Broken Bits of History

I finished up my summer job at the state park at the end of September. Since then, I’ve been focussed on sorting and organizing my personal belongings. It has been pretty tedious. I’ve been combining the stuff that I brought back from Texas with the stuff I had here in Idaho, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, and packing what I think I’ll need in Israel.

Tessarae, the building blocks of a mosaic floor

While I was sorting through my belongings, I came across various stashes of the bits of ancient pottery, glass, and stone that I have brought back from Israel over the years. The general rule at the dig site is that once the archaeologists have gone through the finds and decided what is important enough to keep, volunteers are allowed to pick through the discards and take what they want. I don’t take a lot, but I usually end up coming back with a couple of ziplock baggies of broken sherds each time I go. It turns out that over the years I have accumulated a nice little collection of broken antiquities.

Pieces of ancient glass

The pieces that I’ve collected from the dig aren’t particularly good ones, and they certainly aren’t museum-worthy. But, I’ve discovered that in archaeology, even insignificant little broken pieces can tell amazing stories of the past. So, what stories do my little broken pieces tell?

A Sloppy Handle from Khirbet el-Maqatir

Before my team started digging at Shiloh, we spent a number of years digging at a site called Khirbet el-Maqatir. That is where this piece is from. It dates to the Early Roman period.

A poorly-made jar handle

In the first century AD, the Jewish people, who had been subject to Rome, revolted and tried to become independent. Vespasian, leading the 10th Roman Legion, came to squelch the rebellion. The Jewish people, including the people at Khirbet el-Maqatir, put up a good fight, but Rome emerged triumphant, and tens of thousands of Jewish people died.

At Khirbet el-Maqatir, we found evidence that the inhabitants fortified their city with a large tower in preparation for the coming Romans. They also created a subterranean hiding system using and expanding natural caves below the city.

So, what does this jar handle tell us about this time in Jewish history? Look at how poorly-made it is. This was at a time in history when potters had perfected the art of jar-making. Sloppy workmanship like this is definitely out of the ordinary. Yet we found many poorly-made jars like this from the mid-first century AD.

This suggests that the potters were distracted and hurried. There was much to do in preparation for the Roman attack. Perhaps some of the potters left their shops to help build the tower or tunnel out the hiding system, but there was still a demand for jars. The remaining potters may have had to produce even more jars than usual, since the people were likely stocking up on food and water in preparation for an anticipated siege of the city. The potters would have had to sacrifice quality for quantity. The result was an abundance of sloppy, poorly-made jars like this one.

Unfortunately, this story has a sad ending. The Romans attacked Khirbet el-Maqatir, destroyed the city, and killed the people. The city was never rebuilt and lay abandoned for nearly 2000 years before our team decided to excavate there and learn the story of the people who had lived, fought, and died so many years ago.

An Iron Age Sherd from Shiloh

A piece of a collared-rim jar

This piece is part of a very large storage jar known as a collared-rim jar. It dates to the early Israelite period and is from our dig at Shiloh. We know from Joshua 18:1 that the Israelites gathered at Shiloh to divide up the land of Canaan. They set up the tabernacle, the Jewish place of worship, there at Shiloh. Later, in 1 Samuel 1, the story of Hannah unfolds before the backdrop of the tabernacle at Shiloh. So, from the Bible, we learn that Shiloh was a central place of worship for the early Israelites for a long period of time. People like Hannah and her family made annual pilgrimages to Shiloh to worship God and to bring offerings to the tabernacle.

So, how does my broken piece of pottery illuminate the biblical passage? First, it’s important to know that we find a lot of collared-rim jar pieces at Shiloh. My piece is far from unique. So, we can safely assume that the people at Shiloh were dealing with large quantities of whatever they stored in this type of jar.

The next thing to consider is the location of these jars. The area where we find these jars is in a row of storerooms built up against the city wall of Shiloh. These don’t appear to be part of private homes. Rather, they seem to be municipal. Now, if a city is storing large quantities of commodities, the natural assumption would be that they had a strong central government and that they were able to tax farmers in the surrounding area.

However, studies on early Israelite settlements in that area show a lack of military outposts. This suggests that the villages and farmers were fairly independent, and there was no strong central government. This aligns well with Judges 17:6, which says, “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” So, it seems like the stored goods at Shiloh were not the result of a central government taxing the people.

Now, think about the picture that the Bible paints of Israelites coming to the tabernacle at Shiloh and freely offering grain, wine, and livestock to God. This makes perfect sense. The storerooms full of collared-rim jars did not belong to the government, they belonged to the tabernacle. They did not hold taxed goods, they held gifts, freely given. The archaeology lines up perfectly with the biblical text.

Visa Developments

In other news, here is an update on my visa: I got a call from a lady at the Israeli Embassy saying that they had received my application (good!) and had started processing it (good!). However, she said that I did not include all the paperwork they wanted, so they are sending it back to me (not so good). I asked what paperwork was missing, but she refused to tell me. She said that the requirements are clearly outlined on the website (in my opinion, they are not clearly outlined!). However, she said that when she sent it back, she would mark what was missing so that I could resend it with the correct paperwork (maybe there’s a chance that I can get it right on the next go-round). I am currently waiting for my paperwork to come back so that I can add whatever is missing and resend it. It is a little frustrating to have to keep waiting, but I feel at peace knowing that everything will work out when it is supposed to work out. Many thanks to those of you who have been praying, and please, keep on praying!

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