BAR’s January/February issue—known as the “Dig” issue—has been highlighting excavation opportunities for the past 40 years. For the 2015 issue, we checked in with individuals featured on the cover of past Dig issues as well as former BAS scholarship recipients.
For more from BAR’s Digs 2015 issue:
Read “Digs 2015: Blast from the Past” as it appears in the January/February 2015 issue of BAR >>
Read essays from 2014 BAS scholarship recipients >>
Check out the 2015 excavation opportunities >>
The first time I picked up an issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) featuring “Dig Opportunities at a Glance,” I was a freshman in college. I remember opening the magazine, reading about the archaeological expeditions looking for student volunteers, and being intrigued by the thought I could help uncover the history of the ancient Near East. As a history major, the idea that I could walk down a street thousands of years old, hold a pot someone ate a meal from or uncover the destruction of a city was very powerful and—ultimately—impossible to resist. A few months after looking at that BAR, I boarded an El Al flight to Israel, where I would spend the next seven weeks excavating at the site of Ashkelon, a Philistine port city on Israel’s southern coast.
I loved everything about it: the dirt, the heat, the never knowing what I might find when I put my trowel in the ground. By day, I excavated a Roman period street with an open-air sewer near the city center, washed pottery and learned how to be an archaeologist. By night, I participated in the Harvard Summer School program and studied the history and archaeology of the Near East. Within a matter of days, perhaps a few weeks—but long before the end of the season—I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist.
I returned to Ashkelon as a volunteer the following summer. A year later I went back as a member of the professional staff. I moved from an excavation area near the city center to one on the edge of the tell overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. There I excavated Islamic period robber trenches that cut deep into the soil to steal stones from much earlier Persian period warehouses. I also excavated a portion of one of Ashkelon’s most enigmatic discoveries: Persian period dog burials.*
My third year on staff at Ashkelon, my excavation area—Grid 50, Square 47, to be exact—and I made the cover of BAR’s “Dig Opportunities ’94” issue. It was a wonderful surprise. I was thrilled at the thought that Ashkelon and I might play the smallest part in encouraging curious students to join an archaeological excavation for the summer.
After completing my B.A., I went on to the University of Chicago, where I pursued a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations with a specialization in Islamic period archaeology. I have continued to work at Ashkelon, the subject of my dissertation, where I am now one of four area supervisors. I am currently working on the publication of Islamic and Crusader period Ashkelon and am also helping to develop an archaeology curriculum for use in elementary schools. I still love every minute of it, too.
The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon will conclude its excavation of Ashkelon in 2016. That same year will be my 20th year excavating at the site. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. I have made a career out of Ashkelon, and it’s no exaggeration to say BAR was there at the beginning. I, for one, am very thankful for the whim that had me walk into a bookstore one winter afternoon to purchase a copy of BAR, which helped me discover a lifelong passion for—and career in—archaeology.
* Lawrence E. Stager, “Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?” BAR, May/June 1991.
Along with a 12th-century Philistine hydria from Ashkelon, I was featured on the cover of BAR’s 2009 “Dig” issue. At the time I was studying history at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I returned to Ashkelon, Israel, the following summer as well. My field experience through the Leon Levy Expedition with Harvard and Wheaton helped me get into the U.S. National Park Service. If prospective employers conducted an internet search of my maiden name (Nicolette Wheeler), they would see my picture on the cover of BAR! This was of great help in establishing credibility, especially in phone interviews.
Through the Student Conservation Association internship program, I worked at Klamath National Forest, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Hovenweep National Historic Site and Fort Union National Historic Site in various capacities ranging from archaeological technician, museum curating and fee collecting to live historical interpretation and education.
My first summer seasonal park ranger position was at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. I visited schools throughout North Dakota and Montana with a trunk full of objects related to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Dressed as Sacagawea, I met my husband, Daniel Gillund, who had volunteered as a blacksmith at the Fort. I smacked the back of his leg with a stick and ran away shouting, “Counting coup!”—and he hasn’t left me alone since.
This past winter I worked as a seasonal park ranger at Chiricahua National Monument and am now at Yosemite National Park in the interpretation division under media service.
In the future, I plan to draw upon all of my experiences at Ashkelon and in the National Park Service as a history teacher to create a dynamic learning environment for my students. I want to present possible careers and opportunities applicable to a history degree. Liberal arts majors don’t have to settle for unexciting jobs; there’s a whole world of possibilities. You only have to get out there and find them.
Although I have been excavating in Israel since 1974, it was not until 2011—nearly four decades later—that I was featured on the cover of BAR.
The photo came as a result of Hershel Shanks’s request for images of the Gezer Water System excavation, which he had been privately urging to be excavated for several years. We submitted several pictures of our staff in action at the bottom of the water system that first year (2010), and the one selected for the cover was the editor’s choice.
I serve as the codirector of the Center for Archaeological Research at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) and have been teaching there since 1982 in the areas of Hebrew Bible and Biblical backgrounds and archaeology.
My interest in archaeology came as a result of a ten-week trip to Israel in 1974 with my professor Dr. Ralph Alexander and a group from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. We worked at Tel Beer-Sheva and traveled throughout Israel. With interests in Hebrew Bible and archaeology, I went on to pursue a doctorate at NOBTS, completing it in May 1984.
I studied under Dr. George Kelm at NOBTS, and through him I became involved in the excavations at Tel Batash directed by Amihai Mazar. When Dr. Kelm left NOBTS for a position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in 1983, I began teaching regularly in his place.
In addition to excavating at Beersheba (1974) and Tel Batash-Timnah (1980s), I have also excavated at Tel Qasile, Beth Shean, and Tel Rehov (all in the 1990s). All except Beersheba were under the direction of Ami Mazar, a mentor and friend since 1981.
In connection with the several excavations I have worked on—in supervisory or administrative capacities—I have also led students on travel programs with tours and lectures focusing on the historical geography of the land of Israel, as well as in Egypt, Jordan, Greece and Italy. I want my students to have a first-hand experience of the realia of the ancient Near East.
The Tel Gezer excavation project began in summer 2006, codirected by Dr. Steven Ortiz of SWBTS and Dr. Sam Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
In 2008 and 2009 the Gezer expedition began discussions with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority about the water system at Gezer and the possibility of its excavation. In 2010, we received the permit. My primary responsibility from the beginning was administrative and logistical: overseeing volunteers, travel/education program, hotel, finances, etc.
Back to the BAR photo. That was probably only my fourth time actually working at the bottom of the water tunnel that season, a rare opportunity—but I still love digging after some 40 years of doing it.
That it made the cover was a surprise to me—as well as my colleagues. It has since been featured on most of our Gezer Water System presentations at professional meetings of American Schools of Oriental Research, Evangelical Theological Society, Society of Biblical Literature and the International meetings of the German Water History Association.
We completed our fifth season in the Gezer Water System in 2014, and we will be returning for another in 2015, still trying to answer several questions: What is the functional nature of the system (its geology, hydrology, etc.); the construction methodology; the physical parameters of the system, including trying to determine if there was an external access; the date of its inception and termination; and its relationship to other water supply systems of the Bronze and Iron Ages in Israel?
My first time out of North America was as an undergraduate, when I participated in the excavation of Yavneh-Yam (ancient Jamnia’s port on the coast of the Mediterranean) under the direction of Moshe Fischer, professor of classical archaeology at Tel Aviv University. Inhabited almost continuously from the Late Bronze Age through the Early Islamic period, the site was the location of the (in)famous events mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:8–9 and reflected the cultural and religious diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Since I was very interested in both the Hellenistic period and early Christianity—and therefore the interaction between Oriental and Greek culture and civilization and the connections this area had with the wider Near East and Mediterranean—fieldwork at this site proved ideal, and I returned for subsequent seasons. Had I not been the recipient of a BAR “Dig Scholarship,” this would not have been possible. I fondly remember finding Roman fishhooks—the site was, after all, a harbor—and my excitement at unearthing a rather well preserved piece of glassware.
Later, my studies led me to Notre Dame and Cambridge for master’s degrees, followed by coursework at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and finally to Tübingen for my doctoral degree. The focus of my academic interest is Christian literature from the first three centuries, up to the time of Constantine the Great—everything from gospels and apocalypses, to the writings found at Nag Hammadi, to the so-called Apostolic Fathers and Apologists. But although my work centers around texts, it owes much to the trips I made to volunteer at the archaeological dig. This was my initial exposure to the material and cultural contexts upon which early Jewish and Christian literature drew and in which they were produced, transmitted and preserved.
Most of the fieldwork in which I take part nowadays involves research on Greek papyri or on manuscripts in languages of the Christian Orient from various collections—including many in the Near East. This too I can trace back to my first opportunities to excavate in the region, since they also provided me the occasion for independent field research, not only of material culture at archaeological sites and in museums, but also, for example, at the Armenian Patriarchate of St. James in Jerusalem and at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. All of this proved invaluable in my subsequent study of early Christian literature and the history of early Christianity.
In the future, I look forward to sharing my experience, knowledge and passion with university students in the classroom as well as in the field on travel-study programs. Who knows, that may even allow me to once more take trowel in hand and be part of a dig!
In the summer of 2009, I participated in the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. Although my picture wasn’t chosen for the cover, I did make the 2010 “Dig” issue. In the image below, I’m shown excavating a trench in the Roman odeon (small theater) at Ashkelon, along with four of my teammates. (I’m the one front right.)
That summer changed my life and launched me on a new career path. Thanks to a BAR dig scholarship, I was able to excavate at Ashkelon the following summer as I pursued a master’s degree in Biblical archaeology from Wheaton College. I returned in 2011 and 2012 as well—but this time as a staff member of the expedition.
I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of excavation—from swinging a pickaxe and sweeping a floor to carefully entering items into our database. While the work was hard, it was very rewarding to work as part of a team to uncover the past and better understand our shared history. I longed to share this process—and our findings—with others.
In June 2013, I had the great privilege of joining the editorial staff of BAR. This platform has allowed me to share exciting discoveries and developments in the field of Biblical archaeology with a vast audience. From scholarship recipient to assistant editor—it’s been a great ride!
Since appearing on the BAR “Dig” issue in 2013, where I am shown at Tel Megiddo, my career and goals as an archaeologist and anthropologist have changed course significantly. When the BAR dig issue was published, I had already spent three excavation seasons at Tel Megiddo and Tel Kabri. I was just completing my M.A. in anthropology and working as director of programs at the Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI) at The George Washington University under the direction of Dr. Eric H. Cline.
Shortly after launching the CAI in October 2010, the Arab Spring took place, and following the breakdown of security after the January 2011 revolution in Egypt, Egypt’s cultural heritage faced looting and destruction on a scale unseen in the nation before. The devastation motivated the creation of the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA) in the spring of 2011—led by the CAI and spearheaded by its chairman, Deborah Lehr.
The impact of the Arab Spring on cultural heritage in Egypt and across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region changed my primary archaeological focus from digging artifacts to working to fight those digging them illegally. As the ICPEA explored the depth of cultural racketeering in Egypt, the coalition was exposed to the wider global scale of this devastating trend that they labeled as cultural racketeering—the systematic theft of art and antiquities by organized criminal syndicates.
The Arab Spring and overall instability that followed, gripping the MENA region after January 2011, served as a catalyst for the rapid global growth of the cultural racketeering phenomenon, driving the black market trade up while tourism feeding the legal economies in the region dwindled.
After three years of work developing innovative programs designed to stem the flood of illegal antiquities coming from Egypt, the ICPEA brainchild was expanded into the Antiquities Coalition: an organization that works to stop cultural racketeering by empowering local communities to steward and protect a cultural heritage that belongs to all of us.
In March 2014, the ICPEA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities at a ceremony held at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC. The MoU formed a public-private partnership between the ICPEA and the Ministry of Antiquities—the first of its kind—aimed at implementing programs to combat looting and destruction of cultural heritage across Egypt.
Working deeply with organizations that are advocating and actively driving solutions for the protection of our shared heritage, and admiring the stream of activism from those on the ground abroad, has inspired my own work moving forward and spurred my practice of what I’ve dubbed “ArchaeoActivism” as much as possible.
Promoting ArchaeoActivism led to the recent launch of the ArchaeoVenturers Project in the summer of 2014, a project co-launched with Justine Benanty, a maritime heritage expert. The goal of the ArchaeoVenturers Project is to raise awareness about issues surrounding culture, heritage, science and archaeology from the deserts of the Middle East to the deep waters of the Caribbean. This project shows those interested how easy it is to be an ArchaeoActivist in their own communities.
For more information about the work of the Antiquities Coalition, follow them on Twitter @CombatLooting or visit the website at TheAntiquitiesCoalition.org. For more information about the ArchaeoVenturers Project, follow them on Twitter @ArchaeoVenturer or visit the website ArchaeoVenturers.com.
The 2013 and 2014 dig seasons shaped me a great deal as an individual, both professionally and personally. When I began the 2013 season at Tel Kabri, it was the culmination of almost seven months of excavation following my graduation from The George Washington University (GW) in 2012. When I came to Tel Megiddo this past summer in 2014, it was after a brutal year as an M.A. student at University College London (UCL). In both cases, I was going on a yearly pilgrimage to excavate sites near and dear to my heart with people whom I love.
Archaeology has been a part of my life since 2009 when I first dug at Tel Kabri under the guidance of Professor Eric Cline. Even in high school I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist, and when I came to GW as an undergraduate, Dr. Cline gave me the means to make that desire into something real. I have gone back to Israel every summer since then to dig, and occasionally I head to Italy for the same. Being on the 2014 cover of BAR, which showed me excavating at Kabri, was a huge surprise to me and a great honor.
I am currently finishing my M.A. dissertation at UCL and am also working in the Middle East Department of the British Museum. I could not be happier at the British Museum; people are very friendly, and I get to handle and catalogue the objects and organize exhibitions. After I complete my M.A., I hope to enter a Ph.D. program involving museums and public archaeology. The public needs to know why archaeology is important after all, and museums are our friends in this endeavor. And, of course, I am planning to return to Tel Kabri this summer.
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