For the past two weeks, I have been participating in the excavation at Khirbet ‘Auja. I had a great time. It’s been over two years since I’ve been able to work on a dig, and I have really missed it.
One of my favorite things about this excavation was that I was able to spend a lot of time working in the dirt. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do much digging. At the Shiloh excavation, I stay busy enough with record-keeping that I hardly ever get a chance to spend much time actually excavating. I’ve really missed it. I think that there is something healthy about physical labor in the great outdoors. At the end of each day on the dig I’m tired and achy, but I feel contented and happy.
The weather is supposed to be very nice in the Jordan valley this time of year, but it ended up raining quite a bit while we were there. The soil has a lot of clay in it, so when it rains, the top layer of soil becomes slick and water pools on top of it. Even just ten minutes of heavy rain can make it impossible to excavate. We lost a few days of digging due to rain, but we were still able to accomplish quite a bit.
We had a nice sized team of 25 to 30 people each week. Most of the volunteers only came for one week, but some stayed for both. There were some students from Ariel University who came to get credit toward their archaeology degrees. A large portion of the team was made up of volunteers. I liked the team size. We had enough people to accomplish a lot, but few enough to get acquainted with everybody. I made some new friends and re-connected with some people whom I had met in the past.
I think that for me, communication was one of the most difficult aspects of this excavation. There were very few native English speakers on the dig. Many of the team members knew at least some English, but most of the conversations were in either Hebrew or Russian. This meant that the only conversations that I could understand were those spoken directly to me. It’s not that I wanted to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. However, I had a strong suspicion that people discussed plans and things that needed to be done. If I had understood the language, maybe I would have had a better idea of what was going on and could have made myself a lot more useful.
In a way, though, the lack of spoken English was probably good for me, since it forced me to try to learn more Hebrew. The person who linguistically helped me the most, oddly enough, was a Russian girl who spoke very little English and was in the process of learning Hebrew. She struck up a conversation with me and one of the students who spoke only Hebrew but wanted to learn English. She engineered a discussion between us in which she was the translator. Since she only understood basic English and Hebrew, the conversation was simple and easy to follow. I think that it was helpful for all three of us. She also made it a point to speak to me in Hebrew from time to time, which helped me put my minimal knowledge of the language to use.
The Excavation Areas
We worked in three areas at Khirbet ‘Auja: inside the city, the presumed city gate area, and a tower outside of the city.
I was in charge of the area inside the city. In previous seasons, they had excavated a structure that looks a lot like a classic Israelite four-room house, but it appeared that there was a random wall running right into what appeared to be the doorway of the house. My goal was to figure out what structure the wall belonged to and why it dead-ended in the doorway.
The rain caused more problems in my area than in any other, so I only ended up being able to work there on the drier days. My team excavated the soil in front of the house and next to the mystery wall, but the situation didn’t make sense until we removed some stones and discovered a nice doorway in the center of the house. This not only made more sense than the presumed doorway toward the side of the house, but it also helped make sense of the wall running into the presumed doorway. Perhaps what they had thought to be a doorway was only a place where some of the wall stones were missing. We dug down until we found bedrock on one side of the area. On the other side, the bedrock dropped away, but we found a packed-earth surface that created a level floor for the area. We didn’t make any exciting finds, but hopefully we helped to clarify the architecture in that area.
A little way from where I was working, another group worked on excavating an area that we thought had good potential for being the city gate. The city wall seemed to be missing at that point, and the topography of the hill made it a natural point for entering the city. After a few days of digging, however, they discovered more walls, and it became clear that it was not a gate, just part of the casemate wall. It was disappointing to not find the gate, but they continued excavating, and they were able to clarify the walls and spaces in their area.
Further down the hill, the third team worked in an area which was obviously a tower. They hadn’t excavated there long, however, before they discovered something very surprising. The pottery from the tower dated to the Middle Bronze (MB) Age rather than to the Iron Age II (IAII). They had not found anything else dating to MB at the site, so finding a MB tower was quite unexpected. As they reached the floor level of the tower, they uncovered a very nice tabun (clay oven) with large pieces of pottery pressed to the sides for structural support.
One day, we stopped on the way back from the dig to visit an archaeological site. Phasael is a Herodian site named after Herod’s brother. It must have been a luxurious oasis in the desert heat of the Jordan valley. It featured a bath house and a large swimming pool. It was really an impressive site, and I had not seen it before, so I really enjoyed stopping there.
The Last Day
Wednesday was the last day of real digging at the site. There is a maxim among archaeologists that the best finds are always on the last day. The Khirbet ‘Auja excavation was not exception. In the not-a-gate area, they uncovered some restorable jars, and had to work hard to excavate them and remove all the pieces before the end of the dig. In the tower area, they found a restorable jug. They also found what appears to be a drainage system, but they didn’t have time to excavate it. It will have to wait until next year.
On Thursday, part of the team went out to the site to tidy it up for final photos while other team members stayed at our lodging place to clean up there. I went out to the site. We were finished working before lunch time, but a TV film crew showed up to film a show. We pretended to work in the background while they interviewed the head archaeologists. After that, most of the team went home, but the film crew was going to be there for a while, and David needed to stay with them. He had offered me a ride back to Ariel, so I stayed at the site, too.
I took the opportunity to explore a little. I had an idea that since there was a MB tower on one side of the hill, there might be one on the other side, too, I skirted the hill, looking for any sign of a structure, but I didn’t find anything. Next, I went down the slope to where there is an Ottoman aqueduct. There was an archaeological site on the hill above the aqueduct. I’m not sure who excavated it, but I think that it is somehow related to the water system.
When I was done exploring, I went back and hung out with the film crew. I got a good laugh out of the conversation that they were filming. They were trying to focus on certain events in the Late Bronze (LB) Age, and they were trying to make the tower fit their topic. David kept trying to explain to them that there is a difference of several hundred years between the MB and the LB, but they had a hard time understanding why there was any difference, since both are in the Bronze Age. I am curious to see how the show turns out!
Once they finished filming at Khirbet ‘Auja, we headed to el-Mastarah. They wanted to film there, too. They had brought Jeeps that could navigate the poor roads to the site, but they had limited seats in the Jeeps, so they told me that I would have wait by the side of the road while they went to the site and filmed. I waited there for a few minutes, but I thought it was a waste of time, so I took off to explore the nearby hills. Once I crested the second hill, I realized that I was actually quite close to the site, and I decided to go there. The Jeeps, taking the dirt roads, had to go the long way around, but by climbing over the hills, I managed to arrive shortly after they did. I stayed out of the way behind the camera men and watched them film. El-Mastarah actually fit their narrative a bit better than Khirbet ‘Auja had, so hopefully they make good use of the footage they got there. When they were almost finished, I took off the way I had come. I was worried that I would cause a delay if they had to wait for me back at the road, so I hurried back and arrived a few minutes before they did.
By this time, it was almost dark, so the film crew had to be done for the day. I rode with David back to camp. We packed up the few items that were left there and drove to Ariel. We unloaded the supplies and returned them to where David stores them throughout the year. Thus ended the 2022 season at Khirbet ‘Auja. If you are interested in volunteering there next year, you can contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org.