Second Letter from Nazareth
Sunday May 29, 2016
Dear Friends and Family,
Most of the crew is here and work began in our Field I on Monday. The first day is among the hardest, because folks must clear thistles and grass from the site before they can erect shade, string their squares, and begin digging. Jeff Posey and his survey team made short work of shooting in the corners of the dig squares and taking beginning elevations. That’s what it’s like to work with a pro.
As we worked, God gave the gift of a rainbow to our west and the temperatures remained in the 70s. Later in the day it rained in Nazareth, and for our first Saturday trip we drove wet vans past standing water in ditches. I don’t think temperatures climbed out of the low 80s on the coast and the mid 70s in Nazareth. That is unusual in late May, but it happened last year too. In recent years the “late rains” (Deut 11:14; Jer 5:24; Joel 2:23; James 5:7) have lingered.
I mentioned gratitude in my last post. The dig really does run on generosity. The volunteers and staff, of course, are among the primary donors: they spend much and work hard to gather the data. My parents do too, and they certainly don’t have to because they have paid their dues. Folks at the Technion College in Haifa (it trains people to teach science in schools) simply lent us one of their most powerful and sensitive GPS units. We left no collateral; we paid no fee. As we drove away I told Jeff, “For all they know we could sell it.” As always, Mitch Pilcer of the village of Tsippori helps in any way he can, and the hotel staff overwhelm us with kindness. Abundant goodwill causes me to wonder what stems its flow. It seems to be the natural state of things. By that I mean, God gives it. After all, James calls God generous and the giver of every good and perfect gift. So why do some choose not to give if it is human to do so? Why do some take what isn’t theirs? We know the explanation, or some of it.
Our Saturday tour took us first to Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee during most of Jesus’ lifetime that sat just over a mile from Shikhin. There we walked through the reservoir that marks one of the last stages of the Roman aqueducts that brought water to Sepphoris into the fourth century. At full capacity it could hold 4,300 cubic meters (152,000 feet) of water and still only supply the city with 80% of what it needed. So Roman and Byzantine Sepphoris continued to rely on cisterns. Then we drove to Beit She‘arim (“House of Gates”) at the western edge of the Jezreel Plain. It is best known for the 31 catacombs cut into its hills, but it also was an important economic and religious center. The Sanhedrin convened there for some years in the second century, and one of the largest pieces of glass ever made was produced there in the fourth century. The folks at Corning tell us that only mirrors in two massive telescopes are larger. It weighed 9 tons and making it required heating sand and lime to 1100 degrees C/2012 F for five to ten days. Normally such a slab of raw glass would be cut up and sold to glaziers in the region, some of them probably at Sepphoris. But this one was ruined because someone added twice as much lime as usual. I guess he got distracted. We ended at Caesarea, the monument to Caesar Augustus that Herod built on the Mediterranean coast. I cannot judge what impresses first visitors the most: the architecture, the ocean, or the gelato they sell in a little café inside the Crusader walls.
As they do, our crew is making good archaeology happen. One cistern or storage space under the synagogue has turned up a couple of whole vessels, one of them a “Herodian” lamp and another a small cooking pot with one handle. Both date to the first century BCE or CE. The base of the cooker cracked during firing, rendering it useless, so someone threw it into this pit. We call it a “waster” and infer that it was made at Shikhin. These finds and two coins from this area will help us date the synagogue. The crew of another square in the lamp manufacturing area has uncovered the first lamp mold of the season and the only blown-glass goblet we have found at the site. In another square, a stone turned out to be a roof roller, used for making and maintaining the flat plaster roofs typical of houses in the region.
I mention the finds because they’re exciting and interesting, but believe it or not, they are not important on their own. It is their contexts—the soil layers in which we find them, their relationship to the structures, and the village’s place in the region—that allow us to infer, first the life cycle of the village, then its technology, then things like institutions, systems, and values. And those are the things we piece together to say something intelligent about Galilee from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, and into the Byzantine and Islamic periods when we get that stuff from other sites. Thus we learn about the birth of two siblings and the growth of a third: Judaism of the Sages of Blessed Memory, Christianity, and Islam.
So our work is relevant here and just about everywhere on the globe.
So, if you would, please pray for peace here and everywhere.