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.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Second Letter from Nazareth

It’s Sunday morning and I’m in the hotel’s coffee bar, waiting for the students whom I will take to Haifa, whence they will take the train to Tel Aviv.  One student has an Israeli friend who lives there and will tour the students around the city.  Today is our day off, so the group is scattering to various outings.  I will get some work done, and I’ll drink my fill of cappuccinos.

We have had a good week of archaeology.  Digging has gone slowly because our area supervisors are new to their positions and they are proceeding with caution, but that’s to be expected.  We would rather see caution than abandon.  Some of our folks have sharp eyes and have already turned up two lamp molds and some lamp fragments of various types.  We have been finding an abundance of both ever since we began digging, which means that we’re uncovering evidence that Shikhin’s potter’s produced lamps.  That is now beyond question, in my opinion.  My partner, Motti Aviam, thinks that we are going to find evidence that after the wars of 70 and 135 CE, Jews migrated to Galilee from Judea (that much is already known), and some of them relocated to Shikhin, where they began to make lamps, turning Shikhin into a regional lamp manufacturing center.  He and I are in the process of writing an article in which we will float that hypothesis.  We can then test it in our excavations.

By and large, we always have a good group of diggers.  The hotel staff treats us like family, and they appreciate the interactions with our volunteers, which has a different quality than their interactions with other guests.  They allow us to make our own cappuccinos, for example, and I never see any other guests besides us in the kitchen.  But this year we seem to have a crop of especially gregarious volunteers, many of whom are making a real effort to learn Arabic greetings and sayings.  The staff is charmed.  Some of them have remarked to me how much they appreciate these efforts.  Of course, occasionally those efforts produce humorous results, as when volunteers try out their Arabic on Hebrew-speaking Israelis.  There is a lot of goodwill on all sides, however.

Yesterday (Saturday) we traveled to two important sites: Beit She‘arim and Caesarea.  In the third century CE, Beit She‘arim became a popular place for Jews to be buried.  The Mount of Olives used to play that role, but that ended with the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding area in 135.  A rabbi named Judah Ha-Nasi (“the Prince”) lived out the end of his life in Sepphoris (a 20 minute walk from our site), where he is credited with finishing the compilation of the Mishnah: the core of the two Talmuds.  He was buried, however, in Beit She‘arim.  He was so revered (he became known simply as “Rabbi”), that other Jews began to do the same, and by the middle of the fourth century, when the Romans destroyed the town, the town’s hillside was honeycombed with large mausoleums.  Archaeologists rediscovered them only in the last century.  It became an act of piety to be buried at Beit She‘arim, so much so that even Jews from the Diaspora were brought here for interment.  It is also known for the world’s largest slab of glass, which was ruined in production and so left behind for us to see.  (It was poured to make raw glass to sell to glassblowers.)

Caesarea was an invention of Herod the Great.  Caesar Augustus had given him the Phoenician town of Strato’s tower, and he built a Roman city on the site, complete with a Roman theater, amphitheater, palace, and grand temple to Caesar Augusts, for whom he named the city.  Eventually there was a hippodrome as well.  Josephus was impressed with the speed of its construction, as well as its water system and harbor.  The Romans made it their capital when they took direct control of Judea in 6 CE.  Pontius Pilate governed from the city, and Peter converted the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his family there.  Christian theologians Origen and Eusebius served there as bishops.  For our part, we toured the Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader period ruins, got some refreshing gelato, and then went swimming at the famous Roman aqueduct, as we do most years.

The generosity that has come to define this dig is in full force this year.  Yes, students and volunteers pay a lot to come and work, but they also behave as if it is a pleasure to do so, and to do whatever is asked of them besides.  I have already mentioned the hotel staff.  My parents continue to come: my father as my Architect, but also as a de-facto Field Supervisor and Tour Guide, and my mother as my Camp Manager.  Motti is as busy as anyone with the responsibilities of directing, and he is also making important connections with other archaeologists, schools, and technicians.  People donate funds.  If all we had was money from grants, we could do the work, but not with the care, and hence precision, that this kind of openhandedness produces.  Needless to say, I am grateful.

Pray for the peace of Israel.