Israel's Good Name

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Yatir Forest: Ecological Fieldwork

In Israel, Judea on June 18, 2019 at 7:26 AM

The other week I had the privilege of taking part in something slightly out of the ordinary. My friend Levi Burrows had invited me to participate in some fieldwork for his MA at Hebrew University. Specialising in ecology at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Levi is contributing to an ongoing research project spearheaded by two professors – Dr José Grünzweig at Hebrew University and Dr Yagil Osem at the Agricultural Research Organisation – Volcani Center. Plans were set into motion and I found myself heading his way for a day of ecological fieldwork.

Welcome to Yatir Forest!

Levi picked me up that evening outside the Volcani Center and together we entered the compound, located the storage room and loaded his rental car – a Peugeot 301 – with the necessary gear. Pretty much set for the next day, we drove over to his apartment in Rehovot and had a nice relaxed evening. We made sure to go to sleep extra early, because fieldwork days start just after 2am. My alarm clock rang shortly after 2am and together we made the last necessary preparations before heading out. Our destination was Yatir Forest, located near Mount Amasa, south of Hevron, where the KKL-JNF had planted Aleppo pine trees starting back in 1964. Levi’s research sites are marked off plots of land, each plot containing an interior plot fenced off by razor-wire.

Arboreal spectres

We drove on main roads for over an hour, then made the rest of our way on a side road passing scattered Bedouin villages. We arrived shortly after 4am and immediately began to work. Our first task was to take sprig clippings from particular, numbered trees, bagging them for later use. As we dashed about in the chilly darkness, our headlamps illuminating big patches in front of us, I heard the first of many scops owl calls. I was tempted to try and lure the scops owls with calls from my Collins birding app, but there was work to be done and we had to finish this stage before the sun’s rays peek over the mountainous horizon.

Sunrise

Our only real distraction was a large praying mantis found on a tree trunk, and aside from that we worked with alacrity gathering sprigs from four separate plots. When we were done, the first rays appeared and we began setting ourselves up for the next stage. Levi’s research involves comparing the water potential of trees both in and out of grazing areas.

Scientifically examining the sprigs

The way we were to find out was to measure the trees’ thirst by checking the pressure it takes to force stored water out of the sprig’s freshly snipped twig. To do this we employed the use of a PMS Instrument Model 1505D “Pressure Bomb” which applies nitrogen to pressurise the leaves in a little pressure tank. Levi hooked up the machine to a nitrogen tank and we began to take measurements of the greatly aromatic sprigs.

Hammering out soil samples

The sun climbed up and began warming us with its friendly rays. We finished up with the final sprigs of the pre-dawn harvest and then set out to do our second task: taking core samples of soil from the two sections of each plot. This was performed with two sledgehammers, a pipe-stake and a bucket. We went from plot to plot taking samples, and only getting a little bit distracted by the many praying mantises – these ones belonging to the species Rivetina baetica.

Rivetina baetica mantis

This was hot and tiring work, especially with the exposed bedrock in many places, so we were happy when we finally bagged our final sample. The happiness increased when, as we were making our way out of one fenced off area, we spotted a jackal do an about-face and run off downhill. Apparently the jackal was curious as to what we were doing and came up check us out.

Snake-eyed lizard

With the jackal gone there were still some more cool stuff to see. A pair (or more) of common kestrels kept appearing now and again, and a pale-morph snake-eyed lizard was spotted near the car. We drove back to our temporary base camp and began to figure lunch out.

Basecamp

Levi had packed a bunch of cooked foods and snacks for us, but we also wanted to do some fresh cooking of our own. We decided that building a fire to roast kabanos sausages would be a great experience, and set out to do it posthaste. When the small fire was up and burning, the fuel being the dead bark, sticks and pinecones from the fragrant Aleppo pines, we hunkered down and got comfortable. Skewering the sausages on sharpened sticks, we set about making a delicious snack to accompany the food we brought.

Relaxing beside the fire

When the feasting finished we kicked back to rest a bit, with the intention to do another round of sprig-picking at noon. A few kestrels screeched from the nearby treetops, and some ticks ran unchecked over the pine-needle forest floor, but aside from that silence reigned. When noon finally came around we urged ourselves back to work, and began the sprig-picking one plot at a time.

Snipping sprigs

When the 96 fragrant sprigs were all successfully bagged, we drove back to our base camp and began the nitrogen-pressurising process again under the shade of an Aleppo pine. We worked quickly and diligently, and cracked open a bottle of Leffe Bruin when we were finishing.

Driving back

When our work was finished we loaded up all the gear into the Peugeot and bid the pine forest farewell as we made our way to the main road. It was a bit of a drive back, but eventually we made it to Rishon Lezion where Levi dropped me off. He continued on to the Volcani Center whereas I bused to my girlfriend’s place near Jerusalem to enjoy a home-cooked dinner.

University Trip: Herodium Survey & Tour

In Israel, Judea on April 18, 2019 at 9:35 AM

This post harkens back to the late fall and winter months, when I participated in a series of archaeological explorations with Prof Boaz Zissu and other students. These explorations were part of my “Survey Basics” class with the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University, taught by Prof Zissu (see also HERE). The first and third tours, having taken place back in October and December, were to Khirbet ‘Arak Hala. Located just north of Beit Guvrin, this site is largely comprised of a flattened enclosure, bathhouse and ancient settlement – all dated to the Roman period.

SUV of happiness at Khirbet ‘Arak Hala

The second survey, back in November, was to Khirbet Amudim, located in an active military firing zone, in the Judean foothills. Our duty that day was primarily to locate and map out caves and underground expanses, and it was very rewarding with fascinating caves and many interesting species of wildlife, including horseshoe bats and hungry cave ticks.

Ben, Nohar and myself surveying at Khirbet Amudim

However, this post is about the fourth survey day, to Herodium – or more precisely, to the hilltop adjacent to the mountain-top fortress. It was Dec 27th, and there was rain in the forecast for most of the country, but being that Herodium is located in the Judean Desert where rainfall is less common, it was decided that the survey day will continue as planned. Thus, our tour bus transported us first thing in the morning to Herodium where the rest of the team was waiting patiently.

Herodium

The very first thing that we noticed was the biting cold wind which penetrated our clothing and chilled us to the bone. We found shelter within the visitors centre, and were briefed on the history and archaeology of Herodium by both Prof Zissu and the site’s resident archaeologist, Roi Porat.

Winter skies over Judea

Properly briefed, we then headed outside and made our way to the hilltop northeast of Herodium. It was chilly, with rain clouds in the distance, but a full rainbow appeared before us and life was looking great. We were divided into two teams, each tasked with scanning a particular area for potsherds and other archaeological evidences.

Itamar Berko gathering surface finds

Within a half hour, as the teams were gathering the many scattered potsherds, a cold biting rain began. Blown by powerful gusts of mountain wind, the freezing rain made surveying quite difficult. We continued the best we could, but then, as we were finishing up, the rain intensified. We beat a hasty retreat to the visitors centre, but the downpour was quicker than we were and we returned soaking and cold.

Rainbow preceding the rain

After laying out some of our clothes to dry in a heated room, we gathered around to take stock of the potsherds we had found. The bags were spilled out and divided up, the indicative pieces (such as rims and handles) analysed and identified. We made an estimation of the typologies, factoring in the age of the sherds, and developed a rough picture of the site’s age. When we were finished, we had a debrief, and then ventured out into the park to explore Herodium’s ruins.

Examining the ceramics

Herodium, the iconic mountaintop fortress, was constructed by Herod the Great before the turn of the millenium during the Roman period. The site is divided into three main areas: the fortress, the slopes and the lower region. The fortress was designed to have four towers, the eastern one being most prominent, and the interior of the palace complete with a courtyard nestled within. Towards the end of the construction, dirt was added to the outer walls of the round fortress, giving the appearance of a luxuriously-filled volcano. When Herod died, in the year 4 BCE, he was buried on the slopes of Herodium, in a monumental structure built in his honour.

Looking down on Lower Herodium

Later, during the Jewish revolts against the Romans, Herodium was occupied by the rebels and refuge tunnels were dug beneath the fortress. After the final tunnels were burned out in battle, Herodium laid waste until Christian monasteries was built during the Byzantine times. From the Arab conquest onward, dating back some 1,400 years, Herodium laid in ruins with just a few local Bedouins keeping the site company. Following surveys starting in 1873, archaeological work began in 1962 and have been continuing on-and-off since then.

Entering the fortress

We climbed the hill via the footpath, and entered the fortress complex from the western side, passing various archaeological features and the view of Lower Herodium along the way. The palace remains came into sight as we crested the slope’s top, entering into the ancient courtyard. Raindrops had begun to fall, and we were ushered into the belly of the palace-fortress, entering chambers generally off-limits to the public until the restorative work in complete. Roi Porat led us down a perilous staircase, and into a quaint vaulted room where we set down our bags and got comfortable.

Inside the vaulted room

Some of the team joined the department’s patron, Yehuda Mizrahi, in preparing a hearty lunch while the rest of us gathered around to hear more about the ongoing excavations. After an overview, we set out to see the emptied storage rooms that once housed the Jewish rebels during the Roman era. Fallen stones, blackened ceilings and bone-dry logs illustrated the scene frozen in time, as the tunnels were set aflame to burn out the trapped Roman soldiers.

Exploring the scorched chambers

We spent a good half hour in the tunnel-like chambers, discussing archaeological technique and theories with Prof Zissu and Roi Porat. When we had had our fill, a concept that was hard to imagine, we headed back outside, via the vaulted room, for another gander now that the sun had come back out.

Herodium’s ancient synagogue

With so much to see, from the curved internal walls to the many columns and other architectural features, it’s hard to fully relate the true wonder of the site. I passed from the southern portico to the reception hall and ancient synagogue, and then from the weapons foundry and the Byzantine chapel to the bathhouse and northern exedra.

Bathhouse ceiling

Throughout the fortress’ interior, signs delineated both the Herodian-era ruins and the later ruins, often times occupying the same space. I spent time in each spot, taking pictures and admiring the construction before moving on.

Northern portico

Minutes later, when I entered the underground tunnel system, I was truly blown away. The white tunnels, carved from the soft rock, seemed endless and I descended deeper and deeper into the mountain.

Entering the tunnel system

I passed water shafts and retaining walls, keeping to the main path as I pressed onward. Several of the side passages were fenced off, accessible only to the site excavators, but I was happy enough with the prepared tunnels. Deeper and deeper the tunnel went, until at last it leveled out and I found myself headed towards one of the exits not far from the elegant theatre and Herod’s tomb.

Deep inside the tunnels

Breaking down the underground system, the cisterns date to the Herodian period, where as the tunnels date both to the Jewish War and the Bar Kochba Revolt several dozen years later. I emerged from the tunnel via a large room, and made my way around the slope ruins. Not wanting to miss lunch, I headed back into the bowels of the mountain and back up into the fortress courtyard to rejoin my group in the quaint vaulted room.

Final chamber

Everyone had reconvened from their exploration ventures and lunch was being served from the makeshift kitchen. We sat down to hot soup, freshly made pitas, breads, salads and preserved meat. It was a kingly feast, and we felt downright special eating it in the quaint stone room. As lunch winded down, we sat around about swapping amusing stories until it was time to clean up and head back out into the cold wind.

Freshly made soup and pita

We exited via the tunnels and began to explore the slope ruins, but first, a Finsch’s wheatear popped into view and I snapped a handful of sub-par pictures before it flew off. Walking the slope path, we came upon the theatre which once hosted great entertainment during the Herodian period. Next, the two sets of ancient steps that head up the slope towards the peak, each built in a different time period.

Underground retaining walls

From there we continued on to the area of the royal tomb, where Herod was buried. During the Jewish War, some of the Jewish population didn’t take too kindly to his burial place and proceeded to tear it down. Today, foundations, architectural elements and many of the ashlars have been found – signs of a monumental structure – but that’s about it. Citing physical and historical evidence, a miniature version of the ornate tomb was reconstructed, and provided us an idea of what the original structure looked like.

Rain-splattered staircase

As we enjoyed the views from the slope, the rain and bitterly cold winds picked up again. The walk back to the visitors centre wasn’t necessarily far, but with the rain and cold it was quite the trek. I particularly enjoyed seeing the falling raindrops flying upwards at my face as the wind changed the standards of gravity. Eventually we made it back to the visitor centre and prepared ourselves to head back to Bar Ilan University.

Model of Herod’s tomb

This was the final survey day of the survey class, but due to the relative success of the adjacent hilltop’s surface find collection, another survey day was immediately scheduled. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the second day, but I heard that it was absolutely delightful. Having finished my survey requirements for my BA, I hope that maybe next year I’ll be able to take part in a survey as part of my MA – time will tell.

University Trip: Mount Hevron Area

In Israel, Judea on December 9, 2018 at 6:31 AM

The other week I participated in the annual two-day hiking trip (known as the “Campushetach”) provided by my Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University. Geared towards relatively fit hikers, this trip takes a rugged approach to geography, history and archaeology and is offered to both students and staff of the department. Last year we spent two days in the Wadi Qelt area (posts I and II), and this year we spent the two days in two different places: the first day in the Mount Hevron area, and the second day at Nachal Kina in the Negev.

Starting off the trip with a grand view

The first day began at BIU where the majority of us boarded a tour bus to be taken to the Mount Hevron area, making a few stops on the way to pick up the other trip members. We drove through the Judean Lowlands, spotting some gazelles on the side of the road, and then entered Judea. We passed by Hevron and had our first real stop at a site called Nabi Yakin, home to a burial cave and Muslim maqam (shrine), as Dr Dvir Raviv gave us the trip’s introductory talk.

Maqam of Nabi Yakin

The maqam, known as Nabi Yakin, was built to house a pair of “footprints” in the bedrock, which, according to Muslim belief, belong to the patriarch Abraham. Outside the maqam, surrounded by stones, is another pair of “footprints” that are associated with Lot. A quick visit inside the burial cave revealed a whole lot of collapsed rock and a lone Sinai fan-fingered gecko that was hiding out near the painted gate. Back outside, blossoming Steven’s meadow saffrons dotted the ground here and there.

Steven’s meadow saffron

Our next stop was to the yishuv Ma’ale Hever where we enjoyed the lookout and had breakfast. F-16 fighter jets screamed in the skies overhead, dropping flares as they engaged in exercise maneuvers. From the yishuv we drove over to Tel Zif, where we had a short walk to some recently excavated Roman ruins.

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise

There was also some interesting wildlife to be seen, including some ravens flying in the distance, a flock of woodlarks, a baby tortoise and my very first Ameles heldreichi praying mantis. In addition, a nice bunch of Crocus pallasii was flowering and providing nectar for a hungry honeybee.

Crocus pallasii

The ruins at Tel Zif are quite fascinating, with the Classical architecture of fine masonry with a fancy tiled floor and carven columns. Heading back to the bus after some final photographs, we were then driven to the access road to Tel Ma’on. We disembarked and began the walk to the tel, where we were to enjoy the views and the site of an ancient synagogue dated to the Roman era.

Ruins at Tel Zif

Accompanied by a trio of soldiers, we entered the Arab settlements and passed plowed fields and ancient water cisterns. One of the cisterns we passed is still in-use, with a couple local children standing over it and the nearby sign of rehabilitation on behalf of the Canadian government. At one point up the slope, someone noticed an interesting flower – identified as a Tuvia’s autumn crocus, and then my friend Adam captured my attention.

Common northern raven chasing a long-legged buzzard

Off to the east there were two large shapes flying through the air. Seeing the rear one relatively clearly, I assumed the other to be the same species – a common northern raven. Only with the help of my camera’s 83x zoom was I able to get a series of photos which showed me that the raven was chasing (or mobbing, as it is known) a long-legged buzzard. Up at the lookout atop the tel there were more interesting birds, including a male black redstart who lingered in the nearby trees, giving us quite the show.

Judean landcape from Tel Ma’on

On the north side of the tel, just below the top, we came across the ruins of the ancient synagogue. There wasn’t too much to see but the remains of a few walls and a partially collapsed escape tunnel/chamber dug out of the bedrock. Continuing back down the slope via the western side, we amassed a large number of curious local Arab children who began to follow us on our way out. Another set of ruins, this time larger walls of well-dressed ashlars, intrigued us, but unfortunately we were on a tight schedule and didn’t stop.

Tel Ma’on ruins

Back on and then off the bus, we stopped at the yishuv Susiya for lunch and a break, and then back to the bus to be driven to Mount Amasa. For the past year or so I’ve wanted to visit Mount Amasa, largely due to a video I saw of it filmed by Amir Balaban (see HERE). Last winter a Persian wheatear, a rare bird for Israel, had been spotted and scores of birders sojourned to Mount Amasa to see it. This year it returned, and while the excitement has died down, I thought it’d be fun to spot it. Alas, no Persian wheatear was spotted, but a great number of other interesting birds were.

Group photo on Mount Amasa

From the very moment we stepped onto the trail, part of an ancient Roman road, Adam and I saw birds everywhere. There were stonechats, wheatears, chukars and crested larks galore, and it was hard to keep up with the group’s unconcerned progress. At the peak of Mount Amasa, a very gently-sloped mountain, we were gifted with an incredible view of the Arad Valley below us.

Walking the Mount Amasa trail at sunset

After hearing from a couple of the lecturers we began the long and slow descent towards Nachal Dragot. The sun began to sink behind the nearby ridge and the 6 kilometre long walk seemed to go on forever – which, in some ways was most excellent. It was a lovely hike and I look forward to returning one day and possibly even camping somewhere on the mountain.

Dusk at the quarry

Passing an enormous quarry on the western side of the slope, we at last reached the near bottom and then cut across to find our bus waiting faithfully for us on the access road. We boarded and made our way to Susiya, where we were to spend the night in a large, separated communal tent. Dinner was pizza and fresh soup made by the department’s patron Yehuda Mizrahi, and then we all enjoyed some relaxed social time. Friends Ben and Adam joined me on a small walk around the yishuv (where we saw a fox) and then got a bonfire going back at our home-base. Staying up a wee later than we should have, we eventually got into our sleeping bags and passed out, only to be woken up a few hours later for the second half of the annual “Campushetach”.

Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig 2018

In Israel, Judea on August 26, 2018 at 9:27 AM

Following my last season at the Tel es-Safi/Gath archaeological dig (as can be read in parts I and II) a year later, I returned this summer for another four weeks of fun in the sun. Having garnered some experience, I was promoted to assistant area supervisor, which, in my case, made me a supervisor of five squares, a step up from last year’s single square. Excited to tackle the job, I reunited with Dr Jill Katz of Yeshiva University (my immediate superior), Prof Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University (the dig director) and other staff members to prepare the field for the dig.

Area Y before the dig began

This year brought change to the long-running Tel es-Safi dig as the efforts were concentrated only on the lower city area. Last year had us in both the upper and lower city of the tel, with our Area J being on the slope – the upper city wall from the Early Bronze era. Dr Katz and I had been designated a new area, Area Y, at the northern side of the tel and close to Nachal Elah, the outer regions of the lower city. Using some nifty magnetometry technology to detect physical anomalies under the surface, we picked out some squares to excavate out of Israel’s national land grid.

Lodgings at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem

This year our expedition was to be based out of a school in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, just a fifteen minute drive from the tel itself. Staff and volunteers met and exchanged pleasantries as we set ourselves up for the four-week program. Dr Katz had brought some Yeshiva University students and other volunteers, which made the bulk of our core group, and it was a pleasure to get acquainted before setting out the following morning to the tel.

Sunrise and Area D

Our first week began with clearing Area Y from rocks, dead grass and other vegetation, as well as setting up the shade tent that would serve us the rest of the season. Our neighbours were also preparing their areas: the Bar Ilan team at Area M just across the dirt road on the side closer to the tel was also opening up fresh squares on virgin land. Over to the west, Area D and D2 were setting up as well, cleaning their aging baulks from the ravages of time and winter’s rains.

Prof Boaz Zissu lending a hand

Back at Area Y, we struck into the dry soil with a hunger for finds, each of the first four squares occupied by three or four volunteers. I was given boxes of supplies, a table, and a chair where I was to spend the majority of my time in the field. I was charged with making sure that everything was properly registered and accounted for, and that everything that was taken back to the field lab was tagged and labeled correctly. It was an interesting yet mostly cushy job and I was almost always shaded from the fierce sun by the large jujube tree that adorned the eastern side of our area.

Jill giving a briefing

Each day the routine was the same: we’d arrive, set up the shade tent, gather all the necessary tools, have a quick briefing on what the objectives of the day were, dig, dig, dig, write, write, write, and then pack it all up at the end of the day, which was at one o’clock in the afternoon.

Rebecca Zami preparing the daily top plan

Back at the kibbutz we processed all the finds, which included washing, reading, and writing on pottery, as well as attending lectures and filling out paperwork (each to their own in accordance to their job). Of course, we also enjoyed meals and had leisure time to fraternise with the many interesting folks from around the world who had come for the summer.

Annie Brown with a tiny lizard jawbone

Clearing away the topsoil is both laborious and frustrating, yet sometimes really interesting finds from more recent periods can be found. In our case, we found several pieces of Ottoman pipes and a few broken glass bracelet pieces from the Mamluk/Ottoman period. While these finds have very little significance to an excavation dedicated to Bronze and Iron Age settlements, they do brighten up the day.

Mouthpiece of an Ottoman pipe

Being a lover of nature and wildlife, I was always excited to see interesting species both in and above ground. During the first week we found a few ocellated skinks and some green toads, while seeing a recurring presence of a pair of short-toed eagles who reside at the tel each summer. It’s always satisfying to hear an aquiline cry in the distance and to then looking out at where it was expected to be; I had begun to learn their habits and that provided me much joy as a birder.

Avraham Penso running a wheelbarrow

The first week went by quickly, the topsoil being stripped away and decanted on nearby dirt ramps that were constructed under the guidance of Prof David Kotter of Colorado Christian University, a man educated in the art of engineering. With the start of the second week our core team was bolstered by some experienced members from last year’s Area J, including Itamar Berko, Shani Guterman, Avraham Penso and Rebecca Zami. We needed more diggers with experience to manage all the progression made below topsoil–when things start getting interesting.

Henry Kronenberg in Square 93A

In fact, in one of our squares (93A), a curious clumping of fired mudbricks was being exposed from under the earth, prompting much discussion amongst the staff. Each square had its charm, a combination of the physical contents and the personalities of those working in it. While one square’s team was hard at work pickaxing a mysterious layer of chalk in relative silence, another would be clamouring about some painted pottery they had found. Though not properly digging in any of the squares for the bulk of my day, I had the pleasure of appreciating it all, even if from afar.

Fine specimen of a Philistine mudbrick

With the onset of the second week I had also brought some of my home-brewed beer to the kibbutz, the vulture-decorated bottles of our successful batch of Arx Meles IPA II proving to be quite a hit with both the local and foreign students. Unfortunately, my co-brewer, Ben Yablon, was unable to attend this year’s dig and thereby missed out on the accolades that he well-deserved.

Drone view of Area Y (photo Aren Maeir)

Back at the digsite, the expedition’s drone began to made sporadic visits to the three areas, providing us with a much-appreciated bird’s-eye view of the work we were doing. There wasn’t much in terms of isolated special finds during the second week, but the squares were coming along nicely, and some of them caused much intrigue. For one, the clumping of mudbricks in square 93A was beginning to appear like a structure, albeit somewhat collapsed, and the square with the chalk refused to move on – the chalk layer getting deeper and deeper with every passing day.

Tiny Kotschy’s gecko on my table

It’d be uncharacteristic for me to leave out the wildlife, so on the second week I was treated to a special guest at my table. A tiny Kotschy’s gecko, that I assume lives in the jujube tree, came running all over my paperwork and top-plan. I had never seen one of these amazingly camouflaged lizards so it was quite an experience. Another curious find shortly thereafter was the remains of a little owl, found flat as a pancake in the grass beside the dirt road. I just hope it wasn’t the same little owl from last summer (see photograph HERE).

Yeshiva University students with Dr Jill Katz

The second week went by quickly, and a handful of Bar Ilan students left our area. Our crew was cut down a bit, but on the third week we had a lot of volunteer groups who came to help for a day. A large contingency of Yeshiva University students doing a summer program in Bar Ilan’s laboratories came to help out one morning, bringing with them a YU flag for us to hang from our shade tent.

Area M supervisor Maria Enukhina taking photographs from a cherry-picker

Good progress was made on the third week, and the squares were looking more and more impressive. In order to handle the influx of volunteers with no field experience, we opened up another square (93C) which provided a fresh working space for fun topsoil finds. Sure enough, a piece of a glass bracelet from the Mamluk/Ottoman period was uncovered, as well as a few obscure metal pieces probably dating back to the early to mid-1900s.

Progression at Area Y

Despite the fact that we had five squares open, and that we were digging in Iron I territory (land of the Philistines), we had a remarkable lack of small finds. Even pottery, which is so common everywhere on and around the tel, was scarce and our daily pottery buckets were always scant. It became a bit of a joke during the expedition, especially as Area M’s findings were so incredibly rich. They had uncovered the destruction level from the Aramean King Hazael’s attack, and were knee-deep in both broken and complete vessels.

Rebecca Zami examining some potsherds

We had to finish the bulk of our digging by the end of the third week, as the fourth week focuses on cleaning up the area and photographically documenting the season’s work. Most of Area D’s workers, including the valued CCU team who helped us out a lot in Area Y, had left the expedition by the end of the third week. Our team shrunk as well, and it was mostly the core members who were left to hold the torch to the very end. We came back from the weekend, some of us having spent Shabbat together in Jerusalem, refreshed and ready to finish off the season with a bang.

Taking elevation readings with the Total Station

However, I had a different calling. That Sunday I was to report to my old army base just outside of Haifa for reserve duty. Being that I was still tied down with my responsibilities at Tel es-Safi, I was released upon talking to my captain, but it was fun revisiting my old base after so many years. Taking public transportation back to the kibbutz, I rejoined my dig friends and got right back into the swing of things.

Dr Jill Katz at Tel Miqne

The following day we took a field trip to Tel Miqne/Ekron, guided by our very own Prof Jeff Chadwick, who was a supervisor there during the excavations in the 1990s. We toured the agricultural installations, which had since become impressively overgrown, and learned about the ancient city’s gates. It was a short trip, with the intense afternoon sun beating mercilessly down upon us, and we took what we could from it.

Area Y completed for the season

The next few days were dedicated to cleaning and photographing, yet while cleaning, the base of a vessel became visible on the floor of Square 92B. We were filled with excitement, thinking that we had at last come across a possible whole vessel. So, after taking the final photographs of the season, we gathered around as a few team members excavated it. Not quite what we expected, we discovered that this base was just a base, and a broken one at that. Later, we learned that it was a homemade vessel – a cool find for that reason alone.

Area Y group photo (photo Aren Maeir)

Thus ended the 2018 season of the Tel es-Safi Archaeological Dig for the Area Y team. We shared a grand time together, most having a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will be forever cherished. For the archaeology students among us, there’s next summer to look forward to – be it at Tel es-Safi again, or perhaps one of the many other archaeological digs throughout the country.

End-of-the-season photograph (photo Aren Maeir)

To read more about Tel es-Safi’s official (and unofficial) updates, as well as old posts from this summer’s season, please check out Prof Maeir’s blog HERE.

University Trip: Tel es-Safi & Museum of Philistine Culture

In Israel, Judea on August 12, 2018 at 7:56 AM

Back in June, before the bustle of the summer months began, I took part in another field trip offered by my Archaeology department at Bar Ilan University. The destinations were Philistine-oriented: the ancient city of Gath, which is known today as Tel es-Safi (where I excavated this summer) and the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod, another city once occupied by the Philistines. We left the campus in the morning with our guide, Dr Amit Dagan, and made our way to the tel.

Tel es-Safi (Biblical Gath)

Approaching the tel from the north, I was immediately filled with nostalgic memories of the previous summer when we had so much fun excavating in Area J. I looked out at the familiar hill and wondered to myself where I’d be excavating in a few weeks when the 2018 season would begin. We disembarked at the Ottoman-era antilia well just beside the dry streambed of Nahal Elah and began the tour. Dr Amit Dagan started lecturing about the site and I found myself wandering off in eager anticipation to check up on the excavated areas left untouched since last summer. Since the winter is the wet season here in Israel, the rains ravage the carefully excavated squares all winter long leaving Area D in a surprisingly shoddy condition.

Some of Area D

Area D is the large excavated area at the northern foot of the tel where the lower city’s walls and possible gate are being exposed. The famous two-horned altar that was discovered several years ago was found in Area D and is now exhibited in the Philistine museum that we’d visited later that day. While I was walking around the area, I noticed a large number of insects flying and hopping about me. Upon closer examination I discovered that there were loads of adult antlions in the tall grasses. Juvenile antlions are one of the insect species I’ve come to know very well.

Adult antlion

After a thorough tour of Area D, Dr Amit Dagan sat us down beneath the shade of a large jujube tree and I found myself distracted once again, this time by birds. A large number of noisy jackdaws were congregating on and around the power lines not far from the streambed. But then I heard a bird call that struck me as odd. It was coming from the direction of the tel, yet I couldn’t find the culprit, even with the aid of my megazoom camera. The call was repeated several times, and I racked my train trying to identify it. Even using the renowned Collins Bird Guide app on my phone – with its featured bird call recordings – I was unable to identify this mystery bird.

Beneath the jujube tree

At last, just as we were getting up to leave, I saw a medium-sized bird fly out of a nearby tree. My camera was focused on it in an instant, and I captured a photograph of it as it made a short flight to another tree near the streambed. A couple more photos of it perched and I felt sure that I’d be able to identify the bird on my camera display screen. Sure enough, the mystery bird was a juvenile great spotted cuckoo – a species I had only seen once before, just a few kilometres away from the tel the previous year. Excited by this sighting, I was in good spirits as we got into our bus and began the drive to our next destination: the Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod.

It’s always so sunny at the tel

An even more exciting sighting was about to happen, and I was completely caught off guard. We were slowly driving down the access road and I looked idly out the window at the scenery passing before me. Suddenly, I noticed a dog-like figure at the edge of a field, backdropped by some untamed shrubbery. There wasn’t enough time to grab my camera or my binoculars; I had only mere seconds to make an identification and time was of the utmost essence. I had been stricken by a feeling that I was looking at a very elusive and exciting member of the Carnivora order, but I needed to be sure before I dared utter its name. I was unable to make a definite identification but I’m quite sure that I had seen a striped hyena, an apex predator that I had only seen once before (and at night).

Museum of Philistine Culture

From that exciting sighting, I was all worked up by the time we reached the museum in Ashdod. Thankfully, the museum was exciting and captivated our attention from the moment we entered the well-decorated interior. Having opened in 1990, the museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the Philistines, a group of sea-faring people from Europe who settled in the Levant in the Iron Age (over 3000 years ago).

Museum exhibitions

Inside we walked about, looking at the displayed artefacts and keeping an eye out for pieces found at Tel es-Safi, our Bar Ilan site. We examined the ceramic vessels, especially the ornate painted Philistine pottery that we’ve come to know firsthand. Having taken some ceramics classes this year, I was keen on identifying the displayed vessels on my own, excited to find parallels to the typologies we learned in class.

Philistine warrior

Dr Dagan began to speak about the emergence of the Philistine culture in the Levant and the geographical importance the region of Philistia had in the ancient times. As he spoke he moved from one part of the museum to the next, the topical exhibits highlighting his mini lectures. One thing that amused us was the interactive screen featuring a brief history of Gath (or, Tel es-Safi) with a picture of our own Prof Aren Maeir sharing a moment with a zoomorphic special find during one of the excavation seasons.

Gath’s two-horned altar

Speaking with the museum guides, I was informed that there is more to see downstairs: a room of Philistine costumes mainly geared toward kids, and a temporary exhibition featuring the collections of select Ashdod area residents. I glanced about the fun room, successfully fighting the urge to dress up like a Philistine, and then began to peruse the collections exhibit.

Fun room of Philistine costumes

I found several that interested me, including collections of owl figurines, Russian nesting dolls and fancy metal pencil sharpeners. There were a lot of collections to go through, over forty in total, and I was nervous that my group would spontaneously finish upstairs and leave without me.

Collections exhibition

So, I rejoined them in admiring the Philistine culture via the museum exhibitons until we were ready to go. Friday trips are always shorter to accommodate the busy pre-Shabbat schedules, but all-in-all we had a great Philistine-filled field trip.

University Trip: Tel Gezer & RBS Dig

In Israel, Judea on May 14, 2018 at 9:37 AM

The week following Pesach break I went back down to Givat Shmuel and resumed my studies at Bar Ilan University. That Thursday, I partook in a field trip with Prof Aren Maeir to several sites in the Judean Lowlands. The first on the list was the famous site of Tel Gezer, located nearly seven kilometres northwest of Latrun and just over nine kilometres southeast of the city of Rehovot. We left BIU in the morning and made our way directly to Tel Gezer, our tour bus driving up the run-down access road to the top of the hill. There we disembarked and set off on a counter-clockwise tour of the site. Immediately, I noticed the abundance of black-and-white butterflies fluttering about, feasting on the wildflowers.

Levantine marbled white butterfly

Whilst I was crouching in the thistles distracted by the Levantine marbled white butterflies, Prof Maeir began the site overview lecture. Gezer was first settled in prehistoric times, but an actual city wasn’t established until the Bronze Era, some 4,500 years ago. Mention of Gezer can first be found in Egyptian records, such as the famed el-Amarna letters, and that was followed up by the Bible where it is listed as an important city. Conquering the land from the local Canaanites, the Israelites moved in alongside them in the city of Gezer, unable to conquer it completely. Gezer saw decline after the Hellenistic period, and was rebuilt as a small village during the Ottoman period.

Israelite ruins of Gezer

Gezer was excavated at first in 1902 by RAS Macalister, and archaeological digs have been ongoing nearly every decade since then up until 2015. Open to the general public, with signs and everything, the tel is now open as a national park. Returning to the history of the site, we discussed the famous Gezer calendar, a limestone tablet with a list of agricultural activities corresponding to the months of the year. Dr David Elgavish, a fellow lecturer at BIU, helped with the correct reading of the ancient script, allowing us to properly enjoy the archaic calendar.

Descending into the underground water system

From there we entered the park proper, and made our way to the Canaanite ruins, starting with the ancient tower of large rectangular ashlars. Opposite the large tower, still within the ancient city limits, we found the entrance to the underground water system. We descended by way of stairs and peered into the depths of the sloped subterranean tunnel. Water could be found some forty metres below the surface hences the need for a relatively complicated method of extraction.

Prof Maeir standing at the gate

Feral pigeons adorned the insides of the tunnel, while jackdaws crowded about outside, watching us indifferently. We climbed back out of the cool tunnel, back into the sun, and made our way to the Canaanite city gate, made of stone and mud brick. A common kestrel made passes overhead, scanning the tall, dry vegetation for prey, and a crested lark could be seen singing from atop a sign.

Lecturing within the ruins

We continued along the dirt path until we reached the Israelite ruins, and the wildflowers that edged the walkway to it. A relatively large area to be excavated, the ruins clearly showed a residential area of the ancient Iron Age city. A large blue-purple wildflower captured my attention, later to be identified as Syrian catnip.

Syrian catnip at Tel Gezer

Prof Maeir lectured first from the vantage point looking over the ruins, and then we descended to see the ancient architecture from up close. Once below, we examined the gate of the casemate wall, comprised of a number of chambres. The gate is associated with the reign of King Solomon, following the biblical passage listing the fortifications at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.

Monolithic stones

Looping around the east side of the tel, we made our way to the ten monolithic stones standing upright in a line. Large, raw columns, these stones seem to have served as features of a shrine, accompanied with a stone basin of sorts. Quite an unusual sight, which was improved by the presence of viper’s bugloss, one of my favourite wildflowers.

Judean viper’s-bugloss

From there we completed our circuit of the tel, passing a demarcated sheikh’s tomb, and then left the hill by means of our tour bus. Our next stop was some fifteen kilometres to the southeast, on land plotted out for one of Bet Shemesh’s planned neighbourhoods. A somewhat controversial topic with lovers of nature and archaeology, the city’s expansion plan calls for the work of salvage excavations by the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It was one of these digs to which we were headed.

Encroaching buildings of Bet Shemesh

Lead by Benyamin Storchan, a BIU graduate with whom I shared a class or two, the salvage excavation was launched to verify that nothing landmark was going to be built over. We met Benyamin under the tarp beside the washed pottery and sat down to hear about the site. He began with a summary of the Bet Shemesh expansion, showing us our location on a detailed satellite image map.

Ramat Bet Shemesh dig squares

After ten minutes or so we left the shade and headed over to examine the dig site. A tractor was working uphill and the dozen or so Arab workers paused to watch us parade by. We began with the lower section, where Benyamin produced a top plan and went over the architectural findings thus far. From there we moved uphill and examined the area currently under excavation.

Benyamin Storchan explaining the architecture

We naturally had some questions about the interesting dig, and hopefully one day the entirety of the excavation results will be published for all of us to enjoy. In the meantime, we headed back down the slope towards the pottery washing station where we examined the findings, including simple mosaic stones, painted potsherds and even a section of what looks to be the neck of a jug with a branch relief.

Jackdaw at the dig

Leaving the dig site having said our thanks and goodbyes, we boarded the tour bus again for a drive over to Tel Azeka. Since I’ve already visited and wrote about Tel Azeka last year, I’ll just give a brief summary of what non-archaeological sightings that were of interest. First, the birds: one or more black kites, steppe buzzards and lesser spotted eagles (and a possible juvenile imperial eagle) flew by overhead, giving me a special joy that comes with neck pain, as I had to crane my neck precariously to watch them high up above me. Several species of butterflies fluttered about here and there, and Judean viper’s-bugloss made a lovely appearance on the top of the tel.

Short-toed eagle

Leaving Tel Azeka after two hours, we attempted to visit the iconic Khirbet Qeiyafa, which I have covered more than once, but unfortunately our bus got slightly stuck in the ruts of the dirt access road. While we waited outside for the bus and driver to sort themselves out, a short-toed eagle appeared just above the trees that were beside us. I think this is my best picture of this species to date. The bus issue was sorted but time had run out, so the trip was called to a premature ending. We enjoyed the drive back to Bar Ilan, some of us already looking forward to the following day’s field trip to the northwest Negev region, the subject of my next blog post.

A video of this trip, which I made for the department’s YouTube channel, can be found HERE.

Ein Gedi: Ancient Synagogue

In Israel, Judea on March 18, 2018 at 10:08 AM

About a month ago, I had the privilege of taking a trip to a popular site that has been missing from my blog for years: Ein Gedi. I was accompanying the tenth graders on their big annual trip, this time to the Dead Sea area. Being that I had an exam on the first day of their trip, I bused over the following morning to meet them at the Ein Gedi Field School.

View from the Ein Gedi Field School

Disembarking into the bright desert environment, I took out my camera to get started on morning birding. Within minutes I found satisfaction: a handful of fan-tailed ravens patrolled the cliffs and a pair of blue-cheeked bee-eaters entertained me from close by. In addition, I had nice bonding time with a few fearless Nubian ibexes. But it wasn’t just the animals – the view was incredible as well, the Dead Sea to the east and the arid cliffs to the west.

Nubian ibex

I explored the field school, admiring their collection of stuffed animals (of the taxidermy variety) and antiquities, while I waited for the schoolchildren to show up. At last they showed up and I was informed that unfortunately I had to remain behind, as there were two students who couldn’t do the hike for health reasons. Not to be discouraged, I decided that I would make the best of my day however it was destined to be. And so, while the mass of schoolchildren climbed Mount Yishai, I returned with the two lads and the buses to the Ein Gedi park entrance at Nachal David.

Schoolchildren on the trail

Visiting the ticket office, I procured some pamphlets and mapped out my next few hours. I could see the line of schoolchildren making their way up the nearby mountain while the sounds of birds filled the air, giving me a good start as to what to do. I began by leaving the parking lot area and walking along the scenic route near the base of the mountains in the direction of the ancient synagogue.

Blackstart

Along the way I birded and took many photographs of blackstarts, Tristam’s starlings, crag martins and, of course, large amounts of Nubian ibexes. It was a peaceful walk, and it wasn’t long before I reached the enclosure for the ancient synagogue. Inside, I explained who I was and was ushered in, free of charge.

Ibexes crossing the road

Shaded by short trees, a glass-covered model of the ancient village of Ein Gedi awaited me. It was fascinating to see a replica of the village life, complete with tiny people and animals going about their daily life. The highlight of the model was the replica of the fancy synagogue that had been uncovered in archaeological excavations beginning in 1965. Its mosaic floor was restored in the 1990s, also depicted in the model.

Ein Gedi’s ancient synagogue

To summarise the history of the ancient village as is displayed, the housing structures date to the 200-500s CE, the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. The synagogue itself was built in the 200s CE, and then renovated in the 300-400s CE, the fancy mosaic floor completed in the mid-400s CE. Unfortunately the village didn’t last very long, and was destroyed by the fires of persecution by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, sometime around the year 530 CE.

Mosaic floors

The site covered by the awning as seen above is mostly just the synagogue, with several attached structures as well. I began my tour at the Roman street, beside a ancient mikveh (ritual bath), where I continued alongside the ruins of unnamed buildings. Between the ruins of one structure I discovered a squatting man holding basalt grinding stones in his hands. Unsure of his identity, I inquired him if he worked at the park. He weighed the stones in his hands and replied that he was just a visitor. I was about to suggest that he not mess around in the fenced-off area but he added that he was a volunteer during the first season of renewed excavations in the 1990s, and together, we revelled in the joys of our digging experiences.

Rock hyrax

Continuing on my own, I entered the synagogue and noticed the expansive mosaic floor comprised of many sections. The first, a series of crudely-written Hebrew letters, was a composition of various religiously-oriented texts: early biblical ancestry, months of the year, rules and dedications to the many benefactors who contributed to the construction. The central mosaic interested me most: a geometric pattern with a centrepiece of curious looking birds.

Bird detailing

There was a total of twelve birds in the centrepiece, eight of them feasting on grape clusters. These fine feathered fellows were joined by other curious-looking tiled birds at the edges of the floor. Unfortunately, due to the simplistic artistic nature, the birds aren’t detailed enough to be interpreted as any particular species. I, of course, still attempted to make my guesses.

Ruins of Ein Gedi

Classic synagogue elements such as stone benches, a seat of honour, and a holy ark (for Torah scrolls) completed the look of the room. When I was done admiring, I headed out to see the rest of the excavated village. Somewhat hidden behind a fence, the continuation of excavated housing structures can be seen to the northeast.

Sodom apple

Beside the ruins I tracked a female Sardinian warbler in a bush and photographed the colourful flowers of a poisonous apple of Sodom plant. Sitting in the shade, I had a feast of pesto, cheese and tomato sandwiches and then began my walk back toward the buses, Eventually the schoolchildren trickled out from the trails, and I seized the opportunity to explore the little amount of Nachal David that I had time for.

Nachal David trail

Walking the paved path, I passed many birds and a couple of bold rock hyraxes which I photographed. Within minutes the lowest waterfall was beside me, and I climbed down to examine it. I waited for a few visitors to clear the little pool and then snapped a few pictures before heading back.

Lower waterfall

To my surprise, when I rejoined the group I was informed that we were going to head over to the ancient synagogue – the one I had just visited – to pray mincha (afternoon prayer). After the prayers we settled back into the bus and took a nice drive down to the Hazeva Field School where we were to spend the night. There, we got settled, had dinner and enjoyed the rest of the evening knowing that the next morning would begin another day of trips and adventure.

University Trip: Wadi Qelt II

In Israel, Judea on February 12, 2018 at 8:26 AM

Continuing with our two-day hiking trip in the Wadi Qelt area with students and staff of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, we awoke before dawn to begin another day. It was cold and dark but eventually we all stirred into action and were ready to embark on adventure. With our gear loaded we set out into the darkness. We followed a dirt road winding its way to the streambed far away as the sun slowly began to light up the sky.

The morning’s first stop

It was nearly sunrise when we reached our first stop, passing the most fascinating broken aqueduct bridge spanning two slopes. It was a series of stone structures built in the Ottoman period, surrounded by trees and noisy birds, now housing Bedouin families. We veered off to the side as not to disturb, and had a break to pray and eat a hearty breakfast (brought to us by Yehuda, the department’s patron).

Broken aqueduct bridge

When our souls were lifted, and our stomachs filled, we returned to the hike for it was Friday and we had a good twelve or so kilometres to go in order to reach our final destination. We paused beside the fascinating aqueduct bridge, with its tunnels drilled into the rocky slopes, and learned that it was built in several stages: The concrete base built by the Romans and the upper stone section constructed in later years.

Ein Qelt

Reluctantly leaving the grandeur of the bridge, we started along the wadi path heading towards Ein Qelt, the spring which feeds Nachal Prat. We passed curious bunkers that were built by either the British or Jordanians to guard over the water source, as we made our way alongside the sluggish waters. Before long, we reached Ein Qelt and spread out to explore. One interesting feature was this painted Arabic dedication which supposedly has to do with the Ottoman period buildings we had seen earlier.

Reading the dedication

Enjoying the smooth rocks and the shallow waters, we stayed for a short lecture and then headed back out the way we came, this time walking along the northern banks of the stream. We found the trail to be following a curious yet simple floor-level aqueduct made of concrete, channeling the water eastward. This waterworks was built by the Jordanians to supply water to Jericho, and as we walked, the extensive work that was put into the installation became apparent.

Following the aqueduct

We passed the buildings from earlier, the aqueduct continuing along peacefully as we walked and walked. Caves on the opposing mountainsides seized our attention but we remained faithful to the aqueduct, following its every whim as it dipped and turned here and there. We noticed as we walked how small bridges kept the aqueduct’s levels proper with the decline needed to transport the water. We continued on.

Following faithfully

Then we saw the first of many cross towers that dot the ridge of the wadi around the monastery, markers to pilgrims that they are on the right path. Suddenly, our aqueduct made a hard right turn and the slowly flowing water plunged down the mountainside to a bridge that was mostly broken, this more modern chute of water attached to the bulky ancient frame where an older aqueduct once stood. Continuing along on the other side of the wadi, at a much lower elevation, our faithful aqueduct brought us to the lookout over the monastery, marked by another of the aforementioned cross towers.

Wadi Qelt

Below us was the iconic Monastery of St George, an old building complex built onto the cliffside. We sat down and listened to Dr Kobi Cohen-Hattab explain about the use of this wadi by terrorists in the 1960s. Sayeret Haruv (“Carob”), a dismantled special forces unit, suffered a single casualty, its commander, Lt Col Tzvika Ofer, in a battle with terrorists in the area below us.

Our first glimpse of the Monastery of St George

We descended the trail via rock steps which flattened out alongside the wadi, approaching the monastery which now loomed before us. At the foot of the monastery, a small stone bridge spans the rocky gap of the streambed, providing easy access to the southern slope. We crossed this bridge and began the ascent up the slope on the winding road. Local Bedouins riding donkeys passed us every so often, asking if we’d like to pay for a donkey ride.

Monastery of St George

At last we reached the top and passed through the site’s three-arched gate, adorned by a large cross and a dedication in Greek. Continuing along a trail, we reached the lookout over the monastery, seeing the structure at its most flattering angle. From this vantage point we were able to make out small windows and doors in the cliff wall above and around the monastery structure. These rooms house monks who live in isolation, going their brethren at the monastery only on Sundays.

View from the other side

It was in a small cave like this that the monastery’s story began, harkening back to the Byzantine era in the 4th century when several monks created homes for themselves in small caves. Around the year 480 CE, a monk by the name of John of Thebes created a monastery for the monks in these caves to be a part of. It wasn’t until the end of the 6th century that George of Choziba came to join the ranks of monks at the monastery. However, the Persian conquest of the Holy Land brought about death and destruction to the monks and the monastery, and only George was left alive, the monastery subsequently being called in his name. In the Crusader era the monastery was rebuilt, by the Byzantines no less, but was destroyed once again by the Muslims. It wasn’t until 1901 that new life breathed into the monastery, having been restored by a Greek monk for the Greek Orthodox Church.

Mountain fortress of Kypros

When we had seen enough of the monastery it was time to hike to the final destination of this two-day trip: the mountain fortress of Kypros. Built on a distinct peak overlooking Jericho, we were literally ending our trip on a high.

Exploring Kypros

We made this final push for the mountain; our legs weary of hiking for two days straight. At last we reached the lower plateau of Kypros and the city of Jericho laid spread before us. Dr Dvir Raviv, the man leading our excursion, gave us a geographic overview and we were able to pinpoint sites of interest in the hazy city below us. Relatively close by, at the outskirts of Jericho, are the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces which have been excavated over the years. We had hopes to visit them but hadn’t received permission from the military, which left us with seeing them from afar.

Hazy Jericho

These palaces were largely built by the Hasmoneans, who had liberated the Holy Land from the Greeks. Constructed in the arid desert regions, these winter palaces were far more comfortable to live in during the cold winter months than the main palaces in cold, and sometimes snowy, Jerusalem. Herod used this same concept, and incorporated these palaces into his estate as well as building new ones. Unfortunately they were all razed during the Roman period, and due to the current political situation, the ruins are hard to access.

Piece of stucco plaster found on-site

Returning to Kypros, this mountain fortress was built by the Hasmoneans and then refortified by Herod several hundred years later to control the Jericho region. Being rather short-lived, the fortress was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt and hasn’t been rebuilt since. We climbed up to the highest part of the mountain and examined the excavated ruins of the fortress whilst enjoying the view. It was a grand feeling to finally be done with these two exciting days of exploration, especially because I had never been to any of these sites before. To end off the trip, we heard from Prof Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, our new department head, who is initiating all sorts of exciting new plans for the department.

Atop the world at Kypros

Hiking back down the mountain, we found our tour bus waiting for us at the arched gate of the monastery and began the drive back to Bar Ilan University. Ready to get back, have Shabbat and sleep, we couldn’t agree more that there needs to be more trips of this nature in our department. Blending academia with the great outdoors in a most excellent way of living life to its fullest, and we sure like to live.

A video of this trip, which I made for the department’s YouTube channel, can be found HERE.

University Trip: Wadi Qelt I

In Israel, Judea on February 4, 2018 at 8:15 AM

The week after our exclusive tour of the IAA warehouse and the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem we embarked on another exciting trip. Again with the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University, this adventure was a two-day hike in the Judean Desert, predominantly in the area of Wadi Qelt.

Desert wilderness

The fun began at the BIU campus where we loaded up the bus with ourselves and our belongings, setting out and meeting up with the rest of the participants just outside a small yishuv by the name of Adam. There we had hot beverages and cookies brought by the department’s patron Yehuda (who joined us on the Tel Goded survey), who would follow us for the duration of the trip providing food and logistical support whenever needed.

Prof Aren Maeir reading biblical events

We received the first of many briefings at this starting point, mostly given to us by the fearless leader of the trip, Dr Dvir Raviv. Our plan was to hike down to the streambed of Wadi Michmas below us and then continue ever eastward until reaching Mitzpe Yericho, with several stops along the way.

Dr Dvir Raviv

With the fantastic mountainous desert view, and the beautiful blue skies striped with wispy cirriform clouds, we were ready to hike. A quick sighting of some active greenfinches started off the fauna aspect of the trip, and I was eager to see more.

Setting off on the trail

Already atop a ridge of hills, we followed a simple dirt road until we reached a tiny vineyard where we merged over to a tiny unmarked trail alongside the slopes. Several gazelles were spotted, as well as some pariah dogs in the algae-choked stream far below. We marveled at this unusual trail, even if it was awkward to walk on at times, and at last found ourselves descending to the rocky wadi, spotting several sand partridges making their way up the opposing slope.

An unusual trail

On level ground, we crossed the small stream and began walking the picturesque trail towards Ein Maboa. As we walked, I was greeted by a nice sight: my first long-legged buzzard. I got one good picture before it soared out of sight over the top of the cliff alongside us. A few blackstarts later and we were crossing the stream once again at the site of the old Roman aqueduct.

The moiré tunnel

From there it was a short walk to the local road and over to an even more picturesque stream-side trail, this one taking us to Ein Maboa. The crossings back and forth over the calm stream made for an interesting hike — a few unfortunate party members slipped into the cold water.

Beware the water

At last we reached Ein Maboa, a national park with a gift shop and restrooms, where we broke bread for lunch. A nice concrete structure holding the spring water provided entertainment for those wishing to swim, and the rest of us watched amused. Just beside the pool is the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church which was discovered in 2008. This church was part of a monastery, of which we’d learn more about the next day when encountering the famous St George Monastery at Wadi Qelt.

Ein Maboa

After finishing our lunches and learning more about the local monastery, we hiked out of Ein Maboa and climbed the mountainside directly south. It was an arduous hike; the steep incline of the hill seemed to go on forever and ever. Looking around we gained appreciation for the tough hiking streak we were on, the views always rewarding. At the top, alongside yet another road, we were enchanted by the sounds of a flute and a harmonica, while we gazed out at the view and watched foxes play far down below.

Making our way uphill

The hike was nowhere near done, and before we knew it we were back on a trail, plunging into some rocky area in the direction of Road 1. Our next stop was overlooking the road, and in true trailblazing fashion, we took the most direct route we could find. We passed a large amount of gnawed cow bones, a great grey shrike and an interesting geological formation of rusty-looking stone blocks.

Gazelle dung midden

Taking a quick breather at a dung midden belonging to mountain gazelles, we learned about the manners of communication and territory marking that some species employ. Getting back on our feet, we then hiked up another steep hill to our next stop, the location of historical Ma’ale Adumim.

Roman stucco

Overlooking Road 1 and neighbouring the Inn of the Good Samaritan, we found the remains of archaeological excavations at the top of the hill. An unknown Herodian palace was discovered in 2003, the structure suffering structural damage after the building stones were taken for later projects nearby. Remains of a stucco wall of the Roman villa, with its paint in green and red, left in situ to be enjoyed by the good folk who come to visit the obscure site. Another curious thing to catch my attention were some dried flowers of the toxic desert henbane found growing beside the Roman villa. Hearing that it also has hallucinogenic properties, I made sure to carry the flowers with me, just in case the lodgings that night proved unbearable. I jest, of course.

Desert henbane

After learning more about the site and the excavations that had taken place, we made our way to the neighbouring hilltop, crowned by the ruins of Castellum Rouge. A Crusader fortress built sometime around the year 1172 to protect Christian pilgrims travelling between Jerusalem and Jericho, it also served to safeguard the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Today not much remains of the fortress, but I was elated at the chance to tick yet another Crusader castle off my “to-visit” list.

Castellum Rouge

On our way we passed a lovely sight overlooking the mountainous desert view: a small table set up all fancy-like with wine, flowers and chocolates and a happy young couple who had just gotten engaged and were phoning their friends and family. Interestingly enough, I came across a “point of interest” marked on the AmudAnan map attesting to this moment in their lives. Not wanting to crash their special moment, we skirted around them and made our way to Yehuda who was waiting for us with more refreshments, but we certainly wish them a heart “mazal tov”.

Break beside Castellum Rouge

The sun was on its way westward and we had yet a long way to go, so we explored the ruined fortress rather speedily and then hit the trail again. This trail followed the old British road and we made good time walking to Mitzpe Yericho, where we were to spend the night. Along the way we had a little discussion about marinite oil shale which, found in the Judean desert region, is a possible fuel source that may or may not be worth mining. Nightfall came before we reached our destination and some quick navigation was made as we closed in on our lodgings.

Fancy corner of the lodgings

At last we found it, and we entered to find a curious rug and dried palm frond-accented “tent”, with couches and mattresses for us to sleep on. An unhealthy amount of pizzas were picked up, as well as more treats from Yehuda, and a hearty dinner was enjoyed by all. A quick trivia game ended the day, with exhausted bodies falling asleep here and there, bundled up in sleeping bags to fend off the intense desert chill. We needed to gather our strengths for part two of the trip, which was to begin well before first light the next morning…

A video of this trip, which I made for the department’s YouTube channel, can be found HERE.

Tel Goded Archaeological Survey II

In Israel, Judea on December 31, 2017 at 8:36 AM

Continuing with the four-week long archaeological survey with the academic staff and students of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, we returned once again to Tel Goded. Located in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Tel Burna, the tel hosts mountaintop settlements ranging from the Bronze Era all the way until the Byzantine times. Our mission was to conduct a surface-area survey to aid in assessing the site’s value from an archaeological standpoint.

Tel Goded survey staff members (photo Boaz Zissu)

Leading the team was Prof Boaz Zissu, Dr Amit Dagan and Shira Albaz, the latter two also staff members at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig. We arrived at the site on the third week and convened to have the weekly briefing before beginning to work. Thankfully, I was reassigned to the small cave-finding team and I set out with friends Eitan and Amichai in search of more hidden caves.

Overlooking a collapsed area

But first, a quick mentioning of some flora and fauna that were seen that morning: after a few rains, especially with that of the previous week’s, the hill experienced a change that would be even more noticeable the following week. What had first been a blanket of dead, yellow-brownish vegetation had morphed into a sea of grassy green. Small clusters of Steven’s meadow saffron dotted the hill, particularly on the summit, making for lovely photograph opportunities. In addition, I spotted a nice great grey shrike on my hike up the slope and the usual fare of robins and stonechats.

Steven’s meadow saffron

Without delay we struck out for the caves, and found what we were looking for. Inside one, we found traces of modern human and porcupine as well as curious archaeological remains. We slipped in and out of the different holes and cracks that we found on the hillside, working our way south and having a ball. At the bottom of the slope at the southern end of the hill we came across the ancient, underground water channels carved into the rock. I climbed down into one, with the aid of a pre-existing ladder, and tried to make out how far I could see underground.

Underground water channel

Continuing along, scouring the area for caves, we found another part of the underground water system as well as a broken tortoise shell. Out in the field we discussed whether or not it was likely to have been broken by an eagle, several species known for lifting tortoises high in the air and then dropping them down on a rocky surface to break into their formidable shells. However, when I asked the experts, I learned that this shell looks like it was cracked open by the powerful jaws of a striped hyena, an apex predator that roams the Holy Land.

Tortoise shell

The day was coming to an end and the three of us found ourselves near the pick-up location for our minibus, but with the rest of the team still up on the tel. We seized the opportunity to explore and returned to the Roman-age ruins that we had begun exploring the week before. We found large water cisterns and better-known burial caves, as well as more Bar Kochba bunker tunnels carved into the bedrock.

Let’s explore!

We entered one particularly windy one, with many turns to help defend against possible intruders, and found a hidden columbarium at the end—hidden in the sense that the upper entrance had been sealed off in antiquity and access can be gained only by crawling through a tight tunnel. I found the discovery to be most charming, even though the site is no secret from the general public.

Columbarium

At last we left our hidden columbarium, crawled back through the tight tunnel and headed downhill to the minibus. We were to be coming back to Tel Goded for the final survey day the following week and return we did. The green growth after the few rains had further transformed the hill and the surface-searching became more difficult as the bare ground disappeared beneath the vegetation.

Final day on Tel Goded

But before we got to work, we had a small breakfast laid out before us to eat, provided by the department’s patron Yehuda. Often accompanying us on extended trips and other such events, Yehuda never fails to bring food, drinks and smiles to the staff and students as he treats us when we need it most.

Yehuda bringing breakfast

Because the cave expedition was largely over with, I was reassigned to the teams searching for surface finds. Being that this was the final day of the survey, we were now tackling the lowest level of the hilltop, and each section was entrusted with a few team members. I was reunited with Itamar and Avner from the first week, and together we kicked about looking for interesting finds.

European green toad

While we didn’t find a terribly impressive amount of potsherds and other items of antiquity, we did find a broken digital camera, and when we took it back with us, we found that the photos within belonging to a schoolgirl and dated back to 2011. In addition, we found a cool blister beetle armed with a poisonous chemical for self-defense and an ocellated skink hiding under a rock. As far as potsherds go, I picked up one interesting piece that had part of a classic Byzantine cross on it, definitely an unique find surface-level.

Byzantine potsherd

Just as we were finishing up, sweeping our eyes over the last unsearched swathes of land, there was another interesting find – this time a glass Tempo bottle, covered in plastic to safeguard against accidental breakage. Even though the bottle is only thirty or so years old, it was interesting to see such an old-looking bottle, something that nearly belongs in a museum.

Moment of relaxation

At last the survey came to an end, and an idea was voiced: perhaps, in the spirit of Hanukkah, we could all pose in the shape of a hanukkiah (or what is also known as a menorah). We did the best we could to replicate the iconic shape, and here it is:

Group photo

We then packed up all the gear and prepared ourselves for the descent back down the tel. I rode with Prof Zissu, and we took a cute selfie as we navigated the jeep down the uncertain mountain path.

Jeeping selfie

It was the end of my first archaeological survey, and I had quite the experience taking part in it. Due to our efforts, we have significant insights into the historical aspects of Tel Goded, assisting further research and enabling a more accurate planning of future endeavours. Hopefully there will be more surveys in the future to accompany the many academic trips that we as a university take several times a month.