Israel's Good Name

Jerusalem’s Binyanei HaUma Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on May 27, 2018 at 9:43 AM

On Yom HaZikaron that took place a number of weeks ago, I participated as a volunteer at an ongoing salvage dig in Jerusalem. I had heard about it on Facebook, advertised by Amit Ararat, and made the necessary connections with the Israel Antiquities Authority. I was to be joined by three friends, all fellow students at Bar Ilan University, and together we’d make memories. Adam and I met up in Givat Shmuel and took the bus together to Jerusalem. Itamar had come from his home, and was the first to appear at the dig site that morning. En route, Adam and I passed the relatively new Ariel Sharon park, a landfill-cum-nature preserve, and saw a beautiful red fox standing between the harvested rows of wheat in a field near the road – it was quite the scene.

The digsite

We arrived in Jerusalem and made our way to the dig site, located roadside the International Convention Centre and between the Central Bus Station and Supreme Court. Just to the west, slightly uphill, ruins from the Roman period, including bricks and rooftiles with stamps of the Tenth Legion, were uncovered in the first salvage excavation, in 1949. A later excavation, in 1967, uncovered two potter’s kilns with a other ceramics and ceramic-oriented equipment. Eventually the site was built-over, now the home of the convention centre, and now a small sliver of land beside the nearby street became the target for a new salvage excavation in light of new roadwork-in-planning.

Itamar, Adam and Ido washing pottery

Approaching the fenced-off area, we were able to discern the digsite by the characteristic shade-tents that accompany all digs. Entering, we met up with Itamar and a fellow student from Hebrew University by the name of Ido, both of whom were engaged in pottery washing. They showed us some interesting rooftiles and other ceramics while we waited for Danit, the dig supervisor, to receive us.

Decorated rim of a vessel

We made the necessary introductions and then enjoyed a brief site tour, catching us up with what’s been going on the past year or so since the salvage dig has been opened. In addition to Itamar and Ido there were a handful of paid laborers, and the third BIU friend, Eitan, who was still en route. Danit showed us to an excavated room, with a plaster floor which needed defining, and we got to work. Facing the eastern baulk of the pit-like room, we began by scraping the baulk straight down, to give us clean edges and a defined joint with the to-be-revealed floor. There were all sorts of potsherds, mostly unmarked rooftiles, until I came across one that had production marks, which I thought was pretty neat.

Working in the corner of the pit

What I came across next was similarly interesting, a deposit of wet clay that had a black-grey appearance, and oozed an oil-like substance when condensed. This is easily explained as refuse of the Roman potters, the black substance being nothing but carbon. We enjoyed playing with chunks of the malleable clay, but responsibly got back to work on the wall and the floor. Before long a curious crystal formation was pulled out of the dirt, this item being more of a geological than archaeological curiosity, but interesting to us nonetheless. The buckets of dirt were filled up and emptied by our hands repeatedly as the sun slowly made its way overhead. A common kestrel passed by, giving us a moment of birding enjoyment, respite from the physical labour we were doing. At some point Eitan had joined us, and was working in a spot adjacent to us pulling rooftiles out of the ground.

Eitan posing where he was digging

We took a break for lunch, getting basic food supplies such as bread and hummus from a nearby shop. After our feeding and relaxing we returned to work, eager to finish off the floor now that the walls were adequately straightened. It was delicate work, and Adam proved himself a valuable team member with his deft chiseling of the dirt caked onto the ancient plaster. We removed the dirt, scooping it into buckets to be dumped nearby, slowing bringing the old floor back to life.

LEG X FR rooftile

Ido hopped into the pit to clear some rock and scrape around a bit at the western side of the room, and the great sound of laughter could be heard coming out of our pit. But the laughter broke when Eitan managed to find an exceptional piece of tile, featuring part of a Tenth Legion stamp. The “EG X” from the complete term LEG X FR (Legio X Fretensis) was visible, as well as most of the warship that symbolised the unit alongside the wild boar.

After a day’s work

It was an exciting find, one that we were looking forward to since the day began, and it gave us a form of closure that went well with the finished floor job that Itamar, Adam and I had worked on. As the workday was coming to an end, we cleaned up and took pictures, then gave thanks to Danit for hosting us at her digsite. However, Adam and I weren’t quite ready to leave Jerusalem and decided to pay a visit to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and the neighbouring Rose Garden.

Jerusalem Bird Observatory’s pond

Itamar and Eitan decided to tag along, and we walked on over, starting with the rose gardens where we saw a lot of blackcaps and some Syrian woodpeckers. Approaching the bird observatory we saw a sparrowhawk fly directly over us, taking us by surprise and filling us with excitement. Sitting in the blind at the observatory, we watched the avian activity surrounding a small marshy pond, taking pictures here and there. There were a handful of somewhat interesting songbird species, including: greenfinches, whitethroats, willow warblers and tons of blackcaps. A single turtle dove made an appearance, as did a few thrush nightingales, a first for both Adam and I. Wrapping it up at the observatory, having said our farewells to Itamar and Eitan, we wandered around a bit looking for European nightjars which were spotted that very week. We didn’t find any, but instead saw a steppe buzzard flying over the neighbouring Gan Sacher.

Turtle dove (photo Adam Ota)

Back at the rose gardens, we watched the plentiful thrush nightingales flying about here and there, singing their complex song. In fact, the gardens were full of singing birds and the experience was most enjoyable. But the sun was soon to set and we were wanting for some food. Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) was about to start so we got some pizza and watched some of the national ceremony broadcasted on TV before heading back to Givat Shmuel – but not before ending off our exciting day with a pink blind snake slithering out in front of us on our way to the bus.

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