Israel's Good Name

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…

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  1. Awesome and very interesting, thank you!:)

  2. Fascinating, enjoyed your post!

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] week after I finished volunteering at the Horvat Midras archaeological dig, where I participated in clearing Israel’s only pyramid, I took a fun trip […]

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