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  • Volunteering for an archelogical site is one vacation option. Khirbet Qiyafa, a site located 18 miles southest of Jerusalem, Israel, overlooks the Elah Valley as volunteers dig during the early morning, uncovering a few pottery objects. (Mauricio Gutierrez/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
  • Volunteering for an archelogical site is one vacation option. Khirbet Qiyafa, a site located 18 miles southest of Jerusalem, Israel, finds volunteers uncovering a number of pottery objects, including this large piece. (Mauricio Gutierrez/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
  • Volunteering for an archelogical site is one vacation option. Khirbet Qiyafa, a site located 18 miles southest of Jerusalem, Israel, overlooks the Elah Valley as a volunteer unearths an Iron Age vessel. (Mauricio Gutierrez/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Sunday, April 8, 2012

A week on an archaeological dig in Israel is a dusty history lesson

KHIRBET QEIYAFA, Israel – 4 a.m. My eyes feel heavy. Today is my second day of digging.

I’m in Israel for a weeklong archaeological dig – not your regular vacation, but one that brought fulfillment and surprisingly more rest than I’ve gotten sitting on the beach.

Richard Stamps, a professor of anthropology, and Mike Pytlik, a special lecturer of archaeology and Jewish studies at Michigan’s Oakland University, each year lead a group of students on a three-week archaeological dig and tour of Israel. Pytlik invited me to go along as a volunteer for a week.

I always have been interested in ancient history and archaeology. Pytlik explained that this vacation wouldn’t have much relaxing, sightseeing or downtime. It would be dusty and messy, and accommodations wouldn’t include the boutique hotels I normally favor.

The sense of adventure and the chance to learn was enough for me to sign up. I filled out an application, included a $50 check and sent it to professor Yosef Garkinfel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a renowned archeologist and director of the Khirbet Qeiyafa site, our destination.

It sits above the Elah Valley – the same valley where the Bible says David and Goliath had their famous faceoff. It is believed to be the ancient city of Sha’arayim, an Israelite walled city from the Iron Age that was part of the kingdom of David.

5 a.m.

We’re on the bus, heading toward Khirbet Qeiyafa from our nearby hostel. The air is chilly. As the sun rises, I can feel the heat embracing me.

We prepare to work for the next seven hours with picks, hoes and buckets, hauling dirt out of our square – a space that measures 5 meters by 5 meters and is delineated by sandbags and ropes.

With each shovelful, we step back in history. First, we uncover layers from the Byzantine period, then the Hellenistic, and finally we hit our “floor.” The time machine stops and we discover hundreds of pieces of pottery from the Iron Age – dating to the 10th century B.C.

I find a piece of what used to be a jug, handles, shards of things people once used in their daily lives. What’s loose gets thrown in a bucket. What’s interred and seems of importance is left in place to be photographed, documented and eventually dug out with care.

I learn how to use a trowel to dig out pottery, how to be efficient with the pick. I also learn to hydrate often. The intense sun is relentless.

7 a.m.

We move to a tent where a small snack is served with coffee. It’s time to chat and goof around with the students I adopted as my family for the trip. We go back to this tent every two hours for breaks.

The schedule paces our days: Dig. More dust. Sun and more pottery.

Work stops for the metal detector, which uncovers coins and other metal objects, including a blade and a Byzantine fibula (pin). I hold the fibula and admire the nearly rubbed-off filigree decoration.

I have seen objects like this before – but only at a museum. This, I can touch with my hands. That connection with history, the excitement of being part of the dig, keeps me going.

11:15 a.m.

Pytlik shows me around the site to explain how the city walls were reinforced by something called casemate. It’s basically a row of houses built against the city walls to make the structure stronger. I can see what used to be walls, rooms, hallways and gates formed by huge boulders.

We find an oil lamp, walls of what seems to be a house, drain channels. To the untrained eye like mine, it’s an expanse of rocks. But to the experts, these things have specific meanings and functions.

They figure out what isn’t original to the Iron Age-era city and tear down walls to uncover the original structures, and determine the purposes of a room and how it may have looked in the Iron Age.

Noon

Buses take us back to the hostel for lunch and some rest.

Even if I wanted to walk away, I would be miles from the nearest highway. There’s nowhere to go – not a convenience store or gas station or anyplace where a bit of civilization might offer some comfort.

The prospect of a nap makes me gobble down my not-so-great food and head back to the room, shower and wash away the dust.

We have downtime for a few hours before we begin to wash the pottery we’ve found.

4:30 p.m.

We gather around buckets of water that contain the findings from the previous day; volunteers scrub off the dirt to uncover inscriptions or decorations that can help identify the provenance.

At first, most of our discoveries look the same to me. But by the last day of the trip, I can tell which pieces are from the Iron Age and which are Hellenistic.

This doesn’t make me an expert, of course, but I was quite proud of my progress.

6:30 p.m.

Evening lectures are scheduled, but by then, my brain shuts down and my stomach starts growling; dinner is close. I have no energy left, but we still gather every night for a few minutes to chat and decompress, discussing what to expect the following day.

OU students spend three weeks of intense study and hands-on work in Israel from mid-June to early July. Volunteers may join the dig at any point during the season.

This exhausting and unconventional vacation comes with many rewards – knowledge and meeting people passionate about what they do. It’s an experience that’s worth repeating.

I’m saving vacation time to try it again this summer.

Others can have the boutique hotels and the lounge chairs by the pool. I prefer going to Israel to get dusty and be tired, eat cafeteria food and share my room.

That’s what’s fulfilling to me.