Archaeological Explorations

Israel has been locking down a bit due to the recent COVID resurgence. There are more and more places that I can’t go without a Green Pass. I still don’t have one, although the Ministry of Health assures me that I have met the requirements and that I should have one. Apparently there is a glitch in their system that is preventing me from getting it. They promise that they will get it fixed soon. Nevertheless, I managed to have some extraordinary and exciting adventures in the past week.

The Manasseh Hill Country Survey

When I was working on my Master’s degree, I discovered the Manasseh Hill Country Survey (MHCS). It was a project that archaeologist Adam Zertal started in the 1980’s After Zertal passed away, his student, Shay Bar took over the project. A team systematically walks every square foot of land, looking for and recording archaeological sites. So far, eight volumes have been published in Hebrew, and six of those have also been published in English. They are an excellent resource, and I have used them extensively in my research.

You can imagine my delight in finding out that the survey is still in progress, and that I was welcome to join the team. They usually go out once or twice a month. They had planned to go a couple of weeks ago, but the expedition got postponed until last Friday. I took an early bus to the Jordan valley to meet up with the survey team. There were seven people, including myself. They were finishing up Unit Nine, which will soon be published in Volume Nine.

Looking out over the Jordan Valley

We rode in Jeeps up a rocky dirt road to a specific hillside. Once we arrived, we spread out in a line and walked along, looking for any indication of past human habitation. At the top of the hill, we found a site. Shay sat down with a notebook to record data about the site while the rest of the team wandered around looking for pottery. We didn’t find much, but we ended up with a handful of sherds.

The next spot where we found sherds was at the edge of the hill. The view caught our attention, and we stopped to admire it. The Jordan valley spread out before us. In the distance, the Jordanian mountains rose up to meet the horizon. A ring of charred rocks indicated that some Bedouins had stopped to build a campfire there sometime recently, and there were scattered sherds from a variety of time periods. I asked Shay if this was a site that we should record. He replied that it was not an archaeological site. Rather, over the past several thousand years, people have stopped there to enjoy the view. I felt a connection with those people of bygone eras. I was enjoying the same view that they had stopped to admire.

A sheep pen in a wadi

We moved on down the side of the hill and entered a wadi. There were natural caves in the sides of the wadi, and on the slope below one of these caves, we found stone walls forming an enclosure, probably a sheep pen. Once again, Shay recorded the site while we searched for pottery. There wasn’t much, but we found a few pieces.

Our next stop was at large, collapsed cave. Here, we found abundant pottery. The cave had apparently been occupied throughout history from the Neolithic period (conventional dates 10,000–4,500 BC) through the Ottoman period (1299–1922 AD). We even found some flint blades.

A collapsed cave that has been occupied throughout most of history

At this point, we stopped for lunch. After lunch, I parted ways with the team because I needed to catch a bus back to Ariel before Shabbat started. However, before I left, Shay invited me along on the next surveying expedition. I am looking forward to it!

A Book Quest in Jerusalem

On Tuesday, I went to Jerusalem. I had a few errands to run, but my main goal was to find a couple of books that needed for my research. I stopped by the Albright Institute, which has a good archaeology library, but they were still closed due to COVID. Next, I went to the Rockefeller Museum. They also have a good archaeology library. It turns out that they are closed on Tuesdays. The third archaeology library in Jerusalem is at Hebrew University, but I didn’t bother trying to go there, since I knew that I would need a Green Pass to get onto campus.

The Book Gallery

Failing to access the libraries, I went in search of bookstores. The books that I needed were expensive ones, so I wasn’t planning on purchasing them. However, I thought I might be able to look up a few things in them at the bookstore. I visited three bookstores. One, the Bible Society in Israel, sold very nice books at correspondingly high prices. They didn’t have what I was looking for, but I enjoyed browsing their shelves. My second stop was at a used bookstore. It was a small store with books in Hebrew, Russian, and English, but I didn’t see any archaeology books.

At the Book Gallery, I hit gold. It is a used bookstore that gives you the impression that you’ve stepped through the wardrobe into a magical place. There is room after room, each lined floor to ceiling with books, connected to one another through narrow staircases and passageways. I found the archaeology section and spent some time browsing there. Given the fact that I hadn’t planned to buy anything, I think that I did pretty well in that I limited my purchases to three books. They were quite reasonably priced.

The tomb of Queen Helena

At the end of the day, I stopped at the tomb of Queen Helena. It is an impressive first-century AD tomb. I have been there once before, seven years ago. Shortly after that, they closed to the public, and I haven’t been able to visit the site again since. It has become almost habitual for me to stop and ring the bell at the gate every time that I’m in the area, just to see if they will let visit the site. Surprisingly, this time they were open. They charged me ten shekels and gave me an entry ticket. I was able to see the tomb from the outside, but they have closed off the entrance, so I wasn’t able to get into the actual tomb. So, it was a partial success.

I ended up going back to Ariel without having found the books that I was looking for. However, I felt like the trip was a highly successful, even for being a failure.

Mount Ebal Cistern

The entrance to the cistern

On Thursday, I had yet another grand adventure. It all started the last time I went to Mount Ebal, several weeks ago. While I was exploring the site, I stumbled upon the entrance to a water cistern. It was too deep to climb into without a ladder, so I wasn’t able to explore it at that time.

Since then, Aaron and I have been planning to go back with a ladder to explore it. Finally, we were able to make it work. We went to Shave Shomron, the settlement near Mount Ebal. There, we met with one of my classmates, Yair, who is studying ancient water systems. I had talked with him earlier, asking about borrowing a ladder. He had one and agreed to let us use it. However, when he heard about the cistern, he was so excited that he had gone right away to explore it. I was a bit disappointed that didn’t get to be the first one to explore the cistern, but I was glad to get Yair’s expert opinion on the it. I still wanted to explore it myself, so we borrowed the ladder and went up the mountain.

Getting ready to go in
Inside the cistern

It turned out to be a really nice cistern and comparatively large. Over time, stones and dirt have fallen into the cistern, partially filling it. This makes it difficult to know how deep it is. The good news is that the cistern is plaster-lined, and the plaster has bits of burnt wood mixed into it. This means that we should be able to get the plaster carbon dated to find out when it was made. If we are able to get a date from the plaster, the cistern will be worth publishing. Yair and I plan to co-author the publication.

This and That

I was looking forward to the ABR team coming for the Shiloh winter dig, but the dig was cancelled due to COVID restrictions. If they had been able to come, the team would be arriving this weekend. I’m disappointed that the dig was cancelled, but I’m hopeful that the Shiloh excavation in May will take place as planned.

In the meantime, I am planning to participate in the Khirbet ‘Auja el-Foqa excavation in late January. It is a fortified city in the Jordan Valley from the Iron Age II period. I think that it will be a very interesting site to excavate, and I’m glad that I get to be part of this project.

I have been spending time in the pottery lab at Ariel, and this week I learned how to use the pottery scanner. It uses cameras and lasers to capture exact images of pottery sherds. It creates profile drawings of the pottery. I was excited to learn how to use the scanner, since drawing pottery is an essential part of the publication of a site.

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