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.