I joined the Mt Zion Dig after catching Dr Tabor’s lecture at UNCC promoting the Jesus Cave and his book The Jesus code. At the end of his speech he announced that he and archaeologist Dr Shimon Gibson would be conducting a dig in Jerusalem and if you wanted to, you could volunteer. That was in November 2007. I had my paperwork submitted a week later. The dig would be that March.
I had never been to Israel or anywhere in the Middle East before. While I love history, I didn’t know much about the region outside the headlines. And hat was usually about violence. Other than watching Indiana Jones (and I don’t think it counts) I had no formal archaeological training. Still, I had to go. You just have t say ‘yes’ when these once in a lifetime experiences come your way.
In my very brief experience, archeology is a lot like driving long distance. The vast majority of the tasks you are expected to perform are so perfunctory that you set yourself to autopilot. Of course, if you are too zoned-out, you miss the great details that make the trip worthwhile. And sometimes missing those details can lead to disaster.
The question most people ask is ‘Was it Dangerous? As far as I know, Nothing very tragic occurred to our little group while I was a member. The question most people ask me is “Did you find anything?” The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ we found tons (literally) of material. Ceramic chips of ewers, wine jugs, and ritualistic water carriers. Bones of chickens and pics and horses. Mosaic pieces used in flooring and wall design as well as building material like clay gutters and steam vents. We found these shards by the thousands if not the hundred of thousands. The items, at first novel, soon became the debris of millennia. It was ‘just another mosaic piece’ which we would bag and label with the strata we were digging in for future analysis.
Every so often, someone would find something very interesting. A fine bone needle was discovered from Roman times. That was the proverbial needle in a haystack. How that volunteer discovered it is beyond my comprehension. We found a few small pieces of iron. Significant if you understand the context of how rare metal at all was at the time.
Of course, the mother lode was when anyone would find a coin. I’d love to tell you what kind of coins they were. But the fact is that they really are just a lump of metal oxidized to the point of green-blue brittleness. I never found any coins but then again, I wasn’t digging in the places where one might find coins. The closest I came was a relatively large piece of round blue-greenness with a hole in the middle. Dr Egon Lass expertly diagnosed it as a grommet, something one would tie a rope through and went about his day. I am not sure if there was a record, but I am certain to be the title holder in the number of chicken bones found.
Dr Lass continued my history lessons as we progressed through the days and the week. This kind of glaze found on this kind of ceramic indicated the Turkish presence. This kind of mosaic piece indicates the Roman period. This kind of color indicated Muslim influence. Each layer of earth and rubble we sifted through was an opportunity for a lesson
In addition to explaining the historical era of the strata we uncovered, he told me of a great many other stories about his life. At a very young age he escaped Nazi Germany for the states with his mother. He got an education through the Navy and studied to be an anthropologist. Somehow he wound up in the Middle East and doing archaeology. He lived with the Bedouins for a time and he told me many stories of them. The Bedouin people and their nomadic way of life have all but disappeared and through basic on-line research I have found no one else to have claimed to live with them. Dr Lass wrote about his experiences with the clans. About blood fueds and honor debts. About basic religious thought and customs bourne of a different age. About skills the Bedoin cultivated that seem superhuman those of use raised in suburban houses. On my last day he presented me with a chapter of his book, simply bound. It was the only remnant he had of it as the man seems to live sparsley. It is a phenomenal read and has left me searching for the original. (If anyone knows of where to find a copy of Egon Lass’s Seasons of Tulum, let me know!) That was a highlight of my trip.
Most days we would finish digging around 3. By the time we put everything away and were debriefed, it was 4. We trekked home and I would try to wash the eons of dirt off of me. I was alway exhausted in that kind of way a man unaccustomed to day-long physical labor would be. My mind would not let me sleep. ‘When’s the next time you’re going to be here?’ I would ask myself. That would usually be enough to send me back out into the Old City of Jerusalem for more adventuring.
I hit every place in the guidebooks. I explored every shop, every church, every museum. I ate in as many different places as I could afford and spoke to as many people as I could. (Sometimes in pantomime, sometimes in English, once, memorably in my pitiful broken Spanish.) My guide books became a checklist. If I couldn’t see a place one day, I’d try to get to it the next. Despite the early mornings and physical labor I kept very busy exploring.
Most days went like that. Some exceptions stand out:
St Patty’s Day 2008
St Patty’s Day began like any other. The dig started at 5:30 am, we broke for lunch at noon, and we would finish by 4 O’clock. I worked with WSDF reducing a great mound and all was normal. There was a brief period when we thought we heard gunfire in the distance – perhaps Kidron valley. Several workers stopped and gathered together in a low area. DSFGs didn’t move and I figured that he had seen everything one could see in the Middle East so I continued working with him. We ended up being fine.
Since the day was St. Patty’s I decided to test my theorey that EVERY city in the world has at least on Irish bar. Even here in the center of the Holy Land, there had to be an Irish Bar. It turns out there are several.
I had located one bar in the newer side of Jerusalem earlier in the week and was mightily unimpressed. All the locals were clickish and not very welcoming. I didn’t want to repeat my experience so I had made arrangements with two of my fellow volunteers to grab a beer that night. They wanted a long nap before heading out again and I just couldn’t justify waiting around in my dormitory for them to be ready so out I went. And sure enough there was an Irish bar. And yes, it was clickish but at least it was decorated for the occasion. Still, it just didn’t seem right. There was blasting loud music from a stero on the site and a muted TV showing very odd men in costumes doing what I could only assume was some kind of opera or play… with dancing.
That was too weird so off I went and before long I found another Irish bar. But this one was following the same model: muted TV, and disassociated stereo, and the same sort of odd half-naked, spandex-wearing men sort of half dancing. Again the bar was not very welcoming and no one but me seemed to think that the TV was anything out of the ordinary so again I left.
By now it was time to meet up with my compatriots and the prearranged bar. We selected the location on the advice of a grad student whom had been here for 3-4 weeks. He was spot on. There seemed to be a bunch of NGO types here and the waitstaff friendly. That and the fact that I had people to talk with now made me feel better. I tried to describe the other places I had been and got blank stares. Eventually one of the guys pointed at the TV over my shoulder. “Did they look like that?” he asked? Sure enough this third bar had the same kind of thing. While I tried to figure it out he started laughing. “That’s Riverdance! They think St Patty’s Day is all about Riverdance!”
City of David
We had one field trip after a day of digging. One of the official team members, a PHD candidate from an Israeli university, led our group away from our dig site on the outer wall to the south east corner of the Old City. From there we walked through a decidedly Palestinian section of town through what was the first settled part of Jerusalem.
The buildings looked awful. I remembering wondering if these had been bombed in the war for Jerusalem or if it was just the manifestation of poverty. You could see that building materials had been scavanged from anything available. And that included burial structures in the hills literally thousands of years old. As awful as the living conditions looked, we intrepid explorers must have appeared worse. We had just conlcuded a days hard labor in the Middle Eastern sun. Each of us had spent the day crawling around, shoveling, and plowing through dirt and debris. We were covered in the earth and dust of millenia.
In what was my most surreal experience in all of the time I spend in Palestine and Israel, Mareike, our German dig expeditor went into a shop and came out producing icicles for all of us. We walked down the hill towards the nexus of the Kidron and JKHJKH valleys like ducks in a row eating cherry and lemon ices. Amazing.
We came to the stream. Jews come here each Jewish New Year and empty their pockets. Money, lint, whatever is in their pockets goes straight into this stream. The ritual is supposed to be some kind of unburdening. What the reality amounts to is a tremendous pile of trash left in the ghetto by people who the area residents see as foreign occupiers. And we stood there, eating ices while some took pictures. Absolutely unreal.