When I told my friends that I planned to spend the summer of 1979 on an archaeological dig in Israel’s Negev Desert, I got one of two responses: “You’ve got to be crazy!” or “Gee, that sounds like a lot of fun!” Both turned out to be true.
I had been to Israel twice before, participating in directed tours, but this time I had decided to fulfill a lifelong urge to indulge in an archaeological expedition.
Carefully reading about the project possibilities in the March/April 1979 BAR, I was drawn to the section entitled “Rescue of Archaeological Sites in the Biblical Negev,” BAR 05:02.
The article explained that because of the necessity to relocate military installations from the Sinai to the Negev as a result of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, many important unstudied archaeological remains may either be destroyed or become off-limits for security reasons. Therefore, the Israeli government allocated funds for a massive effort to “save” such sites as Tel Ira, Tel Masos and Tel Malhata.
Other summer excavation plans were then modified to allow money and people to be used in the Negev rather than on previously scheduled digs. Such was the case with the Joint Israeli-American Expedition to Aphek-Antipatris directed by Moshe Kochavi and Pirhiya Beck from Tel Aviv University. The first session of the Aphek-Antipatris dig was rescheduled to Tel Ira.a
I arrived at Beit Yatziv Youth Hostel in Beersheva on the afternoon of June 17th, carrying a suitcase crammed with items suggested by the Project’s U.S. Coordinator, Dr. Don Hobson of Allegheny College. 029Included were such diverse things as a flashlight (never used), a clothesline and clothespins (often used for one of the most popular forms of entertainment on the dig—laundry), a four-inch Marshalltown mason’s trowel (a variety not available in Israel), some “Lomotil” (for my gastronomical adventures), mosquito repellent (a most needed item as Israeli mosquitoes rival those in my home state for their voraciousness), a heavy pair of hiking boots I’d purchased as work boots (sandals don’t offer enough protection in the field), a canteen, sunglasses, clothing to work in, relax in, explore Israel in, and more. On my head was a large-brimmed straw hat I’d worn since leaving the States; on my shoulder was a bag filled with camera equipment, and in my heart was a feeling of apprehension.
I had chosen to go on this dig not knowing anyone, a decision I wondered about as a group of us sat staring at one another while waiting on the hostel lawn for our room assignments and asking questions like: “Is this your first dig?” (Hopefully those of us who asked this would find other novices who were in the same predicament.) “Where are you from?” “Does anybody know what’s going on here?”
By dinner time that first evening, things started taking shape. Room assignments had been given out and I found myself one of four women in room 32. We were more fortunate than many of the others as we had our own private bathroom instead of having to walk to the communal facilities at the end of the building. The other furnishings in our room consisted of one bare bulb in the middle of the ceiling, a desk with a broken chair, three single cots and a bunk bed. Later we were joined by another roommate in the top bunk. The room also came equipped with a family of cockroaches and a hoard of mosquitoes. My roommates were associated with Allegheny College; the bugs had no alma mater.
After dinner, Dr. Kochavi and Dr. Hobson introduced Tel Ira to us and explained what would be expected of us as volunteers. Only later did I realize the full impact of their words.
The next day started with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup: “Boker tov” (Hebrew for Good Morning) spoken with a British accent as Peter, a volunteer from England, made his early morning rounds. My first breakfast of bread, jam and tea followed at 4:45. The bus left for the tell at 5:00.
The bus ride was not a typical jaunt to the countryside. Our transportation was often a lorry of ancient vintage with four rows of padded benches running the length of the vehicle. We would pack ourselves, our day’s food and water, and our equipment side-by-side, hoping that we all made it. While the first part of the trip followed smooth, paved roads, the last nine kilometers took us over rugged desert terrain. At this time of the morning most of our crew was still sleepy and we tried to catch a few additional moments of rest. However, bouncing our way across the first wadi (a dry river bed) was enough to discourage all but the most determined nappers. Those of us not sleeping took it upon ourselves to make sure that the nappers didn’t fly off their seats unexpectedly.
For some reason we never seemed to keep a bus driver for long. One theory was that the drivers were fearful for the “lives” of their buses—and our lives weren’t really a consideration in the matter.
We would arrive at the dig site by 6:00 a.m. and work until 8:30 when we ate our second breakfast. This was a more substantial meal consisting of 031tea/coffee, yogurt/sour cream, hard-boiled eggs, bread and jam, sometimes cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, fruit, and now and then some halva, a mixture of ground sesame seeds and honey. Breakfast was one of our favorite times as it gave us an opportunity to get better acquainted with one another while we satisfied the hearty appetites we’d already worked up.
Two of the most adventuresome of our group were Bob and Irene Kaufman from New Jersey. That they happened to be in their late 60’s while the average age of the group volunteer was about 21 was beside the point. What was important was that they became our mentors and very good friends. Bob assumed responsibility for both breakfast and juice breaks, and, even more important to our well-being, saw to it that everyone drank enough water. He soon became de facto camp manager. Irene was down in the trenches with us, digging, brushing, cleaning. One of the most rewarding days came when we watched Irene unearth an unbroken, ancient juglet. The Kaufmans wouldn’t tell anyone exactly how old they were until the dig ended—they didn’t want special treatment from the rest of us. They are living proof that a person is only as old/young as one thinks, especially on an archaeological dig.
After breakfast, it was back to work until an 11:00 a.m. juice break. The work at times was tedious, especially when it came to preparing a five-meter square for photographing. Several volunteers would “attack” the surface areas with brushes to remove all traces of dirt and dust (not an easy task in the middle of a desert) so that the features of the area would be well defined on a photograph. This clean-up process seemed to last forever—particularly when dusting cobblestone surfaces, a job I managed to be assigned more times than I like to remember.
As a first-time volunteer I learned archaeological techniques in the field in a way that couldn’t be taught from books. I was impressed by the fact that the senior staff archaeologists in our area, Etan Ayalon (Israel) and Dr. Don Hobson (U.S.A.), were working alongside us in the squares and didn’t come in just when there was something “to find.” They taught us how to “see” what we were digging—to envision the different levels of habitation by noting differences in soil color and consistency; to read the balks (the vertical walls of the square) for the stratigraphy or layer record of the civilizations) and how to imagine ourselves as part of a society of people no longer in existence.
By the time juice break came at 11:00, we were usually more than ready for a spell under the canvas tarpaulins which offered our only shade from the brilliant desert sun. Temperatures often reached 120 degrees F. by midmorning, so precautions had to be taken to avoid sunstroke and dehydration. When working in the field, hats were a necessity—to protect the body’s most sun-sensitive spot, the top of the head. Water was passed around every half hour and the rule was, “Either drink it or wear it!” Most of us gladly drank it. When people became cantankerous or disoriented, the usual cause was lack of water.
It was back to the field until 12:30 and then back to camp, for the heat of the day combined with the afternoon winds made further field work practically impossible. Gathering the buckets of sherds (pieces of pottery) and other finds of the day along with the empty food and water containers, we repacked ourselves for another action-filled (predominantly up and down) ride through the desert.
On these return trips, we could see local life in the area. Bedouin women and children would be watering their camels, goats, sheep and donkeys at two wells which had been used for centuries by these same people. Other Bedouin were shepherding their flocks throughout the hills or lying down in their hand-woven tents.
Everyday a Bedouin mother, her daughter and two sons would bring their animals to the top of Tel Ira to graze. Regardless how many days the family had already visited the tell, and regardless how many pictures had already been taken, volunteers would immediately stop work to take more pictures. I’m sure some of our group have at least thirty camel pictures (I only took six).
When we returned to camp we would take the pottery buckets, fill them with water, and then, after a cursory attempt at hand and face washing under an outside faucet, we’d head for the communal dining hall for the noon meal, our main meal of the day. The first course was always a variety of soup. Then came meat, (usually poultry), rice or potatoes or farina, fresh vegetables, fruit (often melon this season of the year), bread, jam and tea. The food wasn’t elaborate but it tasted marvelous after a hard day’s work.
From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. was “free” time. A shower 033was the first order of business. In our room, the five of us took turns as to who got to clean up first, no mean privilege. Some of the others who didn’t have a room with a shower had to wait their turn for the communal showers on a first-come-first-served basis.
If one didn’t choose to use the remainder of this time for a siesta (a habit which I grew to enjoy and have adapted for use back in the States), there was always something else to do. It was a good time to write home, do some reading, or to visit one of Beersheva’s municipal swimming pools.
At 4:30 we met in a grassy area of the camp to wash pottery. We washed the pottery we’d found the day before which had soaked in water overnight to loosen the dirt that clung to it. We would examine each piece carefully for any traces of writing. Because of the desert’s dryness, the writing might still remain on the sherd’s smooth surface. Then each sherd was scrubbed with a small brush, rinsed and put into a flat tray to dry. Pottery washing was an excellent time for an occasional water fight—the afternoons were warm, the water was wet, and there was a bit of mischief in the air.
When the washing—both of the pottery and the pottery washers—was finished, we would adjourn to the pottery reading tables under the eucalyptus trees where the archaeologists would sort through our area’s findings. It was both amazing and exciting to see how they could tell from a small fragment of pottery what the actual vessel looked like, what it was used for, and from which time period it came. Important finds were then labeled for keeping and restoration; others were put in a waiting area; still others were unceremoniously dumped on the reject pile.
One of the hardest things for the novice volunteer to accept was seeing the treasures they had found, carried back and washed with tender, loving care, thrown away. By the season’s end though, most of us managed to camouflage our true feelings.
By this time it was about 7:00 p.m. and time for our evening meal. This would consist of leftovers from the noon meal with more fresh vegetables and the ever present bread and jam. Often the evening offering wasn’t enough to satisfy our collective sweet-tooth so a group of us would trek the five blocks to downtown Old City Beersheva to the Lido Beersheva for ice cream. We might then continue on to a little cafe which served excellent espresso. Some of the group would visit the nut seller to buy sunflower and pumpkin seeds and pistachio nuts. For those who were still hungry, there was the bakery with its fresh apple, potato or cheese pastries. After eating, the best pastime was people watching. Entire families would be out strolling down the streets or sitting at sidewalk cafes watching their neighbors saunter by.
Nine-thirty was the suggested bedtime; morning came early and the work was energy consuming. But, for many of us, 11:00–12:00 was the real bedtime.
Some of us would spend long hours sitting on the outside staircase of our hostel, talking about the day’s events and tomorrow’s possibilities, sharing our lives with one another. We came from as far away as Japan, England, South Africa and the United States, first united by an interest in archaeology in Israel’s Negev, but, as we spent more time together, we were united as a family is—by the caring and concern for one another.
Originally I had planned to stay only two weeks on the dig. Instead, I finished out the four-week session and went on to dig at Tel Aphek-Antipatris the second session, but that’s another story in itself. I’m already preparing for my second summer of digging in 1980.
When I told my friends that I planned to spend the summer of 1979 on an archaeological dig in Israel’s Negev Desert, I got one of two responses: “You’ve got to be crazy!” or “Gee, that sounds like a lot of fun!” Both turned out to be true. I had been to Israel twice before, participating in directed tours, but this time I had decided to fulfill a lifelong urge to indulge in an archaeological expedition. Carefully reading about the project possibilities in the March/April 1979 BAR, I was drawn to the section entitled “Rescue of Archaeological Sites in […]