The 2014 season at Ashkelon answers some questions, raises others
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For almost thirty years, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon has excavated at the ancient seaport of Ashkelon in Israel. Below, Dr. Tracy Hoffman provides a midseason update on the 2014 excavations. For more on Ashkelon in 2014, read about the start of the excavation and about the end of the season, which was cut short by dramatic events in the region.
It’s hard to believe, but we are more than halfway through our 2014 field season. Time flies when you are up every day at 4:30 am for work! The early results of our excavation are everything we anticipated—in other words, filled with the expected and unexpected, the surprising and the downright confounding. Thus far, it’s been a really exciting season. Let’s check in with each of our excavation areas and see what has happened in the first four weeks of excavation.
In the Step Trench they have dug deep into the side of the North Tell (one of the two mounds that make up much of ancient Ashkelon) and uncovered material from the Islamic, Byzantine, Roman and possibly Philistine eras. Two prominent architectural features have been unearthed. The first is a plastered drain built into the bedrock. What is most surprising about this drain? It flows into the city and not toward the sea. The second feature volunteers in this area have uncovered is a large mudbrick wall standing more than five or six courses tall. Is it part of a building, an earlier fortification wall or something completely different? We have two weeks to find out! They are also excavating a series of very large pottery dumps filled with thousands of jar fragments. The most exciting news from this area, though, is that they are starting to find more and more Early Bronze Age pottery—which is exactly what they are looking for. Next up? Some architecture to go with the pots!
At the Snake Tower the crew has uncovered a fascinating sequence of fortification, damage and refortification. Their job is a particularly challenging one, which requires them to dig through large layers of rubble to get to the tower below. Some of that rubble is ancient, and some of it is left over from earlier archaeologists who excavated in Ashkelon almost a century ago! Turns out we aren’t the only scholars interested in the city’s fortifications. Why is this area so interesting? Perhaps because it contains part of the Hellenistic city wall (c. first or second century B.C.), a round tower (that used the earlier wall in its construction) from the late third/early fourth century A.D. and then, finally, the conversion of the round tower into a square one more than five hundred years after it was first built. There is a lot going on in this one area!
The same can be said for our largest excavation area which lies closest to the Mediterranean Sea. In this area, they are already uncovering new evidence for Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Ashkelon in 604 B.C. How do excavators know they’ve reached a destruction layer? Well, there are many broken vessels, black ash pits and a number of areas where they can see burned, collapsed mudbrick walls. Then, there are the tiny, microscopic remains that we can’t see with the naked eye. Excavators have enlisted the aid of microarchaeologists to take soil samples so they can learn more about the size of the fires, how hot they burned, what was burned and how far the fires reached. Uncovering and analyzing all this material is slow, painstaking work—and now it is a race against time. With only two weeks of excavation remaining, and at least part of that week devoted to cleaning the grid for final photographs, there is a lot of “small tool” work to do to make sure we gather as much information as we can about this catastrophic event.
Work in the salvage excavation project we are running for the Parks Authority is also proving to be more interesting than anticipated. One meter (a little over three feet) below the surface we started uncovering walls—and a lot of them. In one corner we found a series of drains, in another a water cistern into which someone in antiquity had thrown a column base! Next to the water cistern is a plastered basin, and in yet another area we found a large pottery dump. What do all these walls and features belong to? We believe it is a residential neighborhood belonging to the tenth or eleventh century A.D. What is most interesting to us, however, is what this neighborhood is built over. As we started removing the walls, we uncovered large fragments of walls tumbled into a pit—or collapsed where they fell. They are impressive walls too, many of them are covered in a smooth plaster. Alongside the wall fragments, we’ve also found a number of travertine floor tiles. We don’t know what type of building it was—at least not yet—but it appears it was an important one!
There is still a great deal of work left to do. We have two more weeks of excavation, and then we have to pack everything up for the winter. What new information will excavation reveal before the season ends? Check back in a couple of weeks for one more update on the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon 2014 field season.
Tracy Hoffman is a senior member of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon’s professional staff, serving as the supervisor for Grid 32 and as part of the publication team. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. This will be her 18th year excavating at Tel Ashkelon, Israel.
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Have been trying to picture (unsuccessfully) in my mind where exactly Grid 32 is located in relation to road and structures on the ground. What was the aim for opening an area in this pristine grid? My medical problems prevent me from being there, but one of these years I will have to come for a visit!