2023 BAS Dig Scholarship winners share their stories
Every year, the Biblical Archaeology Society offers dig scholarships to selected applicants who wish to participate in a dig and demonstrate sufficient need. In this Bible History Daily article, a few of our 2023 BAS Dig Scholarship winners share what made their dig experiences so special.
I loved my time volunteering at the site of Tel Abel Beth Maacah in northern Israel and will always be thankful to have had the experience. To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into as I set oﬀ to take part in the dig. Even though I have been fascinated for years with the rich history, the intrigue, and the stories I grew up reading and hearing, I had no idea what to expect.
Upon being invited, applying, and being accepted to the dig, I had originally thought it would be a “once in a lifetime” experience but once there, it was like this whole new world opened up before me. I met people of all ages. Some had been going on digs for years and it was just a part of how they spend their summers. Others had many digs planned throughout the year in places all over the world. One lovely woman I met had been coming every year for the last 20 years. 20 years! The conversations and stories I heard from people were absolutely incredible! The leaders of our dig truly had a wealth of experience over their years of study, research, and excavating. The artifacts they had discovered, helped restore, and bring to life again are many. And the places their love of archaeology has taken them and the knowledge they have attained reaches far and wide.
Initially, I felt that I was at a little bit of a disadvantage because I had no previous experience. I was nervous and reluctant, mainly because I didn’t want to make some massive mistake and destroy something meaningful! My square supervisor, Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (Baylor University), would instruct us each step of the way and every now and then would remind me, “It’s okay, it’s been ruined for a long time, so don’t fear!” I learned so much from her during this time. The more experienced diggers and students were all so lovely and kind. I gleaned so much by watching them, listening to their instructions, and then applying the skills they taught me. Yes, there was the hard labor of pickaxing, hoeing, filling, and emptying buckets (lots!), carting wheelbarrows full of soil back and forth, moving stones, and, of course, bucket chains! But then there were also the more tedious tasks with smaller tools and brushes for the finer details. The first few days everything was very new and though I read up a lot before the dig, the lingo and terminology for it all was much like a foreign language to me.
I learned a lot about not only history and archaeology but also myself. It was very revealing, both positive and negative. There are many areas in which I need to grow! I did enjoy the physical aspect of the dig and the challenges I was confronted with, but it was the finer details that I really learned to love. With each layer that we pickaxed, we would then carefully clear away, scoop by scoop, the debris while looking for and sorting finds that could be important (pottery, bones, soil, charcoal, metal, grains, etc.). Then came the sectioning of the edges of the square (which clearly reveals the stratigraphy) and then dusting the floor to have a good final view of the work that was accomplished. Once analyzed by the pros, we would then be given instructions to do the same thing all over again! And thus, we spent our days, one layer at a time. In childlike terms: dig, make a mess, look for treasure, and then tidy up! It was the tidying up part—the sectioning, brushing, detailing the exposed stones, and cleaning up the smaller areas—that I found I really enjoyed. You are taught the skill and then you have most of the day to try, try, and try again.
During orientation, I remember one of our directors, Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), explaining what a privilege it is to be able to excavate and unearth, with our own hands, a piece of history that has been hidden for thousands of years! “You uncover that. You bring it to life again. You play a small part in its story being told again.” I saw in Nava a true passion for what she does. Even after all these years, there is a real excitement and love for the dig! And she was right. Holding these artifacts and realizing they were once something special to someone is very sobering and unlike anything I have ever experienced.
The first morning we walked to the very top of the tel for some history of the area (given by Dr. Robert Mullins, Azusa Pacific University), and the view was stunning. I remember thinking, “My best friend lived here.” Yes, these were the views that boy Jesus would have been very familiar with, and I felt honored to be there. Although it has changed over time, much is the same: the little town of Metula straight ahead, the beautiful Mt. Hermon to the right, the Hula Valley just below us, and the border of Lebanon to the left.
As a team, we did most everything together in our allotted square and we rotated tasks (though there were stronger and more experienced guys on my team for sure!). A few jobs I was excited to take part in were detailing the kilns in our area and working on two of the exposed ovens. The kilns were discovered about four years ago and are believed to have been used for a metal of some sort. They had been exposed to the elements for some time and needed attention. I was able to spend some time ridding them of winter wash, detailing the stones, and just tidying them up a bit. Also, being able to work on the ovens was a big deal for me! There were many ovens that we had discovered throughout the three weeks of digging in our diﬀerent squares and each was absolutely beautiful. I was excited to clear them to see how deep they actually went, while preserving the already exposed pieces of oven that were coming through. Though it was tedious, it was a huge honor.
One highlight of my experience that stands out was a day tour of nearby sites we took with Dr. Mullins. He teaches with confidence, passion, and has a wealth of knowledge to share, so just talking with him and being able to ask him questions was a true delight. He, Nava, and Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) were so kind and patient with all of us and complemented one another very well.
“C’mon, guys! We’re doing archaeology!” shouted one of the area supervisors, this was the first thing I heard as I exited the bus that had brought several of us dig participants from Tel Aviv to Tel Azekah to begin our workweek. We shouldered our dig bags and kicked up dust with our hiking boots as we began our trek up the tel.
Located in the Shephelah, Azekah played a prominent role in the region in antiquity. It was first settled in the Early Bronze Age, and in the ensuing millennia, Azekah alternated periods of destruction, resettlement, and abandonment. Perhaps most interesting for my research, it flourished as a Judean town during the Iron Age II and Persian periods. I was assigned to area A1 North, which was perched atop the tel and had stunning views of the area that 1 Samuel 17:1 references as the site of the battle between David and Goliath. I would learn the next morning that the sunrises there were stunning, but at that moment, during the hottest part of the day, I was resenting the blazing sun overhead as I wiped my brow with an already dusty handkerchief.
I was designated a dig “square” (truly more of an elongated rectangle) which sat between two ancient inner-city walls. When I was handed a full-sized pickaxe and an equally large hand hoe, I did not yet know that over the course of two weeks I would be excavating nearly 2 meters down into the ground. As I took the tools, I realized my first mistake: I had forgotten my work gloves and was destined for blisters. Thus began my first dig experience.
Although I had talked with friends who had excavated before, nothing could have prepared me for what I would encounter during my two weeks in the field. I soon discovered that excavating is a physically grueling and exhausting enterprise, but once I had acclimated to that, I began to ruminate on how remarkable it was that people like me were actually kneeling down in the dirt pulling ancient items out of the ground. Among the treasures I collected were a Persian-period vessel that is on its way to restoration as I write this, a worked piece of fishbone that might have been used as a bead, large amounts of charcoal and seeds, a basalt grinding stone, and the upper portion of a Persian-period flask. (In my “pit,” as I lovingly called it, I also encountered scorpions, spiders, and centipedes, but I was decidedly less excited to find them than I was the other treasures.) Every time I excavated something remarkable it helped me feel connected to the ancient people who lived there, and also made my sore muscles ache a little less.
In addition to getting to work at a beautiful site rich with ancient Judean history and having the privilege of unearthing artifacts, I also got to experience one of the key archaeological processes: collaboration. Putting together an expedition is a massive undertaking that requires the work and expertise of many different types of people. A joint venture between Tel Aviv University and Heidelberg University, the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition boasted a variety of experts, from archaeologists to historians to theologians and biblical scholars. As an academic who primarily works alone, it was encouraging and eye opening to see how experts can pool their intellectual skills and resources in a mutually beneficial way. Now as I continue my research, which examines ancient texts alongside material culture, I will think of this experience with deep gratitude whenever I utilize an artifact that someone like me pulled from the ground.
“We must make a ramp for the ticks,” the small grizzled man explained to me. His eyes twinkled and he continued in a singsong voice, “so that they can walk up it,” here he tamped his flat hand up an imaginary slope, “and take a nice dip in the dry ice.” Obediently, I scooped a handful of dirt and patted it in to fill the centimeter gap between the end of my ramp and the paper tray that lay beneath it. My instructor, Yinon Shivtiel, an Israel studies professor and ancient Jewish cave expert, crawled over and nodded his head approvingly. “That is good,” he said. I smiled and stifled a laugh.
If you had asked me two weeks earlier what I would be doing on my first day on an archaeology dig, I doubt I would have described such a colorful start. I’d expected to join a world of steady, technical minutia—surveying, measuring, and sketching—with short bursts of digging and excitement, not the wide variety in pace and work, starting with a half hour of tick risk assessment, that I’d already experienced on day one.
I’d applied for the dig five months earlier. The site, Shikhin, I read, was 5 miles northwest of Nazareth and across the hillside from the ancient city of Tsippori or Sepphoris, which Herod Antipas rebuilt in 4 BCE as the capital of Galilee. The excavation project was also a field school, training volunteers in archaeological methods. That was enough to pique my interest. In the middle of the school year, I called the dig director and applied. In March, I booked my tickets, and by the first week of June I was crawling inside a small plastered cave on a hillside in Lower Galilee, installing deadly swimming pools for Israeli cave ticks.
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Of course, volunteering in tick detection wasn’t my primary job. Within our large group of about 45 volunteers and staff members at the Shikhin Excavation Project, we had divided into six sub teams, each assigned to its own 5-by-5 meter square. Shikhin, an industrial village that flourished during the Roman era, still bears marks of the Jewish population who lived there, including the oil lamps, storage jars, and other vessels they produced. Three teams excavated in production areas, finding numerous oil lamps and juglet fragments. The remaining three teams, including mine, dug in or near the village’s characteristically Jewish structures—a synagogue and a stepped pool with an attached cave. The team for my square, led by Central Christian College professor Walt Harper and staffed by volunteers Will, Spencer, and myself, was assigned to excavate the stepped pool, probably a miqveh; and it was after checking and fumigating it for ticks that our excavation began.
Jewish communities used miqva’ot (plural of miqveh) as early as the second century BCE for ritual cleansing by immersion according to Torah and rabbinical tradition. Characteristically, these stepped pools were finished with plaster to retain water and primarily supplied by living sources, such as rainwater or streams. Our miqveh at Shikhin featured a meter-wide stepped shaft cut into the limestone bedrock. The steps led to an earthen landing, where the shaft made a sharp right turn through a carved arch and into a shallow cave. When I crawled through the arch that first morning, I kept my head tucked to avoid hitting the ceiling. Over the next four weeks, however, it was our team’s job to gain more clearance, removing the fill dirt and reaching the cave floor.
Our dig director, Dr. James R. Strange, and the staff trained us in American archaeological methods, and soon I was throwing around words like guffah, locus, and ashlar with ease. In our square, Walt explained concepts too, such as how pottery finds shape digging strategies and how well-written field notes inform the site director as he interprets findings. By the end of the first week, I had hoed, lifted, and sifted more than enough to prove my earlier notion of mostly sedentary, meticulous archaeology wrong; but I had also labeled, measured, and described enough to realize that the work needed pauses for observation and reflection. Our cadence of alternating between digging and notating set the pace for attentive, purposeful excavating—“good archaeology” as Walt and Dr. Strange phrased it.
Soon, digging became my favorite part of the work. As our team loaded up guffahs (rubber buckets), we laughed and joked. After two weeks, we had exposed the floor near the entrance of the cave, reaching the official depth of one MJ (Martha Jeske). The possibility of discovering a significant find, not just in seeing notable progress, excited me. Occasionally, Walt, Will, Spencer, or I found a piece of crumbled plaster or a large fragment of pottery, and the others grabbed their headlights and scrambled down to take a look. At other times, one of us proposed a new hypothesis about a wall or soil layer, fitting together our growing historical and archaeological knowledge in a moment of clarity that was as exhilarating as finding a storage jar handle or a cooking bowl rim.
Although we worked steadily with noticeable results most days, other days weighed heavier on documentation, dragging on. I would trudge up to second breakfast with my team on these slow days, knowing that half the field work still lay ahead. Inevitably, though, Walt would turn to us and say, “It’s a great day to be an archaeologist,” and I couldn’t help but perk up. I thought about having gotten to join this adventure of a decade. Since when was I digging in a miqveh in an ancient Jewish village, surrounded by olive trees on a picturesque hillside, training and working as an archaeologist? Later, when ordinary days threatened to become mundane, I’d find myself thinking, “It’s a great day to be an archaeologist.”
Three and a half weeks after helping us set traps for ticks, Yinon returned. He stepped into the cave and stood on the left side of the three of four plastered steps, careful to avoid a fragile area, to see our end-of-season progress. He looked at the steps and then turned to see the meter-high, unexcavated eastern balk that showed our starting level. “Oh wow,” he gasped. “Oh wow.”
Thinking of how much our team had learned and accomplished since he and I first crawled into the cave, I agreed. What a rewarding summer it had been, tick bait, loaded guffahs, ordinary days, and all. I hope I can inspect for ticks again.
This summer, I had the profound opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig at the site that is memorialized as the place where David defeated Goliath. Azekah overlooks the breathtaking valley of Elah, and each morning we watched the sunrise from our respective dig sites, or as I liked to call them, “our pits.” At Azekah, I learned to connect with the biblical text in a new and exciting way: by understanding the very real and very human phenomena that are reflected in its stories and traditions.
I learned this invaluable data by digging. I was lucky enough to be exposed to multiple areas on site, and to dig at different locations nearly every day. I began at Area A1N, which is at the top of the mound. Here, I began at the topsoil and made my way down alongside a wall whose date is still debated. Along this massive wall, I found animal bones, flint knives, pottery sherds, and even seashells! I also worked in Areas N1E and Site G. At Area N1E, I helped to clean around a taboon and a section of a poorly understood tower. At site G, we were at the topsoil again, finding rare Roman glass and Byzantine coins, until we began etching out what is believed to be another gate to the city.
From digging up tiny objects like glass shards and seashells to dusting off and dating walls and towers, the experience of an archaeological dig made the ancient people who built and occupied this fortified area real to me. Being in the place where David is famed to have defeated Goliath transformed my relationship with the Bible. This story that I had heard my entire life all of the sudden became a reality. The experience transformed my research into a holy practice of interacting with humanity.
Touching materials formed with human hands and walking along city walls built with human expertise opened my eyes to the invaluable reality that the authors of the biblical text were people like you and me, with needs, desires, and dreams. They were artists and specialists, warriors and peacemakers, dreamers and doers. They were a community of families with identities and aspirations. Being in Israel is an eye-opening experience, but getting to dig and discover new facts about the ancient peoples that once occupied the land was unfathomably impactful.
During my time in Israel, I had the privilege to work on the Tel Shimron excavation project. Tel Shimron is a fascinating archaeological site that is located at the northwestern edge of the Jezreel Valley. It is a multiperiod site with a long settlement history extending from the early Bronze Age to the Islamic period. The excavation project has attracted a group of experienced, well-established scholars with expertise in various academic and technical fields; and represents a great opportunity for learning field archeology.
The hands-on activities at the site are supplemented by a rich programming that includes insightful lectures and guided visits to other archaeological sites in the region. My work concentrated on exposing the remains of an Iron Age IIB settlement that was presumably destroyed by Tiglath-Pileser III during the Assyrian military campaign in the region around 734-732 BCE. I helped unearth walls, occupational debris from a variety of periods, burnt mudbricks, animal bones, seeds, dozens of flint stones, as well as a stone roller that was used to press down rooftops. I also contributed to a very interesting project in which infrared technology was used to identify potential inscriptions on potsherds.
My work at Tel Shimron has given me a better idea of a First Temple period Israelite settlement in northern Israel, its way of life, and how the community may have been affected by the geopolitical situation of the time. After the destruction of the Iron Age settlement, the area ceased to be inhabited and was completely abandoned until the Roman period. This data is significant, as it might explain the profound and long-lasting impact of warfare and mass deportation on the history of this particular Israelite community.
My involvement in the Tel Shimron field school has also given me a renewed appreciation and more precise understanding of the nature and function of biblical literature. As Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, one of the archaeologists working at Tel Shimron, put it in one of our several illuminating conversations, the biblical text shows us how the scribes responsible for the composition of these texts think about their lives, history, religion, society, and culture. Archaeology, by contrast, reveals how those people behaved on the ground. In that regard, while the Hebrew Bible may be considered as literature in the truest sense of the term, the world imagined in that literature is but one literary representation of the real world inhabited by the authors. Even the most creative, imaginative literary innovations on the part of the biblical authors are not purely literary inventions, but rather must be understood in relation to a real world, or an existing reality, which archaeology strives to make available. The imagery, metaphors, poetic imagination, and narrative world encountered in the literature of the Bible derive from a real world/place, with its own geographic features and sociocultural, political, and religious history. The understanding of this real world provides more depth and contrast to the literature of the Bible and is crucial for a more contextualized, nuanced, and insightful reading of these texts.
I am, therefore, convinced that biblical studies and archaeology are essential to one another. They are not antagonistic, but complementary. While their portraits of the ancient world do not necessarily result in the same image, they each offer a unique way of looking at the same picture from two different but complementary angles.
In the fall of 2020, I was like many other teachers who were full of mixed feelings about the return to classroom teaching amidst the pandemic. I remember measuring the distance between the desks in my classroom to ensure that they were in accordance with U.S. health department regulations, when I was happily interrupted by one of my friends. He stopped into my classroom and gifted me a copy of Biblical Archaeology Review. He knew of my fascination with the ancient world and how much I enjoyed integrating new archaeological discoveries into my Scripture courses. Little did I know that in opening the pages of this magazine I would find a wealth of articles and resources that would brighten an otherwise bleak school year and bring with it the adventure of a lifetime.
Biblical Archaeology Review is a one-of-a-kind archaeology magazine that acts as a bridge between the academic study of archaeology and a broad general audience. Covering both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament since its beginning in 1975, BAR is the leading nonsectarian forum for the discussion of Biblical archaeology.
Fast forward to the summer of 2023, in which I find myself exiting Ben Gurion International Airport, and walking out into the city of Lod. After months of finding inspiration from Biblical Archaeology Review’s breathtaking images of Israel, I had applied for and been awarded one of the BAS Dig Scholarships. It provided me with the opportunity to participate in a dig in the Holy Land and to learn firsthand about the people and places that shaped the Bible. I quickly made my way out of the airport to meet Blanca Montero Philips, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s (NOBTS) Director of Travel Programs, and my ride to the Neve Shalom Guest House where I would be staying. As we rode, I found myself completely captivated by the landscape, and Mrs. Philips kindly obliged by answering all my questions. We discussed everything in sight from the rich green valleys to the perfectly cultivated palm tree farms.
That evening, I gathered with students and professors in an open air lecture hall at the Guest House to learn more about our dig site: Tel Hadid. The lecture was given by Dr. Ido Koch of Tel Aviv University and I learned that both Tel Aviv University and NOBTS collaborated over the past four years in the excavation of the site. Dr. Koch gave us an overview of the history of Tel Hadid, explaining that it is located on the western hills southeast of Tel Aviv. It is a beautiful place, covered by olive groves, that connects the high and low lands, and served as an important trade route from Mesopotamia to Egypt in the ancient world. The site was last occupied in July 1948 when it was known as the Al-Haditha village.
Since excavation began, archaeologists at Tel Hadid have made discoveries dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. In one area, they discovered a repository that contained vessels used for offerings, consumption of food, and ritual libations. In another area, they discovered ancient dwellings and two clay tablets. One tablet contained a debt note with a pledge dated to 664 BCE, and the other detailed the terms of a land sale. Many oil presses were also discovered. In fact, so many oil presses were uncovered that Tel Hadid may have been one of the largest olive oil producers in the southern Levant. I found the most exciting discovery from the site, however, to be a mother-of-pearl seal. I later learned that the engraving was uncovered by my own Neve Shalom roommate, “Red” LeeAnn Culbertson. Koch dated the seal to the Iron Age, and shared that its existence is quite rare due to the fact that mother of pearl is not a local material.
As a scripture teacher, a highlight of Dr. Koch’s lecture was learning the connection between Tel Hadid and the Bible. Because of the site’s ancient past, Tel Hadid has been linked to multiple passages. It has been connected with 1 Maccabees in which “…Hadid was fortified by Simon Maccabeus (died 135 BCE) during the war with Diodotus Tryphon,” as well as 1 Kings 16:15–17, in which Hadid, prior to Assyrian invasion, would have been included as part of the Kingdom of Israel. Hadid may have even been one of the towns secured by Joshua, a theory supported by the site’s ancient past. When the lecture concluded and I laid down to go to sleep that night, I could not settle the butterflies in my stomach. I knew that in only a few short hours I would be exploring the very ground that made biblical history.
I woke at 4:00 AM the next morning. Getting an early start was necessary in order to make the most of the day, especially before the high June temperatures made digging uncomfortably hot. It was still dark when my roommates and I loaded into vans and set out with the other excavation members for Tel Hadid. I learned on the ride that I was assigned to excavate in a location of the tel called Area T2 and as we pulled up to it, my heart stopped. I found myself standing near the summit of a great hill. Not more than 40 paces from the van was a large, steep precipice and I walked toward it to take in the view. There, surrounded by wild cacti and standing on scattered pottery sherds, I watched the sunrise over the green Lydda valley below, its warming orange hues slowly spreading to illuminate everything in sight.
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The highlight of the first day came after lunch. I had just finished eating a date beneath the olive trees when the expedition’s co-director, Dr. Jim Parker, offered me a tour of the entire site. I jumped at the chance and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit each of the four areas being excavated that day. Each area director was kind enough to share their piece of Tel Hadid’s excavation history and highlight some of the amazing finds that had occurred there. That afternoon was like opening a window into the world of ancient Israel, and I was so grateful to listen and learn from all of the excavation members to whom I spoke. One thing I will never forget is standing beside Dr. Parker on Tel Hadid’s summit as he showed me how it provided clear views of the Lydda Valley to the south and west, Tel Aviv to the north, and the al-Jib Plateau to the east. He pointed to the pathways ancient traders had traversed and explained how they passed right beside Tel Hadid. As he spoke, it became apparent that Hadid was perfectly located for defense and control of these routes, and I realized that the majesty and history that made Tel Hadid extraordinary to ancient people was the first thing that captivated me: its extraordinary views. We ended the tour back at Area T2, and almost as if on cue, Savannah showed me that while I was away the team had uncovered a limestone wall, one that might date back to the time of the Maccabees. It appeared to be a fortification wall so strong that it might have survived for thousands of years, hidden beneath layers of earth.
In the days that followed, the T2 team uncovered more limestone walls as well as lots of pieces of ancient pottery. We worked hard to carefully clean and label each discovery for further study, and as we worked, I was amazed by the energy and motivation of those around me. The dry heat of Israel did not seem to slow anyone down, and the more I learned about my team, the more I found myself inspired by my new friends. It amazed me how so many people could come together summer after summer, despite such different goals and worldviews. In fact, no two people to whom I spoke seemed to be motivated by the same thing. One member of the team was excavating to further her archaeology degree; another said she sought the rush of finding treasure; still another was focused on gathering information to support his master’s thesis.
As I dug, I thought about what brought me to Tel Hadid, and the answer was simple: I wanted to see Israel for myself. After years of reading about the Holy Land and seeing it through photographs, I wanted the purity of standing on the ground that inspired the Bible and viewing it with my own eyes. Even now as I reflect back on the trip, I know being able to see Israel was truly a gift I will always treasure. I will forever remember the hypnotic way the dunes roll by as you drive through the Judean Desert, the sun dancing on salt crystals that line the shore of the Dead Sea, the first glimpse of a piece of pottery that has been trapped beneath the surface for countless years, and the faces of the many new friends I made on that high hill called Tel Hadid.
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