Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Thursday 25 June 2015 (Finished Saturday at home)

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

I said goodbye to the site this morning.  I met my partner, Motti Aviam, there for some final business, and after we hugged and he left, I walked the balks, observed our archaeology, and remembered the hubbub and the hubbub makers of this season.  I also imagined the buildings as they once stood, with plastered stone walls holding up roofs well over my head.  It took some effort to see them where thistles and olive trees now stood.  We archaeologists cast our eyes to the ground, looking for the evidence the ancients left us, which now lies below surface level in our squares.  But the ancients themselves walked the streets and alleys between their buildings, glancing up to doorways and windows, or higher still to roofs, calling out to their neighbors.  I wonder if the commotion of their daily lives sounded anything like the din of our digging.

By now a press release that Motti and I put out about Shikhin’s lamp production has been distributed.  You can read it at http://www.samford.edu/arts-and-sciences/religion/news/?id=21474875959 before other news services pick it up.  Surely this industry added to the sights, smells, and sounds that Shikhin’s residents accepted in their workaday lives.  There was clay to be dug at the base of the hill, levigated, and tempered.  There were molds to carve.  There were kilns to load with fuel and to stock with whole lamps.  The fire produced its heat, but smoked only if the apprentice was in charge.  After the kiln cooled someone had to unload the lamps and prepare them for transport.  All of this required questions and answers and shouted instructions.  Discarding the wasters made a crash.

All of this was going on just meters from the village’s beit k’nesset, or synagogue.  In all of our squares, we have yet to find anything we can identify as an alley or street between the synagogue and the lamp maker’s shop to the northeast.  We might need to look a little harder, but in any case, one passed quickly between spaces.  Our lack of foundation trenches continues to frustrate us, because all over our Field I, Shikhin’s residents founded their walls directly on exposed bedrock.  It is foundation trenches that allow us to date the structures we dig.  That is one reason I was so eager to lift the foundation stone for the synagogue’s threshold.  What a letdown that was: the soil beneath was almost completely sterile (our word for containing no material remains), and had the consistency of water erosion.  When we re-set it and the threshold stones, we placed modern coins beneath them so that, when archaeologists re-excavate Shikhin 2,000 years from now, they will know we were there, monkeying with their site.

Here is what we learned about the synagogue this year.  First, not long after it came down (some time before 363, when we typically end the Late Roman period), people removed most of its stones, right down to bedrock, and probably transported them to Sepphoris.  It is simply astounding to see how thoroughly they did their work.  Second, one of the two cisterns yielded pottery dating no later than 70 CE in the lowest elevations we dug this year.  Not only that, but the pottery was waste from kilns.  Among the waste lay fragments of painted plaster and one iron bowl with bronze rivets.  The eastern outer wall of the synagogue cut through the top of this cistern, rendering it useless, which is why I think the builders cut the second cistern and a channel directing runoff into it.  All this leads me to think that before the synagogue was built—probably in the 2nd century—another building sat here.  Whether it was a wealthy person’s house or an earlier synagogue (one option doesn’t exclude the other), I can’t say.  The synagogue had interior columns that probably surrounded its nave on four sides rather than three.  So far we have found only one piece of a column still on the interior of the building, and the stylobates (the low walls on which columns sat) have been almost entirely robbed out, but the robbers left one stylobate corner made of two stones, and we still see the imprint of other stylobate stones in the bedrock.

Every year we partially answer some of our questions, and we come up with more.  This is what makes ending a dig so difficult, archaeologically speaking.  For now, God willing, we will continue in future seasons, patiently gathering the data that help us see, dimly, the lives of the people who called this village their home.

I am grateful to all who make this project possible.  Everyone is a volunteer, and everyone pays a lot of money to travel far and to work hard.  The dig, scheduled as it is during the Israeli semester, complicates the life of Motti Aviam.  I am most grateful to my own parents and to Laura.  Out of their own love for Israel (and for me, I suppose), and out of their own sense of this project’s importance, Mom and Dad perform marvelous acts of generosity every year of this project.  Because of her love for me, without complaint, Laura endures many weeks alone every summer during the dig.  That is also a marvelous act of generosity.  Thank you.

Pray for the peace of Israel.

James

Saturday, June 27, 2015


Thursday 25 June 2015 (Finished Saturday at home)

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

I said goodbye to the site this morning.  I met my partner, Motti Aviam, there for some final business, and after we hugged and he left, I walked the balks, observed our archaeology, and remembered the hubbub and the hubbub makers of this season.  I also imagined the buildings as they once stood, with plastered stone walls holding up roofs well over my head.  It took some effort to see them where thistles and olive trees now stood.  We archaeologists cast our eyes to the ground, looking for the evidence the ancients left us, which now lies below surface level in our squares.  But the ancients themselves walked the streets and alleys between their buildings, glancing up to doorways and windows, or higher still to roofs, calling out to their neighbors.  I wonder if the commotion of their daily lives sounded anything like the din of our digging.

By now a press release that Motti and I put out about Shikhin’s lamp has been distributed.  You can read it at http://www.samford.edu/arts-and-sciences/religion/news/?id=21474875959 before other news services pick it up.  Surely this industry added to the sights, smells, and sounds that Shikhin’s residents accepted in their workaday lives.  There was clay to be dug at the base of the hill, levigated, and tempered.  There were molds to carve.  There were kilns to load with fuel and to stock with whole lamps.  The fire produced its heat, but smoked only if the apprentice was in charge.  After the kiln cooled someone had to unload the lamps and prepare them for transport.  All of this required questions and answers and shouted instructions.  Discarding the wasters made a crash.

All of this was going on just meters from the village’s beit k’nesset, or synagogue.  In all of our squares, we have yet to find anything we can identify as an alley or street between the synagogue and the lamp maker’s shop to the northeast.  We might need to look a little harder, but in any case, one passed quickly between spaces.  Our lack of foundation trenches continues to frustrate us, because all over our Field I, Shikhin’s residents founded their walls directly on exposed bedrock.  It is foundation trenches that allow us to date the structures we dig.  That is one reason I was so eager to lift the foundation stone for the synagogue’s threshold.  What a letdown that was: the soil beneath was almost completely sterile (our word for containing no material remains), and had the consistency of water erosion.  When we re-set it and the threshold stones, we placed modern coins beneath them so that, when archaeologists re-excavate Shikhin 2,000 years from now, they will know we were there, monkeying with their site.

Here is what we learned about the synagogue this year.  First, not long after it came down (some time before 363, when we typically end the Late Roman period), people removed most of its stones, right down to bedrock, and probably transported them to Sepphoris.  It is simply astounding to see how thoroughly they did their work.  Second, one of the two cisterns yielded pottery dating no later than 70 CE in the lowest elevations we dug this year.  Not only that, but the pottery was waste from kilns.  Among the waste lay fragments of painted plaster and one iron bowl with bronze rivets.  The eastern outer wall of the synagogue cut through the top of this cistern, rendering it useless, which is why I think the builders cut the second cistern and a channel directing runoff into it.  All this leads me to think that before the synagogue was built—probably in the 2nd century—another building sat here.  Whether it was a wealthy person’s house or an earlier synagogue (one option doesn’t exclude the other), I can’t say.  The synagogue had interior columns that probably surrounded its nave on four sides rather than three.  So far we have found only one piece of a column still on the interior of the building, and the stylobates (the low walls on which columns sat) have been almost entirely robbed out, but the robbers left one stylobate corner made of two stones, and we still see the imprint of other stylobate stones in the bedrock.

Every year we partially answer some of our questions, and we come up with more.  This is what makes ending a dig so difficult, archaeologically speaking.  For now, God willing, we will continue in future seasons, patiently gathering the data that help us see, dimly, the lives of the people who called this village their home.

I am grateful to all who make this project possible.  Everyone is a volunteer, and everyone pays a lot of money to travel far and to work hard.  The dig, scheduled as it is during the Israeli semester, complicates the life of Motti Aviam.  I am most grateful to my own parents and to Laura.  Out of their own love for Israel (and for me, I suppose), and out of their own sense of this project’s importance, Mom and Dad perform marvelous acts of generosity every year of this project.  Because of her love for me, without complaint, Laura endures many weeks alone every summer during the dig.  That is also a marvelous act of generosity.  Thank you.

Pray for the peace of Israel.

James

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Third Letter from Nazareth, 2015

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

This Sunday marks the beginning of the final week of the dig.  Crews will focus on ending excavations, cleaning their squares for final photography, and completing their field books. Students will take a field exam (I set them loose in an unexcavated site and let them tell me how they would excavate it), enjoy a final graduation party, say goodbye to the site and hotel, and head to Jerusalem for three days of respite before flying home or to their next summer adventure.  I say “respite,” but in the past, students have filled the days in Jerusalem with shopping, camel riding, sight-seeing, restauranting, and talking late into the nights.  I remember doing the same.

I failed to mention something important in my previous letter.  This year, my Dean, David Chapman, had the idea to use the Arts and Sciences portion of Samford’s “Big Give” fund drive to fund student scholarships for next year’s Samford Summer in Israel.  The Give lasts for 36 hours and aims to give alumni and other friends of the university an opportunity to support various projects.  We called our piece of it the “Big Dig,” and we raised around $7,300.  That will provide at least 5 students with between $1,000 and $2,000 to participate in the dig next year, and to receive 4 or 8 hours of course credit.  Thank you to all who gave, and to David for the idea.

Early last week, a film crew from Faith Life, a company associated with Logos Bible Software, came to the site to get some footage and to interview me.  They flew a drone over the site and filmed the extraction of an oil lamp from the soil, among other things.  They didn’t realize they had hit the jackpot until they learned that Abuna was here, along with Motti Aviam, Dennis Groh, and David Fiensy, all known scholars in the fields of archaeology and early Judaism and Christianity.  I declined to be interviewed during the work at the site, so they came to the hotel later to get some footage of pottery reading, after which they interviewed me on the rooftop of the hotel.  One of their questions was whether or not I thought it likely that Jesus handled pottery from Shikhin.  The answer is yes, I do, but this kind of question always makes me uncomfortable, because it reduces the work that we do to its association with Jesus.  On the other hand, I understand the awe and devotion that our work can foster because I feel it myself.

An old friend of the Strange family, Gayle Bone, has arrived with seven men to work with us the final week and to see some sites as well.  Yesterday I took them to Nazareth Village, which is sort of a local Colonial Williamsburg, but the ancient-looking houses were built in the late 1990s, using construction techniques and materials of the first century.  They seem to have consulted with every available archaeologist, including Abuna.  From there we went to two sites that the group has already seen this year: Caesarea and Yodfat.  Today we’ll see Khirbet Ḥuqoq, which Jodi Magness is excavating, and then Magdala and our own site of Shikhin.

As we begin to close things down, I cannot help but be reminded that, as I’ve said before, this dig survives and thrives on the generosity of many.  Volunteers pay a lot of money to do hard labor in the dirt for four weeks, all while sleep deprived.  People in nearby villages and even National Park employees in nearby Sepphoris, out of their own goodness, offer whatever assistance they can.  The hotel staff apparently has mistaken us for the extended royal family of America.

We are visitors here, no matter how at home we feel.  And when we leave, the banality, joys, and heartbreaks of everyday life will continue.  People will have to negotiate how to live with people they merely tolerate, or despise.  The issue of violence and how to resolve the Palestinian problem will persist.  All of this will require efforts of genuine goodwill, because we know what hatred will do if unchecked by our God-given knowledge of what is right.

Pray for peace in Israel.

James

Second Letter from Nazareth, 2015

Finally figured out what was keeping me from posting last week.

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

We are now halfway through the dig, having completed two weeks in the field.  The advance crew spent a few extra days on the front end cleaning out a miqveh.  As we close out squares and free some personnel, we may send some to finish the job so that we can properly photograph and draw this ritual bath, which probably served people returning to the village from the cemetery to the south.

At this point every season I am in a bit of a crisis, anticipating returning home to Laura, seeing Sarah, sleeping in my own bed with my dog, enjoying my front and back porches (heat permitting), and seeing friends at church, while also thinking of all that remains to be done at the site this season, let alone for the entirety of the Shikhin Excavation Project.  It mirrors my crisis on the front end: the excitement of the coming dig season tinged with my sorrow over leaving Laura.  At some point, like any dig, we will have to decide that we have answered all of the archaeological questions that we can, and that we haven’t collected too much data to publish.

Every year in these blog posts I say something about what Shikhin will teach us—and really is already teaching us—about Roman period Galilee.  In past posts you can find many mentions of Shikhin’s pottery industry, about which people have been publishing since the 90s.  We know that Shikhin’s kilns produced many common Galilean pottery forms, and we will do some tests to find out to what other villages and cities that pottery traveled.  We know that the potters experimented with new shapes, for every season I end up with several unfamiliar forms to draw.  I have been talking about lamp production for the past three years; that is one of our most significant discoveries, and if you have joined the Shikhin Excavation Project Facebook group, you have seen photos of a number of complete or nearly complete—and poorly made—oil lamps that have come out of one square this year.   We know that Shikhin is the workshop, or one of the workshops, that produced two forms of molded lamps that people have been speculating were made in a workshop near Nazareth.  We are near Nazareth.  The synagogue is significant mostly for how much of it is missing.  We have found some displaced architectural elements, the foundation for one wall, and one lone stone in its original place, floating disconnected from all its former neighbors, at least so far as we can tell right now.  This tells us that after the building fell, people took nearly every available stone—everything they thought they could use—for building projects elsewhere.  If the synagogue fell with the rest of the village, then most of the stones probably made their way to nearby Sepphoris.  Some stones ended up in a terrace wall to the west of Field I, as farmers cleared the top of the hill to save their plowshares from stones.  In my imagination, I hear them cursing in Aramaic as they hit the bedrock that lay so close to the surface.  That they could not move.

In addition to all this, in the past few seasons our data have been hinting that we might need to reconsider the beginning and ending dates of the village’s life.  Our pottery, lamp, and coin evidence is raising some questions that we need to resolve.  So, the work here is demanding some hard and creative thinking, and it will have an impact on studies of Jesus, the beginnings of Christianity, and early rabbinic Judaism in the Galilee.  That ain’t small potatoes, archaeologically speaking.

Yesterday we toured the Beit Alpha synagogue, one of the first Galilean synagogues to have been discovered with the wheel of the zodiac depicted in its mosaic floor’s central panel.  It caused quite a scandal at the time, but now it’s one of 9 that we know about.  From there we traveled to nearby Beit She’an/Scythopolis, an impressive Roman and Byzantine ruin at the foot of an imposing ancient tell dating from the Late Neolithic to the Hellenistic periods (5,000 years of occupation, with a gap from 722 to 198 BCE or thereabouts).  There we ate lunch in the cool shade cast by vines growing overhead.  Caesarea—the city Herod the Great built in honor of Caesar Augustus on the site of Strato’s Tower on the Mediterranean sea—was the last stop.  You might recall the stories of Peter’s conversion of Cornelius and Paul’s imprisonment there in Acts.  Students of early Christianity will remember Origen and Eusebius, two important bishops of the city.  We visit this site virtually every year for two reasons.  The first is that it is important for understanding a long stretch of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history in Palestine, and the second is, where else can you swim in the clear waters of the Mediterranean next to an arched Roman aqueduct?

As I said earlier, much remains to be done, but today (Sunday) is a day of no digging.  While I write this, some of our crew work on reports while others leave the hotel on various excursions, including shopping and worship.  I can hear others in the nearby coffee bar, apparently laughing at cat videos and other Internet marvels.  The smell of Mustafa’s cigar drifts through the door.  Soon I will hug Penny Long Marler, my former colleague from Samford and chair of the search committee that hired me in 2007, goodbye.  She will leave for the train to the airport.  She has been a good addition to our crew and I hope she can return.

Next week will bring new archaeological challenges to us.  Israel still faces the old challenges of making a lasting peace, as I’m sure most of you have heard by now.

Pray.

James

Sunday, May 31, 2015

First Letter from Nazareth, 2015


Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

It’s 6:30 AM on Sunday the 31st of May.  It’s Trinity Sunday, my automatic calendar alert tells me.  The late hour pushes a little needle of shame into my conscience, as on most days the work at the site is well underway by this time.  The birds outside my hotel window have been singing since daybreak.

Much has happened ever since I and the advance crew landed in Tel Aviv on May 23.  Most of it, however, barely rises above the mundane.  It is difficult to get across what I feel when I land at Ben Gurion, and even when I make way through the airport to passport control, baggage claim, and the arrivals hall.  Maybe if you imagine flying into your home airport you’ll get a sense of it, but only if you regard that as a positive experience.  It feels like coming home.  And it feels exotic.  That’s an odd combination.

We have a good crew this year.  There are some health issues: a couple have come down with bronchitis, so remember them.  Everyone seems to appreciate the work with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  A few apparently tolerate it, but with cheerful countenances and neighborly manners.  This is important, for those who do not grasp the significance of work that can range from strenuous to tedious, and who do not form connections with their peers, often will simply lose—or even toss aside—the data, and it is the data that give voice to the people who once raised their families, worked their industries, built their homes, and prayed to their God on this hill.

This year we are concentrating on finishing squares that we have been digging for more than one season.  In many, we hit ancient structures after one or two strokes of the pick, and that suggests that we should finish quickly, but many new volunteers can’t bring themselves so blithely to discard the ancient debris, so they carefully comb through the dirt before dumping it.  I don’t suppose I blame them.  I wasn’t famous for speed when I was doing the real work of digging either. 

We are working to disclose buildings used in the manufacture of pottery and oil lamps at Shikhin.  Already we have an impressive number of wasters (fragments of pots ruined in the kiln or before firing), and of unfamiliar forms.  We don’t expect much innovation from the ancients, but here at Shikhin, the potters experimented.  This week Jeff Lowe, a pastor and enthusiastic archaeologist, found a complete cup.  The rim had cracked and flaked in the kiln, and the potter had tossed it out 2,000 years ago.  It remained buried until Jeff held it in his hand.  That probably explains the grin on his face.

We are also working in what we think is the interior of the synagogue building.  Abuna (my father, James F. Strange, whose Arabic nickname means “Father,” as in a priest; some Arab workers years ago learned that he is an ordained Baptist minister; they were Muslims who didn’t make much of the distinctions among Christians) drew up a hypothetical floor plan of the building, and we are using it to form testable hypotheses.  Here’s what the hypotheses sound like: “The wall might run here.”  Here’s how we test them: “Let’s dig and find out whether we’re right or wrong.”

Yesterday was a long day of touring.  We began at Yodfat, a site made famous by the Roman massacre of the Jewish population at the start of the Great Revolt (66–70 CE).  They had a defensive wall but no real army, and after a 47-day siege, the Romans came in and simply killed everyone they found: men, women, and children.  They also apparently punished the Jews remaining in the area by leaving the corpses where they fell to be eaten by scavengers.  When they finally left one or two years later, people came to collect the remaining bones and bury them in the town’s abandoned cisterns.  The ruined site is now a memorial to the massacre and a tomb for the dead. 

From Yodfat we went to Magdala, famous among Christians as the home of Mary Magdalene, but remembered among Jews for being another town the Romans besieged.  Here there was an army and a pitched battle, but the Romans were successful, and the surviving residents were either executed or sold into slavery.  There is a very important first century synagogue at the site.

We ended at a little resort on the shore of the Sea of Galilee called “Bora Bora Beach.” It costs 20 shekels per head to get in, but it’s relatively clean, they planted real grass in one spot, we can buy food and drinks, and those who wish can take a dip.  The music, however, insulted my middle-aged ears.  Then, just as we left, they played Barry White, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” then Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”  Dang.  I hummed that one all the way back to Nazareth.

But before we swam we toured Capernaum, known in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the home of Peter and Jesus’ headquarters during his Galilean ministry.  In the fifth century, both the Christians, who now were in charge of the city government, and the Jews built new houses of worship within a block of one another.  Abuna confessed that he imagines that when the local Jews approached the Christian town leaders and asked for permission to build, the Christians responded, “It is illegal for Jews to build synagogues, we would be breaking the law to permit it, and we expect an invitation to the dedication.”  That is, in the name of being good neighbors, Capernaum got its white synagogue.  However it happened, and however they felt about one another in the fifth century, these folks figured out how to get along, probably with varying degrees of success.  That model is still followed today, also with varying degrees of success. 

So pray for better success at making peace in Israel.

From Nazareth,
James

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Nazareth, Israel, 24 October 2014

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

I’m supposed to be on my way to the airport, but I awoke at 6 am to find that my flight is delayed exactly 3 hours and 17 minutes.  I’ll look for somewhere to lodge a complaint if it ends up being 3 hours and 19 minutes.

When I do leave, I’ll be heading to NYC, where I’ll get to spend the better part of a day seeing my Joanna (my youngest sister), Jonathan (brother-in-law), my mother, and Leo, my newest nephew.  Until now I’ve had to be satisfied with photos and videos, but soon I’ll get to hold him for myself.  I’m looking forward to meeting him.

It has been a fruitful trip.  My father did arrive, and I got much done that I needed to do.  I spent many days hiking Shikhin’s hills, and I was able to see archaeological features that others had told me about, and in some cases mis-identified.  Now I can say with some confidence that of Shikhin’s three hills, the village, its synagogue, pottery and lamp industry, as well as grape pressing, occupied the northernmost hill. (If you fly to 32° 46.077'N / 35° 16.401'E on Google Earth, you’ll see this hill.  You’ll see Highway 77 to the north, agricultural fields to the north, east, and west, and a modern village called Hoshaya further to the east.  You’ll be able to click on links to photos of the ancient site of Sepphoris [Tsipori or Zippori National Park] to the south, near the modern village of Tsipori, which adopted the name of the ancient city.) 

The middle hill had tombs and some grape pressing industry as well.  Now I know that the tombs probably did not extend to the southern hill, which also supported some industries that I can’t yet identify.  Jebel Qat, which is the hill immediately to the east, housed some tombs and both grape and olive pressing.  Remnants of limestone quarries are everywhere, which, I reason, supported the building of the city of Sepphoris, since the village houses used fieldstones, whereas in the city they could afford to pay for nicely cut stones.  There don’t seem to be enough tombs.

I’ve identified two more miqvehs, or ritual baths, and I found a tomb that robbers had destroyed on the interior, probably looking for treasure.  They used a wrecking bar to dig into the soft chalk, almost completely wiping out the ancient carved “arcosolia,” or arched niches in the walls.  I found what remained of one, with the adze marks of the ancient workers still visible in the stone.  More lie beneath the soil that has silted in over 1,600 years, so we still might recover some information.  I kept the wrecking bar.

On Wednesday and Thursday my Israeli partner, Motti Aviam, graciously toured my father and me to ancient sites.  We saw et-Tell (which the excavator, Rami Arav, thinks is ancient Bethsaida, mentioned in the Gospels, among other places), el-Araj (another potential site for Bethsaida), Magdala, Hamam, Huqoq, Khirbet Kur, Omrit, Kedesh, and Bar ‘Am.  Many people have never heard of most of these, but they are crucial for understanding Galilee from the Hellenistic through the Roman periods, during which Shikhin flourished and was finally abandoned, never to see settlement again.  It is also the time that gave birth to Christianity and the Judaism of the Talmuds, so if you want to understand the beginnings of those religions, it sure helps to know something about the people who lived in this place in that time.  Ideas, after all, don’t float free in the ether, but are tied to bodies and objects, smells and sounds, and other realities of human existence.

The same is true today, of course, as politicians and devout people (sometimes they’re the same people, sometimes not) try to figure out how in the world to solve the problems that beset us.  It seems we can only make limited progress.  I don’t think that should stop us.  Jesus, after all, had no illusions about human failings when he announced that God’s kingdom had already arrived.   That’s probably because he read the Bible.  For their part, the Sages, who read the same Bible, reasoned hard about how to live out God’s Torah in a world that did not cooperate with them.  Later, Muhammad would take up a similar task.  All three bequeathed their struggles to their various heirs.

So, pray for peace, and live to bring it about.

From Nazareth,
James