A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to Dinner

Dinner in the Christian Quarter

Following my trip through the Western Wall, my failed attempt to gain access to the Al Aqsa mosque, a brief wandering through a cemetary from Lion’s Gate to the Golden Gate, bartering with Persian carpet dealers, and visiting the 14 Stations of the Cross and summiting Christ the Redeemer Church, (that wasn’t a run on sentence, was it 😉 ?) it was time to eat. Jerusalem had one more curveball in store for me.

Return to the Souk

The only time I get lonely overseas is when it’s time to eat. I’ve spent enough time eating alone in my life and I really don’t enjoy it. Eating by yourself overseas makes you realize that despite all the amazing things that you are seeing, you’re missing out on sharing those experiences with anyone else. With that in mind, I decided to take my meal at the busiest place I could find – the market souk near Christ the Redeemer church.

Clothing Inspection

I pause in my tale to describe my attire for the evening. Remember, I have been up running through the dusty streets of Old Jersualem from exactly sun-up to dinner which was probably 12 hours. I have climbed through churches, monastaries, into and out of caves, pressed flesh with religious elders, and struggled through masses of humanity in a desert setting. In other words, I smell My cargo khakis, olive shirt, and brown boots are covered in dust, sweat, and grime. I had been wearing a hat both to protect my shaved head from the Middle Eastern sun as well as to obey the religious sensibilities of each place I visited; some required head cover, others prohibit.

The Restaurant

I chose a restaurant for the view. 3 stories up from the market place I was able to find a seat. However, no one would serve me. After about 30 minutes of watching everyone eat, I turned to leave. Enough of this I thought.

Leaving down the stairs I passed the manage who asked how my meal was. When I expalined that there was no meal because no one would serve me, he disappeared into the kitchen and with a flurry of words in a language I could not identify (Armenian?) he discovered that they wouldn’t serve me because they thought I was an American service man.

Not caring to eat at any place that wouldn’t serve our military I decided to leave. I told the manager that I understood their objections and would leave. Again the man stopped me. He further explained that it wasn’t that they wouldn’t serve me, it was that they were too scared to serve me. He asked ‘You are a SEAL, no?’

That really took me back. I didn’t expect that. Compared to the waiters I was huge. Most Americans really do appear giant and fat compared to the people I’ve encountered overseas. At 195lbs, I am no exception. But a SEAL? No. I lauged it off and explained that American SEALs were much, much bigger, stronger and scarier than I could ever be. That thought both seemed to relieve and terrify them. I was seated and enjoyed a good meal and a tasty beer looking out over the city.

Getting to the Dig

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.

A Brief History of Israel

You can’t really appreciate the archeology without the history. Through archaeology, good, unbiased archaeology, that is we can discern a lot about this area and the timeframes included. However, a large portion of what makes this portion of the world so interesting – the passionate beliefs of 3 major world religions – also lead to contrary claims. I will limit this discussion to what is proven through shrewd science. If you disagree on the basis of religious principle, that’s great. You are welcomed to your opinion. These pages are not for you. If I’ve made a mistake with my accounting of the science here, please let me know in the comments and be prepared to include your sources. I can send you mine.

Also, this isn’t a complete history, just what is germane to the Dig history.

Egypt to Abraham and back again.

Over the years Jerusalem has taken many shapes. Although people settled (as best we can tell around 10,000 BC) the first to rule the area were the Egyptian Pharaohs. Around 1800 BC Abraham took his nomadic tribe from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and defeated the locals in what amounts to a war over water property. Eventually his descendents sought refuge in Egypt due to massive climatic change that led to a drought through out all of the area. In or around 1250 BC Moses led the people on back (via a circuitous route). They battled Philistines and Canaanites and eventually were united under Saul. Saul was defeated at Mt Gilboa by the Philistines and Israel was divided in two; the north being Israel and the south being Judah. David conquered Jerusalem (what was known as Salem) and ran his nation from that seat of power.

David to Sargon to Babylonians and a return

David established Jerusalem (then called Zion) and his son and successor Solomon created the first Temple there (965-928 BC). After Solomon’s rule ended, the people entered into a cycle of subjugation. Around 722-205 BZC, Sargon of Assyria captured Israel (remember, the northern part of Saul’s empire) and forced Judah (David’s portion) to pay tribute. That included Zion/Jerusalem. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and exiled the people to what is today called Iraq. Around 50 years afterwards the Babylonians themselves would be conquered by King Cyrus of Persia and the Jews returned to the lands of Israel, Judah, and the city we know as Jerusalem.

Greeks to Hasmoneans to Romans

Greeks maintained hold of the Holy Land from the 4th century BC via Alexander the Great (whom took the land from the Persians) and Ptolemy (Alex’s general took over the area when he died in 323 BC). Around 200 BC, the Seleucids (another off shoot of Alexander) took control. In particular, in Jerusalem, they displaced the Jewish priests from the Temple. That came to a head in 167 BC when Judah Maccabee rose up to conquer an area just about the size of David’s. This led to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty – something which the Roman Empire found to be a very effective buffer between their grain fields in Egypt and the Parthian (Persian) Empire.


Rome liked having the Hasmoneans as a client state but they fought amongst themselves too much. Rome grew tired of this and intervened in 63 BC. They would then either rule via proxy (like Hasmonean marry-in King Herod) or through a Procurator like Pontius Pilate. This ultimately led to more war and in 66AD Rome crushed what is known as the First Jewish Revolt and sacked the temple in 70 AD thus ending what is referred to as the Second Temple Period. This wouldn’t be the end of Rome’s influence in Jerusalem for they expelled the Jews and renamed the city to Aelia Capitolina after putting down the 2nd Jewish Rebellion under Emperor Hadrian.

Christians & Muslims

Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 313AD and his mother Helena went around consecrating sites associated with Jesus’ life, several in Jerusalem. 638 Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem bringing Islam to the city but Christian pilgrimages were allowed until 1071 when the Seljuk Turks invaded prompting the Pope to call for the crusades. In 1099 Crusading Christians would take the city but the crusades would continue for 200 more years. In 1187 Saladin the Saracen (of Kurdish origin) would take the city.

Ottomans, British, UN, and Modern Israel

1516 would see Palestine fall to the hands of the Ottomans for some 400 years until the British would take it at the conclusion of World War 1. They would turn it over to the UN which would ultimately lead to the 2 month Arab-Israeli war.

St Patty’s Day In Jerusalem

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.