First Letter from Nazareth


Dear Family and Friends,

It is late in the morning on Sunday June 3.  I did not write last Sunday because by then I had only been in the country two days.  About 11 of us arrived Friday May 25 and 22 more the 26th.  When all is said and done, we will be about 47 strong.  Students from Samford University, University of South Florida, Randolph-Macon College, Southeastern University, and the University of Lausanne make up our youngest stratum, and our volunteers come from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, Texas, Missouri, Utah, Israel, and Switzerland.  I may have left out some spots.

The relatively cool temperatures and clouds have felt like a blessing.  We have even endured the threat of rain, yet rain did not prevent the archaeology from happening, despite some students’ hopes.  Speaking of archaeology, it has gone well so far.  Our staff of area supervisors is made up of veterans of our own dig, Sepphoris, and Bethsaida (et-Tell).  One of our supervisors is a fresh recruit, but even he is a veteran by now.  Those who stand in the middle of our Field I where all the digging is happening can hear hubbub of supervisors instructing volunteers mingled with conversations, laughter, and singing.  We have learned that all are important for doing archaeology well.

Betsy Dobbins from Samford’s department of biological and environmental sciences is here developing the protocols for conducting soil flotation.  Her work will allow us to say something about the things we can’t see with the naked eye, such as the pollens of Shikhin’s native plants and crops, and scales from the fish its people ate.  Back on campus, Brian Gregory of the department of chemistry and biochemistry is working on ICP (inductively coupled plasma) analysis of ceramics made at Shikhin.  Both have student assistants.  We want to know, not only what happened here, but Shikhin’s role in the systems that caused produce, goods, people, and ideas to flow through Roman Galilee.

Yesterday we took our first long tour from one edge of the country to the other.  We began at Beit Alpha, the site of a late 5th century synagogue with an early 6th century mosaic floor.  It was found accidentally in 1928, the first time anyone had seen a synagogue floor decorated with the wheel of the zodiac and Helios in his chariot at the center.  Its discovery turned the archaeological and religious worlds on their heads, but now when anyone digs a synagogue from that period we wait for the news of the next zodiac.  That is how archaeology works: from time to time the data overturn our assumptions.  

From there we went to Beit She’an, the site of an impressive tell preserving layers from the Late Neolithic to the Hellenistic eras, with a new, expansive Roman and Byzantine city at the foot of the tell’s artificial mound.  In Roman times it was the only city of the Decapolis west of the Jordan river and it was the largest city of that region.  Both Beit Alpha and Beit She’an lie near the eastern end of the Jezreel plain where it intersects with the Jordan Rift Valley. 

Then we trekked diagonally across the country to Caesarea on the coast, where we saw parts of the Crusader, Byzantine, and Roman cities.  It is difficult to lecture with waves cresting the seawall.  It’s not that it’s difficult to hear, it’s that no one pays much attention.  The trip ended pleasantly with gelato and a dip in the sea where the Herodian and Hadrianic aqueducts run along the shore toward the city. 

Later, some of our senior staff ate at the home of Mitch and Susie Pilcer, residents of Moshav Zippori near our site.  Mitch has been a friend of archaeologists and a special friend of our dig ever since we started.  He volunteers as a sort of on-call problem solver for us, taking care of everything from getting water to the site to making sure it's cleared of debris before we start work.  He lost his mother just a month ago.  She was 94-year-old Holocaust survivor.

My first spring at Samford ten years ago, Jewish men and women who had endured the Holocaust as children spoke on campus.  I understand how the extermination that happened all over Europe challenges the plausibility that God exists, or that God is good.  Hearing how each had survived, married, raised families, and dandled grandchildren on their knees encouraged me to see that God by grace coaxes goodness out of the worst we can do to one another. 

My mother is here, doing her many jobs while grieving.  As she says, “It’s hard, but everything’s hard.”  Dad, of course, is everywhere.  All of our old friends at the hotel, Nazareth, and Zippori  expresses sorrow about his death, and I expect we will be receiving condolences all summer as we meet those who knew, respected, and loved him.  I may have more to say about that later.

For now, pray for the peace of Israel.

James

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