person to hold it since an ancient, long-dead individual did. It creates a connection, a link to the past that cannot be equaled. This season has been my favorite of the past three; it is a time I will never forget. Thank you to the Biblical Archaeology Society for giving me the chance to have such an amazing experience.
Dr. Tracy Hoffman wrote a series of updates from Ashkelon for Bible History Daily during the 2015 field season. Read “Digging into Ancient Ashkelon: The 2015 Season,” “A Midseason Night’s Dream … and Day’s Work” and “Wrapping Up Ashkelon’s 2015 Season.”
I cannot express the amount of gratitude I have for the Biblical Archaeology Society and its contributors who allowed me to dig in Israel this summer at Tel Abel Beth Maacah (ABM). The fieldwork I was able to participate in was extremely valuable and enjoyable for me and was an incredible learning experience. Prior to this summer, I had taken university archaeology and ancient Near East history courses, and even had an archaeology internship working with artifacts, but I hadn’t yet had any field experience. While volunteering at ABM, I was really able to discover and explore my passion for archaeology.
I had the pleasure of digging in Area A and continuing previous excavation in a mostly Iron I stratum. We worked our way through lots of destruction layers and grappled with ideas for our many intersecting walls from different time periods. I was able to uncover part of an Iron IB stone floor in a room that contained other interested stone installations and many destruction findings. During my second week at ABM, my partner and I found a very concentrated area of animal bones, some of which were identified as foreign fish that may have reached the north by ancient trade.
During my time spent digging at ABM, I was constantly learning excavation techniques, artifact identification tools and Biblical and ancient Near Eastern history. Being involved with this dig allowed me to more fully grasp what I have learned in past studies of Biblical archaeology and provided a vast amount of learning opportunities in many areas of archeology and Biblical scholarship. I had the great pleasure of studying with Robert Mullins (dig codirector as well as my professor), and I was constantly learning from the very intelligent Nava Panitz-Cohen (dig codirector) and many others on the site. The team atmosphere was encouraging and light-hearted, never lacking in jokes or witty banter about the infamous “wise woman” (2 Samuel 20) of our site. I will continue to voice my gratitude and thanks to BAS for providing me with this enriching archaeological opportunity that I know I will continue to benefit and learn from in the years to come.
With the assistance of a scholarship from the Biblical Archaeological Society, I have recently returned from a digging season in Ashkelon, Israel. As one of the five cities of the Philistines, notorious for being a common enemy of the Biblical Israelites, this site has long held importance for Biblical archaeology. However, its near continuous occupation through the Hellenistic, Roman, Islamic and Crusader periods makes Ashkelon a valuable resource for studying the broader archaeological history of the Levant.
I was first affiliated with this site last summer, which saw a premature end to the archaeological season coming with the increased conflict between Israeli forces and the nearby Gaza Strip.
Unfortunately, this termination came upon the cusp of the discovery of a destruction layer in one of the site’s grids; in 604 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonian Empire burned the city to the ground as they swept down the coast of the Levant on their way to an attempted invasion of Egypt. The mirroring of these two conflicts, ancient and modern, was not lost on me; this region has always been a place of world events, culture and conflict. By returning this season, I was able to assist in answering many of those open questions concerning the nature of this destruction and the widespread abandonment that followed it. My grid was specifically concerned with excavating through the remaining Persian occupation levels and revealing both the evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction and the earlier Iron Age architecture underneath the later gridded city. For the archaeologists, those academic questions resulted in a fast-paced but well varied rotation of daily fieldwork; we took down walls with mattocks one day and revealed articulated bones with skewers the next.
Daily life on this site was consistently challenging and rewarding. Beginning to dig before sunrise helped us beat the Israeli summer heat and capture the best light of the day, and that early start set productive tones for the entire season. That efficiency turned out to be necessary as we faced the challenging task of finding the Iron Age architecture associated with the city’s destruction. When compared to the clear north-south gridded alignment of the Persian stone walls and structures, earlier structures were much less clearly laid out, both within the grid and in its stratigraphy. Many mudbrick lines popped up clearly in one area only to disappear into the next. Spaces in and next to the Iron Age street displayed clear signs of destruction in the form of heavy ash layers, large deposits of broken pottery and general debris fills, but the same destruction in spaces moving away from those easily accessible areas were not so easy to find, which made establishing their boundaries more challenging. The funny thing about destruction layers is that despite the cataclysmic repercussions that they represented for the inhabitants who were caught in it, they are an incredibly rich archaeological resource. Grains and organic materials are better preserved, and any items in use remain where they were deposited. My primary project in the latter half of the season involved excavating a large layer of broken whole vessels off of a floor destroyed in 604 B.C.E. before then examining and removing that surface. Archaeological work in Ashkelon is more often than not devoted to puzzling over stratigraphy and collecting inconceivable amounts of pottery. It was all the more exciting, therefore, to work with this floor and to find the beads, crystal, scarabs, articulated bone, scales, measuring weights, Egyptian figurines and gold.
In addition to having a wonderful team of archaeologists, students and specialists to work with and learn from, Ashkelon has given me so many valuable tools and experiences that have solidified my passion and fascination for archaeology. Israel has always been, and remains to this day, a hotbed for history and tension. Archaeology is an opportunity for us to learn about its diverse past and to apply that knowledge to our current understanding of its religious and political natures.
I dug in Area B of Tel Abel Beth Maacah. The head archaeologists, Drs. Nava Panitz-Cohen and Robert Mullins, decided to pick the area after identifying a wall from the Ottoman era. They wanted to see if there were Iron Age remains under the Persian ruins. After help from a high school youth group, we discovered a significant Iron Age destruction layer at a lower level in the area.
Most of the time, I excavated ruins of buildings from the Ottoman and Persian eras. During most of my dig, I worked to remove a dirt fill that separated the Persian layers and the Iron Age layers. The most rewarding moment of the dig occurred on the last morning of my dig. After days of digging through archaeologically unimportant dirt, I struck my pick against rocks. I had found the remains of an Iron Age wall. I was really excited!
The positive experience, however, was not just limited to the actual excavation. Our breaks were punctuated by intense discussions about the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and archaeology. My two weeks of digging have solidified my choice to major in the Bible and the ancient Near East. I look forward to learning ancient languages, studying texts and engaging with history. If all goes well, I will seriously consider continuing in my studies and earning a Master’s and Ph.D. in Judaic Studies.
The inaugural excavations at Abel Beth Maacah uncovered a silver hoard, including five hoop earrings, among other Bronze and Iron Age finds. Read more about the 2013 season >>
This summer I went to my second home for the seventh year in a row: I flew to Israel to participate in two archaeological excavations. The first one was at the site of Huqoq, a small Byzantine village in the Galilee, which has in the midst of it all an impressive synagogue building. Organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this excavation is a thrilling place to be. For the fourth year in a row, magnificent mosaic floors came to the surface, showing the splendor some community buildings could possess in those days, even in such a remote place. For about three weeks, I coordinated a small group of students as their square supervisor. I taught them the basis techniques of excavating, which made me reflect on my own digging habits as well. Truly, to teach somebody is to get to know your own flaws, and you get better because of it. This year I worked in the square next to the one I worked in last year. This was exciting, as you discover bit by bit a little more of the outline of the building, as if you are laying out the grid of a puzzle. You always want to know what will come next: Will this wall continue here, will we have even more of the floor preserved? At the end of the season there’s always a little heartache when you have to put your shovel in the ground for the last time and empty the final bucket, knowing that it will take a whole year before you can come back to the site again. To be an archaeologist is often to have patience…
Luckily, I was in the position to immediately move on to the next site. The following dig took place at the site at Horvat Kur. This site has a lot in common with Huqoq: It is also a Byzantine village in the Galilee with an ancient synagogue. I have been digging at this site from the very beginning, and for the last couple of years, I have been the field supervisor. This year was furthermore especially challenging since our two main excavation directors had fallen ill and could not make it to Israel: This meant I had to replace them on-site. So, for the first time, I was responsible not only for the coordination of everything that was happening at the site itself, but also for the organization of everything “behind the scenes.” This included making sure the 40 student volunteers arrived safely and had accommodations, making phone calls to all our friends and colleagues in the neighborhood to check in on our depot and storage containers, having daily meetings with all the staff members, making sure the database was working, organizing the field trips, etc. To say it was a 24-hour job is the least! Luckily we have had pretty much the same staff for the last 5 years, and everybody really stepped in to make the excavation go as smoothly as possible. I learned that archaeologists are the happiest when they are in their natural habitat of dust and dirt, and with everybody’s help, we managed to have a more-than-satisfying digging season. The highlight of this season was the discovery of a mosaic, as well! Careful cleaning during this season revealed a beautiful Aramaic inscription and part of a menorah with little oil lamps. It is the unexpected discoveries like this that remind me why I started my studies in archaeology in the first place and why I will definitely be back for another year!
Through the generosity of the Biblical Archaeological Society and the individual donors, I was able to participate in the excavation at Tel Gezer during June and July of 2015. This season was a little different for me as well as most participants in an excavation, as I not only worked in the field, but also in the Tel Gezer lab, located at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. We would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and work in the field with the rest of the team until breakfast. After breakfast I and a few other staff members would drive into Jerusalem to work in the lab until the late afternoon, when we would head back to camp to finish up our paperwork from the field that morning.
My fieldwork this season took place in Field East, which is just west of the famous Iron Age chambered gate system. In Field East we were digging in the Iron II. My work dealt mostly with the 10th century B.C.E. levels at Gezer. The end of the 2014 season left Field East on the precipice of the 10th century destruction levels. We believed that we were mere centimeters above rich destruction layers filled with countless whole vessels, an ivory horde, and of course, an inscription or two. But in typical archaeological fashion you never find what you expect. Our destruction layers were depressingly empty, but interesting nonetheless. Although fancy finds and special items were not plentiful, our efforts this season in Field East helped articulate the city plan of the 10th century area adjacent to the gate complex.
As much as I love the fieldwork, my time in the lab this summer was not only interesting, but exciting. We had two projects to work on in the lab. We were analyzing the ceramics from previous seasons found in Late Bronze and Iron I contexts to better understand the current excavations going on in Field West. Our other project was to analyze all of the finds from a four-room house that was discovered earlier in the Tandy Institute’s excavations at Tel Gezer. This process included analyzing the pottery and other finds from previous seasons that were associated with the four-room house. This research was in preparation of a conference paper that we are giving this fall.
My season was filled with valuable research in the lab and exciting discoveries in the field. It was interesting to see the back end of the archaeological project. When the dust settles on the tell, the work has only begun. All of the materials that were excavated need to be pulled off the shelf and analyzed more carefully in preparation for publication. All of this was possible because of the generosity of the donors, and the Biblical Archaeological Society.
Wake up at 4 a.m. Be on the bus by 4:30 a.m. Get dropped off and walk up the hill to the site before the sun is up. Excavate for six hours, then back to the kibbutz to rest before repeating the cycle the next day. Not a schedule many would ask for, but for me and other students on the Huqoq excavation, we volunteer for this schedule for a month.
Huqoq is an ancient village near the Sea of Galilee. For the last five years, Dr. Jodi Magness has been directing the excavation of not only the village itself, but also the monumental Byzantine synagogue on site. I have been a volunteer at Huqoq for the past two years and have been involved both years in excavating the synagogue. To my excitement, both years have had me in the squares where the figural mosaics that are Huqoq’s call to fame have been discovered. For me personally, this year at Huqoq has been one of professional development as I worked as a square supervisor—putting my skills to practice while learning how to pass on my experience to others. Such an opportunity was thanks to the Biblical Archaeology Society Dig Scholarship I received, without which this amazing trip would not have been possible.
Thank you to the Biblical Archaeology Society for awarding me the excavation scholarship so that I could participate in the 2015 Tel Burna excavation season with a fantastic team. During this season, I worked in Area B1 for the majority of the excavation. Area B1 is located in the lower city of Tel Burna, and the finds from the excavation indicate that it was inhabited during the Late Bronze Age. Over the course of three weeks, we opened four new squares, and the results were tremendous. Among many other finds, we found a fertility figurine, four bronze arrowheads, bone beads and thousands of sherds (including some that were imported from Cyprus). We also uncovered part of a building and a huge stone with a perfect hand-made hole through the center. We have no idea what the functions of the building and the stone are yet, but we hope that we will be able to understand it better next year.
Besides the interesting finds, the best part is that I began to learn the plan and the cataloguing system under the guidance of Area B1 supervisor Chris McKinny (whom I assisted throughout the season). This really helped me learn much more than just being a volunteer. At the end of the season, the director of Tel Burna, Dr. Itzick Shai, even encouraged me to continue studying in Israel. It was just awesome! I never imagined that this season would be so amazing and crucial in helping me set my mind to continue studying ancient Near Eastern/Biblical archaeology. As I said when I applied for the BAS dig scholarship, the scholarship would be a great encouragement for a Taiwanese student who was seeking to be a Biblical archaeologist, because there is not a single Biblical archaeologist in Taiwan. But now, there may turn out to be one. Thank you.
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