Excavating the Unknown at Khirbet Summeily, Israel
By: Geoffrey Ludvik, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Heritage Fellowship Recipient
This summer, I was able to join the team of American archaeologists excavating the border site of Khirbet Summeily in south-central Israel. Two years ago, as an undergraduate, I had been invited to participate in my first field school abroad at Summeily and have since come to feel quite at home in the northern Negev Desert. In fact, thanks in large part to the extraordinary kindness of the directors, my work at this site convinced me to “jump ship,” as it were, from Greek archaeology to that of the Levant. I am now preparing to begin my second year of study in a PhD program, and when my advisor asked if I would like to return to Summeily for the 2014 field season, I practically agreed before he finished speaking. The ASOR fellowship I was awarded sealed the deal; without it, I would not have been able to afford the expenses involved. Yet, this year, I was not going to be a field school student, but rather an area supervisor. Truth be told, the responsibility of directing the excavations of a 5×5 meter square intimidated me at first. What if I screwed up? Fortunately, my fears all disappeared when I returned to the site in June.
Khirbet Summeily, to put it politely, is a very challenging archaeological site to work at, with mudbrick architecture that can at times be, literally, as clear as mud. Located in the Tell el-Hesi region, not far from the Wadi el-Hesi and the ancient road leading from Gaza to Hebron, the site is unique in that its remains date exclusively to the Iron IIa period. The major occupations of the site, Phases 3 and 5, appear to date back to the 10th century BC. Now, as a rule, I dislike being involved in controversy. But in order to work at a 10th century BC site in this region, I had to step outside of my comfort zone and be prepared to get my hands dirty. A fierce chronological debate has saturated discussions of this time period and the work at Summeily will certainly play into it. While the site is small and only partially excavated, it is immensely important. The ceramic corpus, dominated by red-slipped, hand burnished wares, seems to better reflect Hill Country styles than Philistine. The directors started the project looking for good 10th century domestic architecture to help clarify questions of daily life in the area. They promptly found a cult room, naturally. Exactly what it is that we are excavating can be conclusively described as one thing and one thing only at this point: the unknown! And that is the great romance of working at a site like this; it is so odd, you never know what you are going to find. But, by far, the most important treasure to be found at Khirbet Summeily, in my opinion, is the people who work there. Among my fellow staff members, I have found a group of friends worth more than all the flashy gold and fancy objects you can think of.
My charge, Area 54, had been extensively excavated in the past two seasons, revealing four different mudbrick walls running in this 5×5 meter location just outside the cult room. It was my task to clarify the precise location and direction of three of these, which seem to have been contemporary and that delineated a room. What we had first thought was a pit sunk into the corner of this room ended up revealing a spectacular example of deliberate fill.
It was amazing to actually see the individual lenses of soil deposited in a sloped manner that suggested the filling occurred from the northern wall towards the center of the room. This fill artificially raised ground level above the stone foundations of the walls and supported a cobbled floor that had been excavated in 2011.
Among our most exciting finds, a single carnelian bead was collected from this fill as well as pieces of an ancient beer jug. The bead was extremely important to me, seeing as my dissertation is on stone bead production technology in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is the only one of its kind found on the site and it was pleasant irony, indeed, that it was discovered in “the bead man’s” square. At that, however, our work was forced to a premature halt. The conflict in Gaza being only a few miles away, we ended our excavations early in an exercise of caution. I plan on returning next year to continue our fascinating foray into unknown territory. Khirbet Summeily really is an amazing and rewarding place to study with some great people. It represents everything I got into archaeology for in the first place and I truly was delighted with this tremendous opportunity to explore the ancient past. Now I just can’t wait to go back!
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