Curiosity #34: Neglected History

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Now that my official square has been closed, I find myself free-lancing around the site, offering labor wherever needed. Today, I worked in a new square on the West end of site, where Brian—-a squat, red-haired PHD student with a Southern drawl and meticulous trowel—-uncovered an ash layer from a burnt room in a home from the modern Arab village of Huqoq, which hosted financially modest, agricultural families for centuries until the Israelis forced the villagers’ evacuation in 1948.

Since all of the focus on the West end of the site remains in the square of the ancient synagogue (right beside us, yet far below), Brian and I spent the morning working in complete peace. We were accompanied by Taufiq, a local Arab who volunteered his expertise in ethnology and archaeology to uncover the mysteries of the Arab evacuation. His job will entail searching for remaining Arabs in Israel whose lineage dates back to Huqoq occupation (despite evacuation efforts, some Arabs managed to find residence in nearby locations). This morning, as we tediously articulated the patterns of the ash with brushes, Taufiq spoke solemnly about the condition of Arabs in Israel since WWII.

In the 1940s, Holocaust survivors flocked to Israel in great numbers, resulting in the expansion of Jewish communities and the demand for residential land. As a result, the Arabs, who were never quite welcome to begin with, were shoved off their property by the Israeli army. Guns, bombs, and fire brought these towns to ruin, and the villagers fled to refugee camps in Syria and Jordan—-or, like Taufiq’s family—-found other safe locations in Israel for residency. These remaining Arabs represented “mistakes” in the eyes of the Israeli government who failed to boot them out of “their” land. Arabs today, for the most part, lack the academic and professional opportunities available to Jewish Israelis (even immigrants), and so frequently hold humble professions related to farming, transportation, and retail. Over half of Arabs in Israel live in poverty.

As Taufiq, Brian, and I looked out at the freshly-brushed stretch of ash, Taufiq said quietly, “Now you know why I have a personal investment in this village.” He nodded at the Israeli administrators overlooking the ancient Jewish synagogue meters away. “People keep digging in Israel to prove that this land really belonged to the Jews. Archaeologists want to plow right through Arab ruins to find the history they prefer, but in doing so they ignore tragedy that happened yesterday.” Admittedly, I spent most of the early morning harnessing the urge to hack through modern ash to arrive at ancient material (the dig administrators speculate that the borders of the ancient synagogue stretch beneath our square). On the other hand, Taufiq awakened me to the urgency of uncovering modern tragedy before ancient beauty: a story haunting Israel among under-represented populations today.

My iPod emitted the entrancing sounds of Phillip Glass from the hollows of a bucket, enhancing the surreal appearance of our workspace. Visitors popped by to stare at our immaculately-brushed square that looked less like a burn site than an impressionist painting, or—-as someone suggested—-a Rorschach test. Admittedly, the ash design looked beautiful; however, it seemed disrespectful to regard it in such a way, for the family that once ran from this room likely perceived it-—afire—-as the most fearsome sight imaginable.

Burn design from the 1948 destruction of the Arab village

Curiosity #33: Tombs of Beit She’arim

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About half an hour from Haifa are the tombs of the ancient Jewish elite. The bodies are gone (either robbed out or excavated), but the coffins are still there: most too heavy to lift, all too sacred to relocate. The town of Beit She’arim was founded by Herod the Great in 1st Century BCE, and was home to the famous Rabbi Judah HaNasi, descendant of King David and editor of the Mishna. Robbers of the tombs must have grown very rich, for the residents undoubtedly required a great deal of wealth to acquire holy burial beside the great Rabbi following his death in the 3rd century.

The tombs were built into caves at the foot of Beit She’arim’s wooded hills. Depending on the wealth and status of each dead subject, every tomb exhibited a corresponding size and form. Tombs of the highest elite were carved from of large blocks of stone, which often exhibited holy inscriptions and professional engravings. Other tombs were carved into the floor or the cave walls and resembled mere rectangular holes into which the dead were placed and covered. The smallest tombs were semi-circular shelves set like deep pockets into the cave’s interior, and were either used for children or for secondary burials (in which family members sought holy grave sites for loved ones whose flesh had long-since decomposed in other locations).

Each burial cave—regardless of whether it was suited for one body or many—was framed by a rectangular door that led into a dark stretch of peace. While at least ten caves have been excavated at Beit She’arim, only three or four have been unlocked for tourist exploration.

Wandering apart from my student group, I made my rounds from grave to grave.

The most impressive burial collection was the “Cave of Coffins,” which once contained hundreds of bodies. As soon as I stepped through the large door of the cave, I felt an enormous burst of cool air from the dark hall in front of me. The atmosphere struck a combination between a morbid refrigerator and a refreshed, open mouth.

Door to The Cave of Coffins

The hall of the cave was the width of a trailer-truck and, from what I could see from the floor-lights, traveled back at least twenty meters. To the left and right of the hallway were rooms of various dimensions (most larger than a small living room). Each room contained coffins of white rock, many of which displayed inscription and engravings in Hebrew. Among the engravings were conch shells and lions: both symbols associated with the presence of God in Jewish traditions. While the engravings looked clean and professional, the inscriptions were roughly sketched. One member of staff on our expedition read a chicken-scratched, Hebrew inscription on a tomb: “holy holy holy,” which apparently represented a commonly-referenced phrase from the Book of Isaiah.

Tomb containing holy inscription

When no one was looking, I swung my legs inside a stone coffin and settled inside. (For the moment) safe from discovery, I let my spine relax in the 7-foot space. The rock was cool and refreshing. The ceiling of the coffin looked rugged from where, centuries ago, large tools made way for a new body. The room around me was quiet and dimly lit: comfortable for sleeping. I almost felt sorry that whomever once laid inside this tomb never appreciated its comfort.

At the rear of one coffin room, I observed an arched doorway blocked by an enormous coffin. Evidently, the space beyond this coffin wasn’t welcome to visitors; however, to satisfy my curiosity, I merely climbed atop the roof of the coffin (about the height of a large cabinet), and slipped over to the other side. This forbidden space did not look particularly different from the other rooms in the cave, apart from the mysterious sediment inside most of the coffins. This suggested that they had yet to be fully excavated and emptied. I wanted to stick my fingers inside and sift for signs of bones, but decided otherwise.

Tomb in the forbidden room, containing mysterious sediment

As I finished the cave tour, I noted that every single coffin bore a large hole from ancient burglar intrusion. All I was left with were cold, empty beds: objectively fascinating, but too abandoned to be haunting.

Typical stone grave in The Cave of Coffins

Symbolic engraving in The Cave of Coffins

Lion engravings

Professional engravings on the tomb of a high-elite in The Cave of Coffins

The Holy Menorah

The Cave of The Ascents. I only took several steps without a flashlight before I grew scared and turned back.

Curiosity #32: The Most Satisfying Find

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Monty, the hippie Israeli guard, has taken an apparent liking to me. Each day, he shuffles to my workstation and whispers good morning. After we exchange several friendly words, he always mutters “my sweet, you’re so sweet,” and lisps a few more pet names in Hebrew. Our friendship solidified after a lengthy conversation over dirty dishes about the meaning of life and his mission to become a Buddhist. Apparently, he wakes up at the break of every dawn to meditate beneath his tree.

The other morning, after long hours of sifting through buckets of dirt and pottery, he stood before me with his head bowed and informed me that my superior had forbidden him from engaging in distracting conversation with the workers. As a substitute for future conversation, he offered me a gift: a small, circular pill-case decorated by the yin-and-yang symbol. It looked old, and I wondered if it once contained hallucinogenic tablets from his days in the 60s. Regardless of what the case was used for or when it was made, it was undoubtedly the most impressive artifact I held in my hand that day, and perhaps the most valuable “find” I will keep from all my days at Huqoq. 

 

Monty’s gift

Curiosity #31: Caesarea Maritima

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Caesarea Maritima (originally called Straton’s Tower) began its existence in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and continued flourishing through the days of Alexander the Great and King Herod. A station of great Maritime power, Caesarea Maritima was the largest ancient harbor ever built on open sea. Herod the Great built his palace beside the harbor shortly before the birth of Christ and established the city as Judea’s capital. Monarchs of later periods built their palaces beside Herod’s structure, expanding the trend of sophisticated architecture along the Mediterranean coast until the 7th century AD.

A Hellenistic city within the ancient Persian Empire, Caesarea Maritima also hosted cave-like dug-outs in which local gentiles engaged in pagan ritual, and additionally contained an enormous hippodrome that served as the focal point of the metropolis during the Byzantine period. Despite the enormity of this National Park, only 10% of the ancient capital has been excavated. The remaining material rests safely beneath 21st century commercial property.

King Herod’s ancient fish pool

The city along the sea

Stronghold from the Crusader Period

A cave-like mithraeum in which pagan ritual was practiced

Curiosity#30: Tel Dor

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Tel Dor, once an ancient royal city of the Canaanites, is now a beach hub and excavation site along the Mediterranean. Some of the ancient material dates back to the Middle Bronze Age, as early as 1000 BCE.

Excavation squares overlooking the Mediterranean Sea

The perfect chair, directly beside the excavation site

Curiosity #29: An Excavator’s First Defeat

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Below the plaster floor, we found nothing.

The plaster surface came apart easily with large picks and disappeared into buckets until, once again, Square 3,8 looked like a stubborn blanket of soil. My team had already dug below the foundations of the wall bordering our square, and we were ready to discover Byzantine material. As we picked at the dirt underneath the plaster, however, we noted the same 20th century pottery shards that we found in previous days: signified by bright green and yellow glaze that coated traditional red-ware. While, last week, these vibrant colors filled me with great excitement, I—along with the other members of my team—suffered great discouragement these past few days in discovering these shards, for they forced us to realize that we faced heavy labor in a modern dump, and there might be no chance of reaching Byzantine artifacts before the conclusion of this month-long excavation. Furthermore, there was no evidence that Byzantine occupation had taken place in this location at all.

At last, after spending a very long morning wheel-barrowing hoards of dirt from the dig site to the dump, our dig advisor finally granted us permission to close the square and move to a new location. For the most part, I was happy at the news: lugging empty dirt made me feel more like a slave than an excavator. On the other hand, I felt pathetic and defeated. We were supposed to find a synagogue wall from the 3rd century, and instead we relinquished our efforts in 20th century filth. Seth, our assistant dig supervisor, seemed even more dejected once our square was officially deemed useless. To a large degree, I feel I let him down.

The Israeli dig advisors repeat a motto for discouraged excavators: “Finding nothing is just as important as finding something.” Well, we certainly found nothing, but I’m not yet sure how this fact might prove useful: pit 3,8 is still a mystery. For all I know, it might lead straight to Hell.

Farewell shot of Square 3,8

Curiosity #28: Long-lost Floor

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The first day of the second week, I came across my first significant find: a rock floor. Although the floor likely dates to the 20th century, it marks a huge relief for my team, who thought there would be no end to the rubble collapse. Still, the floor only covers the Southeast corner of the square, leaving the majority of the area packed with modern dirt fill. In the coming days, we’ll plow through it all in order to reach ancient soil. As rewarding as it felt to scrape my trowel along a level strip of rock, I won’t mind destroying the foundation in pursuit of 3rd century treasures, which (in my opinion) are long overdue.

Of course, there is a possibility that nothing interesting lies underneath this floor. If nothing else, this floor represents a tick-mark in the time scale from which we can safely conclude that everything underneath dates to a different, older age. The creators of this floor divided the soil for us, like strawberry filling on a clean layer cake. We just hope that there is indeed another (Byzantine) flavor underneath. I suppose we’ll soon find out.

Square 3,8, before I found the floor. The two stones at the base of the image are presumably ancient stone doors from the Byzantine period.

Curiosity #27: Monty

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Monty is the guard of Huqoq dig territory. Underneath the shade beside the excavation site, he watches over the hills of Galilee for unexpected visitors. They never come.

Monty towers over six feet with limbs the circumference of small PVC pipes. His teeth are yellow and cracked, and every facial feature bends upwards in the shape of a parabola. He mutters hello to the team every morning, waving lazily in his dirty clothes. His smile is endearingly unpracticed due to the minimal time he spends in the company of others. He takes this month-long opportunity to bow shyly into human interaction, and we welcome him.

Born in the States in Long Island, New York, he joined the hippies of the 1960s, plunging into government protests and hallucinogenic drugs. Finally fed up with his country, Monty moved out to a hippie Kabbutz in Galilee and decided to spend the rest of his life in the quiet Israeli countryside.

Monty still claims that all governments are corrupt. For this reason, he refuses to keep up with current politics and restricts his knowledge of the present to the small changes of scenery he can witness daily from his tent. He is free from all worldly troubles and responsibilities apart from the reclusive, impartial task of taking watch from under a tree. Whenever he concludes a statement toward an excavator, he asks “can you dig it?”: no pun intended. 

Monty’s tent, where he sleeps and keeps watch over the site. 

Curiosity #26: Digging For Nothing

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The Archaeological site of Huquq sits on a set of olive-colored hills that overlook miles of healthy farmland. While the archaeology team seeks to excavate 3rd century synagogue remains, the team first faces many layers of modern occupation and rock collapse. Arabs occupied the land of Huqoq throughout the Ottoman Period until their forced evacuation in 1948, when the Israelis laid claim over the land. The Israeli army used the empty village as a training site until they bulldozed the area in the 1960s. Now, half a century later, the Huqoq archaeological team sifts patiently through multiple meters of heavy rubble and complicated history.

The past week, I and four other members of the Huqoq team—all young students of either Religion or Archaeology—dug into a 3m x 4m rock collapse that tumbled into a steep, reclining angle on the West end of the archaeological site. Jodi Magness, an archaeological genius and the administrator of this dig, judged this square a perfect excavation site due to the ancient-looking double doors resting just past the modern collapse. Specific dig instructions were led by Matt, a round-faced Mormon with a resilient smile, and Seth, a recent graduate in archaeology from Ohio State Graduate School.

For the first few days, we lifted rocks and hacked at dirt with excitement, sure that we would find remnants of an ancient synagogue beneath the meters of rubble. As we leveled out the reclining angle of the collapse, we found treasures of all sizes and natures; however, none of them dated before the 12th century. Among the items we found were

1) Two merging walls built at different times (marking the Northern and Eastern boundaries of our square)
2) Shards of green glaze (Arab Pottery)
3) Ceramic
4) Corroded red metal
5) Unidentifiable white glass
6) Chunks of a bright blue bottle

Perhaps my most startling find, on the outskirts of the square, was a piece of ammunition from the Israeli occupation after 1948. This artifact was confiscated immediately and put in a safe place, since these pieces of ammunition were known to be “live” and dangerous long after being discarded.

As the week pushed forward, our small team recognized that we were digging through endless rock collapse. Seth, who at first demonstrated great enjoyment in directing our square, grew increasingly discouraged as evidence pointed convincingly at the fact that if anything important had rested beneath the level of collapse, the valuables might have been robbed out centuries ago.

Next week, we’ll continue digging with the hope of at last finding a floor. I’ve learned now to ignore Seth’s fits of throwing down his hat, as well as his quiet, self-critical mumbling. I’ve grown content with filling up bucket after bucket of ancient soil because the action feels purposeful. The perks are small: glimmers of unidentifiable red pottery gleaming out from diminishing layers of dirt, mysterious shards of broken glass, the tiniest bone from a long-dead animal. Even if these items are not what the team is looking for, they’re treasures all the same, and, as silly as it seems, I relish my duty to rescue them.

Curiosity #25: Nazareth

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The birthplace of Jesus is now a gritty metropolis. On the road to the Church of the Annunciation, Arabs sell merchandise for both tourists and locals: nativity dolls, Christ figurines, embroidered scarves and skirts. On a building beside the church’s entrance, an enormous sign displays text from the Qur’an, written in Arabic with English translation underneath: “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers.”

Inside The Church of the Annunciation, the Israeli sun blazes through stained glass windows. In the 1960s, the church was built in atop the supposed location in which Angel Gabriel announced Christ’s impending birth to Mother Mary.

In order to see the exact space in which this angelic interaction occurred, I descended a small set of steps and looked through a metal grating at the foot of the stairs. Beyond the grating was a well-lit cavernous room that could have belonged to any place at any time, embellished by a flowered altar that supported a large, lit candle. I watched an Asian couple snap pictures in front of the metal grating. Their bemused teenage son looked blankly at the camera, seemingly under-whelmed by the spare religious site behind him. I sympathized.

On the upper level, pews lined up before an ornate stage with an altar. Paintings were everywhere, some accompanied by Hebrew script and others captioned in Arabic. A uniformed woman sat at the back of the church, shushing chatty visitors to preserve the sanctity of the sacred space. I looked around: no one was praying. Outside was a stone fountain capped by an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary, who—as always—held her arms out in welcome.