Second Letter from Nazareth

It’s Sunday morning and I’m in the hotel’s coffee bar, waiting for the students whom I will take to Haifa, whence they will take the train to Tel Aviv.  One student has an Israeli friend who lives there and will tour the students around the city.  Today is our day off, so the group is scattering to various outings.  I will get some work done, and I’ll drink my fill of cappuccinos.

We have had a good week of archaeology.  Digging has gone slowly because our area supervisors are new to their positions and they are proceeding with caution, but that’s to be expected.  We would rather see caution than abandon.  Some of our folks have sharp eyes and have already turned up two lamp molds and some lamp fragments of various types.  We have been finding an abundance of both ever since we began digging, which means that we’re uncovering evidence that Shikhin’s potter’s produced lamps.  That is now beyond question, in my opinion.  My partner, Motti Aviam, thinks that we are going to find evidence that after the wars of 70 and 135 CE, Jews migrated to Galilee from Judea (that much is already known), and some of them relocated to Shikhin, where they began to make lamps, turning Shikhin into a regional lamp manufacturing center.  He and I are in the process of writing an article in which we will float that hypothesis.  We can then test it in our excavations.

By and large, we always have a good group of diggers.  The hotel staff treats us like family, and they appreciate the interactions with our volunteers, which has a different quality than their interactions with other guests.  They allow us to make our own cappuccinos, for example, and I never see any other guests besides us in the kitchen.  But this year we seem to have a crop of especially gregarious volunteers, many of whom are making a real effort to learn Arabic greetings and sayings.  The staff is charmed.  Some of them have remarked to me how much they appreciate these efforts.  Of course, occasionally those efforts produce humorous results, as when volunteers try out their Arabic on Hebrew-speaking Israelis.  There is a lot of goodwill on all sides, however.

Yesterday (Saturday) we traveled to two important sites: Beit She‘arim and Caesarea.  In the third century CE, Beit She‘arim became a popular place for Jews to be buried.  The Mount of Olives used to play that role, but that ended with the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding area in 135.  A rabbi named Judah Ha-Nasi (“the Prince”) lived out the end of his life in Sepphoris (a 20 minute walk from our site), where he is credited with finishing the compilation of the Mishnah: the core of the two Talmuds.  He was buried, however, in Beit She‘arim.  He was so revered (he became known simply as “Rabbi”), that other Jews began to do the same, and by the middle of the fourth century, when the Romans destroyed the town, the town’s hillside was honeycombed with large mausoleums.  Archaeologists rediscovered them only in the last century.  It became an act of piety to be buried at Beit She‘arim, so much so that even Jews from the Diaspora were brought here for interment.  It is also known for the world’s largest slab of glass, which was ruined in production and so left behind for us to see.  (It was poured to make raw glass to sell to glassblowers.)

Caesarea was an invention of Herod the Great.  Caesar Augustus had given him the Phoenician town of Strato’s tower, and he built a Roman city on the site, complete with a Roman theater, amphitheater, palace, and grand temple to Caesar Augusts, for whom he named the city.  Eventually there was a hippodrome as well.  Josephus was impressed with the speed of its construction, as well as its water system and harbor.  The Romans made it their capital when they took direct control of Judea in 6 CE.  Pontius Pilate governed from the city, and Peter converted the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his family there.  Christian theologians Origen and Eusebius served there as bishops.  For our part, we toured the Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader period ruins, got some refreshing gelato, and then went swimming at the famous Roman aqueduct, as we do most years.

The generosity that has come to define this dig is in full force this year.  Yes, students and volunteers pay a lot to come and work, but they also behave as if it is a pleasure to do so, and to do whatever is asked of them besides.  I have already mentioned the hotel staff.  My parents continue to come: my father as my Architect, but also as a de-facto Field Supervisor and Tour Guide, and my mother as my Camp Manager.  Motti is as busy as anyone with the responsibilities of directing, and he is also making important connections with other archaeologists, schools, and technicians.  People donate funds.  If all we had was money from grants, we could do the work, but not with the care, and hence precision, that this kind of openhandedness produces.  Needless to say, I am grateful.

Pray for the peace of Israel.
James

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