As a graduate student of Hebrew Bible, my focus has been steeped in literary studies and ancient languages; it is only this past year that I had the opportunity to formally study archaeology. I’ve found myself enchanted by various aspects of material culture study, yet simultaneously frustrated with so many questions of the ins and outs of the excavation process. Finally I said “NO MORE!” and took up the spade in an attempt to supplement my studies with firsthand knowledge of archaeology and its domain. I chose to dig this summer at Tell es-Safi, and thanks in part to ASOR’s Heritage Fellowship, my dream turned into a reality!
Tell es-Safi is an enormous site in the Shephelah (hill country) region of Israel, and has been convincingly identified as the Philistine city of Gath, from where the biblical giant Goliath is said to have come. Safi has been excavated for 15 consecutive years now, spearheaded by Dr. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This year it boasted the title of largest excavation in Israel, with around 150 staff members and volunteers working at once, representing over 20 different countries of the world!
While our team has yet to uncover any size 20 sandals or skeletons that measure “six cubits and a span,” scores of exciting finds have nonetheless already made the journey from deep trenches to the lab at Bar-Ilan University to pages of publication in years past, and we were able to supplement that list with some new treasures this season. I was assigned to Area P, the smallest (but definitely most fun!) excavation area at Safi, which was previously excavated for two seasons, but abandoned for the last four years (thus, we had four years of winter wash build up to burrow through!). Our fearless leader, Dr. Jill Katz from Yeshiva University in New York City, led a cohort of 15 of the craziest and most fun people from around the globe in search of evidence of the elusive transitional period from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age. Not only was I able to fulfill my dream of getting to dig, measure elevation, and help identify indicative pottery sherds, but being at Safi provided me with the opportunity to participate in unexpected areas of archaeology, from extracting phytolith layers in the soil to micro-sieving for faunal remains at our bone lab. The educational aspect was above and beyond anything I imagined!
I personally found several flint blades, some nice painted Philistine pottery, a foundation deposit of two stacked bowls (the top one place upside down as a lid) containing a lamp inside—these were whole vessels, untouched for about 3,500 years! The major find of the season came from our Area P; we discovered a quite unexpected 15 meter section of a fortification wall of the city from the Late Bronze Age, which is significant because it may be the only Late Bronze Age wall in all of Israel; typically the fortified cities reused Middle Bronze Age fortifications. This may lead to a revision of how scholars understand fortifications in Israel during this time period! Super neat stuff!
On top of everything, our enormous team provided an atmosphere not unlike summer camp. I had no idea archaeology could be so fun! Beyond being a crash course in cultural understanding by working, living, and traveling day by day next to people from different hemispheres, the opportunity to make life-long friendships was seized by this guy, and I already miss my comrades. Some unexpected educational gems I encountered this summer: no one in Australia actually drinks Foster’s beer, why the Swedish need such large personal space bubbles, how to make proper hand gestures to accompany speaking Italian, the subtleties of Israeli schnitzel recipes, proper pronunciation of the Hebrew consonant “het” (apparently I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time!), the country of Estonia does actually exist, and yes, occasionally one might meet someone from there, etc. I also had the chance to travel around Israel and the Middle East, which was quite a new experience for me! My favorite part was seeing the pyramids at Giza (wow, are those suckers big!); I can now check that off my bucket list!
So I’d like to take this opportunity to tip my fedora to ASOR and the generous donors of the Heritage Fellowship. Without their assistance and hard work, this Bible scholar would not have had the chance to travel the world, help the team at Safi, learn all about the excavation process, and make amazing new friends from around the globe. Cheers to you, ASOR!
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