Into the Abyss

Archaeologist Oded Borowski recalls his ‘Indiana Jones’ moment at Tell Halif

Looking up through the opening of an ancient shaft discovered in 1987 at Tell Halif in southern Israel. 
Credit: Patricia O’Connor Seger, Lahav Research Project

It was the summer of 1987, and the Lahav Research Project (LRP) was conducting its seventh field season at the site of Tell Halif in southern Israel. At that time, we were conducting some experiments with ground penetrating radar (GPR), a new technology that had not yet been used for archaeological study in Israel.1 The equipment included a control unit, a graphic recorder, a digital tape recorder, a program control unit, and two antennas. The idea behind GPR is to detect subsurface anomalies and disturbances.

On the first day of operation, the GPR was brought to the top of the tell. The survey was conducted by hand towing the large antenna along regular, pre-determined survey lines. On the first pass, a subsurface object was detected but to be identified, it had to be excavated. When we completed the survey, we returned to the marked spot and started digging.

After removing some topsoil, a pile of stones appeared; this was the object that we had detected, its top concealed just a few inches below the surface. As we cleared away the dirt, we noticed that soil was trickling down into an opening. As we removed the stones, we realized they sealed a deep stone-lined shaft. We could not immediately determine the shaft’s function; looking down, we could only see that it was deep and dark.

The uncovered opening to the shaft, detected by ground penetrating radar just a few inches below the surface. 
Credit: Patricia O’Connor Seger, Lahav Research Project

I secured a long ladder from the neighboring kibbutz and placed it down the shaft that was hardly wide enough to fit both the ladder and a person. Being the one in charge, I took a flashlight and headed down, squeezing myself along the shaft. I did not know what to expect when I reached the bottom. A few feet below the surface, the shaft broadened into a much larger opening. I went further down to the point where I could use the flashlight to shine all around. As I reached the bottom, I realized I was in a very large open space. The bottom was covered with silt (how thick I did not know) that was pocked with dozens of small, deep holes, to my mind, just big enough for something to hide inside. Remembering Indiana Jones and his encounter with snakes, I was very apprehensive to set my feet down. I could not imagine what had created these holes. If it were animals, they would be many, and I was not ready to tackle them.

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Further investigation determined that the space was a huge, stone-carved, plastered cistern, measuring more than 30 feet deep and nearly 20 feet wide. Water stains on the walls showed that the cistern had long been used to capture rainwater, though the water level had clearly never reached the ceiling. But what about the deep holes in the silt? Well, the ceiling was the only part of the cistern that was left unplastered. As time went by, with every rain, silt seeped in through the shaft, eventually settling at the bottom. Then water would drip through the rocky ceiling and hit the thin layers of silt one drop at a time, always in the same spot. As the silt accumulated, the holes got deeper and deeper.

The cistern’s interior, looking toward the main chamber (left); and back toward the bottom of the shaft, where author Oded Borowski is standing (right).
Credit: Patricia O’Connor Seger, Lahav Research Project

From pottery and other clues, it was determined that the cistern was part of a water system dated to the ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E. It appears to have gone out of use following the site’s destruction, most likely in 701 B.C.E. when Halif, like much of Judah, was attacked by King Sennacherib of Assyria. The cistern remained open and was used as a dump until the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries C.E.). Animal bones found at the bottom of the shaft suggest that it was finally sealed when it became a hazard to grazing livestock. Over time, soil continued to erode in the direction of the cistern, gradually covering the opening and the stone pile, until it was ultimately buried and only discovered again using our GPR equipment.

All photographs by Patricia O’Connor Seger, Lahav Research Project.


About the Author

Oded Borowski is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Archaeology and Hebrew at Emory University. He is the director of the Lahav Research Project, Phase IV, in southern Israel.





1. For details concerning the experiment, see Oded Borowski and James Doolittle, “A Penetrating Look: An Experiment in Remote Sensing at Tell Halif,” in J.D. Seger, ed., Retrieving the Past: Essays on Archaeological Research and Methodology in Honor of Gus W. Van Beek (Eisenbrauns, 1996), pp. 25–34.

Members, read more in the BAS Library:

Hi-Tech Archaeology: Ground-Penetrating Radar—New Technology Won’t Make the Pick and Trowel Obsolete by: Dan P. Cole

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