Second Letter from Nazareth, 2015

Finally figured out what was keeping me from posting last week.

Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,

We are now halfway through the dig, having completed two weeks in the field.  The advance crew spent a few extra days on the front end cleaning out a miqveh.  As we close out squares and free some personnel, we may send some to finish the job so that we can properly photograph and draw this ritual bath, which probably served people returning to the village from the cemetery to the south.

At this point every season I am in a bit of a crisis, anticipating returning home to Laura, seeing Sarah, sleeping in my own bed with my dog, enjoying my front and back porches (heat permitting), and seeing friends at church, while also thinking of all that remains to be done at the site this season, let alone for the entirety of the Shikhin Excavation Project.  It mirrors my crisis on the front end: the excitement of the coming dig season tinged with my sorrow over leaving Laura.  At some point, like any dig, we will have to decide that we have answered all of the archaeological questions that we can, and that we haven’t collected too much data to publish.

Every year in these blog posts I say something about what Shikhin will teach us—and really is already teaching us—about Roman period Galilee.  In past posts you can find many mentions of Shikhin’s pottery industry, about which people have been publishing since the 90s.  We know that Shikhin’s kilns produced many common Galilean pottery forms, and we will do some tests to find out to what other villages and cities that pottery traveled.  We know that the potters experimented with new shapes, for every season I end up with several unfamiliar forms to draw.  I have been talking about lamp production for the past three years; that is one of our most significant discoveries, and if you have joined the Shikhin Excavation Project Facebook group, you have seen photos of a number of complete or nearly complete—and poorly made—oil lamps that have come out of one square this year.   We know that Shikhin is the workshop, or one of the workshops, that produced two forms of molded lamps that people have been speculating were made in a workshop near Nazareth.  We are near Nazareth.  The synagogue is significant mostly for how much of it is missing.  We have found some displaced architectural elements, the foundation for one wall, and one lone stone in its original place, floating disconnected from all its former neighbors, at least so far as we can tell right now.  This tells us that after the building fell, people took nearly every available stone—everything they thought they could use—for building projects elsewhere.  If the synagogue fell with the rest of the village, then most of the stones probably made their way to nearby Sepphoris.  Some stones ended up in a terrace wall to the west of Field I, as farmers cleared the top of the hill to save their plowshares from stones.  In my imagination, I hear them cursing in Aramaic as they hit the bedrock that lay so close to the surface.  That they could not move.

In addition to all this, in the past few seasons our data have been hinting that we might need to reconsider the beginning and ending dates of the village’s life.  Our pottery, lamp, and coin evidence is raising some questions that we need to resolve.  So, the work here is demanding some hard and creative thinking, and it will have an impact on studies of Jesus, the beginnings of Christianity, and early rabbinic Judaism in the Galilee.  That ain’t small potatoes, archaeologically speaking.

Yesterday we toured the Beit Alpha synagogue, one of the first Galilean synagogues to have been discovered with the wheel of the zodiac depicted in its mosaic floor’s central panel.  It caused quite a scandal at the time, but now it’s one of 9 that we know about.  From there we traveled to nearby Beit She’an/Scythopolis, an impressive Roman and Byzantine ruin at the foot of an imposing ancient tell dating from the Late Neolithic to the Hellenistic periods (5,000 years of occupation, with a gap from 722 to 198 BCE or thereabouts).  There we ate lunch in the cool shade cast by vines growing overhead.  Caesarea—the city Herod the Great built in honor of Caesar Augustus on the site of Strato’s Tower on the Mediterranean sea—was the last stop.  You might recall the stories of Peter’s conversion of Cornelius and Paul’s imprisonment there in Acts.  Students of early Christianity will remember Origen and Eusebius, two important bishops of the city.  We visit this site virtually every year for two reasons.  The first is that it is important for understanding a long stretch of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history in Palestine, and the second is, where else can you swim in the clear waters of the Mediterranean next to an arched Roman aqueduct?

As I said earlier, much remains to be done, but today (Sunday) is a day of no digging.  While I write this, some of our crew work on reports while others leave the hotel on various excursions, including shopping and worship.  I can hear others in the nearby coffee bar, apparently laughing at cat videos and other Internet marvels.  The smell of Mustafa’s cigar drifts through the door.  Soon I will hug Penny Long Marler, my former colleague from Samford and chair of the search committee that hired me in 2007, goodbye.  She will leave for the train to the airport.  She has been a good addition to our crew and I hope she can return.

Next week will bring new archaeological challenges to us.  Israel still faces the old challenges of making a lasting peace, as I’m sure most of you have heard by now.




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