BAS Dig Scholarship Recipient Report: Erin Gibbs
When I tell people that I excavate at an archaeological site in northern Israel, many times their first response is, “Ooooh, what kind of dinosaurs are you discovering?” Once the record is set straight that I am looking for physical evidence of past human culture, I see their face fall for a moment and then brighten, “Oh, like ancient Egyptian pyramids? Have you found anything big?” Every time this word “big” is used, I am caught up on exactly how to answer the question. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not offended by the perception that many of my acquaintances have of archaeology. That same concept of “big” was what first fascinated me as a five-year-old looking through books on ancient Egypt and Greece; I imagined digging next to the Great Pyramid and hauling dirt near the Parthenon. Truly, if it were not for these physically large symbols of archaeology, I doubt that I would have pursued my dream of becoming an archaeologist through elementary school to college.
However, despite the fact that monumental objects are the ones that make History Channel specials and engage museum visitors, many times it’s the small finds that lead to the greatest understanding. This point came to the forefront during my 2009 excavation season at Omrit in Israel that was led by Macalester College faculty in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The site of Omrit in the Northern Galilee has a history that encompasses the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras. Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of Omrit lies in its remarkably preserved monumental architecture. Three temples, stacked inside each other like Russian nesting dolls, sit on the highest point at the site, which commands a sweeping view of the Hulah Valley from it’s location at the foot of Mt. Hermon. These structures run the gamut from Hellenistic to Roman in style, and are truly singular in their preserved art and architectural fragments. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is even opening a permanent exhibit to house some of the architectural elements from the temples as a testament to how spectacular these buildings are.
I have been fortunate to work at Omrit for three seasons, of which the first two were spent excavating these large temples. I became archaeologically spoiled as I constantly pulled up large-cut and decorated limestone blocks out of the dirt, taking their elevations and proudly showing them off to the site supervisor. I had realized my dream of excavating something “big,” and was euphoric. For an aspiring archaeologist, what could be more exciting than uncovering museum-worthy architectural elements day after day? With the help of the Biblical Archaeology Society, I was able to return to Omrit for another season, but this time I was not put to work on the temple excavations. Instead, I was placed in charge of a space about 50 meters away from the main temple complex, in an area that has produced primarily Byzantine material.
In the center of this area sat a 1.5 x 1.5 meter water installation sticking up from the ground’s surface. The goal of our excavation was to learn more about the distribution of water throughout the site. Water considerations were a far cry from the monumental architecture I had been used to, and I was not hopeful that we would discover anything remotely exciting during the course of our excavation. However, I tried to quell my disappointment and threw myself and my team into the excavation. Interestingly, what we found was far smaller in size than the architectural pieces of previous seasons, but perhaps far bigger in scope than anything I had previously uncovered.
Our excavation yielded a Byzantine industrial complex that held the water installation as its main component. This complex spanned over 15 meters and was comprised of an intricate series of rooms that radiated off of a main chamber. Wonderful pottery assemblages, various wall features, and large, well-preserved grinding stones were all found in this area, including a proto-concrete floor surface that was poured against the water installation and surrounding walls to create a sealed space. While these discoveries may seem somewhat ordinary, they most certainly were not. The grinding stones were rough and showed signs of wear and tear; the walls were a combination of reused blocks, carefully placed limestone ashlars, and rubble, and the floor was pockmarked and worn with repeated use.
These features were beautiful in a way that the temples could never be: In all of their imperfection and utility, they were a testament to the people who worked and lived and died at Omrit. From these “small” finds, we were able to understand how food was processed at Omrit, and how many people and resources, including water, were needed for that important task. Food and water: A testament to these most basic and universal of human needs were being uncovered on a daily basis right in front of me. The fact that it was not a “big” or traditionally beautiful set of features made it even more meaningful. The signs of frequent use made it very clear that this complex meant a great dealt to the people using it, and that it was—in its own way—as important to them as the temple complex located nearby.
My experience excavating the Byzantine industrial area of Omrit made me aware of a sense of humanity that was missing from my previous excavation seasons. In so doing, it caused me to wonder at my own perception of archaeology: Why had I lost track of the human component in favor of inanimate monuments when I was supposed to be learning about human culture?
At first glance, the Byzantine contribution to the history of Omrit seems small. There are no large temples and no stunning frescoes. However, the Byzantine-period contribution to the site is invaluable in another way: It is the only era of occupation as yet discovered that gives us insight as to how people—regular, ordinary people—worked and lived. Isn’t this the question that we archaeologists should be asking ourselves? Shouldn’t we take a moment to step away from the glitz and glamour of a few select objects and instead focus on the experience of the people who lived among them? Monumental architecture may be pretty, it may be fascinating, and it may inspire within us a feeling that we have found something “big,” but it only represents a portion of a culture. Although these finds are important in their own right, we must not forget about the rest of the story: What it meant to fully participate in and be a part of that culture.
My grateful thanks go to the Biblical Archaeology Society; without their support I would not have been able to come to this important realization. It is due in part to their generosity that I have moved beyond focusing only on those monuments that would appear on a History Channel special and into a realm of thoughtful, directed and scientific archaeology. Though I must admit: I haven’t given up on the Parthenon just yet!
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