Third Letter from Nazareth
Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,
We have now completed two weeks of excavation in squares opened last season or even the season before last. The complication of the structures and stratification has made a slow go of it. There is lots of destruction to sort out. The worst culprits are pottery dumps in two squares, one of which lies over 1-½ yards deep. People chucked it next to two walls so they could lay a plaster floor at a desired height. The other just looks like a plain old dump, and it contains large pieces of broken pots. These pieces are telling us all sorts of important information, such as what kinds of vessels Shikhin’s potters made. Contrary to an older view, they appear to have made most of the known Galilean forms. They also experimented with new forms. This is an important piece of information, because for the most part the ancients didn’t value individual expression. No Rachel Ray cookware to compete with Mario Batali cookware. That may explain why we find no more than a few examples of these unusual forms: few people wanted something that no one else had. Sounds strange to our ears, I know.
We also continue to find lamp molds. We are up to ten, which Motti Aviam tells me breaks the previous record from Caesarea, a huge excavation (over 1,000 squares) of a huge city. We are a small excavation (around 16 squares and half squares) of a small town. Well, Shikhin’s kilns turned out lamps.
We are working on a hypothesis. A scholar from Bar Ilan University has shown that in Jewish towns of the Galilee, most examples of a well-known type of oil lamp made in the first century come from Jerusalem. He suggested that festival pilgrims brought back these lamps as souvenirs, something like we do when we bring back nativity scenes from Bethlehem or hand painted Shabbat challah cloths from Jerusalem. It seems to me that the ancients thought about these lamps as metaphors for bringing back the light from the Temple. Motti thinks there is a good chance that after 70, refugees from Jerusalem came to Galilee, where they took up lamp making again and slowly began to change the way they made the lamps. We can detect those changes in the fragments from Shikhin. That may indicate that Shikhin was one of the places (the place?) where these lamps were made after 70. Something similar may have happened again after 135 CE, when the Romans expelled Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. We’re working on an article that floats that hypothesis.
The weather has been simply bizarre. We expect temperatures to be a bit cooler in May and June than they will be in July and August, and usually a few degrees cooler than Birmingham, but there were a few days that felt downright chilly. Those days followed one of temperatures well into the 90s. That phenomenon is called a hamsin. There was a cool breeze in the morning, but it was in the East, and the eastern sky was yellow from the sands of the Arabian Desert that the winds pick up to deposit here. By 11 it was hot and gritty, and we went home early. I became dehydrated and drank pitchers of water at pottery reading to restore myself.
It’s now a quiet Sunday. Yesterday Motti took us on a tour of Yodfat, which he excavated. It sits on a hill a few kilometers north of Shikhin. A higher hill kept people in these towns from being able to see one another—us too. Yodfat was the first village that the Romans besieged in 66 CE, in the same war in which they destroyed the Temple in 70. One cannot walk around the wall that Josephus built, see the pottery and olive oil industries that the war interrupted (really, that it ended for eternity), or learn about the arrowheads, ballista stones, and human skeletons that were found, without internalizing the brutality of war, particularly this war. The site still contains many skeletons hastily buried in makeshift graves in cisterns, many of them showing cuts from swords on the bones of the forearms—something we know to call “defensive wounds” from umpteen crime dramas. But this information was not entertaining. The ruin has become a sort of mausoleum of the dead, as a modern inscription on a stone declares.
From Yodfat we moved on to Madgala, another site that Josephus fortified (he called it Tarichaea; we assume it’s Magdala) and that the Romans destroyed in the same war. Although it is never mentioned outright in the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, or New Testament (we assume Mary Magdalene was born or lived there), it does come up in Rabbinic sources. A few years back, in preparations for building a hotel and spirituality center on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Legionaries of Christ uncovered ruins of what turned out to be a first-century synagogue. Further excavations revealed parts of the town, including pools for selling live fish and other pools for salting and drying fish. So the town had a thriving fishing industry. You can read (and see videos of Fr. Juan Solana talking) about the project at http://www.magdalacenter.com/. My parents went to a dedication ceremony for the spirituality center last week. You can read some things about the archaeology at http://www.magdalaproject.org/WP/?tag=excavations&langswitch_lang=en.
At Yodfat, Motti ended his talk by revisiting the issue of suicide. Although it is prohibited in Judaism, Josephus reports that when the Romans were slaughtering the town’s citizens, a group of elders with whom Josephus was hiding decided to kill themselves. He reports similar actions at Gamla and Masada. Motti doubts the veracity of the stories, citing the human desire to live. He relies on his own experience as a young, wounded tank commander in the Golan Heights during the 1973 war, on a day when he and his fellow soldiers were sure they were going to die, and decided to detonate grenades when the enemy was upon them. I cannot do the story justice. Motti and his fellows did not die, at least not all of them. For a few moments after Motti finished and the group began to head back to the vans I had trouble moving from the spot. Perhaps it is a contradiction in my faith, but although I cannot say that God spared Motti—only because I don’t claim to know the mind of God—I do say that by the grace of God he is my friend and collaborator on this project. I’m glad he survived the brutality of war to bring his experience and generous spirit to Shikhin.
Truthfully, I’m grateful to God for all of our volunteers and staff. I know full well that their hours of hard work on the Shikhin Excavation Project is an act of generosity.
Continue to pray for peace in Israel and everywhere in God’s creation.