The Tel Kabri excavations have uncovered the oldest and largest wine cellar in the ancient Near East, as part of the storage rooms of the Middle Bronze Age Canaanite palace. In this post, Kabri participant Henry Curtis Pelgrift describes the final week of the 2015 excavation season at Tel Kabri. For more on Kabri’s 2015 season, read “Tel Kabri: The 2015 Season—Weeks 1 and 2,” “Journey to Jerusalem: A Tel Kabri Dig Weekend” and “The Results of the 2015 Season at Tel Kabri.”
“Henry, your presence is requested in the field.”
I awoke to see Eric Cline standing in the doorway of our bungalow, with daylight streaming in behind him. It was Sunday, July 5th, the start of week four—the final week—of the 2015 season at Tel Kabri, and I was an hour late!
The new day and new week marked a new phase in our summer’s work. From day one of the season through the end of week three, our team had been running a race against time. As described in my first blog post on the 2015 season, we were working exclusively on excavating the storage rooms of the Kabri palace that made up the oldest and largest wine cellar of the ancient Near East and on the painstaking extraction of the treasure trove of ancient jars hidden there. For three weeks, we had been going all out to reach our goal of completing as much of the excavation work and recovering as many of the jars as possible before season’s end.
We had hurdled over obstacles. The season was short—only four weeks, rather than the usual six—and our team members numbered both too many and too few: too many for all of us to work efficiently in the cramped storage rooms at the same time, and too few to finish the job in the shortened season if we worked a regular workday. To overcome both obstacles, Kabri dig directors Eric Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau rolled out their ingenious dual shift system (see this post for more details), which had been tried in 2013 and is believed to be unique in the annals of academic archaeology. Working in two shifts, morning and afternoon—with fieldwork or processing done in in the morning or afternoon on an alternating basis—only half of us occupied the storage rooms at any given time. And with two shifts each day, we effectively doubled the number of working days both in the storage rooms and in the field.
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Soon after the dig ended, we would learn the full extent of our exciting discoveries. In the previous season, in 2013, a single storage room with about 40 wine jars had been discovered. In my second post on the 2015 season, I quoted codirector Professor Cline, who foretold the exciting news for the 2015 season when he said that we had found “a lot more jars in a lot more rooms.”
A little more than a week later, the Kabri expedition announced the specifics: at least 70 more storage jars and at least three more storage rooms had been discovered in 2015, for a grand total of at least 110 jars and at least four storage rooms making up a storage complex. The exciting new finds were announced to the public in the 2015 preliminary report, published on the Tel Kabri 2015 website; reporters quickly covered the story, with articles appearing in Haaretz and in Archaeology. Moreover, the report opened the possibility that even more rooms and maybe one or more additional storage complexes might be found in the future—to the north of the four-room complex, to its west, and even beneath it, where remains of a wall were discovered that might belong to a storage complex from an earlier phase of the palace!
But back on Sunday, July 5th, we still had the last week ahead of us. A weekend had passed since the last double shift the previous Thursday, the end of week three. Now on Sunday, change was in the air. It felt a bit like the end of summer, with a subtle change in the pace of things and the pull of returning home and moving on to the next stage—an odd feeling because it was only early July! But there was no mistaking it. It was time to start closing down the site and take steps to secure it until we return two years from now—in 2017! Below, I chronicle our last week on the 2015 dig at Tel Kabri.
When I finally got to the field that Sunday, I felt the change. Our team was now working in a single shift, its numbers shrunken by departures for home the previous week to a much smaller group. A few people also stayed back at the field school to process the backlog of finds.
On Sunday and Monday, I worked with Martha Soltani and Tim Enright to build a fence around our area. The skeleton of the fence was a line of steel uprights that were set up to surround the area and provide the framework for a black plastic-net covering. Thanks to Martha and Tim’s ingenuity, eye for detail and hard work, the visiting inhabitants of Kibbutz Kabri called it “the finest fence ever seen on Tel Kabri!”
For the first three days of the week, several of our fellow Kabrians finished excavating the precious jars that had been found. As Professor Cline summed up in his July 3rd Facebook post, many jars were still in the ground at the beginning of the week; samples needed to be taken before the jars were removed from the earth; then the jars had to be removed; all needed information had to be recorded; and the jars had to be crated up and moved to the conservation lab.
Other team members were busy filling sandbags to line the now-uncovered architecture or to be placed on our balks to replace sandbags damaged by foot traffic. The sandbags on the balks serve two purposes: They help to delineate the boundaries of the area, and they add stability to the edges of the balks so that a balk does not suddenly collapse beneath an unlucky archaeologist’s feet (I had this happen at Megiddo in 2014 on a 2-meter high, six-year-old balk).
On Tuesday, at the end of the workday, we took down the shade cloths over the site in preparation for aerial photographs the next day. During this time, a group of people led by area supervisor Nurith Goshen went to remove the gazebo that had been placed in the original storage room—and that had ably served as our field office and a stabilizing point for several of the now-departing shade cloths. The group members all had to pick up the gazebo by its supports and carefully carry it out of the area. This was, for the most part, successful, except that, at one point, one of the upper supports of the gazebo started to bend and buckle under the strain. In the end, though, the effort was successful, and the office was relocated to the side of the road, while work continued on getting the shade cloths out. Everything in the area was swept, and the tools and supports for the shades were removed.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
On Wednesday, July 8th, after we arrived at the site and did some preparatory sweeping and straightening-up to make sure the site was photo-ready, a truck carrying a small unmanned aerial vehicle—also known as a “UAV” or “drone”—arrived and was set up to take aerial photos of the site. It was hard to say what robotic creation it most resembled, but the UAV was somewhat reminiscent of the small Hunter-Killers seen in the third Terminator film. Unlike its much bigger real-world military counterparts, the UAV was armed only with cameras and other recording equipment, and eventually it lifted off and hung in the sky overhead, taking a number of aerial photographs and videos of the site.
After the photo shoot was finished and the photography crew had packed up and left, a group of codirector Assaf Yasur-Landau’s M.A. students from the University of Haifa arrived, and he and they started a probe on a raised area running across the southernmost storage room that had been fully excavated in order to find out what was beneath this odd “hump.” The results of the probe will be discussed in my next post.
In addition, a team consisting of Tim Enright, myself and several others, led by Udi Arkin, did some heavy sifting of the spoil heap at the site. We did this by setting up lines of buckets underneath sifters, which we placed on top of rectangular stilts (originally meant to hold up table slats), pouring bucket after bucket of dirt into our sifters.
Reinforcements started arriving from the field school around 9 A.M., and our sifting team dispersed to other tasks. At that point, I took a group of four people to help inventory the contents of our tool container (an actual shipping container like one you might see on a cargo ship) and rearrange everything so that the container would be neatly organized when the team cracked it open next season. We even did a courtesy-sweep of the container floor, which was covered in a thick layer of dust.
The sifting process provided fine dirt for back-filling the newly-cleared plaster floors of the just-discovered storerooms. They had lain under their protective layer of dirt for more than 3,500 years and had only been exposed to the world again for just a week or two, but now they had to be covered over again, for their own protection. To backfill the floor, we laid down a series of layers of protective material: first, a layer of fine dirt from the sifting process, then a green plastic netting, then a layer of geotextile fabric (a special kind of fabric used to protect sensitive surfaces from the elements), and, finally, another layer of fine dirt on top.
The end result was a relatively clean-looking dirt surface that is safe to walk on, free of overgrowth from the winter rains (so far!) and easy to remove, if and when any further excavation begins. As we worked, I noted that this technique was designed to avoid the kind of damage that was done when the previous excavators at Kabri had used a geotextile material in the early 1990s that had stuck to the plaster floors, including the Minoan-style painted floor, especially in the ceremonial hall in Area D-West (as described in a note on the 2005 season).
Excavations at Tel Kabri have uncovered fragments of painted plaster reflecting an Aegean art style seen on Cycladic and Minoan frescoes. Read more >>
Thursday, July 9, 2015
On Thursday, July 9th, the final day of the season, we moved out of our bungalows at the field school, and I felt a bit wistful as I said farewell to my home for the last four weeks. We were all so efficient in this process that it was soon finished, and we were all able to enjoy a quiet breakfast of dairy, salad, eggs and a few other things in the field school’s dining hall.
We saw 10 brave volunteers head out into the field for the last bits of closing up, continuing the process of backfilling and sandbagging the site to protect it from the elements over the next two years.
The rest of us helped close up shop at the field school, continuing to process the finds. On this last day, we “bone-picked” through the last wet-sieving samples. Bone-picking is a process in which one carefully sifts through a bucket’s worth of excavated material that has been washed of all dirt.
We managed to get through all our processing in time to spend the last few hours relaxing with our luggage in a classroom in the school. Everyone there borrowed Allison Gartrell’s luggage scale to see how much their bags weighed. Then, for the first time in four weeks, our team really disbanded as people drifted away to start the journey out of Israel.
After my annual interview with airport security, I boarded my plane, and soon after takeoff, I was watching through the window as Israel fell away once more. Another season ended in a place that I can’t stop coming back to.
Read the results of the 2015 dig season at Tel Kabri in Bible History Daily >>
Henry Curtis Pelgrift received his M.A. in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London in 2014 and his B.A. in archaeology from the George Washington University in 2012. He is back for his fourth season at Tel Kabri, having alternated between Kabri and Tel Megiddo every summer since 2009. Henry’s picture appeared on the cover of the January/February 2014 “Dig” issue of BAR. He has also excavated in Italy, Jordan and Cyprus.
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