The Samford team, consisting of me (James R. Strange) and Aaron Carr, arrived in Tel Aviv without incident at around 6:30 pm local time on Tuesday May 25, having spent right at 12 hours in the air, most of which we slept. We were joined on the flight by three other Sepphoreans and around 150 crying infants. Earplugs managed that problem. The drive up to Nazareth was uneventful, and there we met others who had arrived earlier in the day, including four students from USF and UF. Aaron is the only male on the dig younger than 20, so one area supervisor has designated him as the person in charge of moving large stones. Soon a 16-year-old may join him in that honored position.
This year the team is small, numbering only 17 at our strongest, but some are arriving late and the four Florida students leave after only two weeks. Hence, our archaeological goals, which were already quite focused, are now limited by our numbers: we will only take down three balks, and so we will wrap up the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris, which have been ongoing since 1983, when I joined the crew as a college sophomore. After this year, Jim Strange the Elder (a.k.a. “Abuna”) will retire from the field and concentrate on publishing Field V, which has produced an enormous amount of data.
The first two days of an excavation are usually spent in logistical tasks: orientations, field assignments, setting up stores, etc. This year we are delayed in receiving our dig permit, so we have moved some tasks forward. On Thursday, for instance, which was planned for our first day of excavating, we were treated to a tour of Khirbet Cana by the site’s Director, Tom McCollough of Centre College. This small Roman, Byzantine, and Arab village is very likely the site of New Testament Cana, mentioned only by John as the place where Jesus performed his first and second signs and as the hometown of Nathaniel. The previous Director, Doug Edwards, who died in November of 2008, determined the extent of the village by mapping its tombs. He also excavated a cave that matches ancient descriptions of a grotto in which pilgrims reenacted the turning of water into wine. Greek graffiti are still visible in the plastered walls, and an altar with an inscribed cross and a stone jar stand opposite the entrance, which that day was occupied by three small and very cute puppies whose mother must have been somewhere nearby. Doug also excavated most of a (late?) first century synagogue. Other excavations uncovered parts of several houses and water installations (some of them probably ritual baths). Many cisterns were located and mapped into a GIS database. There is no natural spring here, so the number of cisterns explains how the villagers got their water in the dry season.
The hill of Cana borders the northern edge of the Bet Netofa Valley. Our site, Sepphoris, borders the south. Each hill is visible from the other, and the lush valley lies between. It supports field after field of grains, orchards, and sunflowers, watered by the annual flooding that results from the early and late rains in this country. The residents of Cana must have farmed the land south of their little hill too. They were not peasants, but lived fairly well, considering the wear and tear that prolonged manual labor inflicts on the human body. I am also convinced that the fine villas of Sepphoris afforded no better protection from the elements than did the Galilean village houses. Judging from their homes, villagers were not shy about sorting themselves out according to social strata. Provided there were no famines, they consumed sufficient calories to sustain their heavily-muscled frames. Nearly every hilltop in the region around Sepphoris had a wine or olive press, so the local diet had plenty of fat, and I suppose the wine helped them sleep well at night. To this day, locals bottle and sell their own oil, and people enjoy the many delicious wines that are produced in the Golan, Galilee, and hills around the Jezreel.
In fact, a local oil bottler was selling his product at the site of Tel Dan, which we visited on Saturday. The site is tucked way up in the “Finger” of the Galilee, not far from the Lebanese border. The archaeological site sits in the middle of a verdant nature preserve, through which runs one of the headwaters of the Jordan. The water comes from springs fed by the melt-off from Mt. Hermon, and it rushes through narrow stream beds, producing 250 million cubic meters per year. I imagine that kayakers’ knees go a little weak when they see the flow. Maybe I’ve exposed the extent of my ignorance about kayakers.
Excavations at the site revealed a mid-18th c. BCE (Middle Bronze II) arched city gate made of mud brick, which now is covered to keep it from dissolving in the winter rains. This gate protected the city of Leshem (Joshua 19:47) or Laish (Judges 18:27) before the tribe of Dan migrated north and took it around the middle of the 11th century BCE. Now we know that the Canaanites invented their own arch around 1,000 years BR (before Rome). Jeroboam established a northern capital of sorts at Dan (1 Kings 12:28-29). The city fell to the Syrians in the early 9th century (1 Kings 15:20), and under Omri and Ahab it was rebuilt. The Omride stone walls survive to an impressive four-meter height in places.
Saturday’s tour also took us to Nof Ginosar, a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee that houses the first-century “Jesus boat.” The boat was discovered on the shore of the lake back in 1986 during a drought that lowered the lake level enough to expose the hull. The story of its (very fast) excavation and preservation is quite fascinating.
Whether we go out or stay in the hotel, we cannot escape the mix of peoples and languages one encounters everywhere in this country. Since we have been here, the hotel has hosted pilgrims from India, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, and Malta (it turns out that Maltese contains many Arabic words, and the folks at the hotel understand it fairly well). The hotel owners are Muslim residents of Nazareth, which means that they are Israeli citizens, and many of the hotel workers are Christians. The other day I heard one of the women who cleans rooms speaking Hebrew heavily accented with Russian to the woman who works the front desk, who replied in Hebrew heavily accented with Arabic. Subhe, one of the brothers who runs the hotel, told me that lower Nazareth, which is largely Arab (both Christian and Muslim), is filled with Jews from Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth) on Saturday, because Jewish shops and restaurants are closed for Shabbat. At Dan, Jewish Israeli families shared the nature preserve with Muslim Israeli families. The Muslim Palestinian man who was my seatmate over the Atlantic explained to me that “this ball belongs to everyone.” Nowhere is that more evident than in this country.
So on this spot of the planet, where news reports might convince you that people hate one another and refuse to get along, the banality of everyday life belies the quiet endurance of peace.
May peace survive all attempts to end it,
James

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