It was damn early when I awoke alone in my hostel. The sun had not yet rose but my alarm roused me at the pre-set time; 4:30 am. “Sonofabitch,” I thought as I climbed out of my bunk to shut it off. Nothing registers with me in that early in the morning. It took me a moment to realize where I was and what the alarm meant.
The night before I had returned from an amazing time, my first day in the Middle East, to find a note waiting for me at the hostel. I’ve written about exploring Jerusalem here, here, and here, so if you are interested in back story, just check out those pages. The note was from my pre-arranged contact, a fellow Dig volunteer whom had been here a few weeks longer than I. It was short and to the point. ‘Meet in lobby @ 5:30am. Head to the site.’ And that’s why I was awake at that ungodly hour. To give myself enough time to wash the sleep from my eyes, get dressed and make a small pack for the day.
While the dining hours were listed as 5 am, I knew the set up would be earlier. Perhaps one bleary-eyed American wouldn’t be noticed. So I went to the mess hall early. I had to wake up somehow and sitting alone in my dorm was not the way to do it.. As luck would have it, the coffee (or what passed as coffee) was already brewing and no one was there to object to my taking a table.
By 5:30 I was in the lobby trying to look more awake than I felt and I met the other volunteer. He was in his late 50s and had recently retired from a civil service job and was clearly used to more authority than he had been given on this dig. He explained the basics to me as we returned to the mess hall to pick up supplies that would be our lunch. For the record, lunch was a bizarre affair of potluck. I’m not certain what kind of Rube Goldberg machine-turned-comestible we were expected to build with the materials but at least there were always materials.
My partner walked me over to the site. It was on the south wall of Jerusalem by what is known as the Dung Gate. By those walls were various trenches and partial excavations and over a millennia of debris. This is what I can tell you of the site dubbed Mount Zion:
(Here is a timeline of the occupation of Jerusalem for those whom are interested)
Mt Zion (the dig site) was located west of and outside the original City of David (more on the city of David later). Through the years of Roman annexation (foot note) it was home to the religious upper class. By the time of Jesus such figures as the House of Caiaphas are known to have made their home here. Of particular interest to the Biblical Archeological study (whom was partially sponsoring at least parts of the dig) the places we were excavating may have been the homes of the Pharisees whom judged and tried Jesus before delivering him to Pontius Pilate for insinuated crimes of treason.
After Jesus’ passing the landscape changed again, especially with the Jewish revolt which ultimately led to Rome bringing the hammer down and demolishing every part of Jerusalem “let no stone stand upon another.” From the perspective of our dig, that filled the area with tons of Roman-era debris and a certain amount of destruction.
As you can tell by that short narrative, war and destruction seems to be the only constant of that land. Conquering forces make excavation difficult in the manner that everything you find is either mostly or completely trashed. The good part is that we have consistent timelines and if you find certain markers (Roman roofing, or Turkish tiles), you know the context of anything you find near it.
The dig day starts by the volunteers (students, zealots and retirees for the most part) and the paid laborers (Palestinians, all) begin setting up for the day. Across the road that runs by the site is the foreman’s house. It’s the one with the donkey making noise all day. From there we unload spades and shovels, trowels, buckets, and surveying equipment. Tons of material. The archaeologists would show up right after that effort was finished.
Assignments would be made for digging and in what location. Some with other skills (like surveying – thanks, Dad!) would be assigned to various other projects. Some women whom I am certain are destined for saint hood brewed tea and coffee. That’s when we would get to work.
I was paired with one Dr Egon Lass. He had a reputation for being austere, imperious, and for not suffering fools gladly if at all. I had been warned about working with him both on the way over and by other volunteers. Of course I was assigned to him. The rumors were true. He was exacting but he had decades of experience. He held other people to a high standard but himself to an impossible one. He is also brilliant. I liked it so much that I volunteered to work with him the rest of the week.
And work was hard, painstaking, and very, very hot.