Starting the Dig

BAS web editor describes the first days of the 2013 excavations at Tel Kabri

In the July/August 2013 issue of BAR, Tel Kabri excavation directors Eric Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau describe the unique Aegean-style art at the Middle Bronze Age site in Israel. BAS web editor Noah Wiener is currently taking part in the excavation at Tel Kabri. In this blog series, learn about life on an archaeology dig as Noah publishes from the field.

You might have a mental image of an archaeologist. Trowel and field notes in hand, donning a pith helmet and a khaki safari shirt and hemming and hawing over a team of workers. Or maybe you picture Harrison Ford sporting a fedora and whip, inadvertently destroying sites while fighting Nazis and chasing Biblical and legendary relics. But the truth of the matter is, a dig is made up of a diverse group of students, scholars and other volunteers. We work hard on countless different tasks, and much less cinematically, we are much dirtier and sweatier than your idealized archaeologist.

Tel Kabri excavation staff clears the site with turias. Photo: Eric Cline.

An excavation includes a wide range of responsibilities, both labor intensive and meticulous. While I can’t give a full explanation of archaeological methodology in a single blog, I’ll share a bit about the way we’ve spent our first couple of days in the field.

On our first morning, the bus drove to the site while the pre-dawn moon still hung low in the sky over the sea. I didn’t know what to expect—full Bronze Age palaces and structures, or an archaeologically invisible avocado grove, backfilled after the 2011 season. Upon arrival, I was impressed by the visible history. While much of the archaeology has been covered since the earlier excavations, the walls of the palace and other structures reveal a topography of palatial structures, and certain sections show the site’s layered occupation periods. I have been working in an area labeled D West, near the orthostat building described by excavation directors Eric Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau in the July/August 2013 issue of BAR. The tops of the orthostats are visible, lining a structure that has furthered the connections between the site in Israel and the Aegean world.

The excavations staff helps build a shade canopy over area D West.

The goal of an excavation is to answer research questions and explore new evidence. As a result, we are delving into the unknown, instead of working on the already-excavated site. Our first step was to clear the land and set up our excavation space. Using turias (versatile tools similar to hoes), we cleared loose dirt and vegetation, and cut out new areas with pickaxes, hauling away countless buckets of dirt. Much of this is used to fill sandbags that reinforce the walls of our excavation area. Fieldwork consists of much more than excavation, and team members scrambled up trees to secure massive tarps for canopies providing shade, while others cleared the undergrowth that accumulated across the site. A lot of our initial work felt more like farming than archaeology, but we went at it with great gusto. I hope our readers don’t mind if I brag—we have a fantastic crew, full of hard workers. Within hours, Nurith Goshen, our area supervisor, was setting up string to mark our excavation units and balks, which will serve both as pathways through the site and visual diagrams of the site’s various occupation layers. Each unit will yield its own pieces in our historical puzzle.

Archaeologists set up these rectangular units to evaluate set amounts of data in order to make informed decisions about the site. Archaeology is controlled destruction, and the aim in the field is to generate accurate data, rather than quest after shiny objects or create historical narratives on the spot. The archive that we will create will be open to interpretation for future scholars, so while we work, our task is to leave behind an exact record of locations, soils, stratigraphy and countless other details.

Raphaela Primus and Laurel Poolman pickaxing at Tel Kabri's area D West.

Once in the square, we remove the soil layer by layer with pickaxes, taking care to note architectural features, changes in the soil and the artifacts within. We’ve already uncovered pottery, bone and stone tools, and we’ve only just begun. These finds have thrilled the crew, but we know that there is much more to come as we delve into earlier occupation levels buried deep in the soil.

Pickaxes clear dirt quickly, and for every swing of the pickaxe, much more time is spent clearing the excavated dirt with turias, hauling dirt, filling sandbags, examining the architecture and artifacts uncovered and creating sections. Sections at the edges of archaeological units not only create neat and safe work environments; visible changes in section walls tell the story of the various occupation periods and preserve a record of various archaeological features.

Junior staff supervisor Kyle Leonard gave us an introduction to creating even sections, an excerpt of which you can see below:

In the video, Kyle uses a small hand axe as well as a turia. In addition, our toolkit consists of pickaxes, trowels, brushes, fine articulation tools and measuring equipment. Every archaeologist has his or her own preferred methods; what is important is that we work safely and consistently with each other.

After the day’s excavation, site supervisors give an on-site workshop introducing us to various field methods and strategies—I’ll share more about these lessons, as well as more on field methods and equipment, in a future post. After 8 hours in the field, we head back to our home (see the post Arrival in Israel) where exhausted and dirty archaeologists sit down for a meal before afternoons of lectures, methodology classes, pottery washing, beach time and much-needed naps.

Over the next few weeks, visit the Tel Kabri page for frequent updates on the dig, including a day in the life in the field, videos on archaeological technique, guest blogs by student volunteers, reports on visits to ancient sites in Israel and the latest discoveries—right as they come out of the ground.

Click here to read more about Tel Kabri in Bible History Daily.

BAS Library Members: Read Eric H. Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau, Aegeans in Israel: Minoan Frescoes at Tel Kabri as it appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, as well as “Your Career is in Ruins” by Eric H. Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau as it appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of BAR.

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

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3 Responses

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  • Laurel says

    Hi James,
    This is a very late reply, but I’m not from Israel. I’m from the U.S.A. My paternal grandfather’s family is German (immigrated in the early 1900’s), and the name Poolman, from what I understand, comes from there.
    All the best,

  • James says

    FAO Laurel Poolman
    I live in Southern England and am attempting to research the origins of the Poolman name.
    I have recently discovered a link to Israel and I wonder if you are able to throw any light on
    the history of the Poolman family in Israel?
    Thank you.

  • Scott says

    Volunteering on a dig in Israel is on my bucket list of things to do.

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