Digging at Ashkelon
It is not the dead that die,
It is their whispers
Stifled by the sands.
We seek the sherds,
Companions of their lives,
But hear no voice, no sound,
Except the wind,
Whirling through the trees,
Except the sea,
Surging toward the shore.
They have no voice
But leave their mark.
We read the messages
In stone, in clay,
In alabaster, marble, glass.
Each coin, each scrap of metal,
Piece of clay,
Becomes a syllable of language
For us to fashion words,
Retell and recreate,
Describing how they lived
And what they wore, ate, used—
We long to hear them speak
To know that life
Is more than fragments in the dust.
We came to volunteer our services, to excavate the buried Philistine city of Ashkelon. Each of us harbored the hope that we would “find something.” We were, indeed, searchers.
Who were we? A motley group composed of 41 staff and 87 volunteer workers ranging in age from 16 to 79—students, housewives, artists, teachers, musicians, doctors, ministers, computer programmers. We had come from the United States, Canada, England and West Germany and met for the first time in Jerusalem. Our reasons for joining the dig may have been as diverse as our backgrounds, but I can tell only my own.
I always loved history. As a child I wandered awe-struck through museum exhibits. Dinosaur skeletons and Egyptian mummies were my favorites. I dreamed of being a priestess at Delphi and hoped that scientists would invent a time machine so I would have the opportunity to travel back into ancient worlds. I knew little about archaeology. In my world of the 1940s, little girls, if they had professions, grew up to be teachers or nurses or secretaries. I liked to shock everyone by announcing that I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I really never gave it serious consideration. It was, after all, an impossibility. Yet, at the same time, I never set aside the dream.
Reading BAR—the only magazine I read cover to cover—nurtured that dream and planted a new idea. Despite attempts to dissuade me—“you don’t have the physical stamina” … “the Middle East is a war zone”—I decided I would use a dig as my time machine—I would volunteer.
I reviewed BAR’s annual listing of dig opportunities. I eliminated those digs where living conditions were too rugged. Since I wanted an educational experience, the sponsoring institution and the availability of lectures and field trips were important to me. From reading BAR I had some idea which digs interested me. I finally chose Ashkelon, where the Leon Levy Expedition was beginning its third season.
Ashkelon, located 30 miles south of Tel Aviv, was one of the five chief cities of the Philistines and one of the most important seaports in the eastern Mediterranean. Its archaeological history dates from 3500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. A center for trade and for the transmission of culture, Ashkelon flourished during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and later played an important part in the war between the Crusaders and the Islamic empire.
Although I had been in Israel twice before, there’s always some culture shock in visiting a foreign country. But being a member of a large group helped to dissipate the shock. However, nothing prepared me for my first glimpse of the room I was to share with three other women. My “home” for the next two months was a cot crowded into a small, two-bed hotel room. My allotment of storage space was four hangers and one drawer the size of a night-table drawer. I had to remember that ours was the “Cadillac” of digs; we were housed in a hotel rather than in one of the dormitories, hostels or campgrounds of most digs.
Excitement and anticipation replaced lost sleep when we awoke at 4 a.m. on the first day. After hot coffee with bread and jelly, we took a bus to the excavation site. The dig at Ashkelon is divided into dozens of grids (100 meters by 100 meters), six of which were being excavated. I suppose everyone comes to feel that they were assigned to “the best area.” I certainly did. Located atop a cliff, my area not only had a panoramic view, it also caught the sea breezes, which were especially prized later in the season when we were blasted by the worst heat wave in 35 years.
I have seen photos of people sitting and carefully brushing away dirt to expose a wall, and of archaeologists walking into a tomb and voilá—antiquities! At Ashkelon, we dug. We dug for four and a half weeks. First the ground was loosened with pickaxes. Rubber buckets called “guffas” were filled 033with dirt and carried to an area on the outskirts of the grid. I began to feel I had come to Israel to take down one mountain and build another. Trucks periodically came to the grid site to haul away our accumulated hill of debris.
I could barely raise a pick and couldn’t even push a guffa load of dirt, let alone lift it, so I was unable to rotate jobs. Instead I filled guffas with excavated earth seven hours each day. We found pottery, coins, marble slabs, glass, and finally, floors, a wall, a drain. As we dug deeper, we exchanged our shovels for trowels and began the work of fine cleaning. In our supervisors” keen eyes, sides of buildings, streets and alleys started to take shape.
Then when an area had been measured, charted and photographed, it was “taken down”—stripped away—to the next level. “Archaeology is planned destruction” our supervisors were fond of saying. And we got sledge-hammer satisfaction in being its advocates!
I was fascinated by the sherds of ancient glass and became known as “the glass lady.” I saved every sliver. The glass was a bright, iridescent blue-green. Although I never found a whole vessel, the larger pieces of rims and necks indicated unusual and delicate shapes. On weekends in Jerusalem, I spent time researching glass in the library of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. Since I had never collected nor been interested in china or fine dinnerware, why this concern? Perhaps this quote from a Midrash—a writing by a Jewish sage—gives my answer:
“If a vessel of glass, made with breath blown by a mortal, can be reshaped if it is broken, how much more true is this of a human being made with breath blown by the Holy One.”
Ashkelon is now one of Israel’s foremost national parks. Families camp there, and school groups come to the park on outings, so there are always people picnicking in the park. Each morning at 9 a.m. our second breakfast—a meal of salad, sardines, boiled eggs, yogurt, cheese and fruit—was brought to us, and we too picnicked in the park.
We stopped digging at 1 p.m., ate lunch, took a siesta and then spent two hours washing pottery and bones. This was followed by a lecture. The pottery found at Ashkelon is expanding the chronology of each period. The site also has a complete bone tool industry. But of particular interest at Ashkelon is the ancient world’s largest dog cemetery. These burials seem to signify something very important to the society living there in about 500 B.C.; however, dig director Lawrence Stager is still puzzled by these hunting hounds, and their precise meaning remains a mystery.
I don’t know how much I learned about archaeology, but I feel I became an expert on survival. My husband expected me home in two weeks. Turning the pages of a book had always been my idea of exercise. Heavy exercise was when I turned the pages of a big book. I never doubted that I would find some way to cope with the heavy work and grueling schedule. My self confidence withered when confronted by incredibly filthy clothes, no laundromat and three other women all needing soaking time and dripping space. Stubbornness and pride joined forces—I would not be defeated by a laundry bag. I wanted to be on this dig.
I also wasn’t defeated by illness. People on the dig did get sick. It was often difficult to pinpoint whether heat and dehydration or strange food and water were the cause. The symptoms were similar—high fever, chills, diarrhea. I was fortunate. My years of travel had made me cautious about trying exotic foods and purchasing food in native markets. I shunned shorts and tee shirt, an almost obligatory dig wardrobe, and, though appearing ridiculous, covered myself from 034top to toe. My Betsy Ross cap, a souvenir from St. Augustine, kept the sun off my face and the sand out of my hair (straw hats don’t do this). And I followed the staff’s instructions and drank lots of water.
Each work week ended on Thursday afternoon and resumed on Sunday morning. Whether taking field trips with the group, traveling on my own or spending the weekend in Ashkelon, being in Israel was, in itself, an incredible experience. Incredible that the eye in one sweep can see the stark, eerie mountains of the Negev rising above a desert spattered with patches of green agricultural projects, and, at the same time, the Mediterranean Sea. Incredible that in a land wracked by tension and political conflict, people were friendly, kind, nonthreatening. Despite the ever-present, real threat to this nation’s security, this was no police state. Soldiers patrolling the streets were unobtrusive, chatting with people, carrying a gun in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. We feared bus strikes cutting off our transportation more than we feared bombs.
As the weeks passed, the realization that I had “lasted to the end” took hold. Incredible! I had done it. The words of the poet Hannah Kahn came to my mind:
“whatever else you leave undone—
once ride a wild horse
into the sun.”
Ashkelon had been my “wild horse.”
Dig Fashions Then and Now—Help!
In next year’s January/February issue of BAR we want to show you what the “well-dressed” volunteer or dig director wears in the field in the 80’s and contrast it with dig fashions in the early years of this century. Nothing is too outlandish, or too crazily functional, or too zany or skimpy to be in the running. If your picture is published you will win a $25 gift certificate for merchandise in the BAS gift catalogue.
We can use slides or color prints. We need them in hand by October 1989. Please send original slides because they print better than duplicates. Describe everything in the pictures and give us the date of the dig and the name of the site.
Send your entries to: Biblical Archaeology Review, Digs, 3000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20008.
Digging at Ashkelon
It is not the dead that die,
It is their whispers