Saturday, August 3, 2013

Third Post, 2013

Every year I mean to post something once a week, and it seems that every year something happens to keep me away from the blog.  This year it was the discovery that a large stone we’ve seen peeking out of the ground for two seasons is in fact a heart-shaped column, which meant that we had almost assuredly found the remains of Shikhin’s synagogue.  You can read about it here:

As it is almost impossible to get enough sleep during the dig, one of the joys of spending three days in Jerusalem at the end of the season is the slower pace.  I get up at 6 rather than 3:30 am, I sit on the front porch of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem and drink cappuccinos, I go to sites in the Old City and bookstores in the New, and visit with old friends, most of whom are shop owners.

On the way to the Western Wall yesterday afternoon we stopped by the shop of an old friend who, because he takes Ramadan seriously, did not serve us water and tea.  But he told me that he would come by the hotel on his way home, when he and other observant Muslims break their fast, and bring us sweets.  Since we are not observant Muslims, we are eating them today (with cappuccino, of course).  In any case, I appreciated the gift.  In our conversation last night I learned that he recently paid for someone who needed surgery on his knee to avoid losing his leg.  The man was a Christian.  My friend paraphrased to me the by-now famous verse from the Quran (5:32).  “The Quran says, ‘To save the life of one person is like saving the life of all the people, and to take the life of one is like taking the life of all the people,’” reversing the clauses, but he did better than many who quote the Bible.

Tomorrow my father and I will lecture to a group of Palestinian Christian teenagers on the topic of Christian values.  We are doing it for other long-time friends who are doing their part to stop the hemorrhage of Christian youths out of Israel, and out of the West Bank in particular.  Remember, Palestinians are not citizens, so they do not know democracy unless they move away or study the subject.  (Boy, a reminder like that can sure instill an appreciation for democracy—warts and all—in this American.)  These youths also do not know the Bible.  I have decided to talk about love of enemy and gratitude by pointing them to Bible passages. 

As I prepared, it struck me that from the Christian perspective, these values are not virtues in the normal sense, for I cannot enact them on my own.  I cannot produce them through effort.  I must ask God for them, and if I do love my enemy and thank God for all the good in my life, I become more like God.

In any case, I’m trying to make a distinction between saying thank you to someone for doing something nice for me, and being grateful to God for the person—any person.  Paul is helping.  We’ll travel to Bethlehem in the morning, have our talks, and attend an Arabic worship service.

Speaking of gratitude, I always spend my days on the dig grateful for our volunteers, who produce impeccable archaeology.  They pay a lot to come here and they work hard once they’re here.  I told someone, “It’s as if they themselves built the structures they’re uncovering.”  This dig thrives on that kind of generosity.  Sepphoris National Park will provide fencing for us and not charge us for the labor.  An expert in locating coins will conduct a coin-finding survey of the site at no charge.  A man who works for the Survey of Israel will produce a map of our site that will include our archaeological finds, also for free.  Another old family friend came this year and, as Abuna said, “Was just golden,” which means he worked tirelessly at too many tasks to count.  The dig receives support from both Samford and Kinneret Academic college.  Laura and Sarah suffer my long absence with grace.

That’s the regular kind of gratitude.  I am also, of course, grateful to God for the gift of this dig, which is really the gift of people.

Thanks be to God, the Father of Lights, for every good and perfect gift.

Until next year, pray for the peace of Israel.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Below is the letter my father wrote to his Sunday School class at Bayshore Baptist Church in Tampa, FL that I mention in my post below.  His letters are the inspiration for what has become this blog from Israel.

Letter to Bayshore and Friends 20 July 2013

Dear Friends,

I was sitting in the passenger seat in the van yesterday at Shikhin with my computer in my lap putting in record points. I can hear the sounds of human voices and of tools clanking and clinking twenty yards away. A whole swarm of men on bikes pedal past, speaking to one another in Hebrew, but keeping their eyes on the path and the man ahead. Bike paths are the new thing this year on the park lands.  As I sit there I spot three sturdy men about 50-60 years old walking toward me, but not in biking clothes.  I was not sure where they were going, but they were walking towards me after all, almost marching in step.  I waited, and when they arrived at the van the man in the middle smiled and said, "We are here to express our thanks to you for exposing our history for us." I was taken completely by surprise, but I managed to thank them for saying so.  Then he added, with a gesture towards Sepphoris. "You know, for what you have done at Tsippori for so long."  I was so touched I could have cried. I did not, but I added this: "Those people who lived at Tsippori and at Shikhin have no voice now.  So every time we find anything they left behind we give them a little voice. Whether it is big or small, every time we find something, they have a stronger voice."  The leader stood erect and wept silently. The man to the left, whom I met yesterday, grinned hugely.  The man to the right seemed lost in thought. 

     I cannot tell you how much I was moved. No one of the locals had ever thanked me, and I never thought they should. I experienced the power of gratitude personally in a new way. I was changed.  I felt better, I gained perspective on what I was doing at that moment, which does not look significant, and I realized all over again why we are doing this.  (They had said the same thing to James a few minutes before.) Archaeology is a very human kind of research because we connect with our ancestors in an immediate fashion.  I hear us talking about the people we owe our archaeological existence to as though they just left yesterday.  “This wall runs off its foundation by nearly 20 centimeters at the south end.  What were they doing?  Did they run into a problem with bedrock? What was going on?” Or we discover that they dug a huge and deep pit at one point in the house during the fourth century AD.  I hear Aaron, the Area Supervisor, or one of his volunteers asking, “Why did they do that” as they stare in wonder at a pit that we have spent two seasons emptying out.  “Did the same guys who dug it out fill it with different dirt for a reason?  Well, what was it?”  All this questioning slowly builds up a story about these people and their activities.  If you go over to Rachel’s square (5 x 5 meter plot) they may have their heads down close to the soil at the bottom of their excavation looking for another piece of the lamp fragment one of them is holding in his hand and staring at. “Doug just turned up a lamp frag, but he thinks he saw another one.” Doug and two other volunteers are on hands and knees dragging their fingers through and almost fondling the loose dirt.  This small patch of floor has yielded three lamp molds and about two dozen lamp fragments to the volunteers’ investigations. “Why are there so many lamp frags?” We respond, “Well, we think they had to be making lamps.” When a lamp mold turns up we need to give a little lecture on the spot about how they are made and used. “You mean they do all this by hand?  Then it’s art” says Angela, a 20 year old from France. “Look”, says another, peering at the fragment in his hand.  “I see some kind of a leaf and something else, but it’s a little hard to make out.” And so it goes, this asking, and we slowly build up the story of the people of ancient Shikhin.

     I like to think that God is listening and watching, and maybe smiling a little, as we tell this story to visitors, or at least tell the part we think we know. He hasn’t forgotten. Psalm 78 says, “He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.” We are the ones who forget.  And now we are hard at work remembering—or doing something very close to remembering. 

     It is peaceful here.  We hear Israeli jets arcing overhead, sometimes circling.  I like to think they are watching as well, but for different reasons. 

Pray for peace.

Jim Strange

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Second Post 2013

Dear Family and Friends,

I missed writing last week because the weekend was completely filled with obligations, some welcome and others just plain tiring.  Friday was our first kiddish celebration: a welcoming of the end of the work week and the beginning of Sabbath rest with a little service that entails blessings in Hebrew over candles, “fruit of the vine,” and bread, some readings from the Bible and a book of prayers (the readings are our own idiosyncratic additions), a singing of Psalm 133:1 (“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity.”), and then a round of hugs accompanied with the blessing, “Shabbat Shalom” or “Sabbath peace.”  Dinner follows.  Last Saturday we took our first weekend trip to Sepphoris and Capernaum and ending with a dip in the Sea of Galilee.  It was blazing hot.  This was the first year we’ve gone to a pay beach, which means we had access to a clean area under trees with chairs, a grill, bathrooms, and many annoying electronic songs piped through the sound system.  I think we’ll continue the practice: toilets and a clean beach are worth the price of admission.  On the way there I saw Dr. Pepper sitting on the shelf of a minimarket for the first time in all my years coming to Israel.  Things only get better here.  Sunday I had business in Jerusalem and Haifa.  I was almost glad to bet back to the relaxing schedule of the dig day.

The week brought another five days of good archaeology.  We have opened three squares that we left unfinished last year and that we back-filled to protect the plaster floors, something I don’t want to do again.  We have also opened two new squares in order to help us understand better what we started to find last year and in hopes of locating the public building that we know stood nearby because we have some fragments of its columns.  I think the building stood to the south of our squares while Motti Aviam, our Associate Director, thinks it lay to the north.  We’ll test both hypotheses.  That’s how archaeology works: you form and test hypotheses, sometimes hourly as you change your mind based on new data.  We continue to find evidence of pottery production at the site.  I am convinced one set of kilns lay very near.  This means that Shikhin is going to have an important impact on our understanding of the Galilean economy in the Roman period, something that will tell us about the beginning of both Christianity and the Judaism of the Talmuds.

Mid-week three residents of Moshav Tsippori (Sepphoris) came by with their dog Butch and thanked us for uncovering their history.  I’ll ask my father if I may include his letter about this event.  It was moving and I was not quite sure how to respond, other than to say, “It’s an honor.”  Work ground to a halt as everyone in the field had to take a turn petting Butch.

We’ve just returned from our second weekend trip to Megiddo and Caesarea, ending with a swim in the Mediterranean near the impressive arched Roman aqueduct.  We saw the Mithraeum discovered by Bob Bull, my father’s professor, and a replica of the famous Pontius Pilate inscription, along with many other wonderful things.

This week we say goodbye to two of our own: Annie Smith, who also came last year (she has been informed that she must return next year, this time for the full four weeks) and Angie Baranes of Nice, France, who found out about the dig on-line.  She also has been invited back. We sang “Shalom Haverim” (“Goodbye, Dear Friends”) to them on Friday, as is our tradition of many years.  We sang the same to my mother after her few days with us, getting us started on all of the duties that she normally performs as Camp Manager.  We miss “Miss Carolyn,” as the Southern volunteers call her (it’s infectious: I notice that our volunteers from other parts take it up as well), but we’re getting along because we have a group that readily volunteers to do the extra things that need to be done.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.

Next week we will be joined by 17 Israeli students from Kinneret College, where Motti teaches, then the final week another 15 will replace them.  They present a logistical challenge, but I look forward to our students working side by side with them and instructing them in archaeological method.  It is always gratifying to hear those who have been in the trenches teaching newcomers what we do and why we do it that way, as they did the first week when a group of Norwegian students joined us for a couple of hours.  Even volunteers who had been working for only a few days sounded like seasoned veterans, and the bond they formed with the newcomers seemed nearly instantaneous.  I hope the same happens between the Americans and Israelis, and I hope that the Norwegians come back next year for a full season.

I continue to be moved by the landscape just about everywhere we drive.  Not only do I see Jesus walking the paths on his way to minister to the rich and poor of Galilee, but the hills and trees also grip my heart.  We have been blessed by good weather.  Daytime temperatures have rarely climbed above 85.  That’s not what I hear from Birmingham and NYC.

Until next week, continue to pray for the peace of Israel.


Friday, July 5, 2013

First Post 2013

Dear Family, Colleagues, and Friends,

I traveled without incident from Birmingham (where I met Claire Oldfather), Atlanta (where we met Aaron Carr), and JFK (where Rachel Stivers-Bender joined the group).  “Without incident” does not include Aaron’s upgrade to business class, my sore tailbone, or the loss of one piece of luggage, which has since arrived.  So everyone and all things are safe and sound where the temperatures are hot but cooler than Birmingham and the view of Shikhin nestled on the edge of the Bet Netofa Valley surprises the eye like an unexpected postcard from Tuscany.  Then you see the thistles.

We landed July 2, set up stores and collected our surveying equipment on the 3rd, and on Independence Day made our first trek to the site, only to discover that someone had blocked the gate we used last year (and out of which some cows escaped) with large stones.  Naturally we moved them.  We judged that enduring a Moshavnik’s ire is preferable to stripping out the oil pan of our Avis on the tractor path on the other side of the hill.  We used the task of surveying in our squares to form the four students/Area Supervisors into a surveying team.  If time allows while we’re here, I’d like to survey in the Roman road that runs east and north of our hill.

Last night, the fourth, the hotel had a surprise dinner of hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries (“cheeps”), and cake for us to celebrate the holiday.  “Hamburgers” turned out to be shish kabob, which here means ground beef with onions and spices grilled on a skewer.  The dinner also included hummous and falafel.  It was delicious.

Tomorrow (Saturday) the rest of the team arrives, so we’ll do a light tour on Sunday and begin digging Monday. The last two weeks of the dig 30 students from Kinneret College will join us.  I anticipate a season of excellent archaeology and a robust expansion of our understanding of Galilee in the Hellenistic and Roman periods—the age that saw the birth of both Christianity and the Judaism that produced the Talmuds—even in only four weeks of digging.

Of course we are paying attention to the disheartening news from Cairo and Syria.  In the face of that, life goes on here as normal.

Still, pray for the peace of Israel and all the Middle East.


P.S. To keep abreast of more frequent (and briefer) posts from the dig, join our Facebbok group ( and follow us on Twitter (@shikhindig).