Third Letter from Nazareth
Sunday June 5, 2016

Dear Friends and Family,

We have completed our second week of excavations and tours, and exhaustion has arrived right on schedule.  The dig’s work makes demands on the body, even when people are drawing top plans under shade.  There is time for rest in the afternoon, but the early mornings restrain the full effects of sleep (even if people go to sleep at a sensible hour, but who wants to be sensible during this sort of experience in the Holy Land?).  For example, this Sunday morning it’s 8:25 a.m.  On a weekday, by now we would have been working for 3 ½ hours and second breakfast would be five minutes away.  Today by 7:00 a.m. all of the crewmembers over 50 had eaten and while sipping their coffee and tea were remarking on how late it was.  By contrast, I have seen exactly two undergraduate students.  Neither said much after “good morning,” and might not have gotten that much out if someone else hadn’t said it first.

Yesterday we spent from 8 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. working outside.  I say that because, even though we were not digging at our own site but touring others, our bodies only knew that we were demanding calories as we hiked in the sun.  It was 102 degrees Fahrenheit by the time we left for the hotel. 

That, by the way, is a temporary heatwave.  When we started digging, high temperatures rose into the 70s and finally made it to the 80s this week.

Veteran Alex Ramos and his crew opened a new square south of the square from which the 2015 team pulled out 13 whole and complete or nearly complete oil lamps.  That discovery, and the soil layers both in which and over which the lamps were found, created a chronological conundrum that I asked Alex’s team to solve.  Near the end of day Friday the crew found two whole and complete lamps of the same type, so they are on their way.  Alex flies out today and the team is now under the direction of Toby Klein and Pam Reaves (who arrives later this week).  We anxiously await the results of their careful archaeology.

The only five-year veteran of the project, Rachel Stivers-Bender, flew back to Japan last night, leaving the square in the capable hands of Abby Day.  They are completing a square that contains a column drum, probably from the synagogue, that had been reworked as the base for a slow potter’s wheel.  The wheel was slow, not the potter.  I mean that the potter turned the wheel by hand rather than kicking with the foot.  Surely another nearby flat stone with grooves to direct water was also used in the workshop. 

Jill Marshall’s crew is laying bare the corners of two adjoining rooms built in different phases, with a courtyard partially paved with plaster on the other side of the walls.  Floors are always the devil to excavate, unless they are finely laid plaster.  This one ain’t.  The team is getting good information, however.

Under the direction of Teryn Gilbertson, the crew of I.13 finished clearing out one cistern, which we have decided never held a drop of water, and will probably finish the other this week.  The completed pit or storage chamber, as we are now calling it, held fewer whole vessels than we had hoped, but it did yield four whole and complete bowls.  Well, they are bowls if you hold them one way and lids if you turn them the other.  They seem to be the right size to fit over storage jar rims, and at least two are wasters, so they were made here.  So we may have a new distinctive pottery form.  The team’s most important work, however, will be in securing a date for the synagogue.

All this is to say that good archaeology is happening.  Yesterday in a tour of Yodefat that Motti Aviam gave us, the whole team got to see how a site moves from living town to ruin to archaeological site to a preserved park, and how the lead archaeologist decides how to present his or her work to the public.  Motti said that he thinks this is even more important than the articles and reports we write because it will reach more people.  That, in a way, is what I’m doing with these letters.  Not many of you will read the scientific reports from Shikhin, after all. 

Motti also remarked on how much money such site conservation and presentation requires.  Much of that money comes from the government.  In an almost offhand comment, Motti estimated the price of one fighter jet that Israel buys from America (it is astronomical), then said (here I paraphrase), “One day when there is peace we’ll have more money to spend on archaeological sites.”  It was not lost on me that one of his sons and his son-in-law are fighter pilots, and that he spoke these words at a place where Romans massacred most of a Jewish village’s population, sparing neither women nor children.  This morning as I write in the hotel’s coffee bar I hear two women who clean the hotel speaking.  One is a Jewish Russian immigrant and the other is a local Arab, probably a Christian, but I can’t tell by looking at her.  They are employed at a hotel owned and run by an Arab Muslim family.  The language is Hebrew, which one speaks with a Russian accent and the other with an Arabic accent.  The conversation sounds unremarkable.  

When we give them permission, war, murder, and injustice take up all the available space in our imaginations.  Whether we get the reports from news media or experience events firsthand, we can convince ourselves that fear and anger are objective and rational, even necessary, responses.  I think this is why God gave us the gift of true reason, and of love.  Because they are of God, and because God is constantly at work, we can hope, and we can join God’s labor of peace.

So let’s do that.

Begin by praying for peace in Israel and everywhere.

James

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