Read the full article from the January/February 2019 issue of BAR
“You get up at 4:00 a.m.!” they’ll say with equal parts pride and loathing in their voices. “The first two hours of your day are spent in the dark.”
And they are telling the absolute truth. Most excavations try to be on site to do as much work as possible before the scorching Middle Eastern sun rises in the summer months. To do this, the day must start well before sunrise.
Thus, each work day usually begins with the grating sound of an alarm clock at 4:00 in the morning. This is often followed by one’s roommates joining in the chorus of laments that include hits like: “Why did I volunteer for this?”; everyone’s favorite: “Seriously, I just went to bed!”; and the all-time classic: “There is no way this is worth four credits.”
Some begin their day with a shower just to help wake themselves up; others do not. Some wear the same “dig clothes” they wore the day before—think gym clothes, but much, much dirtier—while some wear a clean shirt and maybe even clean shorts or pants for each new dig day. My claim to fame was always digging in a tie-dye shirt my sister made. Each summer before I head to Israel, she sends me a box of brightly colored, handmade, tie-dyed shirts, which help break up the bleak monotony of my days in the dust. Plus, anytime someone from another square was sent to retrieve me to assist with removing a boulder or tree root ball, they were always told, “You can’t miss him. Look for the guy in the tie-dye listening to Primus.”
After getting dressed, volunteers usually make their way from their rooms to a central gathering place. Here the awakening horde enjoys the Lord of the Rings-inspired “first breakfast,” which usually consists of coffee and cakes. The trick here is to arrive early enough to get coffee or tea and the breakfast pastry of your choice without seeming too overly eager to do so. And be forewarned—while everyone is still groggy and waking up, there is always that one person—Mr. or Ms. Peppy Uppity-Up—who is trying to be positive and encouraging and chipper when all everyone else wants is to drink coffee and lumber toward the bus.
The next part of the morning ritual is a point of departure for different digs. Some excavations are fortunate enough to sleep on or near the dig site. For them, the next step is to make their way to the site and open it for the day. For other groups who reside at a kibbutz, hotel, or guest house some distance from the excavation site, the next step is the 5:00 a.m. bus ride, during which the efficient volunteer can sneak in a few more minutes of sleep.
Once at the square, just before the sun rises the team erects the shade for the day. This involves lifting long PVC-style sections of tube on end beneath a lightweight, black woven tarp that has been staked to the ground. Over the course of dig season as the square gets deeper, raising the shade gets easier because it does not need to be lifted as high, as people are going deeper into the earth. Once the shades are erected, each area’s team usually meets with the area supervisor to receive instructions about the day’s plans. This may involve the common instructions of “go deeper,” but may also include tasks like sweeping and preparing the square for photos, removing boulders either by lifting, rolling, or sledging, or my personal favorite, taking out the root ball of a tree that needs to be extracted from the excavation area. As a former baseball player, this is the closest thing in archaeology to hitting, so the specialized task of throwing an axe around is one of my favorite jobs on site.
Once the area supervisor has divulged the game plan for the day, the sun begins to rise, and it is time to get to work—somewhere around 5:45 a.m. Volunteers usually work in pairs and, when possible, in teams of four. Regular excavation in a level square typically involves two people throwing pickaxes side-by-side, each looking to break up a depth of 2–3 inches of dirt with each throw. They typically work in a line breaking up earth systematically from one side of a designated location in the square to another.
This picking and hoeing is the fundamental process in field archaeology. And during this process, the majority of discoveries are made—most pottery, floors, and walls are unearthed. When a sherd of pottery is discovered, it is placed in a special pottery bucket that is tagged with the name of the site, the specific area, the locus, and a basket number. This allows the pottery specialist to connect the pottery discovered in a particular spot with a specific elevation, which aids in dating the area being excavated. When glass is discovered, it is placed in a separate box or plastic bag to help keep it safe. The same is true for metals, beads, and other objects that might be considered jewelry. These and other “special” objects, such as figurines, coins, or anything with an inscription on it, go into “special finds” boxes so that they are protected and given the extra scrutiny they deserve.
Of course, it is here in the 5-by-5-meter archaeological square that most archaeology is done. It is where the dirt and sweat (and sometimes blood) becomes part of the experience. It is also where lifelong friendships are forged. Working hard in an enclosed quarter with three other people is the closest thing to a reality TV situation that most people will experience. Volunteers exhibit an entire range of emotions in the square, from sheer joy at the discovery of their find, to sheer exhaustion, to pent up frustration, to outright annoyance at that one person in your area who inevitably will not shut up. Every area has one, and every archaeology veteran knows what I’m talking about. The person who tells the jokes, who quotes the movies, often word-for-word for scenes at a time. The person with the very strong religious or political opinions who can’t help but share them, whether the rest of the area wants to hear them or not. And then there are those peacemakers, whose self-imposed job is to change the subject every time Mr. Political or Ms. Religious starts pontificating. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a political argument interrupted with “So, how did the Red Sox do yesterday?” shouted from behind some balk. Ask anyone who has ever been on a dig—this peacemaker and changer of topics is often the most important (and favorite) person on the dig.
This is when you realize that the archaeological square is a microcosm of the real world, the actual society we typically inhabit. There are those who like to be social and work hard best when they are with others telling stories to pass the time. There are others who like to be around other people but work silently, as talking takes too much energy and thought while performing energy-sapping labor. There are still others who like to work alone and prefer not to be around those making all the noise. One quality of an effective area supervisor is to determine which of the volunteers fit into which of these categories and assign them tasks accordingly. When people are in their own comfort zones, they work hardest and smartest.
“Drink water!” is the expression you hear most in the square, perhaps second only to “Great! Keep going!” Water is the most important element on any dig, often more important than the tools themselves. Every 20 minutes I shout, “Drink water!” from wherever I am, as dehydration is the number-one enemy of archaeologists—worse than scorpions, worse than rocks dropped on the toe. You will never appreciate water more than after you’ve been on an archaeological dig. The same is true for your appreciation for how much you can actually sweat in a day.
After a 45-minute breakfast break, the day gets hotter and the work seems harder. For this reason, there is often another “fruit break,” usually around 11 a.m. in each area. This typically involves fresh fruit but can also include everyone’s favorite “frozen fruit”: popsicles. Here, each team determines how much more they can get done before the close of the site for the day. This is also when I tend to make innovative use of a wheelbarrow for a brief respite. After all, I don’t want to take a nap on the ground—it’s dirty down there!
The end of the dig day usually begins around noon, when the process of cleaning up and closing down the square begins. It takes about a half hour. No more picking is done, and all of the attention is turned to hoeing up any loose material and trimming the balks—that is, making sure the inside walls of the square produced as the floor is excavated and lowered are plumb, straight, cross-sectional cuts. These balks are essential to understanding the stratigraphy and therefore the dating of each area being excavated. The squares are then swept up, and the tools are put away. Because the day is at its hottest, this is easily the sweatiest and dustiest part of the day, making for dirt streaks on clothes and faces that would pass for brilliant makeup artistry in a stage production of The Grapes of Wrath. The shades are then lowered, and someone from each square is tasked with transporting the day’s pottery buckets back to the bus.
The bus ride back to the residence, usually between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m., is one of storytelling and exhaustion. It is in many ways the first instance of what BAR tries to do: share with others what was discovered in that day’s dig. The bus ride is also the first experience of pride and envy—pride when sharing news of an amazing find and envy when hearing about what others found.
Once back at the residence, many digs organize one of the least favorite but most important tasks of each dig day: pottery washing. Volunteers spread out with buckets of water and large plastic trays that look like drying racks pulled from an industrial dishwasher. Each person sits with a tiny brush and a bucket of dirty water scrubbing each piece of pottery in the pottery bucket, rinsing each, and placing all of them on the tray to dry. This task is essential because it allows the pottery to be examined, which in turn allows each locus in the site to be dated to a particular time in history. While the pottery dries, volunteers head to the dining room for lunch, take a shower, and lie down for a well-deserved nap.
Usually around 5 p.m., many volunteers wake from their naps. The afternoon and evening events during the dig week are probably the most diverse part of the experience from one dig to another. Some excavation teams will read pottery before heading to supper. This is when all the hard work of preparing the excavated pottery pays off. A pottery specialist examines the day’s pottery and assigns a date range to each locus. One or two indicative sherds (rims, bases, or handles) are saved from each locus for reference purposes, and the rest of the pottery is discarded and returned to the site’s discard pile the next morning.
Supper usually follows pottery reading. Once again, the entire dig team meets in the dining hall for a hearty meal. After dinner, many excavations have lectures on various topics, part of the curriculum for those volunteers participating for university course credit. On some evenings, an assembly is held, and the different areas report on their week’s findings. The day usually ends with a favorite pastime of archaeological digs: sitting around together, often with a drink in hand, meeting new people from different states and countries, and listening to stories from archaeological veterans who have many a story to tell. In the evening conversations, many lifelong friendships are forged, and many volunteers new to archaeology and Biblical studies ask questions and debate answers. The evening usually ends around 9:30 p.m.—at least this is when I plead with my students to head to bed.
Not all archaeological digs are the same. Some are small, where everyone on site knows each other. Others are massive enterprises involving hundreds of volunteers from multiple universities around the world. But a day like the one I’ve described is fairly typical. What all digs have in common is the requirement that volunteers be able to get up early, work steadily, have a positive attitude, be mentally strong (physical strength is optional), and always possess a curiosity about the world around them. There is no ideal age for doing archaeology—individuals of all ages can participate, as there is a job for everyone. There is no ideal body type for doing archaeology, as people of all shapes and sizes can be found on any given dig doing heavy lifting or fine, delicate detailing. While it does help to be in shape, I often tell my students that a summer doing archaeology is a great way to lose some weight, get in shape, get a great tan, and see the Holy Land.
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