The archaeological site of Bethsaida is located near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in the area of northern Israel called the Golan Heights. It is one of the towns mentioned by name in the New Testament, and is identified as the birthplace of the apostles Andrew, Peter and Phillip.
I have never been a morning person. As a child, I was in the “late bird” kindergarten class. As an adult, I will spend extra time and money to avoid airline flights that necessitate me waking up before the sun. If I’m going to get out of bed before the sun comes up, it had better be for a very good reason. Happily, excavating fits into the “very good reason” category, and after my first few days on the dig, I find that my body adjusts—thrives, in fact—on this new schedule of early rising and physical exertion. As I adjust to the daily rhythm of life on a dig, I am reminded that human beings were never meant to live the sedentary lives that our computer culture requires. We are meant to spend 10 hours a day in movement, not sitting at a desk. Once out in the field, my body begins to remember what it is really designed for; once I’ve adjusted, every day finds me stronger and more energetic than the one before.
I have come to love the rhythm of life on a dig. I am never so “present” as I am when I’m in the field. I’m not worried about returning a slew of e-mails, nor am I making mental notes to schedule that meeting, pick up that dry-cleaning, return all those phone calls, or remember everything else that one worries about in the normal routine of life. No buildings, no traffic, no Wi-Fi—just healthy, hard work, convivial companions and the thrill of discovery.
Bethsaida is a fascinating site in a beautiful and somewhat remote location, but at the end of the day we return to the very comfortable accommodations of the beautiful Kibbutz Nof Ginosar, which sits literally on the shores of the mystical Sea of Galilee. Taking a swim in the Sea of Galilee, by the way, is the perfect culmination of a day of interesting and satisfying physical activity. As the sun moves lower in the sky and illuminates the mountains across the lake, it’s easy to imagine how this body of water was so central to people’s way of life in Biblical times.
The Bethsaida project also draws wonderful volunteers who return year after year. The day that we all arrive to begin the season has the feeling of a family reunion. For the next several weeks we will work together, laugh together, explore together and soak up the experience of being immersed in a different culture. One of the things I love the most about the people who come to Bethsaida is that there really is no “typical” volunteer. Two years ago I had the pleasure of excavating with a delightful Catholic priest from Ireland who was in his 80s, and last year an exuberant eight-year old named Finn (the son of one the excavation’s regulars) helped out on the dig and always lifted everyone’s spirits. Professor Gale and I show up with our students, and there are several other university groups as well, but many are just individual volunteers who have taken time off from their busy adult, professional lives to share in the experience of literally digging up the past.
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.
Sarah Yeomans is an archaeologist, Director of Educational Programs at the Biblical Archaeology Society and a faculty member at West Virginia University. She spent six years living, teaching and researching in Italy, and is a certified archaeological speleologist with the city of Rome.
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