Last Post from Israel

I should be reading student field exams, but we leave for the airport soon and I feel like spending the last bit of time in Jerusalem thinking in print about the first Samford Summer in Israel.

I think I mentioned in the earlier post that the excavation was a success from an archaeological standpoint. That is, we started the season to answer a discreet set of questions. Really, there was one primary question: were we excavating one complete building or two? An ancillary question was to get a better understanding of what happened to the building(s) in the eastern part after it/they went out of use in the fourth century. We were not able to answer the first to our satisfaction, but as so often happens in archaeology we left with more questions. We were able to answer the second more successfully: in the eastern part of the building(s), almost immediately after it/they went out of use the Byzantines started robbing out stones right down to the foundations. Then they or others came in and constructed wide, heavily mortared foundations where the Roman walls had been, and soon after that industry began. We continue to find evidence of glass blowing here. This season in three different squares we found what we at first called “work surfaces” made by laying battered building stones fairly carefully along the orientation of the preexisting architecture. Upper layers of these surfaces are made of rather carelessly dumped stones topped with lime mixed with soil for a “poor man’s plaster.” The result is such cruddy work surfaces that we changed our minds and started calling them storage surfaces, based on the inference that the people who built them were controlling for water accumulation but did not need a flat, even surface. We can tell that we have people around in the early Arab period (8th century) and later, but they seem to be looking for building stones and not constructing anything in our area.

So much for the nitty gritty of the archaeology. I’m writing about this because I’ve been thinking lately about this field school in archaeology and the contrast between what we think we’re doing and what actually happens, and how important the second part is. Let me clarify: we want to answer a discreet set of questions, so we engage in a few related activities that are necessary for answering them: [1] we apply for a dig permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority, laying out our questions and proposing how we will go about answering them. [2] We recruit a team of volunteers made up both of returning staff and new folks. For me, this meant proposing the course I’m offering through Samford and giving some energy to convincing students to come take the course. [3] We train those volunteers on-site in rigorously scientific excavation and recording methods so that we can get all of the data we need to answer our questions. All of this is carefully planned and implemented, because the data is what we’re after, and it’s what we use when we publish our interpretations. So we carefully design the four weeks of the dig as an exercise in data recovery, recording, and interpreting. [4] We also happen to know that we have to do other things because we’re dealing with human beings: we have to share our meals together; we have to tell people where there’s good shopping; we have to go out to eat as a group from time to time; we have to take our volunteers on tours; we have to take dips in the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea; we have to have parties; it helps if we develop relationships with the staff of the hotel or guest house where we’re staying. We don’t mind doing any of these things because we like to do them ourselves.

But here is what has become clear to me really for the first time this year. I meant it when I said, “We have to…,” because if we don’t do all of the things listed in number 4, numbers 1 through 3 don’t happen, or I should say that they don’t happen as well. On another level, even though we think that as archaeologists we’re after the data that lies stratified in the dirt, when we sit around and talk about past seasons the data hardly ever shows up in our reminiscing. No one says, “Do you remember in 2009 when we recovered the first century foundation trench of wall W91061?” Instead we tell stories about our experiences, which almost always are about people and what they did and said, and how we felt about those things, both the good and the bad. Always there is laughter.

I think that this is archaeology too, but I don’t quite know how to quantify it yet. Perhaps this is an impossible task, since this good is unlimited. In economic terms, the data is a limited, quantifiable good. We can even quantify our success in answering our questions, if not in statistically significant terms, then at least in general ones: we were unable to answer; we answered some, or most, or all, and for the following reasons. But we can only provide opportunities that encourage the other thing that must happen and then hope that it does. I’m calling it “the other thing” because I don’t know how to name this thing that is an unlimited or unquantifiable good, and may be in fact what people value the most about their four weeks in the field. We wish them to become good field archaeologists with skills that will transfer to other digs and with analytical abilities that they can apply to other tasks. This does happen, but that other thing that is the sum of the shared experiences and the effect of remembering them both privately and together happens as well. I strongly suspect that the same process is also at work in the traditional classroom, or in the university campus and its environs during a semester. I shall have to speak with my colleague Penny Marler to get a handle on this phenomenon.

In any case, it was a successful season in this second regard too. Students left Nazareth with some sadness mixed with anticipation of Jerusalem. We dropped them off at the Jaffa Gate of the Old City and Tommy Archer led them to the Hebron Hostel where he stayed last weekend. We (staff) then drove to our hotel at the Notre Dame Center just outside the Old City walls and then met the students at the Western Wall at a prearranged time. They got to see many other tourists as well as the people who gather here weekly for prayer. I got to take the men of the group to see Wilson’s Arch on the men’s side (women not allowed). This massive Herodian arch is projected to have supported a bridge that spanned the Tyropoean Valley to the West of the Temple Mount. After this excursion we had a lovely Middle Eastern dinner, shivering in the cool, windy outside air of the Bedouin style tent in the rear garden of the restaurant.

Early the next morning (July 4) I picked up the Samford crew at the Jaffa Gate and we drove about 1 hour and 45 minutes south of Jerusalem and along the Dead Sea to Masada, where we took the new gondola nearly 400 meters to the top to view Herod’s palace, as well as the first century synagogue, Byzantine church, and other remains. On the east side of the platform the Roman siege ramp still stands as a testimony to Roman ruthlessness and patience. You can read about Masada at the Israel National Parks site.
On the way back we stopped at Ein Gedi to float in the Dead Sea. Jack Wilgus was uncertain that he would float at all since he lacks buoyancy in all other bodies of water, but he did, just like the legionnaire did when Titus ordered him to be trussed up and tossed over the gunwale.

Back in the Old City there was shopping at the shop of Mr. Bajali, who makes jewelry, and the obligatory stop for tea and coffee at the shops of Shaban, who sells many things at the best prices and who can tell you where to get anything else you want. Both are dear men whom the Stranges have known for 15 years or so. Bajali is Christian; Shaban is Muslim.

Today was a walking tour of Roman remains beneath streets and buildings of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, as well as a visit to excavations being undertaken by Shimon Gibson outside the city walls near Zion Gate. He has an impressive complex of Arab buildings from many periods. We also paid a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and I believe some of the students walked the Via Dolerosa. Anna Wilgus was eager to do so, in any case.

While driving this country I have been struck again by its beauty. I rarely see part of a city that I think is attractive, unless it has some antiquity. And Israelis of all types seem to have a different aesthetic and ethic when it comes to trash. But they do know about beauty, because an otherwise unremarkable restaurant in an ugly string of shops in Ramat Ishai (the Heights of Jesse) has a rear garden overlooking the lush Beit Netofa Valley. Another is built on Mt. Gilboa above the Jezreel Plain. The food in both is simply wonderful.

In Jerusalem I have been struck, as in Nazareth, by the everyday mingling of folks. On Friday evening ultra orthodox Jews make their way to prayer unmolested along streets lined with Arab shops and their Arab shop owners. This is not to say that those going to prayer and those watching them are fond of one another (they probably do not know one another) or even that they bear no animosity toward one another. But they are willing to go about their lives in the same places at these times. Maybe, with time and prayer, such events will stretch into the mundane spaces of the week.

Shalom from Jerusalem,


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