First Letter from Nazareth


May 22, 2016

Dear Family and Friends,

It’s 6:00 a.m. on Trinity Sunday and I hear the church bells of Nazareth asserting themselves over the sound of traffic outside my window.  That is their job, I suppose.  Sunday is a regular workday in Israel, but the Christians in Nazareth take the day off for worship.  Well, the bells ring, calling them in.  Some respond, some sleep in, and some head for the beach, I imagine.  For my part, I have begun the day thanking God for the opportunity for another dig season in Israel.  Gratitude has become my fundamental attitude here.

The early crew arrived in Israel without much incident: only one suitcase stayed behind in Philadelphia.  But if the suitcase is yours I guess that qualifies as much incident.  In any case, it has found its way to its owner, minus a few items that I assume a TSA agent though would make good gifts.  At the Galilee Hotel in Nazareth we were greeted with Muslim and Christian hugs, handshakes, and a full dinner.  Business for the hotel has not been good so far in 2016.  I suppose for many people, like Africa the Middle East is one large country and trouble in any part spells trouble for the whole.  Most of the main crew is here by now, although some were delayed for a day or more for various reasons, and apparently another bag wandered. 

If we had traveled the old route up Highway 2 on the coast we would have watched the sun’s inflamed orange ball sink into the sea.  But we opted to reduce the time that separated us from dinner and beds and took Highway 6 instead.  Tel Aviv silhouetted against the sun was a nice enough sight.

The country welcomed us home with cool temperatures and clear skies.  The next morning the birds began calling before any hint of dawn, no doubt heeding the 4 a.m. call to prayer.  Evidently we landed a week after Israel saw some of its hottest temperatures on record.  The little weather app on my phone is forecasting more reasonable temperatures for the next couple of weeks, so maybe Israel has gotten most of the heat out of its system early.  We shall see.

At the airport we ran into the group of Samford alumni and friends who are here to tour with my colleague in Religion, Jeff Leonard, and the most recent former Arts and Sciences Dean David Chapman, who has been a great friend to this expedition from the start.  I was able to give them a tour of Shikhin on Saturday morning.  I’m confident they will have a meaningful trip.

My parents are with the crew, as they have been since the start of this expedition.  Dad (known as “Abuna” around here) has declared himself out of the field in order to work on publishing Field II of the USF Excavations at Sepphoris, which is the Roman theater.  I dug in the first two squares that the USF expedition sank into the theater back in 1983, when I was a college student like the ones who are with us now.  We stayed in this same hotel before it grew from two stories to four, and before the air conditioning.  Mom remains Camp Manager, so we will continue to enjoy the best second breakfast in all of Israel (so I have been informed by archaeologists who have eaten a greater variety of second breakfasts than I), and the dig will run smoothly along.  Dad is dealing with a variety of health issues.  But he reports improvement, which is good, because he has to finish Volume 2 of the Sepphoris Field II report.  He will also remain our chief pottery expert.  Pray for him.

During this pre-dig period we are tackling two main tasks.  We have finally begun excavating a trench over the Roman road that bends around the northeastern foot of Shikhin’s hill.  After three days of digging, it’s a little more confusing, naturally.  And in preparation for the publication of Sepphoris Field II, Tom McCollough of Centre College directed a re-survey of the theater there.  Jeff Posey of Leica USA did the work; accuracy is much more assured than if I were in charge of the instruments.

One of our research questions at Sepphoris has clarified itself: can we understand lamp production at Shikhin as signs of Jewish refugees fleeing northward after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and perhaps again after the second calamity of 135: the expulsion of Jews from Judea?  That would be important, for of course we know about the move from some textual references, albeit fewer than we like, but good evidence from the material remains has largely eluded us.  We did not even know to ask that question when we started digging the sight.  That is the way archaeology works: you begin with questions (the fancy word is “hypotheses”), some of which you may answer, but you can also count on generating new questions, some of which you will also get to answer.  Work begins tomorrow: we rise at 4.

While we are here, and always, pray for the peace of Israel.  It is easy to lose hope.  That is why, I suppose, God gives it as a gift.

James

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