First Entry 2012

Composed 27 May 2012


We arrived in Israel in two separate groups and have begun the inaugural season of the Excavations at Shikhin.  The mishaps have been minor.  They involved one student missing her flight but arriving with the later group and one student (not a Samford student) arriving on time and taking the train from the airport because he assumed we had left without him.  We had not, and we spent quite a long time scouring the airport for him.  He arrived safe and sound despite the inclination of several people to throttle him.

It’s difficult to describe what this country does to a person who returns often over a lifetime.  Some say, “It gets in you and you can’t get it out.”  “It,” of course, refers to Israel, however one constructs it.  If that statement sounds a bit like a layman’s diagnosis of an infection, I suppose the metaphor is apt if you regard this particular contagion as something you want.  I do know that I begin to anticipate the trip early in the year, even as I face separation from Laura and Sarah with dismay.  Once here, even while possessing a trifling command of Hebrew and only the ability to greet in Arabic, I experience a powerful feeling of having come home.  I think that would be the case even if the hotel staff did not greet us with genuine warmth, glad smiles, and Mediterranean kisses on both cheeks.  It would be true even if they did not treat us like emperors of the realm.

We have a nice sized group for a first dig season: we’re about 26 strong including students, non-student volunteers, and staff.  The hotel staff has already complimented us on what a nice group we are.  One young Israeli man (he’s 25, which means he has graduated high school, served in the army, and taken a long trip out of the country before starting university) called me yesterday to ask if he could dig with us.  He had learned about us by word of mouth through a connection at the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which is how he got my phone number.  I think he chose an American dig to improve his English, but even so he proved himself to be a hard worker and eager learner, besides a good conversation partner.  I overheard him carrying on at the sifter with a volunteer who is well-known for his taciturnity.  He showed up at the site at 5:00 am like the rest of us did.

Today is Sunday and Shavuot (Christians might be more familiar with the alternate names of Pentecost or Weeks in the New Testament; see Acts 2, for example).  Nevertheless, we worked a full day because of a slight delay last week.  We did celebrate our Friday evening kiddish (a service of blessings, wine, and bread that begins the Sabbath) and our Saturday tour of archaeological sites with a dip in a body of water.  This year the selections were Sepphoris, Caesarea, and the Mediterranean Sea.  At kiddish I reminded the group, which was mostly made up of Christians, that unlike communion this was not supposed to be a somber occasion. Then our resident Presbyterian minister corrected me: communion isn’t supposed to be somber either.  Maybe I’ve been invoking the wrong disposition all these years.  Maybe that’s the difference between Presbyterian and Baptist communions.

We have established Field I of Shikhin by laying out our first squares in an area that we think lies over a public building of some sort.  It is on the crown of the hill, and we found column fragments and pieces of molding in a nearby terrace wall that was surely built to accommodate the olive grove that now stands here.  One does not normally see these sorts of Greek and Roman architectural features on houses in small villages, but here they are.  It is tempting to say that our public building is a Roman-period beit sefer, or synagogue, but it is still too early to tell.  Our first step is to find where the building actually sat and then to determine when it was built.  Figuring out what it was will be a third step.  After two days of digging we can say this: it lies under soil in which the preponderance of the pottery is from the first century of the Common Era, with a few later sherds.  Also, there are scads of pieces of a certain kind of bowl, which makes us highly suspicious that the people of Shikhin manufactured that particular form.  We know they made pottery on-site because we keep finding “clinkers,” or sherds that have been over-fired.  Also, the rabbis remember Shikhin’s pottery for its high quality.

We brought along two magnetometers built from kits.  The idea is to use them to locate the village’s kiln or kilns.  Tommy Tarvin of Samford’s physics department and I were able to get a grant from the school to purchase the equipment, and one of our students, David Bayless, is prepared to use them.  If we find a strong change in magnetic field on a part of the hill we will be suspicious that we have located the kiln and will certainly dig there.

This topic brings up the point that a project like this one is simply impossible without much generosity, and I am grateful every time I remember that fact, which is often.  As an example, while Tommy and David were putting together one magnetometer with the help of Alan Hargrave’s soldering skills (Alan is the chair of physics), David’s father offered to supervise the construction of another in Texas.  It turns out he’s a retired microchip engineer and he called on other retired buddies to take on the project.  So we now have two working magnetometers in Israel because someone was interested in the project and wanted to help.  Of course, that’s true of all of our volunteers whether they are students or staff, Americans or local Israelis.  And by Israelis I mean both Jewish and Muslim people. 

Those of you who have read these posts over the past few years know that this is a theme to which I return often because it is simply part of daily existence in much of Israel, but few care to comment on it.  That is, people get along here as a matter of course, whereas we want to think that they hate one another.  Perhaps that is a reflection of our own fear.  There is certainly hatred to be found but it is not the dominant reality.  Who wants to report on people living, working, shopping, and going to the beach side by side without incident?  Yes it’s true: on the beach at the remains of the ancient Roman aqueduct north of Caesarea one sees men and women in bathing suits that barely “cover the subject” alongside fully-clothed people, the women in full, shapeless garments and hijab head coverings.  One cannot say how they feel about one another, but they are willing to occupy the same stretch of sand and tolerate each other’s chosen dress, or lack of it.  They buy ice cream at the same kiosk and are yelled at by the same lifeguards.  The Muslim Israelis speak Hebrew just like any other citizen, after all.  More importantly, more than one of the Muslim proprietors of our hotel has told me how much he appreciates living in Israel, where his family experiences a good life, unlike people in other Arab countries.  They think in their own stereotypes, but the point is that they appreciate where they live, which no American expects to hear.  One can find different attitudes among the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, but they are not citizens.  That is a problem of substance.

Yet God is at work here.  How else can you explain the tenacious peace of everyday human existence?

Continue to pray for the peace of Israel.  It is working.

James

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