Digs 2014: Layers of Meaning

Read the full article as it appears in the January/February 2014 issue of BAR

SETTING THE STAGE. Thousands of years of sediment and vegetation covered the site of Tel Kabri when we arrived. On the first day of the dig, Zach Dunseth (right) used a root cutter to chop roots from the nearby avocado grove, while Chantal Newsome, Melanie Harris and Emily Diaz used turias to scrape loose topsoil into buckets. Behind the team, area supervisor Nurith Goshen cut bright pieces of foam to mark excavation areas. The soil, situated just a few feet above Kabri’s storage magazine, was dumped into sandbags that fortified the excavation’s section walls. Noah Wiener

BAR readers are familiar with a common archaeological fairy tale: The first discovery of an ancient artifact opens a majestic bridge to the past. This lovely trope ends with the archaeologist and artifact living happily ever after.

But it doesn’t happen that way. When new volunteers excavate pottery on the first day of a dig, they are usually disappointed by the reactions of the dig’s veterans. Often the find gets tossed. The project’s old hands confirm the pottery’s antiquity, only to frustrate the new volunteer by shrugging off the relative insignificance of an out-of-context or nondiagnostic find. The old-timers know the real excitement is still to come.

This summer I worked in Israel for the first time as a volunteer at the Canaanite site of Tel Kabri on the Mediterranean coast of northern Israel, where we were excavating a Middle Bronze Age (c. 1800–1550 B.C.E.) palatial complex.* Luckily for our team of volunteers, Eric Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau (the excavation’s codirectors) weren’t jaded or callous when they suggested that continuing the excavation was a higher priority than swooning over sherds in topsoil.

The turning point on an excavation comes when a team finds itself in ancient strata, but that doesn’t happen on the first day. So how does a dig start?

Decorating the palace’s ceremonial hall, diggers proudly spell out the name Kabri with their bodies at the end of the season. This photograph shows the 2013 excavation areas—the palace complex actually stretches for dozens of acres beyond the frame of the photograph. In 2013 we uncovered the storage magazine in area D-West (left) and monumental palatial architecture in D-West East (right). SkyView Photography, Ltd., Courtesy Eric H. Cline

Our site, situated in an avocado grove, didn’t look like the carefully articulated ancient settlements depicted in the pages of BAR. Previously excavated areas were covered with backfilled dirt. Before we arrived, a backhoe had removed avocado trees lining the sides of earlier excavation areas. (Despite the recent advertisements in BAR characterizing the use of heavy machinery as “Cater-pillaging” [see BAR Accused of Publishing ‘Defamatory’ Ad”], this is standard practice for some tasks at an archaeological site).

Our first job was to clear the site. We cut through topsoil with pickaxes, removed loose dirt and vegetation with turias (heavy square-bladed hoes) and, using wheelbarrows and teamwide bucket-passing lines, hauled hundreds of cubic feet of dirt off-site. Fieldwork consists of much more than excavation. Team members scrambled up trees to secure massive tarps for shade as volunteers lined balks with sandbags and area supervisors strung up excavation grids below.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer on an archaeological dig? I Volunteered For This? Life on an Archaeological Dig is a free eBook that gives you the lowdown on what to expect from life at a dig site. You’ll be glad to have this informative, amusing and sometimes touching collection of articles by archaeological dig volunteers.

FROM THE KNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN. In addition to opening new excavation areas, the team re-exposed already-excavated sections of the palace. At the start of this season, George Washington University volunteer Nikki Banton cleared brush that had grown around sandbags laid in a previous dig season. Eric H. Cline

We all found our individual niches as we settled into a rhythm. In Kabri’s area D-West, Marielle Velander took morning elevations using a “dumpy” level (a viewer aimed at a vertical measure held on the site), our high school volunteer Sara Soltani impressed older team members with her adept pickaxe ferocity, Laurel Poolman examined faunal remains and, when we paused to form bucket-lines, junior area supervisor Kyle Leonard caught and neatly dumped buckets on the peak of our rapidly forming dirt mountain. We playfully tested Kyle’s precision with a blindfold, and his Zen-like precision kept the bucket-line moving.

Archaeology veterans taught new volunteers tricks of the trade. One volunteer, Henry Pelgrift (pictured on the cover), had been traveling from site to site for months and arrived at Kabri with his own machete and much-coveted patishes (small triangular-bladed picks used to articulate walls and cut clean section walls, revealing the stratigraphy of excavated areas—see “Tools of the Trade”).

By our 8:00 a.m. breakfast break (we set out to the site at 4:30 each morning), we had each hauled what seemed like countless buckets of soil and shed countless buckets of sweat. Volunteers need to take care of both the site and themselves. Archaeology is a “contact sport.” Since excavation is inherently destructive, the team needs to stay vigilant at all times. While pickaxes and heavy tools must be used with caution, the summer heat is an even bigger threat. Hats, sunscreen and water are among an archaeologist’s most important tools.

After a few days, the team adjusted to the pre-dawn morning labor and the education-packed afternoons at our temporary homes in the Western Galilee Field School, a sun-soaked collection of blue-and-white bungalows set against the idyllic backdrop of the Mediterranean. We’d return to the field school for pottery washing, field methodology classes and evening lectures. Between sessions, we gathered in the afternoons and evenings to relax on the beach, plan weekend travel and congregate around a carob tree dubbed the “Wifi tree,” our source of connection to friends and family back home.

SIGHTING THE SITE. Tel Aviv University’s Zach Dunseth peers through the eyepiece of a “dumpy” level aimed at a vertical measure held on the site. Elevations are compared to known, fixed points to create a comprehensive three-dimensional plan of a site’s artifacts and architecture, contextualizing strata across excavation areas. Eric H. Cline

Having the beach nearby was both a blessing and a curse. Lurking beneath the waves were caves and vicious riptides, and the summer’s only injuries were off-site. When junior area supervisor Charlie Friedman and I were pulled out against the sea’s jagged rocks, we were reminded of excavation codirector Assaf Yasur-Landau’s joking reassurance on the first day: As a maritime archaeologist, he’d be able to find any crew members lost at sea. Luckily, it didn’t come to that, and we recovered quickly with a helping hand from excavation volunteer Tharald Strømnes, who nursed the wounds with skills developed as a medic in the Norwegian military.

THE MOTHER LODE. Brandeis University volunteer Jordan Roth uses a handpick to remove soil near a massive storage vessel, one of 40 preserved Canaanite jars uncovered in the 2013 season. The site was apparently peaceably abandoned by the 16th century B.C.E. Brandeis University archaeochemist Andrew Koh will use finds from the storeroom for organic residue analysis, which will be used to help understand the palace’s tax and trade economy. Eric H. Cline

We developed our bonds on and off the site. During the day, we were always ready to lend a hand to carry buckets, take over for a tired teammate, turia away loose dirt or help interpret each others’ finds. Spurred on by ever-cheerful supervisors, we developed a fierce loyalty to our areas. When Nurith Goshen, my area supervisor in D-West, correctly predicted the trajectory of a plaster wall, the excavation paused for a team dance, and as her hypotheses continued to prove fruitful, team members erected a sandbag throne for our fearless leader.

Read BAR‘s feature “The Diggers Return” by Noah Wiener for free online as it appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.

The camaraderie among volunteers also extended off-site. One weekend, two dozen of us rented a bus to Jerusalem. Many of the volunteers slept on the rooftop of a hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City. We traveled in small groups by day and gathered in the evenings to share stories. Laurel Poolman and Sara Soltani were granted access to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock while Jordan Roth and I witnessed the Old City from above as we clambered around the 16th-century city ramparts. While Nikki Banton marveled at the Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 6-foot-5-inch Tharald Strømnes had some trouble fitting into the church’s cramped “tomb of Jesus.”

Aegean-style orthostats with square dowel holes line the side of a previously exposed building. During the 2013 field season, we excavated the back room of the structure, uncovering red-painted wall plaster in the stones of the western wall. Eric H. Cline

On another weekend, some volunteers ventured off to Nazareth while party-minded crewmembers took to the streets for Tel Aviv’s all-night White Night celebration. Other volunteers with an adventurous streak quested off on their own. Marielle Velander stayed with a Palestinian family in Hebron to celebrate a friend’s traditional wedding ceremony.

These adventures sparked a noticeable change in our crew. New friendships arose hand-in-hand with new skills gained in the field and in classes led by the area supervisors. As our teammates evolved from acquaintances to friends to family, our excavations transformed the edges of the avocado grove into an archaeological site. Neither change happened overnight. One day near the start of the dig, I was working next to John Tripodo, who was breaking soil with a pickaxe, when Rachel Kalisher noticed that the loose dirt was a different color. Supervisors suggested that we switch to working with trowels, and with greater precision we began to reveal a square discoloration of decayed mudbrick.

On another day, we found white lines in the soil indicating plastered walls; once again, we put away our large tools to highlight the path of the plaster. As time went on, these detailed analyses developed from the exception to the norm.

In these instances, area supervisors worked closely with team members to identify the finds. In my area, we excavated a room with numerous storage vessels preserved in situ. Once I was dealing with occupation layers, I scraped the soil more often with trowels and handpicks than with pickaxes and turias. Gentle examinations of in situ finds require a soft touch with brushes and narrow, 10-inch wooden cooking skewers. (A trowel’s metal edge is sometimes too abrasive for contact with pottery remains.)

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL. In occupation layers, the archaeological toolkit changes. Working in a 1-square-meter fine grid marked with string, University of Florida volunteer Rachel Kalisher removes soil using a handpick and trowel before switching to brushes and wooden skewers to articulate the storage jars below. While each fine grid is treated as a distinct excavation unit, volunteers working in close proximity collaborate as they reveal storage vessels, plaster-lined walls and soil disturbances that cross into nearby squares. Noah Wiener

Archaeologists adapt their methodologies to suit the needs of a site. In the northeast corner of my excavation area, some members of our team worked on an Aegean-style building with plaster floors and beautifully cut blocks of stone up to 5 feet long, known as orthostats, lining the walls. Team members exposing the back room of this orthostat building worked in their socks so that their excavation boots would not damage the delicate plaster floors. The function of this back room is yet to be determined; possible interpretations range from a storage area to the “holy of holies” of a sacred structure.

In another room the tops of dozens of massive storage vessels dotted the surface of a single room. Area supervisors strung up 1-square-meter fine grids, allowing each of us to examine “our” storage jar. We leveled the ground around each vessel with trowels, “floating” each artifact above its surroundings before conducting fine articulation with wooden skewers and eventually removing it.

This was the archaeological fairy tale in action. By this point, we were standing in a Bronze Age occupation layer in the palace’s magazine, which had not been touched for 3,500 years. Our team was now a well-oiled machine of friends working in close proximity, each with his own storage vessel.

The significance of the storage vessels was not lost on us. They contained clues to understanding the palace’s tax and trade economy. The excavation’s associate director, Brandeis University archaeochemist Andrew Koh, described the magazine as the “mother lode” for organic residue analysis. Tests on the contents of each vessel will expose the palatial economy at Tel Kabri and the agriculture of the region.

Tools of the Trade

Click to zoom. Photo of patish courtesy Ingalls Archaeological Supply

Archaeological fieldwork evolves from removing tons of soil to meticulous examination, and the tools reflect this progressive change. At the start of the season, volunteers cut through topsoil using pickaxes (1), then scrape the loose soil into buckets using square-bladed hoes called turias (held by Jessie Feito in the second photo). As the excavation surface lowers, team members use handpicks (3) and patishes (4) with 12-inch handles to articulate architecture and create walls that support balks between excavation squares. These serve as a map of already-excavated strata. The sharp edges of a trowel (5) cleanly scrape excavated surfaces, revealing discolorations and patterns in the soil. When archaeologists work with a delicate find, they use trowels, handpicks and patishes to remove soil around the sides of the find before articulating the artifact itself with non-destructive brushes and 10-inch wooden skewers (6).

Uncover the Biblical World in 2014

This section will help you get started on finding an archaeological excavation that’s right for you, but there’s more on the Biblical Archaeology Society digs page at, which we developed to share excavation opportunities with our readers.

This chart provides key information on 26 digs. Our digs page contains even more excavations, including a full description of each site, the excavation’s goals for the coming season, important finds from past seasons, Biblical connections, profiles of dig directors, as well as photos of diggers at work and play. The right archaeological adventure for you might be just a click away.

Scholarship Opportunities

BAS offers scholarships of $1,000 every year to a few people who would otherwise not be able to volunteer. To apply, simply send a letter to BAS Dig Scholarships, 4710 41st St., NW, Washington, DC 20016, or send it by email to [email protected], stating who you are, where and why you want to dig, and why you should be selected for a scholarship. We require your mailing address, phone number, email and the names, addresses, email address and phone numbers of two references. Applications must be received by March 14.

Thank You

The BAS Dig Scholarship program is made possible by the generous contributions of donors. Our sincere thanks to the following people, who supported the 2013 volunteers:

Dwight Alpern
Kenneth Bialkin
George Blumenthal
Edward and Raynette Boshell
Richard (deceased) and Lois England
Eugene and Emily Grant
Norma Kershaw
Leon Levy Foundation, Shelby White, trustee
John and Carol Merrill
Jonathan Rosen
Michael and Judy Steinhardt
Samuel D. Turner
Harry and Gertrude Schwartz Foundation, Jeffery Yablon, trustee

Noah Wiener is the Biblical Archaeology Society web editor. He has participated in excavations in Israel, Greece and the United States. While working at Tel Kabri this summer, Noah published numerous articles directly from the field about life at the site. Visit the BAS Tel Kabri page for field articles as well as the latest updates on the project.


* BAS Library Members: See Eric H. Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau, “Aegeans in Israel: Minoan Frescoes at Tel Kabri.” BAR, July/August 2013.

Learn more about Kabri in Bible History Daily. Discover the Minoan-style frescoes, the preliminary results of the 2013 excavations, the newly uncovered “wine cellar” and a full catalog of articles on the site.


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  1. Arthur Keneyd says:

    Great post.

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1 Responses

  1. Arthur Keneyd says:

    Great post.

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