Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Judea’ Category

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.

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.

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…

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.

Tel Goded Archaeological Survey I

In Israel, Judea on December 24, 2017 at 8:50 AM

Having recently completed a four-week archaeological survey of Tel Goded with staff and students of Bar Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, I hereby present an accounting of the first two weeks. Despite the fact that it was a four-week survey, us archaeology students only actively surveyed one day per week, so this report is summarising two days worth of activity. We started off the first week with a mini-bus ride from the university to the site itself, located just a few kilometres northeast of Beit Guvrin-Maresha, and disembarked.

View from Tel Goded

We looked up at the hill facing us, curious what was in store, as the other members of the team gathered around to meet us beside an old fenced-off well. Prof Boaz Zissu was leading the survey with Dr Amit Dagan and his assistant Shira Albaz, the former specialising in Classical archaeology and the two latter in Bronze and Iron Ages archaeology. Without too much fanfare, the bulk of us climbed into 4×4 off-road vehicles and rode up the hill, the rest enjoying the ascent powered by their own legs.

Dr Amit Dagan and Prof Boaz Zissu

Up top, a shade tent was set up and we all gathered around for a briefing to understand what the day (and subsequent weeks) were to entail. To simplify things, and to preserve the academic findings for the forthcoming reports, I will just touch upon our work very briefly.

Canaanite flint sickle blade

The shape of the hill’s top, three plateaus descending northward, is the site of an old city which crowned the hill from the Bronze age to the Roman times. In 1900 the upper plateau, the old acropolis, was excavated by archaeologists Bliss and Macalister under the watchful eye of the Ottomans, and then covered up as per their instructions.

Anthropomorphic agricultural installation

Our survey’s goal was to examine the hilltop as best as we could, gathering up any evidence that we can find (mainly potsherds) with the addition of measurement- and elevation-takings. It was my duty that day was to scour a particular plot of land with the company of two friends, Avner and the frequently mentioned Itamar.

Surveying the acropolis

We scanned the dry ground, with its dry vegetation, and picked up a fair amount of potsherds. It was relaxing work and there were only a few nature distractions that day, the highlights being a swallowtail butterfly, a harrier of sorts and a juvenile sparrowhawk that flew past me at eye level.

Swallowtail butterfly

At the end of the day, sometime around 3pm, we all gathered together to summarise the day and to examine the finds. The most interesting finds were those of several team members that had been tasked with locating and surveying caves on the hillside. One cave, its entrance hidden by a dense bush, contained in it sleeping bags and empty food cans. This was a base camp for antiquity looters, and they had left behind a fair amount of nearly complete ceramic vessels which excited us greatly. The day ended with a jeep ride back down the tel, and we looked forward to continuing the survey.

My findings for the day

The following week was a rainy one, and the day of the survey was no exception. We arrived at Tel Goded and I decided that this time I’d walk up to further appreciate the site and to perhaps catch some bird or animal unawares for a nice photograph or two. I saw only chukars but, when convening to discuss the daily plan, I was told that I could join the cave-searching team–news that filled me with joy.

Winter day on the tel

I joined my friends Ogen and Eitan and together we set off down the hillside in search for caves, ignoring the occasional drizzling from the heavens. We found caves, which made us ecstatic in our findings. Ancient burial caves, broken into and looted, were found in the most unlikely places, sometimes hidden underfoot.

Searching for caves

It’s difficult to put the sheer joy of “discovering” a burial cave (albeit looted) into words, but believe our enthusiasm when I say we raced from hole to hole eager to slip inside to uncover a hidden world.

Slipping into yet another hidden cave

To make the experience even more exciting, there were some interesting animals to be seen within the caves. A Montpellier snake was spotted in one cave, and two different horseshoe bat species were found in another.

Horseshoe bat

Due to our excitement and perseverance, we ditched lunch and continued in our work, eager to keep exploring. Every minute counted, because when we found a cave we’d have to enter it to take photographs and GPS coordinates. Here’s an example of an empty burial cave that we found several of, each having a specific look or identifying feature:

Within one of the ancient burial caves

At last we had to finish up and meet the rest of the team coming down from the tel, but seeing that we were early, Eitan and I snuck off to the Roman-age ruins, a very popular site for school groups. We found classic Bar Kokhba rock-carved tunnels and a columbarium which was sealed off from the outside, accessible only via the narrow tunnel through which we crawled.

Exploring the inside of a columbarium

Leaving some more ruins to be explored next time, we met up with the rest of the survey team and heard a crazy story about them assisting the Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors in catching two young Arab looters red-handed, searching for ancient coins on the acropolis with a metal detector. After hearing the gripping tale, we took the minibus back to Bar Ilan University, looking forward to return again to this promising hill.

University Trip: Tel Lachish & Tel ‘Eton

In Israel, Judea on December 3, 2017 at 10:08 AM

Returning to the series of academic trips provided by the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University, I started off the new semester with a trip to Tel Lachish and Tel ‘Eton. Having heard so much about the findings at Tel Lachish in the past year or so, I was excited to at last see the site in person. The excitement regarding Tel ‘Eton was even more palpable due to the fact that I used to work at the Tel ‘Eton lab on-campus two years ago.

Tel Lachish

We left the campus in the morning, picked up Prof Avraham Faust along the way, and headed to the first stop of the day: Tel Lachish. We approached from the north, already seeing the steep hillsides and the reconstructed gate area from the road. Disembarking, we stood beneath the gathering of pine trees beside the unfinished visitors centre and listened to Prof Faust’s overview of the Israelite cities during the Iron Age with an emphasis on Lachish. Characteristic of me, I quickly got distracted by the birds around me: perched stonechats, clattering jackdaws, and a trio of black kites wheeling about in the thermals above me. I took photos until it was time to scale the historic hill, by way of the ancient access road to the city gates. What’s interesting about the gatehouse is that it was strategically built in a right angle, to prevent enemy horsemen from riding straight into the city.

Dragonfly

Inside the ruins of the ancient city we began our counter-clockwise tour. Just to give a very brief history review of Lachish, the site was first settled in prehistoric times and then became a fortified city under the Canaanites in the Late Bronze era, some 3200 years ago. The fortified city was destroyed by the army of Joshua, as depicted in the Bible, and laid barren for several hundred years until it was rebuilt by King Rehavam, son of King Solomon, when it became the second most important Jewish city in Judea. Destruction came again, this time by the hands of the Assyrians, and the city was razed to the ground. Illustrations of the siege and conquest were found in the wall carvings of Nineveh, including a relief of Sennacherib himself sanctioning the destruction of the large city.

Ballista stone

A hundred or so years later Lachish fell again, this time to the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The city never returned to its former glory and was eventually abandoned during the Hellenistic period, never to be rebuilt. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the tel was excavated, yet the work was abruptly stopped when the lead excavator, JL Starkey, was murdered by Arabs on his way to Jerusalem. Most recently, Prof Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University has resumed excavations and the site is to be turned into a national park sometime in the near future. An illustration of Lachish during its years of prosperity can be seen HERE, drawn by the fine folks at Biblewalks.

The palace base

Returning to the tour, we headed for a the ruins of the most prominent building on the hilltop. However, the professor was sure to enlighten us that the tall rectangular structure was just the base for the building that stood upon it – a fortified palace. Perched upon the rounded ashlar walls were two crested larks, posing nicely as I creeped forward to take pictures. Up on the palace floor, we surveyed the area and had a funny run-in with a Polish tourist who complained that he didn’t have material about the site to read. When our professor informed him that there will be a visitors centre sometime in the near future, the straight-faced tourist proclaimed that he was joking. Awkward silence hung heavy in the air and the tourist melted away, allowing us to recuperate before moving on to the next point of interest on the tel.

Overgrown Solar Shrine

From the palace we descended to a nearby ruin, that of an ancient temple known as the the Solar Shrine. This peculiar name derives from the fact that the positioning of the doorway allows the rising sun to shine straight into the structure, flooding it with warming light. Moving onwards, we headed for the northern end of the tel, looking at a series of excavations. It was there that I spotted a male common kestrel apparently eating something that it hunted moments earlier. Just below the dig, we took a brief gander at the ancient well – a peculiar thing to find on a hilltop.

The well and its pigeons

We then took the long way back, along the eastern side of the tel, and boarded our bus. It was time to visit the next site, Tel ‘Eton, located some eleven kilometres to the southeast (as the crow flies). Driving along the security wall on Road 358, we turned onto an access road approaching the site. Getting out moments later we surveyed our surroundings, admiring the mustard yellow grass blanketing the ground as far as the eye can see.

Tel ‘Eton

Mounting the hill on a scarcely visible trail, we clipped along at a good pace; I paused just briefly to photograph the pink flowers of a common leadwort bush. Atop the hill we made our way to the southernmost excavation site, Area A, and the professor began to educate us. In summary, we were going to be shown a style of Judean construction that differs somewhat from that of its neighbour Lachish. Most archaeologists associate Tel ‘Eton with the Canaanite city of Eglon which is mentioned in biblical records concerning battles between the Israelites and the local kingdoms.

Common leadwort flowers

That being said, ‘Eton/Eglon was an important fortified city during the years of Israelite rule, the focus of Faust’s research. That came to an end with the Assyrian conquest, at which point in history archaeological evidence confirms the destruction of the city. The Persian period saw a rebirth of the city, but on a smaller scale, and was completely abandoned at the start of the Hellenistic period. Other than agricultural improvements in the Byzantine times, Tel ‘Eton remains as it was over 2,000 years ago, convenient for excavations of a specific purpose such as Faust’s.

Professor Faust speaking

We walked over to the centre of the hilltop and examined other excavation areas, with minor distractions such as crested larks and dragonflies, as well as a lone porcupine quill. After pointing out the agricultural terraces to the west, the professor led us back to Area A where we gathered inside the excavated ruins.

Admiring Area B

Perhaps the highlight of the dig, the ruins of none other than those of a “four-chambered house”, typical of Israelite architecture. A stellar example, with a clear layout and some well-cut ashlars, it is believed that this was the house of an important family, perhaps even that of a local governor. This structure helped create a parallel to the finds at other sites, including the aforementioned Tel Lachish.

Within the ‘four-chambered house’

Finishing up, we headed back down the mustard-yellow hill, leaving me with a thought that it would be nice to dig at Tel ‘Eton sometime in the future, as it is one of BIU’s few active sites. Back in the bus we made our way to the last site of the trip, Khirbet Qeiyafa, which I have already written about twice before. We entered the magnificently walled city, one of my favourite Israelite sites, and briefly examined various architectural elements which helped complete the theme of the day’s lecture.

Sunset at Khirbet Qeiyafa

Because I have already been to Khirbet Qeiyafa twice before, I put a little extra focus on finding wildlife and I wasn’t disappointed. Highlights included elusive chukars, red blackstarts and a small herd of mountain gazelles making their way across the opposite hillside. The sun began to sink to the west, slowly at first but picking up speed rapidly, and before we knew it sunset was upon us. We prayed and then returned to our faithful bus to be returned to the university, bringing an end to a very long but delightful trip.

A special thank you to the talented Rebecca Zami who has editing each and every blog post for the past four months!

Beit Guvrin: Crusader Castle

In Israel, Judea on September 24, 2017 at 6:20 AM

Whilst participating in Hebrew University’s excavation of Horvat Midras in early August, I took a short trip to the Crusader fortress that I had missed in my previous trips to Beit Guvrin. Since I was staying at the nearby Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, I did not have far to go and set out on my excursion in the late afternoon of my second dig day. On my way out of the kibbutz I stopped to examine the display of ancient millstones and columns that adorn the entrance and then made my merry way to the main road.

Beit Guvrin’s Crusader ruins

Seeing the alluring ruins on the right of me, I looked despairingly at the fence barring my way and walked along Road 35 until I saw a place to slip in. Because the road divides this part of Beit Guvrin from the more expansive national park that includes Tel Maresha, this part has no entry fees. As I entered, I noticed that the Roman amphitheatre was decorated for a concert that evening, and two young Arab men were standing watch. They hollered at me and a curious discourse followed in which I was threatened with my life and then allowed entry–an interesting episode, to say the least. Passing the amphitheatre, which I had already visited twice, I made my way towards the complex that awaited my visit for years.

The castle from above

Just to give a brief overview of this part of Beit Guvrin: I was visiting the Roman and Crusader ruins which include a bathhouse, a fortress, and even the remnants of a mosque from the Muslim period. Sometime around the year 200 CE the Romans gave a Greek name to the city, calling it Eleutheropolis (meaning “City of Free Men”). Later, when the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, they built the Bethgibelin castle atop Roman ruins. The church, built on the south side of the fortress, was converted into a mosque when the Mamluks overthrew the Christian rule in the 1200s.

Regal banners

First passing a small agricultural installation I found myself at the columned and vaulted entrance to the fortress area, the aforementioned church/mosque. Standing beneath the tall vaults I noticed the mihrab (Muslim prayer niche) in the southern wall and gazed upwards to admire the Gothic architecture that the Crusaders introduced to the Holy Land.

Looking up at the Gothic construction

Spotting a narrow staircase built into the fortifications, I made my way up to the roof of the ruined fortress where I had a great lookout over the site. When I had my fill of sweeping vistas I returned to ground level, entering the fortress. Because the site is still being excavated and restored, I basically roamed around freely, examining and photographing as I saw fit. One interesting feature that caught my eye was an etched version of the game Nine Men’s Morris, which has been popular since before Roman times. After very briefly researching this particular specimen, it appears as though this game was scratched into the stone by individuals of the Crusader inclination. I find this glimpse into the past to be very interesting.

Nine Men’s Morris

I noted the clay piping, reminding me of Montfort Castle up near my home in the Galilee, as well as many stone creations that I have yet to learn to identify. I circled the inside of the ruined castle, and wondered what a particular gap in the construction was, a veritable hole in the ground. I naturally assumed it was a water reservoir, as is common with fortifications. But I soon found that I was wrong, as there were stairs leading down to a Roman bathhouse. Within its dark, vaulted chambres I found my answer, and gazed up at the sunlight streaming in through the very hole I questioned. Illuminating my path with my cellphone’s flashlight I toured the underground ruins, having a brief run-in with a startled pigeon.

Section of the bathhouse

Leaving the bathhouse, I exited the castle and stumbled into the workplace of the current excavation. I found crates and crates of interesting pottery, and, poking around a wee bit, got myself excited at the possibilities of discovery, for I hope one day to uncover some nifty Crusader finds. With the sun sinking into the horizon, I returned to the path from which I came walking alongside the moat, and exited the park with a wave goodbye to the men-at-watch still camped out at the amphitheatre.

A happy explorer

Before returning to the kibbutz I nipped across the road and explored a long stone building mostly overgrown with vegetation. Inside I found a singular, tunnel-like room with a small mihrab and a lonely minbar (stepped pulpit). I read that this building was later used to store cotton for feeding livestock, but today it’s surely empty, save a mountain of guano in one corner. At last I retraced my steps back to the kibbutz and headed straight for dinner in the delightful blue-framed stone building. My short excursion was over but I had yet another day of adventurous digging at Horvat Midras.

Horvat Midras Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Judea on September 17, 2017 at 7:05 AM

After a week-long break from digging at Tel es-Safi, I found myself volunteering at yet another archaeological excavation, that of Horvat Midras run by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Also located in the Judean lowlands, my dig experience at Horvat Midras was actually wildly different than that of Tel es-Safi. For starters, I had dug only Bronze and Iron Age sites thus far this summer whereas Midras is predominantly Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine. Other differences will become apparent later on in the post, highlighting how interesting archaeology can be.

Aerial shot of Horvat Midras’ Pyramid (photo Alexander Wiegmann & Yakov Shmidov)

Late Sunday afternoon I took a train down to Kiryat Gat where I was picked up by the dig director, Dr Orit Peleg-Barkat, and taken to the base camp of the excavation, Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. I had written twice about sites at Beit Guvrin, which can be seen HERE and HERE.

All-purpose building at the kibbutz

Disembarking at the expedition’s dining room/office building, a beautiful British Mandate structure, we went in for dinner before I settled in my own room in the dwelling building just down the street. Anticipating the next morning at the dig, to a place I’ve never been, I slept just a few hours before waking up, lacing up my new hiking boots and filling up plenty of water to drink later. I snagged a ride with one of the staff members and we pulled up to the dig site, a gentle slope in the Adulam Reserve just off Road 38. I lent a hand getting gear out of the storage container in the dirt parking lot and then waited for my briefing tour by Orit.

Walking up the hill while the moon’s still out

Taking me up the hill, Orit showed me the various areas that they had been excavating over the season, including a site which appears to be a Roman temple. I was to be joining the team at the pyramid, a 10×10 metre edifice of white ashlars, the only structure of its kind in all of Israel. Due to the presence of a burial cave directly below the pyramid, it is believed that the edifice was built as a memorial of sorts. However, it is unknown who built the pyramid, or even if there is another reason for its construction. I was introduced to the team: area supervisors Yodan and Evie from HUJI, a few volunteers from the University of Münster in Germany and a fellow Bar Ilan student of Archaeology. Itamar, my frequent digmate, would be joining us the follow day, but that will have to wait.

Different angle of the pyramid

I was directed to help clear off the dirt and vegetation from the exposed pyramid structure, while the sun was still low in the sky and we didn’t need to hide beneath the sunshade like academic cockroaches. Just as I dipped my trowel between two stones to scoop out the refuse, I struck gold. Well, not quite gold, but I did find three coins. Unfortunately, they were modern Israeli coins, the oldest minted in the 1980s and the total value adding up to a measly two shekels (approximately half of an American dollar). At least I got the opportunity to needlessly excite the supervisors before getting back to work. The joke was on me though, because shortly thereafter I was moved back down below the sunshade to chip away at a consolidation of lime that proved difficult to excavate. Thus, I wielded a pickaxe deftly as I chipped the hard lime from between the fallen ashlars of the pyramid. The work was hard and the conditions were cramped, but we needed to get past the stubborn lime to the dirt or bedrock to find the bottom of the pyramid on the northern side. Slowly but surely I worked, filling up buckets of grainy white powder to be discarded nearby. I didn’t chat too much with my German digmates that day, as I was missing my Tel es-Safi crew, but I had an overall good time being a volunteer quarryman.

Horvat Midras

Having worked up quite the appetite by the early afternoon, we drove back to the kibbutz and re-congregated in that fancy building with its blue doors and shutters. We ate lunch as we had eaten dinner the night before, all together at one long table, using shallow bowls to contain our individual portions. Excitement returned the very next morning when Itamar joined us at the site. Climbing up the hill to our trusty pyramid, we were then directed towards a new spot to work in, a chunk of bedrock that had been quarried from and then used as an agricultural installation later on.

Clearing out the quarry and agricultural installation

Tasked with clearing the dirt from the rock, we got straight to work and found very little of interest – save for buckets and buckets of earth. Every so often we’d find a small piece of pottery or perhaps a bullet casing (the area had been used for army training in recent history); the lone French volunteer often patrolled from area to area with the metal detector, shouting “boullet! boullet!” whenever he’d find a buried cartridge. Meanwhile, over at the pyramid, help came in the form of a mini jackhammer powered by a portable generator set up nearby to help break up the solidified lime. The staff worked tirelessly on the lime, the noise of power tools filling our ears.

Bringing out the power tools

The day passed by pleasantly, as I had Itamar with me, and when, at last, we wrapped up our efforts for the day, I knew I still had more adventure in me. And so, after lunch I took a short nap and then gathered up what I needed for an excursion to the nearby ruins of Beit Guvrin, beside the Roman amphitheatre, an adventure that I will cover in my next post. Returning to matters concerning Horvat Midras, I returned to the site the following morning for my third and final dig day.

Itamar and I at the pyramid

I continued clearing the quarried agricultural installation and then, at the supervisor’s request, moved over to the dirt area beside the lime buildup. I stood alongside my German digmates and joked as we moved dozens and dozens of dirt away from the pyramid area. We had a grand time, especially when we talked about beer – a shared interest. Another thing that interested me, and perhaps just me, was a blind worm snake that was saved from the ravages of our picks and hoes.

Rescued blind worm snake

Perfect for my scheduling, this third day had a special treat after breakfast, a quick tour of two interesting parts of Horvat Midras that were not under excavation. We followed Asaf Ben Haim, a staff member hailing from HUJI with whom I worked at the Tel Kedesh excavations, as he led us across the hillside to the remains of a Byzantine church.

Asaf Ben Haim showing us the Byzantine church ruins

Next, we headed underground to a special tunnel system that was dug out of the soft rock and used by Jews hiding from the Roman soldiers during the Bar Kochba rebellion around the years 132-135 CE. It turns out that I had actually visited this very tunnel cave back in 2008 when I visited Israel with my Floridian high school, and had assumed that it was actually part of Beit Guvrin’s trove of unique caves. When our short tour ended, I popped on over to two more interesting marked sites along this same hillside: a columbarium cave and a very unique burial cave. The columbarium, a dovecote, is one of many in the region that date back to the Hellenistic and Roman times, but this one has very pleasing niches for holding cute, little doves.

Ancient columbarium

The Roman-era burial cave was even more exciting, with a fascinating “rolling rock” to seal off the tomb’s entrance. Reminiscent of both the awesome necropolis of Bet She’arim and the fantastic adventures of Indiana Jones, I took a few hurried photos before slipping inside to explore the tomb’s interior. Unfortunately, the cave was vandalised some years back and the inner glory is since lost. I did salvage some sense of daring adventure as I climbed out of a different exit from inside the cave, emerging between some bushes a few metres away.

Burial cave with a rolling rock door

With that I returned to the pyramid to continue working and stayed there for the duration of the workday. When we got back to the kibbutz I joined the crew for one last meal and then packed my bags for a bus and then train back to Tel Aviv, bringing yet another exciting archaeological adventure to an end. More information about the dig can be obtained on the Horvat Midras site, found HERE. Coming up next, the short excursion to the Roman and Crusader ruins of Beit Guvrin…