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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.