First Entry of 2011

We have finished the first week of a brand new archaeological project. If you read the last entry or so from 2010, you’ll see that last year we closed out the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris, which I co-directed during the final season. This year we are opening up a new site by surveying it in preparation for excavations planned to begin in 2012. I am directing the project, and David Fiensy of Kentucky Christian University is the Associate Director. The name of the site is Shikhin. I’ll talk more about the site later.

The trip did not begin auspiciously, and since I have arrived in the country, things have gone about as I have come to expect. I have never missed a flight to Israel before, and certainly not with a student in tow. Now I have done both at the same time, and while Erica Thornton is certainly an easy travel companion, I don’t care to repeat the experience. In any case, we all arrived safely and all were greeted warmly by the hotel staff, who fed us whether we arrived at 9 at night or 3:30 the next afternoon.

In Israel, if one wishes to survey or dig a site, one must receive a permit from a bureau of the Israeli government. If one wishes to survey or dig within the bounds of a national park, one must receive an additional permit from another bureau. Needless to say, getting those permits is more complicated than one wants it to be, and a bit frustrating besides, especially when one begins applying in January, as I did, but both permits are in-hand now, and work is proceeding. We have shifted to the Israeli work week, which means that we’re taking Friday and Saturday off and working Sunday.

Friday we toured the sites of Beit She’an, Magdala, and Capernaum, with a dip in the Sea of Galilee after Beit She’an and before lunch. I confess that the first and last stops have become old hat, but Magdala is something else entirely. About two years ago, the Catholic order that runs the Notre Dame du France center in Jerusalem began developing land that it had purchased next to the Sea of Galilee. As so often happens in this country, their earth movers uncovered ancient structures, and the builders had to stop to call in the Antiquities Authority to excavate the site. Lo and behold, this order now owns property on which sits the only first-century synagogue to have been excavated in the Galilee. (See the IAA press release here: What a find! Furthermore, one of the excavators of the site himself, Arfan Najar, showed us the building and explained what he thought about it and why. I later told the students that they had experienced a rare opportunity, for they heard an archaeologist talk about his work and reason about it before he published it. Furthermore, the synagogue has anomalies, such as a mosaic floor (we’re used to seeing them in later synagogues) and a carved stone that no one can explain. It does not contain the usual collection of images that we’ve come to expect in synagogue art of later centuries: ethrog (a citrus fruit), lulav (a bundle of various plants), incense shovel, and torah ark. But it does show columns (to represent the Temple?) and a seven-branched menorah! In the first century, that is astounding, and Afran tells us, “Now we have to go back to the beginning,” by which I think he means, we have to rethink many things. Archaeology does not deal well with anomalies. When we find something, we look for analogies so that we can place buildings and objects and practices into categories. We have no idea what do make of this carved stone. What a wonderful problem for Afran to have.

I’ve been telling people that I think Israel gets more beautiful every time I visit. This year the plants are still enjoying the last moisture from the copious rains that the Galilee enjoyed this spring (in fact, it rained a little Saturday morning). The thistles certainly are thriving. It seems as if they are the only thing growing on our site. There must be a dozen varieties in full bloom, and some of them are higher than our heads. Nevertheless, I think the students are enjoying their time here, and we are enjoying the students. They have formed a culture that includes much humor. Naturally, we laugh a lot.

The unrest continues in many parts of the Middle East, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority have their own challenges. Nevertheless, life continues normally here in the Galilee, with the daily interactions of Jews, Muslims, and Christians that make the government and economy—that is, peace—work.

As always, pray for the peace of Israel,

James Strange


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