Archaeology for the Masses: Tearing Down the Barriers between Archaeology and the Public

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By: Itzick Shai and Joe Uziel

Who does archaeology belong to – the few or the many? Sitting in our archaeology labs we often find ourselves delving into small details uncovered in excavations.

The Iron Age casemate wall. All photos courtesy of Itzick Shai and Joe Uziel.

The Iron Age casemate wall. All photos courtesy of Itzick Shai and Joe Uziel.

These questions of how past societies lived, interacted and functioned often seem of little importance to the wider public, which usually takes interest in the larger, more impressive remains.

Is it not in our interest, and in a sense our duty, to reach out to the public and provide a coherent picture of the human past and heritage, by making archaeological research more available and important? This vision has begun to spread in Israel, bringing with it a number of community-based projects. It is believed that by involving more people in archaeological fieldwork, their interest in our field will grow and spread. This philosophy stood before us when we began work at the site of Tel Burna. There, over the past four years we have worked towards opening our doors to the wider public, and fine-tuned their integration into fieldwork, without comprising the project’s scientific nature.

Tel Burna is located along the northern bank of Wadi Guvrin and situated in the heart of the Judean Shephelah. Over four seasons of excavation, we have excavated in three areas. The first area is located on the center of the summit of the tel, where a fortification system built over 2800 years ago has created a flat, almost square area of 70 by 70 meters. The second area was placed along the eastern slopes of the summit, forming a section of the upper tell. The third area was placed in the terrace just below the summit, to the west of the fortifications. This area – labeled Area B, has yielded the earliest levels excavated to date.

In Area B, directly below the surface, we exposed a massive building well dated to the Late Bronze Age (13th Century BCE). The finds includes a row of pithoi, a necklace with beads and scarab, a cylinder seal and more. The building technique alongside the finds (e.g., pottery masks, figurines, chalices, bones) suggested that this was not a standard domestic house.

Aerial view of the eighth century BCE building.

Aerial view of the eighth century BCE building.

Iron Age remains were found on the summit. These include 7th century BCE silos and an 8th century BCE building, with finds typical of Judean pottery assemblages, loom weights and stamped handles. The summit was enclosed by a casemate wall that was approximately 6 meters thick and 280 meters long. While it stands to a height of about 2 meters today, it was certainly much taller in antiquity. A firm terminus ante quem can be given, as the wall is cut by one of the 7th century silos. It was in use in the 8th and 9th centuries BCE, although its construction may predate this, as its base is yet to be reached.

Orientation for school children, June 2012.

Orientation for school children, June 2012.

From Day 1, an open door policy was initiated at Tel Burna; anyone is welcome to join, for as long as they like. One of the main concerns is ensuring that the quality of archaeological work remains high. This has prevented other projects from taking on groups or individual volunteers who are not willing to commit to a specific amount of time, where they can gain training necessary to excavate without damaging them. In order to overcome this challenge, our excavation limits its work not according to the number of volunteers, but rather by making sure there are enough archaeological staff members that can provide proper training and oversee activity to make sure that excavation is done properly. At times, groups are steered towards less sensitive projects, such as cleaning agricultural installations carved into the rock, or surveying. However, on a whole we have found that the presence of “untrained” excavators has not posed a problem for the quality of work.

School children at work.

School children at work.

As with other community-based projects in Israel, constant searches for groups of different kinds, including school children and other groups, are conducted. For example, a local nearby school has sent classes of students for a one-day dig. The students receive an introductory talk on archaeology in general, and more specifically on the site itself, after which they participate in active digging. They are often integrated into squares where other volunteers from Israel and around the world are already working, creating interaction with people they may not otherwise meet. In certain cases, prior to the arrival of these groups, lengthier explanations are given in the form of lectures or classes, at their schools. This helps connect groups prior to their arrival at the site.

As with any group of people, reactions are usually mixed. Some of the students take no interest in archaeology and find themselves resting beneath the tents passing the time. The general approach is not to push these children into something, as they will develop a negative attitude towards the field. These children do still go home and tell of their “experiences” on the dig, which has its importance as well. Other participants however connect very well to the informal learning environment, asking questions about how the artifacts they collect and the architectural remains they uncover can teach us about past human society.

School children at work.

School children at work.

It is important to stress that creating a connection with the site is no less important than with archaeology in general. It is this facet, the tangible connection with a specific place, also helps us bring “walk-in” volunteers. In contrast with many other community-based projects, individuals are welcome to join us at Tel Burna for any amount of time that they wish. In this manner, we have opened up the excavations to a wide variety of people, many of whom return on a regular basis from year to year. The power of even a few days of archaeological work cannot be understated. And by returning consistently, they are no longer lacking the proper training, and can even help new volunteers understand archaeological concepts from a layman’s eyes.

Volunteers at work.

Volunteers at work.

These returning volunteers take their interests past the basic explanations in the field, usually asking questions about how to obtain further information, for example in the form of articles and textbooks, as well as relating to various aspects of research, particularly in connection with their personal expertise. For example, biologists who have volunteered have taken interest in archaeobiological remains, such as fauna and carbonated seeds, while an artist who volunteers regularly took time to draw his view of the site and the people working there.

To these people, archaeology is an escape from their day to day life – a form of vacation that stimulates their mind. This way, the Tel Burna project has created a connection between it and many people, both in the immediate vicinity and throughout Israel.

Itzick Shai is assistant professor at Ariel University and a lecturer at Bar Ilan University. Joe Uziel is a researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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