The Field School 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. Students at Tel Kabri have learned a diverse and advanced skill set at a field school accompanying the excavation. In this post, Kabri education director Alexandra Ratzlaff describes the field school’s academic curriculum.


Education director Alexandra Ratzlaff teaching a course at the field school.

We put a lot of thought into developing the curriculum this year, and teach the students in a variety of settings—modules on the site, afternoon workshops and pottery analysis and evening lectures. The whole idea is to move away from the textbook. They take the concepts learned in the classroom and practice using them hands-on with physical evidence.

When assistant education director Kyle Leonard and I put together the program, we wanted to stress that the students learn universal skills, and apply them in analytical ways that help them think outside of the box. So while we’ve provided introductions to the equipment, stratigraphy, excavation squares, section drawing, data collection, etc., we are giving students a chance to do actual analysis of example areas as well as the site of Kabri itself. You can teach people about stratigraphy and superposition, but you can’t take a new student to a Middle Bronze Age site and have them be able to immediately visualize the ancient palace. We want people to be able to take this with them wherever they go.

After a day’s excavations (we start digging around 5 a.m.), we have field modules on site around 12:30, which serve as a basic introduction to the skill set that will be introduced later that day or week. It gives an on-site example of what the students will be working on. For instance, if they are learning how to take measurements, plot excavation units or take soil samples in the field school, they’ll get to see how these things are done on site—in their own excavation units. It gives students some practical perspective on the concepts they’ve learned in school and books.

Later in the afternoon, we have more in-depth workshops, giving students a chance to apply their skills—from site planning to section drawing to pottery washing and analysis—themselves.

Students make test units and take elevations at the field school before applying these skills in the field.

Our evening lecture series supplements the learning done during the field school. Focusing on topics such as zooarchaeology, residue analysis, frescoes, pottery, Canaanite rulership, conservation, etc., the lectures are all tailored to Kabri and compliment the practical applications learned in the field.

Along with the workshops, we have one assignment per week. Some of them are visual assignments—such as the students working on Harris Matrices—and others are more conceptual—such as defining stratigraphy. The students have had to hand in their drawings, their planning, and their opening squares. Fifty percent of the student’s grade comes from the field notebook they record on site. Every day, the students are responsible for creating a notebook similar to that of an area supervisor. It is supposed to be a culmination of their new practical knowledge—from the field, workshops and lectures—within the framework of a set of standard archaeological guidelines. At the same time, it allows them to think outside of the box and provide their own understanding of what is going on at the site. Click here to download an example of a field school assignment.

Working with Kyle has been great because I’m more removed from the undergraduate experience. I love teaching the Intro to Archaeology course at Boston University, but it is much better to have hands-on experiences in the field. And we’ve already seen how popular the course is. We only have about 20 people enrolled, but every day an extra dozen or so team members attend. It is really flattering; we have team members that have participated in other excavations and field schools in the past telling us that they are learning skills that they never understood before.*

Nurith Goshen gives a field school lecture on site.

Our first field course focused on the excavation and recording equipment itself—what we use, when we use it and why. New field technology records so much data without giving students an idea of what is going on behind the scenes. So while our dumpy levels and point-by-point wall drawings may feel a bit archaic, it is important to learn this type of data recording so that students get a real understanding of the meaning of archaeological field data. In addition to an equipment course, we started off with a class on stratigraphy. It is such an integral concept in the field that we wanted to stress it early on, because everything else that we are working on requires an understanding of the excavation’s layers.

We taught students how to set up excavation squares. I’ve seen experienced archaeologists spend three hours arguing over the proper way to string up a unit in the field, so it is a good thing to know off the bat. In addition to stringing the square, students plotted artifacts in test squares at the field school and from there, they developed their own top plans of these test squares. We also built a wall from stones found in a nearby bunker, and set up a square/locus. The students had to draw a point-by-point plan of the wall on a horizontal plane as if they were in the field. It actually went really well, even though the wall was knocked over one night. It was unexpected, but this happens in real life in the field too, so you learn to roll with it. And it was actually a good experience. In addition, our students took the same skill set they learned with the horizontal plane drawing to create section drawings, using plumb bobs and tape measures for precise records.

All of these things are the core concepts of archaeology. No matter what type of dig you are on, you use these skills, and most digs don’t have the time to teach this in the field. So our field school is a great opportunity. Since we start the excavations so early, we have the time and resources in the afternoons and evenings. It is a great experience to go to multiple excavations and apply these skill sets in different environments. So we aim to teach a universal archaeological skill set for this next generation of archaeologists. And as they travel and take leadership roles at sites across the globe, they’ll be able to say, “I learned this at Kabri.”

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.

* Note from BAS web editor Noah Wiener: I attended a field school in college and have participated in many excavations since then, and I still find Alex, Kyle and the rest of the team’s courses in-depth and accessible. Brand-new archaeologists could leave this course ready to take on field projects of their own, and that is no minor feat for a field methods course.

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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