Israel's Good Name

Khirbet Arai Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Judea on May 29, 2016 at 11:45 AM

During Chol HaMoed Pesach, several weeks ago, I was told by my friend Itamar about the Khirbet Arai archaeological dig in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Kiryat Gat. I traveled down to Beit Shemesh the day prior and we went out to see The Jungle Book in theatres the evening before the dig – a great film. The day of the dig arrived and we were driven to the site, passing historical sites such as Tel Beit Shemesh and Emek HaElah where the iconic battle between David and Goliath took place.

Aerial view of the dig site (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Aerial view of the dig site (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Now, the mound seen in the aerial photo above in the entire dig site but I only ended up working in the squares to the back left of the hillock, just along the tree line (click on the photo to enlarge). While the excavation site was being set up for the day and the camping volunteers were getting up, I wandered off a bit to explore my surroundings, photographing some jackdaws as well as the view of the Judean foothills.  To fully paint the scene, the weather was dry and very hot with gusts of hot wind blowing in from the southeast, perfect for a day outdoors. Looping back round to the dig site I found this crooked warning sign:

Beware of the archaeologists up ahead!

Beware of the archaeologists up ahead!

The Khirbet Arai Expedition is run by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, under the watchful eye of Professor Yosef Garfinkel, one of Israel’s premier experts in Biblical Age archaeology. Fortunately, Professor Avraham Faust from Bar Ilan University – my boss in the lab where I work – came to visit and I was able to tag along with him and Saar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority to hear a pretty extensive review of the excavations and findings.

Professor Yosef Garfinkel

Professor Yosef Garfinkel

I began the day’s work by helping with labeling cleaned potsherds for future vessel reconstruction, something I have plenty of practice in working in the Tel ‘Eton Archaeological Lab back in BIU.

Philistine pottery found on-site (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Philistine pottery found on-site (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Once we finished with the pottery bits we had lunch and then got back to work, this time I joined the diggers working in a particular square uncovering walls from either the 9th Century BCE or the 12th Century BCE, I cannot recall which was which. The periods are Late Bronze, Early Iron and Iron II – if I am using the terms correctly (I’m still a student) – which are the Judges and Kings periods of Israelite rule.

A square similar to the one I worked in (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

A square similar to the one I worked in (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Prof Garfinkel has already done extensive excavations in nearby Lachish and Qeiyafa, larger sites from the same period which guarded over the Nachal Lachish, an important road in the region. As Khirbet Arai has only been subjected to test and minor digs thus far, we were glad to make headway into the areas we were uncovering. Due to the sensitive nature of new reveals in both the academic and tourism world, I was forbidden to take photos of key findings and of the dig site itself but was graciously given permission to use released photos courtesy of the Khirbet Arai Expediton.

Bone that I dug out of the ground

Bone that I dug out of the ground

As I scraped around in the dirt between two emerging stone walls, I kept count of the potsherds I was finding – but lost track after thirty or so. All in all I estimate that I personally unearthed some 40-50 pottery pieces as well as what looks like a broken rib bone and some burnt brick material with small amount of concentrated carbon. It’s assumed that there must have been a raging fire which left burnt traces in the pottery and the brick, possibly fires of destruction and ruin – oh how I wish I had a time machine!

Bits of carbon from an ancient fire

Bits of carbon from an ancient fire

Noam, our square supervisor, was fun to work with and he showed us a broken flint tool and other oddities that he found on his side of the square, as well as answering the many questions that I had. Unfortunately, I blundered in my mission and was told by the Professor that I had committed an “archaeological disaster” by digging too deep alongside the wall stones, perhaps breaking the floor strata. We learn from our mistakes and at least now I know what not to do on my next dig.

Itamar and I after a long day at the dig

Itamar and I after a long day at the dig

Towards the end of the day we closed the dig site and worked on washing some pottery, another thing I have experience in, while the washed potsherds from the day before went to the pottery reading to determine their value and usage, the rest of which was dumped alongside the dirt and stones removed from the site. I sat beside Prof Garfinkel and discussed the site with him, learning of Luke Chandler’s blog where more photos and more information can be found (see post ONE and post TWO). Another interesting fact that I gleaned was that ancient sites from this particular time period are often identified by the animal remains found. Philistine sites have been documented as containing up to 20% swine of the bones found while Jewish sites have 0% swine bones, as the pig is not a kosher animal and thus ignored by the Israelites. Finished with the pottery washing, I got a ride partway home, washing and freshening up in Netanya’s train station, before making it the rest of the way home for a good night’s sleep.

University Trip: Beit Guvrin – Maresha

In Israel, Judea on May 22, 2016 at 5:41 AM

A month or so ago I received an invitation to attend a special farewell ceremony for Professor Emeritus Amos Kloner of Bar Ilan University. Already in his mid-seventies, Prof Kloner finished his lecturing last semester and was being honoured for his work at one of the most famous places he helped bring to life: Beit Guvrin – Maresha.

Beit Guvrin's iconic Bell Caves

Beit Guvrin’s iconic Bell Caves

I had visited Beit Guvrin – Maresha on my 12th grade graduation trip to Israel and haven’t been back to explore since, aside from a short visit to the Roman amphitheatre located nearby (HERE). And so it was on a pleasant Thursday afternoon that I boarded a bus with other university members and we made our way to the national park. Because of Prof Kloner’s renown, the event was co-hosted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in conjunction with BIU. Within the park we followed the evening’s mapped itinerary, starting with the fascinating ancient underground columbarium, or dovecote, with its capacity for thousands of  pigeons or doves.

Inside the columbarium

Inside the columbarium

Due to the region’s soft, chalky bedrock, there are hundreds and hundreds of caves – some natural and the others man-made. To give a brief synopsis of the local history, a fortified city by the name of Maresha is Biblically mentioned as a Jewish city until the times of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II who exiled its inhabitants. Abandoned Maresha was then occupied by the Edomites until the time of Alexander the Great when the city became the home of retired Greek soldiers. Enter the Maccabean Revolt, Pompey, Julius Caesar and then Herod and the city was destroyed in the power struggle.

Uncovered ruins at the edge of Tel Maresha

Uncovered ruins at the edge of Tel Maresha

Still in the Roman period, the small Jewish settlement of Beit Guvrin nearby became a regional replacement of Maresha and was named Eleutheropolis by the Romans after being conquered by Vespasian. Uncharacteristic of Holy Land cities, the ancient history ends with the Romans, save a few scattered instances of settlement throughout the following two millennia. As we climbed out of the columbarium I bumped into future tour guide Haike Winter and her friend – always fun to see familiar faces in unlikely places.

Lecture within the olive press cave

Lecture within the olive press cave

The next site on the map was the water cistern and olive press, both carved into the soft rock underground, where we heard a brief lecture on theories regarding Greek influence and involvement during the time of Alexander the Great. Climbing out, we continued on to mount Tel Maresha, where a guest lecturer hailing from Caesarea came to speak. There we stood gazing at the lay of the land, listening to the pastoral sounds of a flock of sheep passing down below.

Lecture on Tel Maresha

Lecture on Tel Maresha

The next place we visited was the famous Sidonian burial cave with its imaginative paintings, known as the Apollophanes Cave, a place I remember from my trip in 2008.

Sidonian burial cave

Sidonian burial cave

I was overjoyed to see the painting of a wild boar alongside other wild animals such as antelopes, giraffes, elephants and more. Ever since my run-ins with the ferocious and savage swine in both Nachal Kziv and Nachal Ga’aton I have been excited to see inanimate representations in ancient art.

Wild boar on the wall

Wild boar on the wall

From the Sidonian burial cave we boarded the buses to visit the famous Bell Caves where the ceremonially academic evening of lectures was to take place. Food and beverages were served yet I preferred to photograph jackdaws and to then visit the Bell Caves before the crowds arrived. During my 2008 visit we neglected to visit the Bell Caves so I was duly impressed to see the huge chambres, hewn from soft chalk, to be used mainly as quarries during the Byzantine era.

Inside one of the caves

Inside one of the caves

There were a few other people wandering around the caves as well and I used them in my pictures for perspective, to gauge the height of the large bell-shaped caves. When I had completed my subterranean tour I joined the rest of our group at a nearby cave where chairs and a screen were set up for lectures. Settling down next to my friend Itamar, I listened to the speeches and took notes on what everyone spoke about. Dr Tsvika Tsuk of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority spoke about being a soldier and finding a sarcophagus, and then the story of the recent victory getting UNESCO to recognise Beit Guvrin – Maresha as a World Heritage Site.

Speeches within the cave

Speeches within the cave

Dr Ian Stern of Archaeological Seminars told us about interesting findings such as items used for magic and ancient cultist practices. Dr Adi Erlich from Haifa University showed us slideshows of clay idols or figurines found locally, putting emphasis on one particular idol of Cybele – unusual to see in the Holy Land as Cybele was an Asia Minor deity. Prof Esther Eshel from BIU provided us with knowledge on ancient documents found inscribed on clay tablets while our department head Prof Boaz Zissu gave us a general historical and archaeological overview about Maresha, showing us fascinating pictures from the early 1900’s.

Inside the Sidonian burial cave from the early 1900's (cropped photo Library of Congress)

Inside the Sidonian burial cave from the early 1900’s (cropped photo: Library of Congress)

Prof Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority told us stories of grave robbers, destruction and discoveries of graves in the necropolis and then the star of the evening, Prof Amos Kloner, got up to give his address. With that the evening concluded and we took our bus back to Bar Ilan University for a good night’s sleep.

Masada & Dead Sea

In Israel, Judea on May 15, 2016 at 8:47 AM

Just over a month ago the Mechina for Olim (a preparatory course for immigrants) in Bar Ilan University, which I am taking alongside Archaeology classes, provided us a trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. We amassed outside the university gate in the wee hours of the morning and boarded the two buses hired to take us on our trip. That particular night and morning thereafter had uncharacteristically thick fog, so dense that the driver was forced to slow down considerably.

Masada and the Dead Sea before dawn

Masada and the Dead Sea before dawn

Driving in from the west, we traversed the barren wilderness and arrived at the parking lot beside the old Roman encampments on the west side of the craggy mountain. With the first hint of morning light showing over the horizon, beyond the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan, we began our ascent for the sunrise tour. The history and archaeological work done to Masada, one of Israel’s most famous tourist attractions, is too much to cover for this post, especially due to the fact that there is so much I simply don’t know yet – I will have to endeavour to write a better post on a future visit.

Tristam's starling

Tristam’s starling

In short, Masada is the ruins of a nearly-impenetrable mountaintop fortress built by Herod during the Roman era nearly two thousand years ago. History was made at the end of the Great Revolt (or First Jewish-Roman War) as the fortress became the last standing bastion against the Roman army, after strongholds in other regions fell (such as Gush Chalav, Gamla and, of course, Jerusalem).

Aerial view of Masada from the north (photo Wikipedia)

Aerial view of Masada from the north (photo Wikipedia)

We began our ascent up the Roman siege ramp (as can be seen on the right side of the aerial photograph), an extraordinary construction feat at the time, with the path straying from the ramp every so often until we reached the top. We entered the ancient fortress via a small arched portal and surveyed the flat mountaintop.

Entering via a small arched portal

Entering via a small arched portal

The sun was creeping its way to the peaks of the Jordanian mountains to the east and we gathered around to watch the sunrise.

Sunrise on Masada

Sunrise on Masada

With the world around us bathed in a new light we began our tour of the revered stronghold, one group in Hebrew and one group in French. Just as we began, the tours came to an abrupt stop, as we had approached the ruins of the ancient synagogue. We decided that there was no better place to hold the morning prayers (Shachrit) than in the synagogue of Masada.

Looking out to the northwest

Looking out to the northwest

Unfortunately, my Hebrew-language tour carried on without me and so I ended up missing a lot of what was said. Having rejoined some half hour later, we explored the bathhouse, storehouses, administrative and residential structures on the northern end of the fortress before working our way back towards the centre of the complex.

Ruins of buildings

Ruins of buildings

Several hours had passed and, although still morning, the harsh desert heat was beginning to pick up intensely. I wrapped my head in a white t-shirt and we began the descent down the famous Snake Path. Winding in the most serpentine manner down the east side of the craggy mountainside, the Snake Path is known to be the tough route up/down (especially when the third option is the cablecar).

Making our way down the Snake Path

Making our way down the Snake Path

Along the way I spotted an interesting flowering plant and paused to photograph it. Upon future investigation I learned that it was a Sodom apple with toxic sap in their fruit. The fibres attached to the seeds of this plant were once used to make wicks and are explicitly mentioned in the listing of what materials are forbidden to make Shabbat candle wicks from.

Sodom apple flower

Sodom apple flower

Eventually we reached the bottom and began our walk to the Masada Guest House where we were to have breakfast. I dug into a plate of salad, canned apricots and a potato boreka whilst enjoying a nice cup of coffee. Lounging around the hostel after breakfast, we waited for our buses to return to take us to the second half of our trip, the Dead Sea.

The touristy shore of the Dead Sea

The touristy shore of the Dead Sea

Now, oddly enough, I had never been to the Dead Sea and, rather unfortunately, I had no bathing suit readily available to pack and I didn’t bother to procure one – I’m sure the opportunity to float weightlessly will come again. Without going into too much depth about the place, the Dead Sea’s water is 9.6 times as salty as standard ocean water, resulting in an unusual level of buoyancy. Additionally, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth and incredibly hot all year round.

Another view of the Dead Sea

Another view of the Dead Sea

Still wrapped in the white t-shirt I disembarked with my friends and colleagues at whatever resort area we arrived at (it might have been in Ein Bokek) and we made our way to the sea. Like newborn sea turtles we scampered our way across the hot sand to the inviting waters ahead. Some went in, some sunbathed at the water’s edge but I decided to inspect the curious salt growths, accompanied by two friends.

Fascinating salt crystal growth underwater

Fascinating salt crystal growth underwater

We noted that ladybugs seems to be drawn to the salty sand, as well as a weevil which I caught on my finger. We fished out an interesting rock that was encrusted with salt crystals, as well as a twig that suffered a similar fate in the inhospitable waters.

Salt-encrusted rock

Salt-encrusted rock

I’ve seen many pictures online of the most magnificent salt crystal formations in the Dead Sea yet we were on a touristy beach which continuously disturbed by the hands and feet of man. Baking in our clothes from the relentless heat, we turned back towards the resort and found shelter with comfortable padded chairs and couches. We relaxed and chatted in the shade, a pair of nesting crag martins keeping us company.

Nesting crag martin

Nesting crag martin

After a lunch of sandwiches and fruit we boarded the buses and began the long journey back to Bar Ilan University, tired but happy with such a day of leisure and fun.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers