Scholarship Winner Essays
Every summer, people of all ages and from all walks of life volunteer to participate on archaeological digs throughout Israel, Jordan and other parts of the Mediterranean world. For some, working on a dig is a chance to experience the Bible first hand; for others, it’s a way to gain valuable field-training in their chosen profession. Still others are attracted to a dig for the chance to live, work and get a little dirty in an exotic locale far from home.
But whatever their reasons for joining a dig, volunteers always come away with fascinating stories of discovery and shared tales of 5 a.m. wake-up calls, muscle-building guffa lines and new friends made over field breakfasts and fruit breaks.
Below we share the dig experiences of three such volunteers, all of whom were selected as 2008 BAS Dig Scholarship winners.
Ramat Rachel, Israel
Lucas Schulte is a graduate student in Hebrew Bible at Claremont Graduate University in California. Married in 2006, he and his wife, Leah, had a shared dream of traveling to Israel to work on an archaeological dig. Both shared their thoughts with BAS about how the dig experience changed their lives, both personally and professionally.
I have dreamed of going to Israel for as long as I can remember. When I first began my graduate studies in the field of Hebrew Bible, I had hoped to travel to Israel and join an archaeological dig. Unfortunately, the second intifada delayed this journey for half a dozen years. Finally this summer the dream became a reality: my wife Leah and I made our first trip to Israel and joined the excavations at Ramat Rachel.
Early the morning of Friday, July 19, I donned my new brown fedora and Leah and I climbed aboard a plane bound for London. Thirty hours later, on Saturday evening, we were on our way via taxi from the airport near Tel Aviv to the Ramat Rachel hotel on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We were fortunate to have Sunday off for recovery before beginning the dig, but I couldn’t resist a sneak peek at our dig site. On the way, I encountered and received warm greetings from Dr. Oded Lipschits, codirector of the Ramat Rachel Archaeological Project. He encouraged me to tour the remains—more ancient than anything I had ever encountered. Though exhausted from our journey, I couldn’t wait to reach into soil laden with such antiquities.
Ramat Rachel is a particularly fascinating site because it contains remains from several time periods, the oldest being a citadel dating to around the time of King Hezekiah of Judah in the eighth century B.C.E. This citadel, situated on a hill overlooking both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, appears to have functioned as an administrative center for the Assyrians, followed by the Babylonians and then the Persian empire. Later in Byzantine times, Ramat Rachel became an established Christian community where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary began experiencing her first birth pangs and stopped for one last rest before entering Bethlehem.
Like every following weekday, our first morning of the dig began with my wife and me waking up around 4:30 to get dressed for the day. We would stumble half-awake down to the hotel lobby to meet our fellow team members for some morning coffee and cakes. By 5:30 a.m. we had all walked out to the dig site and unloaded equipment for beginning the day’s dig. I joined three other teammates and, armed with pickaxes, we opened up a new square in the largest area of the dig. Digging can get very hot and sweaty, but I enjoyed the chance to work in the soil again as I had done growing up on a small family farm in Nebraska. Halfway through the morning, hotel employees laid out a large breakfast buffet off to the side of the dig, and we also enjoyed a break of fruits and popsicles after another couple of hours of digging. We uncovered many sherds of pottery and floor tiles, and by the end of the dig day we began uncovering indications of a large hole. Over the next few days, we opened up the entrance of what turned out to be an underground reservoir dating to the Byzantine period, and by the end of the week my teammates and I had cleaned up and successfully completed work on our square for the season.
We also had many other opportunities to learn about Israel’s history and archaeology through activities with the dig staff. Evenings were filled with lectures given by some of the leading archaeologists in Israel, as well as presentations by members of the excavation’s staff. On Tuesdays we could join in tours of Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa, touch the Western (or “Wailing”) Wall, and trek a third of a mile underneath the City of David in King Hezekiah’s water tunnel. On Saturdays we would journey with our tour guide Gila to sites such as the Galilee, Nazareth, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Jordan River, Masada, Qumran, the Dead Sea and many other locations!
On the evening before our second week of digging, I received exciting news from my area supervisors. During the first week of the dig, some teammates in another square of our area discovered several large pottery sherds next to the casemate wall of the eighth-century B.C.E. citadel. The excavation’s staff thought the area could produce significant finds and therefore decided that the square would need its own supervisor. Because of my knowledge and experience as a doctoral student of the Hebrew Bible, my area supervisors offered me the exciting opportunity to supervise excavations within this square. Though I cannot divulge many details before publications of the findings at Ramat Rachel, I can mention that we discovered a fascinating plaster floor and managed to remove enough pottery sherds from the first half of the square to fill over 15 buckets!
I cannot imagine a fuller or more exciting first dig experience and journey to Israel. I would like to thank the Biblical Archaeology Society for helping both my wife and me (as well as many other scholarship recipients) make this dream a reality. I hope this is only the first of many such adventures in Israel.
Ramat Rachel, Israel
I have wanted to visit the Holy Land my entire life, but only recently when I became a student of the Bible and archaeology had the desire become more palpable. When my husband, Luke, and I married in June 2006, we realized we shared a dream of traveling to Israel. It wasn’t until this past summer that everything seemed to fall into place: open summer schedules, discovery of the perfect dig site and generous support from both our churches and the Biblical Archaeology Society.
We thought Ramat Rachel would be our ideal dig site, and when we arrived on July 20, we discovered it to be more than we ever could have wanted. Located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Ramat Rachel was perfectly placed for two archaeology students on their first dig. I longed to explore different time periods as well as experience the pilgrim’s way in the Old City of Jerusalem. Since the dig site was only a short walk from our hotel, and a short bus ride from the city, we were able to experience multiple “layers” of Jerusalem during our short two weeks on the dig. And because Ramat Rachel has such a rich history represented by a number of different archaeological levels, my husband and I could excavate a wide range of time periods.
The day after we arrived, we met the members of the Ramat Rachel team and went on a tour of the site, where we eagerly anticipated learning the areas to which we would be assigned. Luke and I were assigned to different areas; although this was initially disconcerting, over the first day or two of digging I found it to be a welcome situation. Not only did we have opportunities to meet new friends and engage in our work more closely, but it also offered me the chance to gain more confidence in my abilities as a scholar.
Bold and daring on our first day of digging, I tried to use the wheelbarrow on my own. Unfortunately, I lost control of it on a hill and it landed on me, marking my leg with a huge bruise! While my area supervisor affectionately called me the “first casualty of the dig” and Luke threatened to cover me in protective bubble wrap for the rest of that week, my square mates had other ideas. The following dig day, they promptly borrowed measuring rods from Dr. Oded Lipschits, the dig director, and snapped some pictures. So my humiliating experience became a lesson in archaeological photography and record-keeping! Fortunately, the next day I found a rare iron spearhead, which served to soothe the bruise embarrassment!
I worked in an area that contained mostly Roman and Byzantine levels. In my square, I dug with two students from Canada, and across from us were an American and a German student. The team’s diversity was one of the most enjoyable and educational aspects of the Ramat Rachel dig. The site is a joint project between Israeli and German students through Tel Aviv University and Heidelberg University, under the direction of Dr. Lipschits and Dr. Manfred Oeming. It is a remarkable experience to witness Israeli and German students working side by side, complemented by group members of all ages from all over the world. I experienced the diversity of the dig project every single day.
I expected to learn a great deal from my first dig. I would usually picture myself with a trowel in one hand, covered in dirt, with some significant sherd of pottery in the other. I never imagined that I would learn so much from and about the people with whom I moved buckets. We talked about our programs of study and what led us to this dig site, and we worked on languages together—yes, languages. The Canadian, German and American students in my area took turns teaching each other phrases and expressions in French, German and English. I became fast friends with a fellow student from Quebec, since we worked in the same square. She was the first to observe that because of the ash layers and animal bones in our square, we may have been working in the remains of a kitchen. There was one corner of the square where we consistently found some interesting pieces: a pendant made of Roman glass and at least two pottery handles with inscriptions. These discoveries led us to affectionately refer to that corner of our square as the “junk drawer,” since presumably every kitchen has one!
Being in such close proximity to the city of Jerusalem afforded us many opportunities we may not have had at another dig site. On Tuesday afternoons and Saturdays, we took tours with friends from the dig to the Jordan River, the Old City, the Dead Sea and many other sites. The trip became a pilgrimage as well as an archaeological experience. My favorite tours included visiting Hezekiah’s water tunnel, Masada and Qumran, and the Saturday we drove from the Jordan Valley up through the Galilee. After years of studying the Bible, it was incredible to see the “lay of the land” for ourselves!
During our last evening in Israel, we watched the sunset from the hotel balcony and decided that we agreed with a pastor-friend back home: Yes, the light is just different in Israel. It’s so breathtaking. Leaving the following day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’m already looking forward to going back. This is only a snapshot of the full range of experiences I had while in Israel; I still find it hard to believe that we learned and absorbed so much in only two weeks! I’m so grateful that the Biblical Archaeology Society supports first-time archaeology travelers like me and my husband.
Tell es-Safi/Gath, Israel
An Anniversary to Remember
Ole Olesen is an Oregon pastor and self-described armchair archaeologist. For years he had dreamed of taking his wife Vonnie on an archaeological dig, and last summer—right around the time of their 38th wedding anniversary—he finally got the chance.
During our four-week stay at Tell es-Safi, Vonnie and I celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary. Agreeing to spend our anniversary digging together must be one of the reasons we are still together! When Vonnie first found out I wanted to participate on a dig, she could only imagine herself sitting in the shade nearby cheering me along. But I told her that I wanted her to come too so that she could experience archaeology as well. I was thrilled when she agreed, ordered her own Marshalltown trowel and bought her own knee pads.If you had asked Vonnie at the end of our first week of digging what she thought of all this, you might have gotten a rather painful answer. But sure enough, we did eventually adapt to the rigors of a summer dig. No, we didn't keep up with many of the university students, but by the third week, there were some fresh faces that seemed no less adapted to digging than we had been during our first week. And in any case, a dig is a wonderful setting for a "rehabilitation and weight-loss" program. It was fun to feel the body’s muscles actually accommodating new demands.
All in all, we simply could not have had a better introduction to the hard work, the fun and the excitement of a dig. Vonnie and I honed our archaeological skills under the tutelage of Itzi (Itzak) and Rhotem in Area E. Although the dig, under the wonderful direction of Dr. Aren Maeir, is focused on the Philistine culture of the Iron Age that disappeared from the city at the end of the ninth century B.C.E., we in Area E worked on excavating much earlier Early Bronze Age material from the Canaanites. As we uncovered rims, bases and sherds from that period, we wondered about the individuals who had made these pots, cooked the meat from the bones we were finding, and nurtured their families in the houses we were excavating. Occasionally, we even found their flint tools and, on one occasion, a grinding stone a family had used.
I should also mention the wonderful field trips that we were able to take as part of the dig. We visited the site of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast and also Samson’s birthplace and the dig at nearby Beth Shemesh. We even crawled through the manmade caves used during the Bar-Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 132 C.E. Crawling through those cramped tunnels left an indelible impression.On a final note, I must mention the impact of all the experiences, lectures and field trips on my understanding of archaeology. As a fairly conservative, Bible-teaching, Christian pastor and a BAR reader, I was aware of the differing views surrounding archaeological evidence and the Bible. At Tell es-Safi, the excavators were happy to find evidence of the Iron Age Philistines and the remarkable siege-works that brought their culture to an end. But even while the Bible's accuracy regarding the story of Gath was celebrated, we were also encouraged to attend lectures where more critical views were presented. Given my years as a BAR reader, I expected this. I did not "lose my faith" because I heard others share their doubts about foundational ideas I hold. Rather, I often found myself in wonderful conversations with both old and young about the implications of archaeological findings.
This column is adapted from the BAS dig blog of Ole Olesen.—Ed.
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