Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ramat Rachel 12 - Soldiers in sequins

Ramat Rachel glass
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana

This is my last entry about volunteering at an archaeological dig in Israel. If you have just arrived, please start at the first entry.

By the way, the photo shows the only piece of glass I found. See the rim? Probably from a glass or bottle from the early Muslim era. Not much, but I liked it.

A few final questions…

What has changed since you were last in Israel in 1997?

The Old City in Jerusalem is a lot scarier than it used to be. I talked to some people who visit the country more often than us and they agreed. More crime, more crowds, more bad manners, and a lot more security.

I also noticed a lot more influence of people from the former Soviet Union than last time I was here. Russian language TV, some store names in Cyrilic.

In 1997 I was astonished by the number of soldiers wandering around with what I took to be semi-automatic machine guns. This time I also saw a few people in civilian clothes carrying them, and a few more with holstered pistols. (One of my fellow volunteers, an American nurse, was thrilled to pieces that the tractor driver who attacked traffic on the day Obama arrived was shot dead by a civilian. She’s a big fan of Bernie Goetz, if you remember him.)

I also saw a lot of soldiers in what you might call partial uniform. One was dressed in fatigues and carrying a white sequined purse (yes, it was a woman). I could imagine a US marine drill sergeant seeing her and having a coronary on the spot.

Can you define the archaeological experience in one word?

Dirty. Let’s not neglect the obvious: you are digging, scraping, loading, transporting, and generally messing around with dirt. We had to shower, shampoo, repeat, and use conditioner, after every days work. I wore brand new sneakers and one shoe lace broke from the sheer strain of being pulled tight with so much sand in it..

Whenever we heard that a photographer was coming to immortalize our site we stopped digging and spent up to half an hour sweeping away at the walls and surfaces with a brush. This is not silly: people will be studying the photos for years so you want the details to show as clearly as possible.

On the other hand, (surprise!) the photos with people in them were staged. The most attractive young people were sent down again and again to have their picture taken. That was silly. Not that I volunteered to pose, by the way. I loved it when Oded tolk Konni to “look like you’re brushing, but don’t brush.”

By the way, our friend Evelyn urged us to buy some of the new nylon hiking clothes and she was right on the money. They were loose, cool, and wore like iron. Terri and I each wore the same pants for ten days of crawling over, under and through dirt, stones and dust. Thedy didn’t develop a tear or even a stain. Wash them out in the sink, hang ‘em up in the tub and in the morning they are ready to play again.

Kneepads came in very handy too, although I didn't spend a lot of time on my knees, per se. They were great for leaning against rocks and for crawling out of pits.

What is the solution to the question of Israel/Palestine/East Jerusalem/Golan Heights/Subprime Mortgages?

No clue.

Would you do it again?

Terri and I reached the same conclusion independently. We are glad we did it, but we don’t plan to do it again. We can only afford the time and money for a trip like this every few years, and there are other places we want to see, When we retire we may have a rethink.

The experience was great. The people were interesting. The work was very hard but fascinating. I would recommend it to anyone with the archaeology jones.

And most important, did the Ramat Rachel diet work?

You mean eat all you want and do manual labor in the hot sun all day? I lost six pounds. Actually, I think the food/labor balanced out. The difference was that the only dessert the hotel had that I liked was watermelon.

Ramat Rachel 11 - Sweep it under the floor

Ramat Rachel floor 2
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
This is a closer picture of that bundle of floor layers. Do you see what is under them?

That's right. Someone found a layer of broken pottery and, rather than clean it away, someone probably just piled dirt to level it out and then built their floor above it. And the next layer went over that, and so on.

So the diggers had to carefully remove a layer at a time, knowing that eventually they would get to a huge amount of broken pots.

By the way, why do you have to go down a layer at a time? Because you can't find out when a floor was made by what's on top of it, only by what's in it or under it. If the floor stands on top of a coin from 40 BCE, then the floor could not have been built in 41 BCE.

One of the bosses explained the fallacy of looking at what's above instead of what's below. "See that stone floor? What's on top of it? A picnic table! So the floor must be from the plastic era."

Ramat Rachel 10 - On the level

Ramat Rachel floor 1
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
On one of our tours of the site Yuval told us that every archaeology student gets told about stratification. They are showed a diagram that shows the levels of a dig. Here is a Greek level, and above it a level from the Roman era, and on top of that is the Byzantine.

Now, look around, Yuval said. Under this one tarp you can see an Iron Age wall, a Byzantine wall, and a military trench from the 1948 War of Independence. They are all at the same level.

Good luck, archaeology students!

But at the other extreme, look at this photograph. As Terri says, it doesn't seem real, but like a drawing for that archaeology class. See the neat layers fo floor on top of floor? That is how it was found at Ramat Rachel. Now go to the next blog entry for a closeup.

Ramat Rachel 9 - A beautiful collapse

Ramat Rachel Column
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana

“This is a beautiful collapse of a Byzantine church,” said Omer happily. We were getting the end of the week tour of the entire dig, so everyone got to see what the other groups had been doing. The reason Omer called it beautiful was that the big stones that made up the wall had fallen over so perfectly that anyone could have picked them up and put them back in place: in short, the fall was a diagram of the original wall.

Every day Oded and the other leaders selected a find of the day. Let me tell you about some of them. They were exploring a columbarium – a manmade cave whose walls were full of triangular niches for pigeons to lie in. Oded says pigeons were iron age chickens: used for eating, fertilizer, and as the smallest acceptable sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple. So, he said, if you were coming to the big city for the festival and realized you left your goat at home – don’t you hate it when that happens? – you could buy a pigeon to sacrifice instead.

One day in a bottom niche they found a small clay pot,, maybe the size of a softball. They gently removed the lid and found a cache of silver coins. That got us an article in Ha’aretz, one of the major Israeli newspapers. The dig has been getting good publicity – Oded’s phone keeps ringing, - and that has it’s good and bad sides. It brings in sponsors and other resources. It also encourages looters who think they can find “buried treasure.” (Ha’aretz probably didn’t help by calling the silver coins gold.

ANother cool find was a column base, or really about a quarter of the base (see photo.) Many column capitals (columns) have been found in Judah, but this is the first column base. It is about the size of a sofa ottoman and you can see the carving of a flower on the side. Someone had apparently dumped it into a hole on D1 a long time ago and it broke into several pieces. You can see several hands holding it together for the picture.

But I think the coolest thing we found was a red ball about the size of a grape, made of a half-expensive stone (okay, Oded meant “semi-precious,” but don’t you like it better his way?)

There is a hole drilled through the ball so you can hang it on a necklace. And on one surface there is a picture carved: it is a wordless seal. You put a little wax on a document, press the image onto it and you have a bulla, or seal impression, guaranteeing the official and confidential nature of a document.

Archaeologists love bulae, but seals are even better, because they are rarer and the bulla is an imperfect copy of the original.

Oded made a clay bulla and sent digital photos of seal and copy to two experts by email (incredible how much faster this stuff can happen than, say a decade ago). The experts independently offered the same tentative conclusion: the seal appeared to be from the second Parthian Empire.

Why is that cool? The Second Parthian Empire only ruled Judea for about a dozen years. That narrows down that particular level somewhat dramatically. (Okay, the seal could have been found during the empire and lost in a level 100s of years later, but you deal probabilities.)

Other finds of the day included a wall where no one expected it. But once they noticed it they found traces of the wall in several parallel holes. Yuval said: “This wall is our friend now. It follows wherever we go.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ramat Rachel 8 - The mysterious toothbrush

Ramat Rachel hotel 1
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
This is the view from our hotel room.

One reason we chose Ramat Rachel for our digging experience was the quarters. Many digs want the volunteers to stay in hostels or four in a room. Here the dig is next to a four star hotel, owned by the kibbutz, and we got a discount.

Well, it isn't what we would call a four star hotel. Terri called it a four star hostel. Maybe two stars in the states, maybe a bit more. But it does have the best outdoor pool in the region, a spa, and Terri was impressed by the gym, although she had to pay about eight bucks to use it.

A gym story. Terri was lifting weights and found the equipment set up for people with longer arms, which made it difficult to put the bars back safely. The attendent noticed and kindly offered to spot for her. She asked where Terri was from and explained: "Women in Israel don't lift weights. They are afraid they will get big muscles."

"Not unless they take steroids," said Terri.

The food is buffet style a thte hotel and is included in our fee. There is a lot of it and some of it is good but it is repetitive - I cheer on the rare occasions when their excellent couscous appears. The meals are fleische (meat as opposed to dairy) which brings up my big complaint.: dessert. Since they can't have milk with the meals why are desserts imitation cheesecake, imitation cream pie, imitation ice cream, dairyless pudding, etc? Why not fruit pie, cookies, nut bars, jello, or other things that need no milk? (To be fair, fruit pies showed up occasionally, but the imitation milk was a constant.)

One thing I need to say about the hotel: we forgot to ask for a smokefree room until a few days before we arrived. They managed to round one up and that was much appreciated.

On the other hand, whenever the maid cleaned our room we smelled smoke. One day we came in and the TV was on and one of the waterglasses in the bathroom contained an unfamiliar toothbrush. Now, THAT was creepy.

Inevitably some of the staff speak better English than others (They all speak it better than I speak Hebrew.) One day I called and asked that something be brought up to our room, 668. The woman at the desk assured me that they had no room 668.

Oh no? Then where did they put that toothbrush?

Ramat Rachel 7 - The pit is not the pits

Ramat Rachel Pit 4
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
On Friday three strong young me,(not including me) smashed the hell out of the stone with a sledge hammer and a sort of manual jackhammer ("The perfect thing for a hangover," said one of the students. There had been free beer at the end-of-week party the night before.)

That reduced the rock to about the size of a microwave oven and four strong men, (again not including me) tied ropes to it and pulled it out.

Then I got to spend a happy two hours digging down in the pit. See the photo by John Vanee. Found my first pottery handle. Bosses occasionally came by and said, in amazement "Are you still finding pottery down there?" I would toss up my latest find and keep going.

Ephrat pointed out a weird arch on one side that appeared to be different from the rest of the put. And on the next workday Felix and Tibor broke through it and found a smaller hole (room?) made of softer earth. Perhaps more will be revealed.

Ramat Rachel 6 - Sinking deeper

Ramat Rachel pit 3
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
This is the pit about as deep as we could get it without getting the stone out.

Ramat Rachel 5 - Against the clock

Ramat Rachel Pit 1
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
The day after the terrivle Monday we all got reassigned. John and I, a couple of older fellas, were taken to a small section of D1, perhaps eight foot square, surrounded by stone walls. Lisa said: "This is a pit. Do you see it?"

Well, no. I saw dirt. Lisa drew a circle and told us to dig down and see what we found.

And sure enough, we found a pit dug into the rock. By the time Oded arrived at 9 AM to take some pictures the pit was about a meter wide and a foot deep. There was a big stone that someone had apparently dumped into the hole a long time ago (probably when they decided to fill it up and put a floor on top.) The stone got bigger as the hole went deeper.

Bosses came by and speculated about what the hole might be. A well? A cistern? A bell-shaped cave? "Maybe it's the Assyrian archives," Oded joked. "When you find cuneiform tablets leave them in place so we can photograph them in situ." Archives are to the modern archaeologist what gold and mummies were to the 19th century digger. Imagine finding the correspondence of the rulers of Ramat Rachel! Such treasures have been found on occasion.

Getting back to the photography. I stayed down near the pit to place the half meter stick Oded always carried to show the exact length of objects in pictures. At one point he told me to turn it "against the clock." Oh, counter-clockwise.

By the end of the day the pit was two feet deep and showing no sign of bottoming out. The big stone was making it harder to dig dirt out, but we kept finding pottery and bones -- not a skeleton, somebody's iron age lunch litter.

Because the day before had been awful I made a point of telling Lisa that this had been a fun day. She told me I was a good worker (true, I think) and had a good eye for spotting archaeological stuff (not true, I think). and asked my opinion of some of the work. So things were looking up.

Two hours later I was struck by a stomach virus that was making rounds of the group and spent the rest of the day in bed.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ramat Rachel 4 - I must be a volunteer, because you couldn't pay me to do this

Ramat Rachel Aharoni
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
This dog hung around the site so we named him Aharoni. Presumably the spirit of the original excavator was keeping an eye on us.

A bit of archaeology jargon: the diggers don’t refer to a year, but to a season. The 2008 season at Ramat Rachel is four weeks long: twenty working days. We are never allowed to forget that every day a precious 5% of the season is disappearing and we have to make the most of it.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem to work out that way.

I worked on Site D1, one of about eight active spots. Lisa, a smart, funny German woman was in charge, assisted by Ephrat, a quieter, younger Israeli, who was raised on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, five minutes from here). About a dozen volunteers worked on D1 in a big rectangle surrounded by sandbags. Some parts were already several three or four meters deep and have revealed stone walls, an olive (or wine) press, and so on.

On the first Friday Lisa decided to open a new section. That meant using pickaxes to chop open the surface, filling sandbags to mark the edge, and hauling away the rest of the dirt by the bucket and wheelbarrow load until you see something the bosses think is interesting.

The problem is that this area was hardpan, dirt tough as cement. After an hour or so of our slaving away at this Lisa reassigned us. A bulldozer would come on Monday, she assured us, and do the awful work of cutting through the rocklike top layers.

Fair enough. But on Monday no bulldozer appeared. Oded, the Boss Boss Boss, explained cheerfully that all the Arab bulldozer drivers were being examined “to see if they were crazy.” Last week, for the second time this year, an Arab from East Jerusalem had driven his bulldozer into traffic and tried to kill people with it. (This happened the day that Obama arrived in Jerusalem.)

So, since there was no bulldozer, Lisa and Oded decided that Feliz, John, Rachel, Konni and I could be a bulldozer. We worked from 5:30 till 1 that day using pickaxes on soil we had been told a machine could remove much better. (On Friday one of the bosses had joked that they might not bother with a ‘dozer because “fuel is expensive and food is cheap.” It wasn’t so amusing now.)

At the end of the day moral was low, blisters were high, and my lower back hurt (repeat after me, everyone: lift buckets of dirt with your knees, not your back). Lisa called us together and said it would probably be two or three days before the machine was available and did we want to keep going the next day or be reassigned?

Everyone voted for the latter. When it was my turn to speak I said “I want to be productive. If you say a bulldozer can do this better than me then give me something else to do and let the machine do it.”

“Wisely spoken,” said one of the German students.

But we still need to talk about the pottery from that awful Monday. Archaeoloists love pottery because they can use it to determine the date of a site (9th century pottery doesn’t look like 8th century, to an expert), and maybe where it was made. For obvious reasons, pottery found near the surface doesn’t tend to be very useful. It could have been picked up anywhere and trod underfoot anytime in the last few hundred years.

However, we stalwart diggers did find a few nice sherds during that grueling, backbreaking Monday, including a couple of pieces of rim and handle, which are especially useful. When we were cleaning up I gave the specimen bucket to Ephrat who showed it to Lisa. Lisa looked at the top two or three pieces, and shook her head. Ephrat then dumped our day’s finds into the rubbish bin.

To paraphrase the Terry Pratchett novel I am reading, that took the cake, the candle and the biscuit with sprinkles on top. Monday was a very bad day. Oded later admitted that using us as a bulldozer was “our mistake.”

The next day things looked up, as I started sinking into a pit.

Ramat Rachel: 3 - Get with the schedule

Ramat Rachel: Rob
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
That photo (by fellow volunteer John Vanee) may appear to be Indiana Jones contemplating his latest great discovery, but it is actually me on popsicle break. I think I was trying to decide between cherry and grape. Here is a summary of a day on the dig...

The alarm goes off at 4:15 and you think it's a mistake or a crime against humanity, but you struggle out of bed and try to make yourself
presentable. Then you check that your backpack contains: kneepads, hat, workgloves, sunglasses, camera, water bottle, sunscreen, and cell phone. All set? Good.

At 4:45 you head down to the hotel lobby. In the coffee bar they have set up cereal, tea, milk and something resembling pound cake. Not a very inspiring breakfast, so you are lucky you cribbed some pears from last night's dinner.

The volunteers (100 of them) and staff (perhaps 20?) slowly trickle in and suck up caffeine. At 5:15 you take the five minute walk past the beautiful hotel swimming pool to the archaeological park. By 5:30 your group is collecting tools - pickaxes, hoes, brushes,and wheelbarrows - from the locked containers and starting to work.

It is barely light enough to see but it will be in a few minutes. The
section boss tells you what you will be doing that day. The next three
and a half hours are the most productive part of the day, because it is
delightfully cool and everyone is fresh.

At 9 AM somebody shouts "Breakfast!" We drop everything
and walk (across foot-narrow stone walls in some places) to the potwashing area, which is covered by a huge tarp. Here everyone sits down for the best meal of the day.

In most Israeli restaurants and certainly any big hotel the food is kosher so every meal is either dairy or meat (or parve, neutral,,, but that's unlikely.) Fish is bi, and shellfish , like pork, is taboo.

Breakfast is milche - dairy. This morning I had scrambled eggs, a cheese pastry, sliced peppers, a crisp roll to which I added tuna fish and cheese,watermelon, a yogurt, and tea. Not bad.

After breakfast you go back to work until eleven-thirty when we have fruit break, at our worksites. Today it was plums and popcicles. Then you work until 1 PM when you carry the buckets of pottery sherds back to the big site Then, for a change, you get to wash a bucket of yesterday's pottery which has been soaking in water overnight. By 2 PM you get to go back to the hotel and - the schedule insists - SHOWER before lunch. Trust me, you need the shower.

After lunch your time is your own until 5 or 6 PM when there is a lecture or other event, depending upon the day. (Imagine meeting archaeologists you have been reading about for twenty years and struggling to stay awake during a fascinating lecture, because it has been a LONG day.) Dinner at 7, and then if you are
smart (or at least middleaged) you tumble into bed and wait for the alarm to start the whole cycle over.

Ramat Rachel 2 - Everything you know is wrong

Ramat Rachel
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana
As I said, Yohanan Aharoni was the first archaeologist to dig here, back in the fifties. He thought he had found an Iron Age palace belonging to Hezekiah, king of Judah around 700 bc. Problem with that logic is who builds a palace three miles from their main palace?

Oded Lipschits is running the dig now and he has a different theory. Let me exlain the layout and see if you come to the same conclusion.

What we have here is a palace (or palatial buliding, anyway), a citadel (small fort) in front of itm and in front of that something unique in Judah: imported brown topsoil with water fountains and paths: a planned garden.

So, around 700 bce, the time Judah became a vassal state of Assyria, this impressive building went up three miles from, Jerusalem the capital. It looked down on the capital, and on major trade routes. It cotinued to be occupied as Judah was taken over by the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks. Then the Hasmonean era began and Judah was free (think of the
Maccabees and Chanukah) and the Ramat Rachel palace was destroyed by fire.

Do you see it? Oded thinks (if I understood him ocrrectly) that this wasn't a Judahite palace. It was the adminsitrative office of the occupying power, close enough to the capital to keep an eye
on it, but not in-their-faces where it would draw trouble. And as soon as they Jews liberated their country they destroyed the
occupier's palace.

Anyway, that's Oded's theory at the moment. The interesting thing about archaeology is that tomorrow's dig may change it all.

For example, on the first day they gave us a tour of the site, telling us what they thought was going on each each area (there are about eight active sites this year's season). On Thursday night we repeated the tour for a review of the week, and at one
site everything they thought they knew had been overturned in four days work.

As I understand it they were expecting to find an extension of that garden. Instead they found a trench, maybe three meters deep, five meters wide and well, after establishing that it went at least fifty meters long they stopped for a think. The photo above shows Oded at the end of the trench.

Almost certainly it is the foundation trench for an outer walll, but no
one expected to find a wall there at all. Hmm...

Ramat Rachel 1 - Digging Israel

Ramat Rachel Site D1
Originally uploaded by fifteeniguana

My wife Terri and I just spent two weeks volunteering at an archaeological dig at Ramat Rachel Israel. I am going to put up several blog entries describing the experience, so be warned.

Ramat Rachel is about halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, less than three miles from each. It is so close to the political (but not geographical) West Bank that during the 1950s several archaeologists were killed by Jordanian border guards.

The name is modern, coming from the kibbutz. During the 1940s the kibbutz decided to build a water tower on the hill. That's when they discovered the ruins. Yohanon Aharoni was the first excavator and he discovered ruins from the Iron Age (circa 700 BCE) to the Early Muslim era (say 1000 CE).

The current dig is co-sponsored by the University of Tel Aviv and the University of Heidelberg. Oded Lipschits is the archaeologist in charge, alias the Boss Boss Boss.

The photo above shows an early morning at D1, the section of the site where I was working (click on it for more detail). Oded is the gentleman in the middle with the camera. If you are interested, read along and you will learn a lot more about the experience.

By the way, Keren, a volunteer with much more energy than me actually live blogged throughout the four weeks of the dig. Read it (with plenty of pix) here.