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,

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The hotel staff's response to, "May I have an apple, please?"

First Sabbatical Post

Nazareth, Israel, 15 October 2014

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

I’m writing from my desk in room 407 of the Galilee Hotel in Nazareth, the same room they give me every summer.  It’s meant for a couple or even a small family, since it’s outfitted with both a double (here a king size) bed and a twin.  This level of grace and hospitality is typical for the hotel staff.  Earlier I asked for an apple and returned to my room to find a plate with two apples, a banana, and a bunch of grapes, with a liter of water and a stemmed glass besides.  I’ve already made myself a cappuccino in the hotel’s coffee bar, and had a nice chat with Subhe Hamed, our main contact here and a longtime family friend.  I’ve seen lots of old friends and been hugged and kissed on both cheeks by many men.  The women shook my hand, American style.

The flight was notable only for the fact that I slept little, which is unlike me.  The drive north was more eventful, for it rained a good, solid downpour just north of Tel Aviv.  That’s how everyone knows it’s October.  I took the old route: Highway 2 rather than highway 6, because I didn’t want to pay a $12 toll.  I was hoping to see the surviving east-west leg of the old Roman aqueduct that once supplied Caesarea, but I turned off too soon onto Highway 65 to follow the ancient route of the Via Maris.  As it did the ancients, it took me by Tel Megiddo, which in ancient times guarded the mountain pass through which the road led travelers and armies into the Jezreel Plain.  The hill features in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—really Revelation.  It’s the place where King Josiah died in battle against Pharaoh Necho.  Christians know it as “Armageddon,” from the Greek pronunciation of the Hebrew “Har Megiddo,” or “Mount Megiddo.”  Other major battles were fought in the 15th century BCE and 1918.

I’m here on a short, 10-day sabbatical trip to do some research: primarily to visit other archeological sites that I never seem to have the time to see during the dig season, but which are critical to walk for myself if I’m to understand Shikhin in its Galilean context.  I also need to do a bit of surveying of the cemetery at our own Shikhin and to examine some of our artifacts and pottery more closely.  I have also planned a day trip to Jerusalem to visit the Nea Church, a site that I am investigating with some Israelis.  If my father arrives (he as been sick), I’ll help him go through some artifacts from Sepphoris.

October is simply a lovely time in Galilee.  The days will be in the 70s and low 80s, much like Birmingham, with cool nights and some rains now and then—what the Bible calls the “early” rains.  Much of the spring’s surviving vegetation will be gone, just in time for the winter growth to replace it.  Streams that dry up in the summer soon will flow again, and even the brown Judean hills will green, laying a grass carpet for Bedouin herdsmen.  In the spring, fields will blush with poppies.

My friend Subhe, an Israeli Muslim, expressed worry about the advance of ISIS and hope about a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine.  I share his concern and optimism.  We both agree that much needs to be done.  In the meantime, staying awake until bedtime presents my most immediate challenge.  That and buying a toothbrush, since I forgot to pack mine.

Pray for the peace of Israel and amity in the Middle East.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

 The whole crew, including students from Kinneret Academic College, with wheelbarrows for scale
 The crew of I.6
 The cleaning crew of I.8, minus Will Worthington
 The crew of I.3, minus Hannah James
The crew of I.5, minus Anna Moseley Gissing
Half of the threshold to a double-leafed door, found last year.
 Other half of the threshold, found last year but turned over this year to reveal its thresholdness.
Foundation stone for the threshold that changes our thinking about the synagogue.  The half of the threshold that we found last year is visible in the upper left-hand corner.
Fourth Letter from Jerusalem

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

This year the incident that kept me from this log on the fourth weekend was the illness and one-night hospital stay of a volunteer (Dear Samford Administrators: not a Samford student), who appears to be restored to about 95%.

We have finished our excavations and are now in Jerusalem, from where we traveled for dinner last night to a lovely tent restaurant near Bethlehem.  We had to leave our rental vans and walk through the Israeli checkpoint, since Avis would cancel our insurance were we to drive into the West Bank.  The two guards we saw were behind what I assume is bulletproof glass.  Both appeared superlatively bored and were fiddling with their phones.  It would have been a different story had we be been Palestinians, even Christian Palestinians, as our dinner hosts were. 

The archaeology of Shikhin continued to present challenges this season.  The evidence of pottery production at a huge volume challenges notions that its residents were peasants who only grew and made enough for their own consumption and use.  The variety of forms made challenges the argument that Shikhin exported only jars.  The number of lamp molds found—we are now up to 15, if we haven’t lost count—challenges the idea that lamps were made only in cities, and it presents us with the possibility that Shikhin became a northern lamp production center after 70, as I said last time.  With one lamp mold found last week, we now know that Shikhin’s kilns produced the well-known “winged,” “darom” (southern) oil lamp.  Earlier I posted photos of two broken ones found during our first week.  In layman’s terms, that’s a really big deal.  We have also now uncovered the foundation stone (it’s a really big stone) for the double threshold stones of the synagogue.  We can tell it’s for the threshold because, although the foundation stone is narrower than the threshold pieces, the builders cut the bedrock so that stone and cutting together accommodated the thresholds.  To our surprise, the foundation is in the stylobate, which means that the stylobate has been transmogrified into the exterior wall of the building.  That means we have to re-think the position, and maybe the orientation, of the synagogue.  Oh well, that’s how we form, test, and revise hypotheses in archaeology.

This has been an exceptional dig season.  We had an unusually cohesive group of curious, hard-working, smart, conscientious folks.  We typically can count on asking one person who has never dug before —often a graduate student—to come as an area supervisor, which means he or she is responsible for the archaeology in one of our squares.   Often we will ask one or two new volunteers to take over supervision of a square after two weeks of training.  This year, at the start of the dig, not one of our area supervisors had a lick of archaeological experience.  Only one volunteer had any, and our most qualified veteran (our field supervisor) didn’t arrive until the second week.  In my experience, that is unprecedented, and Abuna and Motti agree with me.  I confess to having felt some consternation about our situation before we began.  I shouldn’t have spent the energy.  These folks did it: they read the manual and asked many questions and helped to train one another as they went.  And the archaeology got done and done well.  It is a matter of pride for me that, by the end of the dig, three of five Samford students had directed the excavation of their squares.

This morning James F. (Abuna) Strange and I led a walking tour of some ancient sites in the Old City.  We began by taking people to see Byzantine paving stones on Christian Quarter Road.  The pavers have been lifted about 3 meters to their current position, but they are still bearing foot and tractor traffic all these years later.  From there we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where we did our best to distinguish fourth-century construction from 13th century walls and columns.  People may return later to view the tomb of Jesus itself.  Usually there is a long line.  Of the two sites that pilgrims visit as the location  of the genuine tomb, Gordon’s Calvary cannot be the place and the Holy Sepulcher has a decent pedigree of pilgrimage pre-dating the fourth century, so I tell folks it’s not a bad choice.  In the end, however, we cannot know.  The pilgrims, however, don’t ask me, and as usual many were busy anointing and kissing the stone of unction where, according to tradition, Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. 

On the Via Dolorosa, which we walked in reverse (i.e. to the east), we saw a pilgrim group bearing a cross in procession and singing in Spanish to guitar accompaniment.  I assumed that different members of the group got to carry the cross on different parts of the way.  I told Abuna that at one time these sorts of practices (anointing the stone; bearing a cross) struck me as alien and had no meaning for me.  I guess as a Baptist I had no box into which to sort these kinds of pious acts, other than one labeled “silly” or “superstition.”  Today I don’t think I could carry the cross without weeping.  The veneration of the stone moved me as well, even though I don’t think it’s the stone.

I don’t quite know what to make of these shifts in my religious attitude.  I have known Jews of no particular religious conviction to burst into tears at the sight of the Western Wall of the temple mount, which we saw last night on Erev Shabbat.  Maybe this is something like that.  Perhaps I’m simply less cynical than I was twenty years ago. 

At the end of the Via Dolorosa we saw the Pool of Bethesda, made famous by a healing in John 5. The Byzantines and later the Crusaders erected churches over the pool, which still collects water from two separate sources, using very high arches to support their superstructures.  Nearby is a much later Church of St. Anna, the mother of Mary.  It has astounding acoustic properties, and even standing outside we could hear a pilgrim group singing hymns in four-part harmony inside.  It was lovely.

I’m now sitting on the front porch of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, in the cool breeze of the late afternoon, with my empty cappuccino cup at my elbow.  Most of the group will fly out late Monday night, and I and a few people, including my parents, will return to Nazareth to spend a few days finishing up the things that always remain to be done after the close of a dig.  We will feel a bit lonely at the site after so many weeks of busyness and hard work and laughter.   A dinner at Motti’s and Nurit’s home, high up near the Lebanese border, will help.  Still, I’m ready to be home with Laura.

Until next year, continue to pray for peace.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Third Letter from Nazareth

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

We have now completed two weeks of excavation in squares opened last season or even the season before last.  The complication of the structures and stratification has made a slow go of it.  There is lots of destruction to sort out.  The worst culprits are pottery dumps in two squares, one of which lies over 1-½ yards deep.  People chucked it next to two walls so they could lay a plaster floor at a desired height.  The other just looks like a plain old dump, and it contains large pieces of broken pots.  These pieces are telling us all sorts of important information, such as what kinds of vessels Shikhin’s potters made.  Contrary to an older view, they appear to have made most of the known Galilean forms.  They also experimented with new forms.  This is an important piece of information, because for the most part the ancients didn’t value individual expression.  No Rachel Ray cookware to compete with Mario Batali cookware.  That may explain why we find no more than a few examples of these unusual forms: few people wanted something that no one else had.  Sounds strange to our ears, I know.

We also continue to find lamp molds.  We are up to ten, which Motti Aviam tells me breaks the previous record from Caesarea, a huge excavation (over 1,000 squares) of a huge city.  We are a small excavation (around 16 squares and half squares) of a small town.  Well, Shikhin’s kilns turned out lamps.

We are working on a hypothesis.  A scholar from Bar Ilan University has shown that in Jewish towns of the Galilee, most examples of a well-known type of oil lamp made in the first century come from Jerusalem.  He suggested that festival pilgrims brought back these lamps as souvenirs, something like we do when we bring back nativity scenes from Bethlehem or hand painted Shabbat challah cloths from Jerusalem.  It seems to me that the ancients thought about these lamps as metaphors for bringing back the light from the Temple.  Motti thinks there is a good chance that after 70, refugees from Jerusalem came to Galilee, where they took up lamp making again and slowly began to change the way they made the lamps.  We can detect those changes in the fragments from Shikhin.  That may indicate that Shikhin was one of the places (the place?) where these lamps were made after 70.  Something similar may have happened again after 135 CE, when the Romans expelled Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.  We’re working on an article that floats that hypothesis.

The weather has been simply bizarre.  We expect temperatures to be a bit cooler in May and June than they will be in July and August, and usually a few degrees cooler than Birmingham, but there were a few days that felt downright chilly.  Those days followed one of temperatures well into the 90s.  That phenomenon is called a hamsin.  There was a cool breeze in the morning, but it was in the East, and the eastern sky was yellow from the sands of the Arabian Desert that the winds pick up to deposit here.  By 11 it was hot and gritty, and we went home early.  I became dehydrated and drank pitchers of water at pottery reading to restore myself.

It’s now a quiet Sunday.  Yesterday Motti took us on a tour of Yodfat, which he excavated.  It sits on a hill a few kilometers north of Shikhin.  A higher hill kept people in these towns from being able to see one another—us too.  Yodfat was the first village that the Romans besieged in 66 CE, in the same war in which they destroyed the Temple in 70.  One cannot walk around the wall that Josephus built, see the pottery and olive oil industries that the war interrupted (really, that it ended for eternity), or learn about the arrowheads, ballista stones, and human skeletons that were found, without internalizing the brutality of war, particularly this war.  The site still contains many skeletons hastily buried in makeshift graves in cisterns, many of them showing cuts from swords on the bones of the forearms—something we know to call “defensive wounds” from umpteen crime dramas.  But this information was not entertaining.  The ruin has become a sort of mausoleum of the dead, as a modern inscription on a stone declares.

From Yodfat we moved on to Madgala, another site that Josephus fortified (he called it Tarichaea; we assume it’s Magdala) and that the Romans destroyed in the same war.  Although it is never mentioned outright in the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, or New Testament (we assume Mary Magdalene was born or lived there), it does come up in Rabbinic sources.  A few years back, in preparations for building a hotel and spirituality center on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Legionaries of Christ uncovered ruins of what turned out to be a first-century synagogue.  Further excavations revealed parts of the town, including pools for selling live fish and other pools for salting and drying fish.  So the town had a thriving fishing industry.  You can read (and see videos of Fr. Juan Solana talking) about the project at  My parents went to a dedication ceremony for the spirituality center last week.  You can read some things about the archaeology at

At Yodfat, Motti ended his talk by revisiting the issue of suicide.  Although it is prohibited in Judaism, Josephus reports that when the Romans were slaughtering the town’s citizens, a group of elders with whom Josephus was hiding decided to kill themselves.  He reports similar actions at Gamla and Masada.  Motti doubts the veracity of the stories, citing the human desire to live.  He relies on his own experience as a young, wounded tank commander in the Golan Heights during the 1973 war, on a day when he and his fellow soldiers were sure they were going to die, and decided to detonate grenades when the enemy was upon them.  I cannot do the story justice.  Motti and his fellows did not die, at least not all of them.  For a few moments after Motti finished and the group began to head back to the vans I had trouble moving from the spot.  Perhaps it is a contradiction in my faith, but although I cannot say that God spared Motti—only because I don’t claim to know the mind of God—I do say that by the grace of God he is my friend and collaborator on this project.  I’m glad he survived the brutality of war to bring his experience and generous spirit to Shikhin.

Truthfully, I’m grateful to God for all of our volunteers and staff.  I know full well that their hours of hard work on the Shikhin Excavation Project is an act of generosity.

Continue to pray for peace in Israel and everywhere in God’s creation.