Week 2, 2011

I cannot help myself: every morning at 6 am, as I drive our van load of volunteers down into the valley that hosts the hilltops of Shikhin, I exclaim, “Look at that. Isn’t that simply gorgeous?” Oblique sunlight strikes the eastern slope and transforms thistles and tall grasses into golden down dotted with the green of olive trees and terebinth oaks. The ridge of hilltops ascends from farmland. If the Beit Netofa Valley were a sea, our site would be an island in a southern inlet. I’ve noticed that both the workers in the fields and the cows who eat the stubble of the harvested crops greet us with stares. I suppose we are a curiosity. I’m happy to give both a bit of respite from their daily routine. I’ve also learned that cows can be quite stealthy. The other day I set up one of Samford’s new survey instruments on a hill called Jebel Qat, for I wanted to shoot from a known Israeli survey point to one of our finds about a half kilometer to the west. I concentrated on leveling the instrument and finding my target through the optical piece, and when I looked up I was surrounded by a herd of around a hundred head, most of them looking at me and chewing their cuds. Where did these rotund ruminants come from, and how had I not heard them? I was happy enough for the company and greeted them with, “Good morning, girls,” doing my best impression of an Englishman I watched working dairy cattle on Kibbutz Regavim in 1993.

This week I heard a new story that nicely illustrates this country’s cultural distinctiveness. In the late 1980s or early 90s, a group of our diggers was driving a rental car over a rutted country road. They were some distance outside of an Arab town when they hit a rock that punctured the oil pan. While they were wondering what in the world to do, Gary “Termite” Lindstrom climbed under the car and plugged the hole with cigarette butts and chewing gum. They got back in, drove back to the town, and started asking directions to a garage that could weld the pan. At one garage, a young man said, “Yes, my uncle can fix your car, but right now we’re going to a wedding party. Would you like to come?” So they went. After the festivities, late at night, the uncle welded the hole in the oil pan. I’m sure they never told the rental company.

Gary and another passenger in that car, Doug Edwards, are no longer with us. I’m grateful that their story, which I myself only know from the telling, brightens my memory of this place.

The students (five from Samford and one from USF) are lively and spirited, if a bit distracted. Often one of us will be lecturing at a site, only to turn around and find that half the group has scampered away to photograph themselves in various poses (sort of the opposite of the cows). I suppose reality is now filtered through Facebook. This is a cultural transformation that befuddles me, as you will understand if you ever see my spare Facebook page. Yesterday I had to remind them that part of their grade depended on their attentiveness and not on the volume of photos they took. I estimate that the effect of my admonition lasted around 30 minutes. In any case, they are a real pleasure to be around, and maybe a few will post photos on this site.

The work is going very well. We have been able to relocate many signs of ancient human activity that were found in 1988 (cistern openings, signs of quarrying, wine and olive presses), and a few more besides. It seems that the villagers of Shikhin enlarged many natural caves as work or storage spaces. The students especially enjoy spelunking in these. I try to get across the importance of finding building foundations, for one of the things we need to do is figure out where to begin digging in 2012.

I think we now know the answer to that question. On Thursday, the last day of our Israeli work week, one of our teams (they call themselves the “A Team,” I suppose because Dr. Alan Hix of Shorter University is their supervisor; the other calls itself the “Dream Team”) found ruins that I had located on the northernmost hill in 2009 but had not marked. The ruins are not of a house, for the stones are quite large and cut with six faces (what we call “ashlars”). So this is most likely a public building of some sort, and it is tempting to imagine all sorts of wonderful things without data to constrain us. Curiously, it lies on the opposite slope of the hill from a quite large enclosure wall that the A Team discovered the previous day. Such walls often enclose villages. Perhaps the Roman village lies here and the public building is from a later century, since what is visible of the construction reminds me of Byzantine architecture. We will only learn the answer to these questions by digging, however.

The Dream team has been surveying the two hilltops to the south, and has found slightly less evidence but has covered a larger area. This suggests that the northern hill was the primary location of activity. Perhaps the village expanded to the south over the course of its existence. We know that one of its primary industries was pottery making, for we can find evidence of that in the form of “wasters” (pieces of broken pottery from vessels that slumped in an over-heated kiln), burnt stone, and perhaps a piece of the kiln wall itself. But they also bottled their own wine and olive oil, as I think nearly every Galilean village did. They also cut more than 30 cisterns for collecting and storing water. They would have needed it for their trees and crops, not to mention for their animals and their own consumption.

Today our Associate Director, Dr. David Fiensy of Kentucky Christian University, and Alan Hix are taking a tour of sites in the Upper Galilee, and they have graciously taken the eager students with them. So today is a quiet day at the hotel, suitable for catching up on financial recordkeeping, examining our data, planning for next week (our final week), and walking down the street for a falafel. Last night (Friday, the beginning of Shabbat) we celebrated a lovely kiddish. When we got to the dining room last Friday after Kiddish, we found it filled with Italian pilgrims on one side and Polish pilgrims on the other, with our small group in the middle. The Pols were singing something with nice harmonies. When they finished, the Italian group took up a raucous song that apparently required each person to sing in a different key. The Pols responded with another of their own, then the Italians sang, and so it went, with each group loudly applauding the other. We eventually offered our own rendition of Psalm 133:1 in Hebrew. Only about four of us knew the words, so we raised our voices high as the others gallantly mumbled. We got applause too, and spent the rest of the competition cheering on the other two groups.

It is now nearly noon and time for that walk to the falafel stand.

Until next time, pray for peace in the Middle East and everywhere.

James

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