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.