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Fourth Letter from Jerusalem

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

This year the incident that kept me from this log on the fourth weekend was the illness and one-night hospital stay of a volunteer (Dear Samford Administrators: not a Samford student), who appears to be restored to about 95%.

We have finished our excavations and are now in Jerusalem, from where we traveled for dinner last night to a lovely tent restaurant near Bethlehem.  We had to leave our rental vans and walk through the Israeli checkpoint, since Avis would cancel our insurance were we to drive into the West Bank.  The two guards we saw were behind what I assume is bulletproof glass.  Both appeared superlatively bored and were fiddling with their phones.  It would have been a different story had we be been Palestinians, even Christian Palestinians, as our dinner hosts were. 

The archaeology of Shikhin continued to present challenges this season.  The evidence of pottery production at a huge volume challenges notions that its residents were peasants who only grew and made enough for their own consumption and use.  The variety of forms made challenges the argument that Shikhin exported only jars.  The number of lamp molds found—we are now up to 15, if we haven’t lost count—challenges the idea that lamps were made only in cities, and it presents us with the possibility that Shikhin became a northern lamp production center after 70, as I said last time.  With one lamp mold found last week, we now know that Shikhin’s kilns produced the well-known “winged,” “darom” (southern) oil lamp.  Earlier I posted photos of two broken ones found during our first week.  In layman’s terms, that’s a really big deal.  We have also now uncovered the foundation stone (it’s a really big stone) for the double threshold stones of the synagogue.  We can tell it’s for the threshold because, although the foundation stone is narrower than the threshold pieces, the builders cut the bedrock so that stone and cutting together accommodated the thresholds.  To our surprise, the foundation is in the stylobate, which means that the stylobate has been transmogrified into the exterior wall of the building.  That means we have to re-think the position, and maybe the orientation, of the synagogue.  Oh well, that’s how we form, test, and revise hypotheses in archaeology.

This has been an exceptional dig season.  We had an unusually cohesive group of curious, hard-working, smart, conscientious folks.  We typically can count on asking one person who has never dug before —often a graduate student—to come as an area supervisor, which means he or she is responsible for the archaeology in one of our squares.   Often we will ask one or two new volunteers to take over supervision of a square after two weeks of training.  This year, at the start of the dig, not one of our area supervisors had a lick of archaeological experience.  Only one volunteer had any, and our most qualified veteran (our field supervisor) didn’t arrive until the second week.  In my experience, that is unprecedented, and Abuna and Motti agree with me.  I confess to having felt some consternation about our situation before we began.  I shouldn’t have spent the energy.  These folks did it: they read the manual and asked many questions and helped to train one another as they went.  And the archaeology got done and done well.  It is a matter of pride for me that, by the end of the dig, three of five Samford students had directed the excavation of their squares.

This morning James F. (Abuna) Strange and I led a walking tour of some ancient sites in the Old City.  We began by taking people to see Byzantine paving stones on Christian Quarter Road.  The pavers have been lifted about 3 meters to their current position, but they are still bearing foot and tractor traffic all these years later.  From there we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where we did our best to distinguish fourth-century construction from 13th century walls and columns.  People may return later to view the tomb of Jesus itself.  Usually there is a long line.  Of the two sites that pilgrims visit as the location  of the genuine tomb, Gordon’s Calvary cannot be the place and the Holy Sepulcher has a decent pedigree of pilgrimage pre-dating the fourth century, so I tell folks it’s not a bad choice.  In the end, however, we cannot know.  The pilgrims, however, don’t ask me, and as usual many were busy anointing and kissing the stone of unction where, according to tradition, Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. 

On the Via Dolorosa, which we walked in reverse (i.e. to the east), we saw a pilgrim group bearing a cross in procession and singing in Spanish to guitar accompaniment.  I assumed that different members of the group got to carry the cross on different parts of the way.  I told Abuna that at one time these sorts of practices (anointing the stone; bearing a cross) struck me as alien and had no meaning for me.  I guess as a Baptist I had no box into which to sort these kinds of pious acts, other than one labeled “silly” or “superstition.”  Today I don’t think I could carry the cross without weeping.  The veneration of the stone moved me as well, even though I don’t think it’s the stone.

I don’t quite know what to make of these shifts in my religious attitude.  I have known Jews of no particular religious conviction to burst into tears at the sight of the Western Wall of the temple mount, which we saw last night on Erev Shabbat.  Maybe this is something like that.  Perhaps I’m simply less cynical than I was twenty years ago. 

At the end of the Via Dolorosa we saw the Pool of Bethesda, made famous by a healing in John 5. The Byzantines and later the Crusaders erected churches over the pool, which still collects water from two separate sources, using very high arches to support their superstructures.  Nearby is a much later Church of St. Anna, the mother of Mary.  It has astounding acoustic properties, and even standing outside we could hear a pilgrim group singing hymns in four-part harmony inside.  It was lovely.

I’m now sitting on the front porch of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, in the cool breeze of the late afternoon, with my empty cappuccino cup at my elbow.  Most of the group will fly out late Monday night, and I and a few people, including my parents, will return to Nazareth to spend a few days finishing up the things that always remain to be done after the close of a dig.  We will feel a bit lonely at the site after so many weeks of busyness and hard work and laughter.   A dinner at Motti’s and Nurit’s home, high up near the Lebanese border, will help.  Still, I’m ready to be home with Laura.

Until next year, continue to pray for peace.

James

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