Israel's Good Name

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!

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Jerusalem Aqueduct Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 12, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Several weeks ago, the day before my birthday, I had a day off from classes which had begun with the new semester mid-October and decided to participate in an ongoing excavation led by the Israel Antiquities Authority. My friend Ben joined in on the fun and we made our way to Jerusalem in the morning, heading for the dig located in the southern part of the city, below the Armon Hanatziv Promenade.

Approaching the dig site

Heavy rainclouds loomed overhead as we approached the construction site where our dig was taking place, where remains of the Greco-Roman aqueduct was found and a salvage excavation was opened up. We passed the hard-hatted workers and construction vehicles as we made our way to the black-tented excavation area. Meeting Yaakov Billig, the IAA director of the dig, we were briefed on the historical and archaeological situation of the aqueduct.

Jerusalem aqueduct archaeological dig

In short, during the late Hellenistic or Roman times an aqueduct was constructed to bring fresh water from reservoirs near Bethlehem to the Old City of Jerusalem. Many attribute the construction to Herod, as he was responsible for a huge building boom, but others prefer to credit the Hasmonean dynasty. Known as the Upper Aqueduct, the elevated structure sloped ever so gently down towards Jerusalem – important for identifying the intermittent sections found between the reservoirs and the capital. I don’t recall the exact height from the briefing, but according to various online maps I think that we were at 778 metres above sea level. Regardless, mapping the slow drop in elevation is crucial for correctly identifying remains of the same aqueduct.

Western meanders of the channel

In addition to the remains of the aqueduct, there was also what seems to be a large building and then a serpentine plaster water channel running perpendicular to the stone aqueduct. When our briefing ended, Yaakov handed us over to Rivka, the supervisor for the plaster channel area, and we were put to work on the far end. Our task was to further define the channel which had already been crudely exposed by a bulldozer. We armed ourselves with pickaxes, hoes and black plastic buckets and got to work. Just a few metres away was a small group of schoolchildren who provided us with fun music and conversation to which we worked.

Working alongside the schoolchildren

We picked, cleared and defined, moving slowly west down the channel, working gingerly around the delicate plaster. There wasn’t much in terms of artefacts, not even any interesting potsherds at first. Eventually we found some Roman-age ceramic roof tile pieces, but even more interesting was a rim piece of an ancient glass vessel, curled upon itself in a delicate manner.

Interesting piece of glass

At around 10:00 am we took a short break to examine the other areas of the dig, to eat and to do a little birding in the nearby grasses. I found a few stonechats, pied wagtails and jackdaws along with the regular Israeli city birds, and I rejoined Ben for some breakfast. The group of schoolchildren left shortly thereafter and we were relocated to a different part of the plaster channel. With the connection of the aforementioned building and the plaster channel still buried, we were given new instructions to define it better. I settled down with a small pick and got to work define the delicate sides while Ben wielded the big pickaxe, clearing away the area beside a bulldozed trench. Yaakov came over to chat with us, telling us that he attended Bar Ilan University as well.

East end of the channel

One of the hired Arab workers popped over to show us a rock that had broken in half, revealing a crystallised quartz interior. Then, as I cleared away the loose dirt I found myself holding a nearly perfect stone cube. Curious as to what it might be I waited for Yaakov to return, and was then told that it’s a mosaic tile – which makes sense due to the fact that on five of the six sides there was the remains of ancient cement.

Mosaic stone

The hours had passed before us and the hired workers began to pack up, another day at the dig coming to an end. We packed up as well, and said our words of farewell to Yaakov. But before we left, there was a special treat for us: a coin had been found earlier by the hired workers, and the dig’s assistant director, Rotem, took us to see it. I was surprised at how small it was, all encrusted and corroded, but it was clearly a coin with some sort of lettering that will be easier to identify after the lab finishes with it.

Yours truly

Leaving the site we headed back towards the heart of Jerusalem, specifically to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open market) as we were famished and waiting impatiently for some juicy burgers. We had our late lunch at Burger Market, washed down with bottles of cold alcoholic cider, before browsing the vibrant shuk.

Hatch brews

Our last stop was to the newly opened Hatch taproom, where a fun selection of fresh beers are available, in addition to creative sausages. After some samples I settled on a hoppy IPA, very similar to the popular NEIPA, and Ben had a Scottish ale. In added celebration of my birthday, Ben went ahead and ordered us one of the sausages, topped with a mango chutney and chopped onions. It was surprisingly tasty and we had a grand time eating, drinking and talking to the owner, Ephraim Greenblatt, about beers and brewing. At last, we said farewell and took a crowded bus back to Givat Shmuel bringing an end to a very fun and interesting day.

North Tel Aviv Coast

In Central Israel, Israel, Tel Aviv on October 29, 2017 at 6:50 AM

The week after my trip to Shiloh I rejoined my adventurous friend Adam for yet another adventure. This time it was for some early morning birding and more along the coast just north of Tel Aviv. We took a very early bus because we wanted to be out in the dunes by the time the birds start to stir. With just a tiny busing miscalculation we reached the fields just inland from HaTzuk Beach, roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Herzliya.

Starting with sunrise

The sun was just peeking over the horizon as we entered the scrub fields, walking along sandy paths that crisscrossed the area. Almost immediately we had an incredible sighting. A quail burst up from underfoot as we stood scanning the vegetation, its characteristic flight giving away its identity as it disappeared rapidly. This was my first time seeing a quail in the wild, and it was something that has piqued my interest for a while now. In addition, a sparrowhawk was spotted flying high up near one of the several hotels in the area and shortly thereafter we started seeing shrikes, whinchats and wheatears flying from bush to bush, presenting themselves nicely in the early morning light.

Scanning the area

We continued walking south, passing through the vegetation in relative silence, keeping a keen eye for wildlife of all varieties. We came across some interesting plants as well, from the sea squill to the sea daffodil, and later, blooming beach evening primrose growing directly in the sand itself on the dunes.

Sea squill

But it wasn’t just birds and flowers, Adam, more knowledgeable of bugs than I am, caught and showed me a queen ant that had lost her wings. There were also some antlion larva pits in the sand, dug to trip up unsuspecting walking insects on the loose grains.

Queen carpenter ant

We pushed southward, the terrain becoming nicer and nicer as we walked, with songbirds showing themselves all over the place. Occasionally we’d take different parallel paths, scouring the land from two different angles. A hoopoe, our national bird, walked along several paces in front of me, poking around in the sand for insects to eat.

Two harriers and a crow

Then, as we stood there, we spotted three bigger birds up in the sky coming in from the north. Activating my convenient 21x zoom, I was able to distinguish two birds of prey and a crow, the flagship mobbing bird, always annoying other species. Making note of the long and narrow wings, with the narrow tail, I knew we were looking at harriers even before they passed right over our heads. This was my first time seeing a Montagu’s harrier, and what a sighting! The “new bird” excitement carried over to the next cool sighting. A corncrake popped out of cover just in front of us, seeking refuge towards the sea. We attempted to follow it, to get a better sighting, but we were unable to relocate it and didn’t want to waste too much time poking about all willy-nilly.

Exploring the dunes

At this point the terrain was changing from the yellowish sandy flats to proper dunes with reddish sand, at times red clay loam. The vegetation became sparser, mostly short bushy plants and the aforementioned beach evening primrose. The contrast of the reddish sand, the green plants and the blue sky made a beautiful scene for our eyes to behold. Lots of tracks crisscrossed the sand, and we made our own tracks as we walked up the highest part of the dunes. We looked out over the Mediterranean Sea, taking in the views as we took out our breakfast. Eating as we kept an eye out for seabirds, we talked about how beautiful and remote this place was, even so close to such urban areas. To highlight the proximity, military aircrafts passed us both before and after breakfast: a C-130 Hercules cargo plane and a Blackhawk helicopter, both with camo paint-jobs.

Tracks

Just after breakfast, heading back down the dunes but still making our way southward, Adam spotted a common kestrel on a nearby clump of loam backdropped by the gentle waves. We watched it, taking pictures as we creeped forward. Unfortunately we ended up scaring it away but that gave us the opportunity to press onwards, heading towards an even taller hill: Tel el-Rekkeit.

Beach evening primrose

Crowned by an abandoned IDF military base, the tel once was the host of prehistoric settlement. Seemingly nobody bothered to use the hill until WWI when the Ottoman army established an artillery base to shell British troops approaching from the south. Once the Ottoman base was conquered, it was converted into a British base, and subsequently an Israeli base. We climbed the hill and looped around the western side of the base fence, arriving at the entrance with the access road. Finding the site to be completely abandoned we ventured in, wondering if we’d find drug addicts or something similarly unpleasant.

Abandoned army base

We stepped gingerly over the large amounts of garbage and building supplies that covered the ground, including terracotta roof tiles imported from France. We poked our heads into the different buildings, not seeing anything interesting, until I heard rustling in the bushes up against the eastern fence. Motioning to Adam, I crept closer and spotted two foxes making a quick getaway through a gap in the foliage. There wasn’t much else to see within the base so we headed back out, attempting to find the old Arab graves that are on the eastern slope. Instead we found a tiny cliff which didn’t afford passage, and the decayed remains of a dog or jackal.

Red-backed shrike

We continued south along the dunes, seeing a lot of ice plants covering the sandy slopes, and some thorny bushes – the preferred hangouts for shrikes. One beautiful red-backed shrike, singing from his perch on the thorns, posed for me quite close by. It was a lovely experience, and I was sad to see him fly off.

Tel Baruch Beach

Shortly thereafter, on the final stretch of the dunes area I found a ₪10 coin (worth $2.85 USD at the current exchange rate), and then we made our way down to the Tel Baruch beach. Having planned for this, we packed swimwear and towels and changed into our beach garb. We headed for end of the tiny artificial bay, up against the rocks of the breakers, and entered the warm waters. Nearly immediately I felt sharp little bites on my feet and remembered hearing about the sargo fish who have been a bit of a terror to beachgoers this summer. Then, I realised that a common kingfisher was perched on a pole right in front of me, watching the water for small fish to nab for lunch.

Common kingfisher

Thankfully Adam brought his mask with him and we took turns peering into the underwater world, admiring the sargos and other little fish swimming around us in the shallows. Having brought his fishing rod, Adam was looking forward to fish and so we also scrounged around for some “natural” bait, namely little crabs and limpets which we harvested from the rocks. Factoring in the mask, we decided to try fishing from within the water, head underwater to see where to dangle the hook. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much success. Well, no success at all.

Adam fishing

We left the water to try fishing from the breakers and had a continued lack of success. When returning to the water, I noticed that there was a large area that seemed darker than normal. Getting a little closer, wading my way in, I realised that a huge school of sardines came by to visit us. We spent the next while swimming within the school of sardines, marveling at the up-close experience as we watched them underwater with the aid of the mask. At one point, I was underwater and the aforementioned kingfisher plunged into the water less than a metre in front me, but sadly I missed seeing it due to the fishy distractions all around me. Hours passed with us playing around in the water, exploring the sandy seafloor and identifying several types of different fish species, including a type of blenny. At last I remembered that I had to be back in Givat Shmuel later that afternoon and we packed up and left, heading the long way back via the bike trail that runs along Sde Dov Airport. We reached the Reading power plant at the Yarkon River and grabbed a bus back home, bringing an end to a very adventurous day.