April 11, 2016

A Drop in the Bucket

We all have our wish lists: places we want to see and things we want to do. Being part of an archaeological dig is on my list. Maybe it’s my passion for history, my penchant for digging around in the garden and getting my hands dirty. Or maybe it’s my love for being outdoors. 

Did I used to play for hours in the sandbox as a kid? Who knows? But when I finally sat down with a bucket, a pick and a brush, I was transported to another world.

So here is yet another adventure that one can easily do in Israel. Given that this country is one big archaeological dig, one doesn’t have to look too far. In Israel, there is a limited budget to excavate, so many sites sit untouched, unearthed, looking like much large hills.

In Hebrew, we call such a hill a ‘tel,’ an ancient mound that is piled high with remains of multiple settlements. Underneath the grass and earth of these tels are remnants of towns, villages and farms that date back millennia.

Thanks to my friend Rina, who did the research and organizing, we were able to join the Israel Antiquities Authority as volunteers. We were given a time to meet and a location, eventually meeting up with our contact who had us follow his car along a bumpy, twisting road for what seemed like miles.  We then walked into a large tent which served as a canteen and a meeting hall where we were given a hot coffee and told to sit and wait. The archaeologist would soon be there, we were told. He would explain everything.

“First we give you the big picture and then you will be ready for the small picture,” we were told.

Soon enough the big guy arrived. Wearing khaki pants with a gun sticking out from a holster, hiking boots and a wide brimmed hat, he reminded me ever so slightly of a more scholarly, younger, bespectacled version of Indiana Jones. He arrived with a large group of seniors who were on a field trip from an archaeology course.  We all sat down in front of a map and he started to explain where we were and who lived here over the last 2,500 years.

Turns out this area goes back to the late Hellenistic era during the time of Hasmonean rule and there are signs that it dates back further, to the Persian period when, in 539 BCE under the rule of the Persian King Cyrus the Great, some Jews returned to Israel from exile and started to rebuild the land.  The Hellenistic Seleucids then took over the area and ruled from 312-63 BCE. However, the Judeans rebelled against them, forming their own semi autonomous kingdom called the Hasmonean Dynasty which lasted from 140-110 BCE. After the Seleucid Empire crumbled in 110 BCE, the Jews then had complete autonomy until the Romans conquered in 63 BCE. Farmers continued to live in this area right up until the Ottoman times (1517-1917 CE).

Going from the big geopolitical picture to this small grassy tel, we find a farming area. But because of the political instability and constant threats from enemies, especially the Romans, these farming villages had to be fortified. This particular place was walled and had two watch towers plus an underground tunnel system for protection.

Inside the walls, remains of a large wine press with a mosaic treading floor, a deep stone vat for the grape juice plus an olive press were found.  Cisterns and purifying baths, mikvaot, were uncovered. There were also remains of animal pens and evidence that grains were grown here. On the nearby hills, rows of rocks were still neatly etched, delineating terraces where olive trees and grape vines once grew.

The archeologist then held up oil lamps that were excavated on this site. We oohed and aahed over these ancient treasures, then set off to discover more.

We were given a bucket with two brushes, a small pick ax, shovel and a pan then set to work under a black tarp on a hillside. “This is part of a wall,” we were told. “Continue digging here.”

“You want gloves?” We shook our heads.

“You sure?” No way.

We plopped ourselves down on the dirt and set to work.  I picked a spot between two large stones and started to dig and brush. I took the pick beside the newly exposed rock and gently pulled away weeds and earth beside it, then brushed. I felt as if I were a dental hygienist pulling away the bad to reveal the gleaming white underneath.

I was exposing part of a wall that had been hidden for possibly a thousand years. I sifted the earth and took out pottery shards, placing them in a separate bucket. Rina happily unearthed a handle to a jar. We felt like kids in a sandbox.

We dug and exposed a bit more of the wall, piece by piece, rock by rock. It was breezy and cool. It was as if we were transported into a highly focused zone where accomplishment was measured by a sweep and the plop of a shard in a bucket.

Given the massive size of this site and the depth of the hidden antiquities, our uncovering of this seemingly insignificant bit of wall was ‘a drop in the bucket,’ but on a more microscopic, individual level, it was as if time had stopped. No wonder Freud used archeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis; digging slowly into the past, carefully uncovering fragments, unearthing memories and later, interpreting them.

The sounds of sifting, the feel of pebbles and soil falling though my hands and the soft sweep of the brush was a type of meditation. Of simplicity. It was as if I were being connected to a past time that lives on.

Some four hours had passed in what felt like a second. It was somehow already 2 pm and the site was closing, time to pack up the brushes and collect the buckets. The archeologist tagged our buckets of findings, explaining that the shards would be sent for analysis.

I reluctantly got up, leaving my newly uncovered portion of that fortified wall, the wall that was once built by hand to protect those within – the wall that is now buried, the people within long gone. But this site will soon be unearthed to tell its tale.

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