Digs 2021: Digging During a Pandemic

Dig Directors Dealing with the Uncertainty Caused by Covid

To dig or not to dig—that is the question posed by numerous archaeologists these days.

As a global pandemic caused entire countries to shutter and restrict social gatherings, dig directors had to make difficult decisions regarding their planned excavations in 2020. Some, whose excavations took place early in the year, before the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) was widespread, enjoyed a typical dig season without travel and social restrictions. The vast majority of directors, however, had to cancel or downsize their digs.

Qutaiba Dasouqi and Whitney Dutton survey the excavations at Tall el-Hammam, in 2020. Photo Courtesy Tall El-Hammam Excavation Project.

Those who canceled had monitored the situation carefully before acting in a way that guaranteed the safety of their team and complied with travel restrictions. The directors of Tel Shimron in northern Israel, Daniel Master of Wheaton College and Mario Martin of Tel Aviv University, had been planning to dig from June 21 to July 31, 2020, but they canceled the season in April. They explain, “While we were disappointed that we couldn’t excavate, this was not a borderline decision. Once we saw how the pandemic exploded across the globe, we knew travel and excavation were out of the question.”

Before travel restrictions went into effect in 2020, volunteers took part in excavations at Khirbet al-Rai. Adi Shragai displays a small bowl uncovered in a monumental 12th-century B.C.E. building. Photo by Sophie Gidley, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Most of the excavations led or co-led by directors who live outside of Israel and Jordan were canceled, but this was not the case for all of them. Abel Beth Maacah near Israel’s northern border is co-led by Nava Panitz-Cohen and Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and by Bob Mullins of Azusa Pacific University. Although Bob Mullins was not able to participate in the 2020 dig season, Nava Panitz-Cohen and Naama Yahalom-Mack conducted a scaled-back excavation with in-country participants. They disclose, “We had important research questions to address and did not want to give up entirely on the season. When we saw that the level of contagion had dropped to the point that everything had more or less reopened in Israel, under restrictions of social distancing, pods, and masks, we decided to conduct a small-scale dig that would try to achieve at least one of our goals.”

They followed the Hebrew University of Jerusalem health-safety protocol, determined by the Israeli Ministry of Health: “We limited the time we dug (one week) and the number of participants (12), almost all of them our Hebrew University students, and kept them in small ‘pods’ with separate rooms, cars, and dig contexts. We wore masks and did not accept visitors as we usually do. Being out in the open air most of the time helped.” With these safety measures in place, they successfully completed their truncated season.

A handful of other digs in Israel continued as well. These downsized excavations were mostly limited to in-country participants—often students already enrolled at institutions in Israel—and shortened in duration.

Keeping their distance from one another, participants space out for the final cleaning of the Burnt Church’s mosaic at Hippos at the end of conservation efforts. Photo by Hippos Excavation Project.

Michael Eisenberg and Arleta Kowalewska of the University of Haifa, who direct excavations at Hippos-Sussita on the Sea of Galilee, bemoaned the lack of participants from abroad in their 2020 season: “It was our hope until the last moment that the situation would improve and at least some people from abroad would be able to join. It did not happen, but we decided to keep our Israeli staff employed and make use of our kibbutz arrangements. We decided to concentrate our efforts on a small (one-season) project—a series of funerary structures within the necropolis on the side of the main road toward the city of Hippos.” They had been planning to excavate the Burnt Church at Hippos, but since their area supervisor from abroad, Jessica Rentz, was unable to join, they adapted their plans.

With safety measures in place, volunteers at Azekah carried on with business as (almost) usual, in 2020. Here Tel Aviv University international student Bin Wang excavates in her square. Photo by Oded Lipschits, the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

Excavations also took place at Tel Azekah—a site that typically welcomes 150 volunteers from around the world on any given week of excavation under the joint direction of Oded Lipschits and Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and Manfred Oeming of Heidelberg University. Making use of 45 masked volunteers, mostly Tel Aviv University students and only a handful of overseas volunteers who arrived early enough to spend two weeks in Israel’s mandatory 14-day quarantine, the excavation was able to complete four weeks of work in three areas, trying to uncover the Middle Bronze Age fortifications and the Late Bronze Age cultic complex.

Several excavation teams are optimistically making plans for a dig season in 2021—with the understanding that these also might have to be canceled. Others, however, have already decided to suspend their field activities for this year.

T. Atli, an assistant area supervisor at Beit-Shemesh, explores one of the site’s hideout systems. Photo by Sophie Gidley, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Daniel Master and Mario Martin are cautiously planning for their 2021 season at Tel Shimron, but they admit, “All our plans depend on the path of the pandemic. We plan to follow all of the official guidelines. We do not expect to have a difficult decision—we will either be able to go or not. The archaeological remains have been in the ground for thousands of years, and they can stay there safely until we can return safely.”

As regulations and restrictions shift, dig directors must be flexible and adjust their plans to keep their teams safe. The 2020 dig season showed that, with the proper safety protocols in place, excavation is possible even during a pandemic. If vaccines continue to develop and become available, it gives hope that the 2021 dig season may be more active than the last.

Before the pandemic was widespread, diggers at ‘Auja el-Foqa enjoyed a normal season. Charles Jarboe unearths a complete juglet from an excavated house. Photo by David Ben-Shlomo.

Download our Digs 2021 e-book for additional interviews with directors whose excavations were affected by the pandemic.

If you would like to join an excavation in 2021, visit our digs section for opportunities. This page includes a description of each site, goals for the coming season, important finds from past seasons, biblical connections, and profiles of dig directors.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Digs 2019: A Day in the Life by Robert Cargill

Digs 2018: Migration and Immigration in Ancient Israel by Robert Cargill

Digs 2017: Digging Through Time by Ellen White

Digs 2016: Passport to the Biblical World by Robin Ngo

Digs 2015: Blast from the Past by Megan Sauter

Digs 2014: Layers of Meaning by Noah Weiner


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The Real Lives of Women in Biblical Times
Beth Alpert Nakhai, University of Arizona
Wednesday, April 14, 2021 at 8 pm via Zoom

The Hebrew Bible is filled with stories about women, but no single story provides a complete picture of women’s lives – nor is any biblical woman meant to be typical of all Israelite women.  So, how can we more fully understand the lives of Israelite women – and in that way, develop a fuller understanding of the lives of all ancient Israelites, those mentioned in the Bible and those the Bible never discussed?

Archaeology offers an alternate resource, one that allows us to go beyond the Bible in order to examine everyday life in Iron Age Israel.  It brings us into villages and homes, and shows us dishes and tools, shrines and figurines, workplaces and tombs.  This illustrated presentation uses archaeological resources to explore the lives of Israelite women, helping us place the biblical narratives into their ancient real-life setting.

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