If archaeology is anything, it is excavation. What archaeologists do is dig. Their trademark is the pick. They also use the shovel, patishe, trowel and other instruments to remove earth so they can find out what is underneath.
Yet some things are on the surface. Right there on the ground. And that’s what I would like to talk about in this BAR Jr. column.
At almost any place where people have lived in the ancient Near East, you will find broken pieces of pottery on the surface. Clay vessels break easily but fortunately in ancient times they were inexpensive so no one cared too much if they broke. And though the vessel shattered, its broken pieces were almost indestructible. Pottery will survive forever! This is not true of papyrus or cloth or wood, but it is true of potsherds, these broken pieces of pottery that archaeologists call sherds for short.
A sure sign that a site was occupied by humans in ancient times are sherds scattered on the surface—pieces of juglets, bowls, cooking pots, storage jars and, occasionally, more exotic vessels. The surface sherds are a kind of preview of what the archaeologists will find if they decide to excavate. Under the ground, they may find layer upon layer of ancient cities, one on top of the other. The deeper they go, the older the city they will uncover. Yet sherds from most, if not all, of these layers of strata will be strewn about the surface.
How did they get there? I’ve never heard an entirely satisfactory explanation of this phenomenon. Rain and wind inevitably erode the sides of the tell and expose what was formerly underground. The rain may form rivulets and as the water runs down the slope, it will dig a little gully that exposes sherds from earlier and earlier strata or layers the lower it gets down the slope. Sherds from many different periods can be found in abundance at the base of a tell, washed down by the rain and blown down by the wind.
But how about on the flat top of the tell? How did those sherds get there, especially the sherds from earlier periods? Modern plowing may bring up some; the roots of plants others. Some erosion occurs on the top of the mound too. Perhaps as the tell grew up over the centuries some sherds were raised each time a new layer was added, but this is hard for me to understand. Yet the sherds are there.
It also sometimes happens that sherds move around inside a tell. As rain water seeps into a tell, a stray sherd may move into a lower—and sometimes, by other means, a higher—layer, perhaps just to confuse the archaeologist who is excavating the tell. That is why Yohanan Aharoni, a well-known Israeli archaeologist who died in 1976, argued that the only sure way to date a stratum or layer is by dating restorable whole vessels. Single sherds, he said, were not a reliable basis for dating a stratum; single sherds could move around too easily from one stratum to another.
Surface sherds have a story of their own to tell. Increasingly, archaeologists are paying more attention to surface sherds. Surface surveys looking for sherds have been conducted all over Israel and Jordan. These surveys tell the archaeologists which sites were occupied in which periods and the density of each population. From surface sherds, the archaeologist can learn about population movements and ethnic changes, about trade relations and commercial ties, and about technological differences in pottery making and artistic variations—all without putting a shovel or pick into the ground.
Sometimes something more spectacular than a dirty old sherd will work its way to the surface. In the next issue of BAR, a book called Arad Inscriptions will be reviewed (Books in Brief, BAR 08:03). Probably the most famous inscription found at Arad, Inscription No. 88, begins “I have become king in … ” 042and is written in beautiful Hebrew letters on a piece of pottery. Unlike the first 87 inscriptions at Arad, however, Inscription 88 was not found in the course of excavation. It was found sitting right there on the surface (See BAR, “Letter from a Hebrew King?” BAR 06:01).
At Hazor a tourist found a cuneiform tablet on the surface which contained the name Hazor in cuneiform characters, thus confirming beyond doubt the identification of the site (see “American Tourist Returns Hazor Tablet to Israel after 13 Years,” BAR 02:02).
There are many other examples of important surface finds. But my favorite involves my daughter Elizabeth who was then six. We were spending a year in Israel and used to travel around to ancient sites collecting surface sherds. Many people in Israel do this, including professional archaeologists. It’s called sherding. The purpose is to build up a study collection of different kinds of identifiable sherds from various periods. Pieces of a handle, a rim or a base are especially useful for dating purposes. For that reason, they are called diagnostic pieces. While amateurs can date certain diagnostic pieces, even an expert will often find it difficult to date so-called body sherds—pieces of pottery from the body of the vessel.
On Saturday afternoon we—my wife and two daughters, aged six and three—were sherding at Hazor. Elizabeth and Julia enjoyed finding something to add to our rudimentary study collection, so it was fun for the whole family. We had already become too sophisticated to collect every sherd. We wanted only the more unusual for our study collection. Indeed, we did not even want every handle to be found, but I instructed the girls that it was important to look at each handle, even if we didn’t want to add it to our collection, to see if something was inscribed or stamped on it.
We had been on the tell less than ten minutes when Elizabeth came running up to me with a piece of a handle, telling me that something was carved on it. The more we looked at it the more clearly we could make out a man portrayed almost like a stick figure. The figure held a weapon in one hand poised behind his head, ready to hurl. In the other hand, extended in front of him, he held a long spear. He wore a high-pointed hat and shoes with upturned toes.
I congratulated Elizabeth and told her to let me carry her “lucky find,” but she insisted on carrying it herself.
After we finished our sherding we explored the archaeological remains, including the stepped water shaft. Because the ancient steps were unsafe for modern tourists and students to walk on, slatted wooden steps had been constructed over the ancient stone ones. As we walked down the tunnel in the dark, Elizabeth cried out, “I dropped my lucky find.”
Why did I ever let her carry it herself, I thought. “Don’t move”, I shouted. I wondered if it had fallen through the wooden slats on the steps. If so, it was gone forever. I got down on my hands and knees in the dark, slowly feeling my way, careful to avoid knocking the precious piece into the cracks between the wooden slats. Suddenly my hand touched something—Elizabeth’s lucky find. This time she agreed to let me hold it.
When we got back to Jerusalem, I took Elizabeth’s find to Yigael Yadin, the head of Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and excavator of Hazor. Yadin confirmed the importance of the find and identified the figure as a Syro-Hittite deity from about 1,400 B.C. It was important because it showed Hittite cultural penetration as far south as Hazor. It was extremely rare because the figure was individually incised on the handle rather than having been made by a stamp seal. With Yadin’s help, I wrote up a scientific report on the find for the Israel Exploration Journal.a
Elizabeth donated the find to the Hazor Archaeological Expedition. In exchange, Professor Yadin gave Elizabeth a restored dipper juglet he had excavated at Hazor. He also wrote Elizabeth a letter which reads as follows:
The incised handle which you found at Hazor is both unusual and important. Together with other finds of the Hazor expedition, it will help us better understand what Israel was like before our people came here thousands of years ago.
You spotted this handle at a place over which I and my fellow archaeologists walked many times without seeing it. So I offer you my congratulations, and I thank you for contributing it to the Hazor Archaeological Expedition. As a token of my appreciation, I am giving you a “whole pot”—something your father tells me you have been looking for all year. This juglet was made about 3,400 years ago and dates from the Late Bronze II period. I hope you like it.
Professor of Archaeology
Head, Institute of Archaeology
The Hebrew University, Jerusalem
P.S. The juglet is published in Hazor II, pl. CXXX 23.
If archaeology is anything, it is excavation. What archaeologists do is dig. Their trademark is the pick. They also use the shovel, patishe, trowel and other instruments to remove earth so they can find out what is underneath. Yet some things are on the surface. Right there on the ground. And that’s what I would like to talk about in this BAR Jr. column. At almost any place where people have lived in the ancient Near East, you will find broken pieces of pottery on the surface. Clay vessels break easily but fortunately in ancient times they were inexpensive […]