BAS Dig Scholarship Recipient Report: Caroline Tully
Tell es-Safi/Gath 2009
Thanks to the generosity of the Biblical Archaeology Society, I was able to travel to Israel to participate for two weeks as a volunteer in the 2009 season at Tell es-Safi/Gath. I have long wanted to visit the Holy Land, and what better excuse than in order to participate in an archaeological excavation, particularly such a large and important one?
Being more accustomed to the museum-end of archaeological excavation—where one interfaces with the past via cleaned, categorized and carefully displayed ancient objects—to be excavating in the field was really quite an eye-opener. The field experience is no air-conditioned stroll through the church-like hush of a museum; working at a dig was an intense, action-packed, hot, sweaty, physically-demanding experience that was also immensely stimulating intellectually.
I was part of a team from the University of Melbourne, Australia, working under the supervision of Aegean archaeologist Dr. Louise Hitchcock in Area A2. This section of the site consists of remnants of architecture, including walls of various phases and construction types that form a rectilinear hall that possibly dates to the 10th or 11th century B.C., a Philistine hearth and several rubbish pits.
Stuart Piggott described archaeology as “the science of rubbish.” As I dug and scraped away the grey powdery Tell es-Safi earth with my hand-pick and trowel, I couldn’t help wondering what the original inhabitants of the site would have made of the spectacle of contemporary archaeologists going through, with the equivalent of a fine-tooth comb, the detritus of their lives: burned animal bones, pottery sherds, beads, shells and olive pips.
While I was hoping to find the rest of the Astarte figurine mold, part of which the team had unearthed last year—or at least something large and amazing—my efforts mainly turned up the ubiquitous pottery sherds and animal bones. I also found part of a spindle-whorl, which seemed particularly significant because I am a professional textile artist — I would later see similar spindle whorls in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. I also found a tiny faience bead.
Small does not equal boring, however: In one of the many stimulating lectures given every night at Kibbutz Revadim, the dig headquarters, Professor Steve Weiner from the Weizmann Institute of Science explained that tiny objects that cannot be seen by the naked eye, such as the siliceous plant remains called Phytoliths, are also of vital importance in providing information about a site. This made me feel better about my finds! As our area supervisor would say, “Archaeology is not about spectacular finds; it is about touching the past.”
As well as being introduced to the physical side of field archaeology, I also discovered that it involved meticulous record-keeping in order for the site to be accurately reconstructed back in the lab. Frankly, digging was easier than mastering the paperwork, although I now have a new appreciation of this aspect of archaeology, without which accurate study and later publication of the site would be impossible.
After excavating in the blazing Israel sun until midday each day (thankfully there was a shade cloth over us) we would wash pottery in the afternoons. This was a pleasant social event performed on grass under a shade cloth, which was made doubly agreeable by the water sloshing from the buckets onto my legs, hence cooling me down. I also worked on pottery in the dig office, learning which types were diagnostic in the process—base, rim, handle—and how this would aid later reconstruction in the lab.
Some afternoons involved excursions to other sites, such as Tel Zayit and Lachish, which allowed us to get a good impression of the Shephelah (the fertile agricultural land that forms the border between the coastal plain and the Judean foothills) as well as the size of and relationship between tells within this landscape. It was particularly instructive to see for ourselves the visibility of the landscape. For example, Hebron was visible from Lachish—one could imagine how this would have been important to the original inhabitants.
The fun didn’t stop at the end of the day. Every night there were fascinating lectures to attend. Beginning with dig director Aren Maeir’s introductory lecture on the first night, subsequent presenters lectured on topics ranging from carbon chronology to pottery, registration and excavation procedures, Biblical texts and tells, and the challenges of re-excavating Tell Gezer. The presentations were a wonderful intellectual compliment to the physical activity of digging during the day.
Tell es-Safi/Gath is a huge dig with an international, multicultural team. The size of the project and the different universities and lay volunteers working there gave me a good idea of how a large excavation is handled and coordinated, while the international nature of the participants exposed me to potentially useful sources for networking. And it wasn’t all just hard work! Each Thursday night the excavation staff prepared wonderful meals, which we ate outdoors under the stars. I would certainly encourage anyone with a strong interest in archaeology to volunteer at Tell es-Safi Gath.
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