Israel, Part II: Digging

My team and I found some cool things on this dig. For three weeks, I was assigned to an area near the headquarters of Legio, the home of the Roman VI Ferrata Legion (the “Iron Legion”).

Even though the pieces of pottery (called “sherds,” not “shards”)must remain in the lab or on site, I did find some intangible things that I am allowed to take home with me. Perhaps the most important finding: it’s all about context. There’s no use in finding objects without knowing where they came from. So, here’s a bit of context for what I did for three weeks in Israel.

See the teeny white dot near the trees in the distance? That’s our dig site!

Each day I was woken by a 4 a.m. alarm. In a semi-conscious state I’d get dressed, lace up my boots, apply the first coat of sunscreen, stumble downstairs to the kitchen, flip the switch on the electric kettle, and make a mug of tea with two teabags for extra caffeine. Then outside in the darkness I’d grab a few buckets from pottery washing the previous day to bring back to the dig site and wait with everyone else for the 5 a.m. arrival of the bus. We’d all board the bus and depart for the site, eating granola bars, listening to music, and silently savoring our last few moments of rest before the day began.

When the bus dropped us off in the field south of Megiddo that became so familiar, we’d immediately station ourselves tent posts and work together to raise the tarps that would shield us from the sun later in the day. After waiting a few minutes for adequate light and grabbing pickaxes, hoes, patiches (mini pickaxes), trowels, and a variety of brushes, we’d start to work.

The difficulty of the work varied depending on the contents of our square each day. If we were lucky enough to have some architectural stones in our squares, we’d use light tools to articulate their surfaces to make them nice and clean for the photographs. But most of the work was breaking ground and clearing away as much topsoil, sediment, and rocks as would fit in the buckets and hauling those buckets down to our pile of dirt, either to sift them in search of material culture or to dump them unceremoniously in a growing dirt-mountain.

Breaks came as a relief after hours of work in often-humid air or deceptive breezes that felt refreshing but actually dehydrated us. The first break of the day was breakfast, when we’d sit on grass mats and eat vegetables, eggs, hummus, bread, hazelnut spread, and peanut butter with dirty hands. The next break came closer to the end of the work day at 1 p.m., and often our supervisors would be kind enough to supply us with watermelon and popsicles.

The work, as I have said before, is not easy. I have never experienced such muscle pain before waking up on morning two after learning how to properly pickaxe on day one. Injuries are common. Though I luckily escaped with only one bruised fingernail, two scraped knees from two graceful falls while carrying buckets, and one head wound, I have heard stories about past volunteers losing fingers. And the combination of the heat, humidity, sun, and inhaled dust drained everyone and made early bedtimes a necessity.

Downside to head injury: blood. Upside: free bandana!

I gave up my sole for archaeology.

But despite the challenges, there were things that made the long work days fun. Herds of cows routinely visited before breakfast to keep us company. The more curious of them even hopped the fence to join us. The stunning sunrises, which came slightly after 5 a.m., more than justified our 4 a.m. alarms. And in my area (nicknamed “Lollipop Valley” by the second area, who often complained about how hard their supervisors worked them) we were seldom without good music supplied by one of the students or Dr. Cline.

The cows got too close to our squares, so we had to tell them to moove back.

Sunrises like these were usually accompanied by The Circle of Life from someone’s phone.

We found pottery. Lots of pottery that we’d have to wash back at the kibbutz later in the day. Many of us have experienced haunting dreams about washing pottery sherds. We also found lots of tiles that would have covered the roofs of the buildings in the camp, and bits of glass and shell.

Smiling through the pain

The long days of work made me appreciate things I often take for granted, like air conditioned buses, food, naps, a pool to take a dip into, clean laundry.

I did find some cool material culture on this dig, and I learned about archaeological techniques and skills like taking elevation points, keeping a field notebook, and keeping track of finds.

I would definitely return to Israel for another season to gain more knowledge and archaeological skills, but I’d especially want to come back for the camaraderie. Yes, digging brings people together.  It’s hard to spend a week with someone in a 1.5 meter deep hole brushing dirt off rocks without emerging friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *