In happening to land at Tel Hadid in my first experience volunteering on an archaeological dig, I was extraordinarily fortunate. For one thing, I happened to be part of a team that broke ground for a completely new excavation and was introduced to field archaeology with all the rich anticipation and learning opportunities of a new site. Another was the group of people I happened to be part of, which included experienced excavators as well as first-timers. A third way I in which I was fortunate is that I was able to do the entire three-week season. These all combined into the experience of a lifetime. If I may, I’d like to share it week by week.
Meet the team! The Tel Hadid dig is a cooperative effort between the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University (TAU), and the Michael and Sara Moskau Institute of Archaeology at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS). Depending on the day, we were a group of at least a dozen and up to two dozen, including students and professors of archaeology as well as team members. Most, but not all the team members were retirees, like myself. I was happily surrounded by people I would never have met in my every-day life—a grad student doing a thesis on the ancient olive oil industry, a naval ship designer, seminary professors, and of course archaeologists.
The first week was dive-in-and-swim through mental surf, including time zone upheaval, figuring out who was who, learning names, getting accustomed to using a pick-axe, discerning a vocabulary specific to archaeology, and adjusting to the schedule. The first week involved a little gritting of the teeth to get through, but there was also lots of laughter and the fun of getting to know each other. Quite a few of us had stories about delayed flights, lost luggage, and security snafus on the trip over, and conversation was always lively. The jokesters among us kept us going, and the pros from TAU were patient, generous in their oversight, diplomatic when we went astray, and never failed to remind us to drink water every 10 minutes!
Like other disciplines, archaeology has its own specialized language. We learned that “sectioning” doesn’t involve dividing up space, but actually means making the walls of a pit as perfectly vertical and smooth as possible, which makes variations in soil levels easy to spot. The funky hoe used to scoop loose dirt is called a turiyyah and is also used as the verb (as in, “turiyyah the dirt into a bucket…”). And, like elsewhere, the word “survey” refers to multiple activities. More about that later.
The excavation was located between a parking lot and a grove of olive trees, and since Tel Hadid is also a national park, we often had passersby and visitors in the form of bicyclists, dirt bikers, horseback riders, picnickers, and tour groups. Some stopped to chat; the shepherds kept their distance from the excavation, but we met herds of sheep and goats on the roadway in and out of the park. Not your typical US park experience!
Because we broke ground on a new site, we had to scrape off the vegetation before we could swing a pick-axe into the ground. Awkwardness ruled as we first tried using the turiyyah to scrape the ground and bumping elbows as we figured out how to stay inside the strings that marked the edges of the pits.
Our general day consisted of starting work at 6am and excavating until breakfast at 9:30am. After a quick picnic meal, we packed up the cooler, equipment, and personal stuff and moved to another part of the Tel to do some surveying. In this case, surveying meant that the group spread out and walked a defined section of the Tel, ideally covering the area uniformly to pick up the pottery bits lying on the surface. Each bit of pottery retrieved represented a data point that informed the overall historicity of the Tel. Each section of the Tel would later be analyzed with respect to the quantity of pottery shards retrieved, their age, relative plant ground cover (that prevented sampling), size of the section, number of people doing the sampling, and several other variables, which would ultimately guide future excavations. As a gesture of good will toward the public, we also collected dozens of bags of garbage.
While we were surveying by collecting pottery shards, two TAU students were surveying the Tel using GPS and mapping its many features, such as retaining walls, olive oil processing installations, and ancient cisterns and wells. Surveying continued (with a brief coffee break) until about 1pm, when the sun and heat became oppressive, and the day’s activities at the Tel were halted. The TAU staff returned to campus to resume other duties, and the rest of us took the pottery to the dig house for washing and cataloguing/registration (more about this in Week 2).
Week 1 began with bare ground marked with string and ended with multiple rectangular pits, all neatly surrounded with sandbags and dug to a depth significantly below the topsoil. When we quit for the weekend on Thursday afternoon, we happily looked forward to some rest as well as the tours of other archaeological sites for which Israel is so famous.
In Israel, the week begins on Sunday, of course, and getting out of the van on the second Sunday morning of the dig (the pros from TAU were already hard at work, as usual) felt distinctly different from the mornings of the previous week. The difference, for me, was that after the first week’s experience and a weekend’s rest, I felt … competent! I don’t know if any of the others noticed, but we all automatically fell into the routine—unloading the van and placing the tools in minimal time, quickly gathering for safety reminders and the day’s assignments, and resuming excavation.
When we had quit work the previous Thursday, we were looking forward to the weekend and although we were proud of the first week’s progress, it wasn’t until resuming work on Sunday that we really appreciated what we had accomplished—turning a ‘blank’ bit of ground between a parking lot and a grove of olive trees into what was unmistakably a very cool archaeological site. Enthusiasm grew as the week went on and the buckets of pottery shards multiplied, and multiplied, and multiplied!
The second week of digging brought us to places where we frequently had to stop and consider what was happening (or had happened long ago) under our feet. The packed gravel of the parking lot gave way in some of the pits to a layer of nearly impossible-to-pick-axe rock. We learned more trade lingo: ‘three rocks make a wall’ and If something could be important, it’s a ‘feature’ until better defined.
My team-mates were well ahead of me in understanding how the process worked. But early in the second week, even I was starting to figure it out; how to see layers in a sectioned wall, what purpose a locus or multiple loci served in data collection, the difference between dirt that is an ancient floor and dirt that is just dirt.
Competence brings joy, and after the muddle of the first week, the second week was light-hearted in many ways. We easily spotted pottery bits as we dug, as well as some bits of bone, flint, and other types of ancient debris. We looked forward to the daily scan with the metal-detector, hoping for coins. We knew how to section. We were beginning to be field archaeologists!
But as I mentioned earlier, digging was only part of the experience. We continued to walk sections of the Tel and pick up pottery shards as part of the overall site survey. In the second week, we walked more remote parts of the Tel, and our TAU Professor pointed out the features being mapped by the two students and their GPS-equipped gadgets. Where I initially saw flora and fauna uniquely adapted to dry hot summers, varying elevation, and a unique soil type, I then began to see terrain with an archaeologist’s eyes.
The second week we were also introduced to the phenomenon of pottery reading. The pottery bits we had collected in Week 1—both by digging and during surveying—had been placed in carefully labeled buckets. The previous week, we had gathered late afternoons on a patio outside the dig house and, accompanied by joking and laughter, washed the pottery shards one by one and put them in shallow boxes to dry. They were then catalogued by an experienced PD candidate who served as conservator/registrar. For the pottery readings, a table and chairs were set up outside the dig house, and a ceramics expert came to look at the shards. One by one, carefully labeled plastic bags of pottery bits were dumped on the table for perusal by the expert, who would select a few as significant for identifying the time period. The experts’ conclusions regarding that particular layer or locus were documented by the conservator, the shards cleared away, and the next bag spilled out for scrutiny.
Following the pottery washings and readings, we often had the privilege of listening to a talk by one of the several experts from NOBTS, TAU, and Israeli institutions on some aspect of ancient near eastern, or ANE, history and archaeology.
By the end of the second week, we had reached fairly deep levels, and with each swing of the axe or scrape of the turiyyah, hoped an exciting find would appear. Our walking surveys had turned up a wealth of jar pieces, loom eights, and other ancient debris. We left the site on Thursday afternoon with a great sense of accomplishment, as well as looking forward to the weekend.
Before I describe the third and last week of the dig season, I need to report how hard our dig leaders worked to make sure we had a rewarding time, not only as workers and learners, but also in the tours and other activities that were arranged for us. Between meeting their professional commitments as professors and archaeologists, and supporting and arranging activities for us volunteers, they got very little sleep in those three weeks. The NOBTS staff in particular made a staggering number of middle-of-the night runs to the airport, and that was only a fraction of the logistical issues they managed!
A special series of extra activities were planned for us during Week 3, including a tour of the campus and restoration laboratory at TAU, a lecture by Professor Oded Lipschits, Director of the Nadler Institute of Archaeology, and a fantastic dinner out at the Tel Aviv waterfront. We made another site visit, to the City of David in Jerusalem that included walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and attended a special ceremony to mark the closing of the NOBTS excavation at Tel Gezer.
But back to archaeology. We began work on Sunday morning of Week 3 even more eager to find something spectacular. Several of us wanted above all to find a small tablet, or shard, or anything, with a cuneiform inscription! However, even as novices, we understood that the mundane data could ultimately be far more significant than a single find. Archaeology, like other fields of research, is clarified and understood in retrospect. It is by looking back at the data collected in previously excavated—and now destroyed—layers that the structures and patterns of human activity emerge.
I have to confess that we had become attached to the squares (actually 2×4 meter rectangles) we had been excavating! Who would have thought we could become protective, and even possessive, about a hole in the ground? And yet as the days passed, we all worried and asked the TAU staff what would happen to the dig site after the season ended and the area was at the mercy of the many visitors to the park. At the same time, even as we worried about leaving our excavation, in the back of our minds we were hearing the call of home and dreading good-byes.
The TAU staff members, too, were feeling the coming cessation of the work. They had specific goals to attain that season, and they had many people dropping in to check on the excavation, from Israel’s National Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority, TAU, and others, throughout the three weeks. This first season at Tel Hadid could have an effect on their entire careers, and they especially wanted to finish the walking survey of the Tel. We all wanted to finish strong, to finish well, and we did in fact finish the walking site survey! It was a solid and very satisfactory ending to an extraordinary three weeks.
For those of us fortunate enough to go back for season two, we hope to return to the excavation and pick up again just where we left off. And we also hope to welcome many more team members and students to dig at Tel Hadid!
My three weeks of blogs described only one person’s experience at only one dig. But in looking back, there are some things I observed and learned that would, I think, apply to anyone considering joining a dig, whether for the next season at Tel Hadid or elsewhere. Here are a few thoughts to help you prepare for volunteering at a dig, with my hope that knowing about them in advance will allow you to get the most from your experience.
- The Longer the better. I was fortunate to be able to stay the full three-week season. A shorter stay potentially results in a lesser learning experience.
- Time-zone upheaval. Everyone knows to expect this. Prepare to set your attitude meter on ‘very enthusiastic’ (or at least ‘positive’) and endure until you feel better.
- The early workday. Archaeology in Israel is governed by the sun. Work begins at or before sunrise, to avoid the mid-day heat.
- A steep learning curve. As a complete novice and ignoramus of archaeological technique, I was often in a muddle about where and how deep to dig. Ask questions!
- Tired muscles. The work is physically challenging. Besides the excitement of finding bits of pottery, expect to dig, collect, and haul off several times your own weight in dirt every day, while often working in cramped quarters, and possibly in the hot sun. Do so cheerfully.
- Free of whining. You volunteered, and whining will just sour the experience for the rest of us.
- Let the students shine. Archaeological digs are about researching the past, of course, but digs are also about teaching, particularly those students who will be the next generation of archaeologists. If you’re not a student, stand back and let them have the spotlight.
- The incredible people around you. Some of us, especially us retirees, may know nothing of archaeology, but have decades of management, construction, communications, and other experience to contribute. The students may have classroom training, but are being introduced to field techniques. The dig supervisors are accomplished field archaeologists but may be new to instructing and supervising a bunch of clueless novices. Remember that we are all learning; the joy is in learning together.