Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fifth Letter, from Jerusalem

19 June 2016

Dear Family and Friends,

This Father’s Day turned out to be special.  I hugged my dad this morning and we wished one another “Happy Father’s Day.”  Then I left with a group of students and others for a tour of the Old City designed to take us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then to the Russian Mission in Israel, down the Via Dolorosa, and thence to the Pool of Bethesda compound, which includes the Church of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.  The Russian Mission houses some antiquities at the eastern extent of the original Sepulcher compound, some of which date to the time of Hadrian and others to the time of Constantine.  According to Christian tradition, Jesus walked bearing his cross on the “Way of Sorrow.”  If he did walk this route, he was several meters below the level of the current street.

Because today is Sunday, various masses being held by different branches of Christianity made some parts of the Sepulcher off limits to us.  These included the tomb itself and the traditional tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a first-century tomb.  But the Russian Mission was open, as was the Church of St. Anne, a simple stone basilica with marvelous acoustics.  It was there that the day turned extraordinary.  A Catholic priest (Irish, I think) asked our group to sing, and he suggested “Amazing Grace,” which we took up with pleasure.  Some of us harmonized, and when we finished we turned to see a group of pilgrims from Hong Kong sitting in the pews, some with their hands lifted.  We switched places to listen to them sing the “Alleluia” that I remember from childhood, which resolved into their own “Amazing Grace.”  That song is a good choice because its pentatonic scale and the long decay in the church enabled us to sing harmony with ourselves.  Then our crew sang again: “It Is Well with My Soul.”  We left as another company of pilgrims came forward, many of us in tears.  Seeing the archaeology of Jerusalem seemed rather prosaic after that experience.  I assume it’s the priest’s job—even if he’s self-appointed—to encourage groups to sing.  I thanked him just the same.

We were also able to get onto the Haram esh-Sharif (the “Noble Sanctuary” in Arabic), known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount.  We could not, however, enter the Dome of the Rock and we had to leave after only 30 minutes because noon prayers were beginning.  Still, that was a second good piece of the day.

For the past several years we have been staying at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem.  Our first night here, Kenny Lewis, a Samford music major, got permission to play the organ in the chapel, so after Vespers on Friday several of us had an old-fashioned hymn-sing.  Making music together has been part of this year’s Jerusalem experience like never before.

Jerusalem is holy to three religions, and for these and other reasons it evokes strong feelings.  As trained archaeologists, our group knows full well that no holy site can claim certainty for itself (note my habitual use of “tradition” and “traditional” in this letter).  Never mind.  Knowing that we are in the city where Jesus was tortured to death calls forth both grief and joy.  Some of us will go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial today, which will draw out the same emotions for different reasons.  A solution that makes Palestinians citizens of their own state, for which I hope and pray, still feels years, maybe decades, away, but I anticipate that there will be joy on that day.  Then both Palestinians and Israelis will still have to figure out how to live together.

That’s the way it so often works I guess.  After the strong emotions comes the work of living.  I remember the day I received the letters informing me of my promotion to Associate Professor and the granting of tenure.  For awhile my face hurt from all the grinning.  Then I noticed that no one had volunteered to grade the stack of student papers on my desk, so after calling Laura and my mother, I got back to work.

Pray for the peace of Israel.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fourth Letter from Nazareth

12 June 2016

Dear Family and Friends,

Today is Shavuot (also Pentecost) for Jews.  This year the holiday falls within the Muslim month of Ramadan.  Western Christians observed their own Pentecost on May 15, which marks the gift of the Holy Spirit.  So now we are in the second period of “Ordinary Time.”  Shavuot has a dual significance: it is a harvest festival and a time to celebrate God’s gift of the Torah.  Ramadan is a month of daytime fasting, also to celebrate God’s first revelation to Muhammad and to engage in almsgiving.  The color for Ordinary Time is green, and even in mid June the lingering green here reminds us of God’s gifts of rain, sun, crops and herds.  That is, of life.  The authors of both Genesis 1 and John know that God’s speech is life giving.

I write this from the top of a Galilean hill.  Monday the heat will come but for now temperatures are in the mid 70s Fahrenheit.  A breeze cools my back, so I must be facing east.  Traffic on Highway 77 whispers over my left shoulder.  Every now and then a tractor’s growl drifts up from the fields below.  Cicadas buzz all around.  One student sits behind me writing, and I hear her shift about as she sips water and consults her notes.

She is one of nine students taking their final field exam on this hilltop.  They are to wander through a ruin, make observations, and then compose an essay describing how they would excavate the area, defending their decisions archaeologically.  I instruct them to have fun but can’t grade that aspect of their work.  They have, however, impressed me with their archaeological acumen, and I like to think that’s a high bar to clear.  All have been trained in our digging method and all have taken a turn at being in charge of keeping records.  Some have explained the week’s work in their squares to the rest of us during what we call “Friday tour.”  They know their stuff.

Their competence, by the way, reflects something discovered long before I started directing a dig: one doesn’t have to be an academic to be a good archaeologist.  A person who will learn and follow the method, and who can train and supervise volunteers, can excavate as well as anyone and record the data better than many.  Some dig directors of the 60s and 70s learned this when they were trained in meticulous excavation methods, not by people with Ph.D.s, but by paid Arab workers from local villages.  I learned it in 1992 when I dug at Sepphoris under the tutelage of Gary “Termite” Lindstrom, an exterminator from Oakland California with a high school diploma.  Other Area Supervisors at Sepphoris included a real estate agent, school teachers, and stay at home moms.  It was these who over the years trained most Sepphoris volunteers.  At Shikhin I too will take on whoever can do it.  We archaeologists are a practical bunch.

Tomorrow begins the final week of the 2016 season and the crew must think about when to stop digging in order to clean for photographs and complete their final drawing tasks.  It’s something of a mixed time: people are tired, ready to go home, and sad to be leaving.  Some tell me that the excitement of the trip to Jerusalem boosts their spirits and energy.

Earlier in the week I contacted Kyle Bailey in Samford’s Global Engagement Office to tell him that none of our group had been in Tel Aviv when a shooting happened.  Some parents had called concerned, which I certainly understand.  I admit that this sort of worry was foreign to me until my own child went on a mission trip to Belize.  Then I knew.  Today I read about a shooting in an Orlando nightclub.

It is probably an artifact of my own disposition that in these letters I emphasize the peace that is happening all around.  I do it, not to negate the fear, violence, and hatred—or simmering resentment—that is as healthy here as it is in my own country, but to make a modest request: for those who have faith in God, do not allow these things to overwhelm our knowledge that God has given us all we need to fix these problems, and that God is quietly at work to help us.  For those of no religious leanings, or who even lean away from faith, know that we choose between hope and despair, and that while hope wanes we can work.

Please continue to pray for peace, and while praying, to work for it.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Third Letter from Nazareth
Sunday June 5, 2016

Dear Friends and Family,

We have completed our second week of excavations and tours, and exhaustion has arrived right on schedule.  The dig’s work makes demands on the body, even when people are drawing top plans under shade.  There is time for rest in the afternoon, but the early mornings restrain the full effects of sleep (even if people go to sleep at a sensible hour, but who wants to be sensible during this sort of experience in the Holy Land?).  For example, this Sunday morning it’s 8:25 a.m.  On a weekday, by now we would have been working for 3 ½ hours and second breakfast would be five minutes away.  Today by 7:00 a.m. all of the crewmembers over 50 had eaten and while sipping their coffee and tea were remarking on how late it was.  By contrast, I have seen exactly two undergraduate students.  Neither said much after “good morning,” and might not have gotten that much out if someone else hadn’t said it first.

Yesterday we spent from 8 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. working outside.  I say that because, even though we were not digging at our own site but touring others, our bodies only knew that we were demanding calories as we hiked in the sun.  It was 102 degrees Fahrenheit by the time we left for the hotel. 

That, by the way, is a temporary heatwave.  When we started digging, high temperatures rose into the 70s and finally made it to the 80s this week.

Veteran Alex Ramos and his crew opened a new square south of the square from which the 2015 team pulled out 13 whole and complete or nearly complete oil lamps.  That discovery, and the soil layers both in which and over which the lamps were found, created a chronological conundrum that I asked Alex’s team to solve.  Near the end of day Friday the crew found two whole and complete lamps of the same type, so they are on their way.  Alex flies out today and the team is now under the direction of Toby Klein and Pam Reaves (who arrives later this week).  We anxiously await the results of their careful archaeology.

The only five-year veteran of the project, Rachel Stivers-Bender, flew back to Japan last night, leaving the square in the capable hands of Abby Day.  They are completing a square that contains a column drum, probably from the synagogue, that had been reworked as the base for a slow potter’s wheel.  The wheel was slow, not the potter.  I mean that the potter turned the wheel by hand rather than kicking with the foot.  Surely another nearby flat stone with grooves to direct water was also used in the workshop. 

Jill Marshall’s crew is laying bare the corners of two adjoining rooms built in different phases, with a courtyard partially paved with plaster on the other side of the walls.  Floors are always the devil to excavate, unless they are finely laid plaster.  This one ain’t.  The team is getting good information, however.

Under the direction of Teryn Gilbertson, the crew of I.13 finished clearing out one cistern, which we have decided never held a drop of water, and will probably finish the other this week.  The completed pit or storage chamber, as we are now calling it, held fewer whole vessels than we had hoped, but it did yield four whole and complete bowls.  Well, they are bowls if you hold them one way and lids if you turn them the other.  They seem to be the right size to fit over storage jar rims, and at least two are wasters, so they were made here.  So we may have a new distinctive pottery form.  The team’s most important work, however, will be in securing a date for the synagogue.

All this is to say that good archaeology is happening.  Yesterday in a tour of Yodefat that Motti Aviam gave us, the whole team got to see how a site moves from living town to ruin to archaeological site to a preserved park, and how the lead archaeologist decides how to present his or her work to the public.  Motti said that he thinks this is even more important than the articles and reports we write because it will reach more people.  That, in a way, is what I’m doing with these letters.  Not many of you will read the scientific reports from Shikhin, after all. 

Motti also remarked on how much money such site conservation and presentation requires.  Much of that money comes from the government.  In an almost offhand comment, Motti estimated the price of one fighter jet that Israel buys from America (it is astronomical), then said (here I paraphrase), “One day when there is peace we’ll have more money to spend on archaeological sites.”  It was not lost on me that one of his sons and his son-in-law are fighter pilots, and that he spoke these words at a place where Romans massacred most of a Jewish village’s population, sparing neither women nor children.  This morning as I write in the hotel’s coffee bar I hear two women who clean the hotel speaking.  One is a Jewish Russian immigrant and the other is a local Arab, probably a Christian, but I can’t tell by looking at her.  They are employed at a hotel owned and run by an Arab Muslim family.  The language is Hebrew, which one speaks with a Russian accent and the other with an Arabic accent.  The conversation sounds unremarkable.  

When we give them permission, war, murder, and injustice take up all the available space in our imaginations.  Whether we get the reports from news media or experience events firsthand, we can convince ourselves that fear and anger are objective and rational, even necessary, responses.  I think this is why God gave us the gift of true reason, and of love.  Because they are of God, and because God is constantly at work, we can hope, and we can join God’s labor of peace.

So let’s do that.

Begin by praying for peace in Israel and everywhere.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Photos from the advance crew and the first week of digging

 Rebakah and Mason staking out points
 Jeff running the gun

 Emily Drennen
The complete and whole Herodian lamp Emily found

Second Letter from Nazareth

Sunday May 29, 2016

Dear Friends and Family,

Most of the crew is here and work began in our Field I on Monday.  The first day is among the hardest, because folks must clear thistles and grass from the site before they can erect shade, string their squares, and begin digging.  Jeff Posey and his survey team made short work of shooting in the corners of the dig squares and taking beginning elevations.  That’s what it’s like to work with a pro.

As we worked, God gave the gift of a rainbow to our west and the temperatures remained in the 70s.  Later in the day it rained in Nazareth, and for our first Saturday trip we drove wet vans past standing water in ditches.  I don’t think temperatures climbed out of the low 80s on the coast and the mid 70s in Nazareth.  That is unusual in late May, but it happened last year too.  In recent years the “late rains” (Deut 11:14; Jer 5:24; Joel 2:23; James 5:7) have lingered.

I mentioned gratitude in my last post.  The dig really does run on generosity.  The volunteers and staff, of course, are among the primary donors: they spend much and work hard to gather the data.  My parents do too, and they certainly don’t have to because they have paid their dues.  Folks at the Technion College in Haifa (it trains people to teach science in schools) simply lent us one of their most powerful and sensitive GPS units.  We left no collateral; we paid no fee.  As we drove away I told Jeff, “For all they know we could sell it.”  As always, Mitch Pilcer of the village of Tsippori helps in any way he can, and the hotel staff overwhelm us with kindness.  Abundant goodwill causes me to wonder what stems its flow.  It seems to be the natural state of things.  By that I mean, God gives it.  After all, James calls God generous and the giver of every good and perfect gift.  So why do some choose not to give if it is human to do so?  Why do some take what isn’t theirs?  We know the explanation, or some of it.

Our Saturday tour took us first to Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee during most of Jesus’ lifetime that sat just over a mile from Shikhin.  There we walked through the reservoir that marks one of the last stages of the Roman aqueducts that brought water to Sepphoris into the fourth century.  At full capacity it could hold 4,300 cubic meters (152,000 feet) of water and still only supply the city with 80% of what it needed.  So Roman and Byzantine Sepphoris continued to rely on cisterns.  Then we drove to Beit She‘arim (“House of Gates”) at the western edge of the Jezreel Plain.  It is best known for the 31 catacombs cut into its hills, but it also was an important economic and religious center.  The Sanhedrin convened there for some years in the second century, and one of the largest pieces of glass ever made was produced there in the fourth century.  The folks at Corning tell us that only mirrors in two massive telescopes are larger.  It weighed 9 tons and making it required heating sand and lime to 1100 degrees C/2012 F for five to ten days.  Normally such a slab of raw glass would be cut up and sold to glaziers in the region, some of them probably at Sepphoris.  But this one was ruined because someone added twice as much lime as usual.  I guess he got distracted.  We ended at Caesarea, the monument to Caesar Augustus that Herod built on the Mediterranean coast.  I cannot judge what impresses first visitors the most: the architecture, the ocean, or the gelato they sell in a little café inside the Crusader walls.

As they do, our crew is making good archaeology happen.  One cistern or storage space under the synagogue has turned up a couple of whole vessels, one of them a “Herodian” lamp and another a small cooking pot with one handle.  Both date to the first century BCE or CE.  The base of the cooker cracked during firing, rendering it useless, so someone threw it into this pit.  We call it a “waster” and infer that it was made at Shikhin.  These finds and two coins from this area will help us date the synagogue.  The crew of another square in the lamp manufacturing area has uncovered the first lamp mold of the season and the only blown-glass goblet we have found at the site.  In another square, a stone turned out to be a roof roller, used for making and maintaining the flat plaster roofs typical of houses in the region.

I mention the finds because they’re exciting and interesting, but believe it or not, they are not important on their own.  It is their contexts—the soil layers in which we find them, their relationship to the structures, and the village’s place in the region—that allow us to infer, first the life cycle of the village, then its technology, then things like institutions, systems, and values.  And those are the things we piece together to say something intelligent about Galilee from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, and into the Byzantine and Islamic periods when we get that stuff from other sites.  Thus we learn about the birth of two siblings and the growth of a third: Judaism of the Sages of Blessed Memory, Christianity, and Islam.

So our work is relevant here and just about everywhere on the globe.

So, if you would, please pray for peace here and everywhere.

From Nazareth,

Saturday, May 21, 2016

First Letter from Nazareth

May 22, 2016

Dear Family and Friends,

It’s 6:00 a.m. on Trinity Sunday and I hear the church bells of Nazareth asserting themselves over the sound of traffic outside my window.  That is their job, I suppose.  Sunday is a regular workday in Israel, but the Christians in Nazareth take the day off for worship.  Well, the bells ring, calling them in.  Some respond, some sleep in, and some head for the beach, I imagine.  For my part, I have begun the day thanking God for the opportunity for another dig season in Israel.  Gratitude has become my fundamental attitude here.

The early crew arrived in Israel without much incident: only one suitcase stayed behind in Philadelphia.  But if the suitcase is yours I guess that qualifies as much incident.  In any case, it has found its way to its owner, minus a few items that I assume a TSA agent though would make good gifts.  At the Galilee Hotel in Nazareth we were greeted with Muslim and Christian hugs, handshakes, and a full dinner.  Business for the hotel has not been good so far in 2016.  I suppose for many people, like Africa the Middle East is one large country and trouble in any part spells trouble for the whole.  Most of the main crew is here by now, although some were delayed for a day or more for various reasons, and apparently another bag wandered. 

If we had traveled the old route up Highway 2 on the coast we would have watched the sun’s inflamed orange ball sink into the sea.  But we opted to reduce the time that separated us from dinner and beds and took Highway 6 instead.  Tel Aviv silhouetted against the sun was a nice enough sight.

The country welcomed us home with cool temperatures and clear skies.  The next morning the birds began calling before any hint of dawn, no doubt heeding the 4 a.m. call to prayer.  Evidently we landed a week after Israel saw some of its hottest temperatures on record.  The little weather app on my phone is forecasting more reasonable temperatures for the next couple of weeks, so maybe Israel has gotten most of the heat out of its system early.  We shall see.

At the airport we ran into the group of Samford alumni and friends who are here to tour with my colleague in Religion, Jeff Leonard, and the most recent former Arts and Sciences Dean David Chapman, who has been a great friend to this expedition from the start.  I was able to give them a tour of Shikhin on Saturday morning.  I’m confident they will have a meaningful trip.

My parents are with the crew, as they have been since the start of this expedition.  Dad (known as “Abuna” around here) has declared himself out of the field in order to work on publishing Field II of the USF Excavations at Sepphoris, which is the Roman theater.  I dug in the first two squares that the USF expedition sank into the theater back in 1983, when I was a college student like the ones who are with us now.  We stayed in this same hotel before it grew from two stories to four, and before the air conditioning.  Mom remains Camp Manager, so we will continue to enjoy the best second breakfast in all of Israel (so I have been informed by archaeologists who have eaten a greater variety of second breakfasts than I), and the dig will run smoothly along.  Dad is dealing with a variety of health issues.  But he reports improvement, which is good, because he has to finish Volume 2 of the Sepphoris Field II report.  He will also remain our chief pottery expert.  Pray for him.

During this pre-dig period we are tackling two main tasks.  We have finally begun excavating a trench over the Roman road that bends around the northeastern foot of Shikhin’s hill.  After three days of digging, it’s a little more confusing, naturally.  And in preparation for the publication of Sepphoris Field II, Tom McCollough of Centre College directed a re-survey of the theater there.  Jeff Posey of Leica USA did the work; accuracy is much more assured than if I were in charge of the instruments.

One of our research questions at Sepphoris has clarified itself: can we understand lamp production at Shikhin as signs of Jewish refugees fleeing northward after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and perhaps again after the second calamity of 135: the expulsion of Jews from Judea?  That would be important, for of course we know about the move from some textual references, albeit fewer than we like, but good evidence from the material remains has largely eluded us.  We did not even know to ask that question when we started digging the sight.  That is the way archaeology works: you begin with questions (the fancy word is “hypotheses”), some of which you may answer, but you can also count on generating new questions, some of which you will also get to answer.  Work begins tomorrow: we rise at 4.

While we are here, and always, pray for the peace of Israel.  It is easy to lose hope.  That is why, I suppose, God gives it as a gift.


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 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.