Except in Woody Allen movies, there are no “man-in-the-street” brain surgeons. No journal that I know of invites its readers to spend two weeks as volunteer atomic physicists.
It’s different with archaeology. From the very beginning, the amateur was a key figure. Heinrich Schleimann, who revealed the treasures of ancient Troy in the 1870’s by using Homer as a guidebook, was an import-export merchant, not an academician. John Lloyd Stephens, who, a few decades earlier, hacked his way through the thick Yucatan underbrush to rediscover 047ancient Mayan sites, was trained as a lawyer. His post as charge d’affaires in Mexico was simply a front to indulge his archaeological bent. Even Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential “Renaissance man” added an archaeological notch to his accomplishments with his studies of Indian mounds in Virginia. (See “Who First Excavated Stratigraphically?” BAR 07:01, by William Steibing, Jr.)
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the gentleman dilettante played a significant role in archaeology. Men with money and leisure could indulge their romantic visions, often with remarkable success. How appropriate that Macchu Picchu in Peru was discovered not by a methodically-planned expedition but by a Connecticut Senator with wanderlust, Hiram Bingham. Archaeological lore abounds with similar examples and personages.
In more recent times, of course, archaeology has become a full-fledged academic discipline. But there remains a special symbiotic relationship between the scientist and the amateur—a relationship which is destined to grow in both intensity and significance.
These observations stem, in part, from a personal encounter with archaeological voluntarism last summer. I was one of some 250 men and women from more than a dozen countries who participated in the City of David dig in Jerusalem, directed by Dr. Yigal Shiloh.
From the viewpoint of the volunteer, this was clearly a “fun” dig. Hard work, sure, but potsherds aplenty. It was a site spiced with Astarte figurines, corroded copper rings, even enticing inscriptions every few days. And since there was no on-site “camp,” we volunteers could even commute to the comfort of luxurious accommodations and savor Jerusalem’s gentle night life.
Still, as I carted bucket after bucket of yellow clay from one part of the dusty hill to another, a number of questions kept coming to mind. Is this really fun? Or have I simply been swept up by the aura of “playing scientist”? Since I don’t aspire to be a professional archaeologist, what am I really looking for? Am I searching for new insight into the past, or am I hoping to unearth something new about myself?
It took a number of months for some of the answers to gestate into maturity. Not surprisingly, the verdict was positive—but not quite in the way I had originally expected. In the first burst of enthusiasm, I regaled willing—and sometimes unwilling—listeners with my new-found knowledge about civilization’s fragments tumbled layer upon layer near the Gihon spring. The Jebusite period, the Israelite period, the Hellenistic period sorted themselves out into measured time segments—give or take a few hundred years.
But now that the memory of complaining muscles has dimmed, two effects that remain go beyond specific dating or accurate pottery identification: one relates to a deeper understanding of the spirit of the Bible; the other is a personal sense of rejuvenation and enlargement that refuses to fade away.
The more general reaction is easier to understand. You cannot tread the hills of Jerusalem without feeling the presence of Biblical personalities. Every volunteer on the Ophel, the “spur” on which the City of David is located, knew that Solomon was anointed there at the pulsating Gihon spring (whose very name means “gushing” in Hebrew). David’s soldiers may have come up the precise shaft we were struggling to expose (2 Samuel 5:6–9). Hezekiah’s determination and will to survive permeated the entire length of the 1,750-foot-long tunnel he had ordered chiseled out of the bedrock limestone (2 Chronicles 32:2–4). Perhaps Isaiah, the prophet of the poor and the humble, the thundering voice of justice, had scrambled, as we had, up and down these same sharply-angled steps.
A combination of people and events shaped the history of this area. But it was the other way around as well. Did not these hills mold the thoughts and consciousness of these same people? To what extent could the understanding of the terrain add to an appreciation of the spirit of Judaism—and by extension, Christianity and Mohammedanism as well?
“I am David,” I say to myself, carrying my hundredth stone of the day to the nearby dump. “I am a worker living in this four-room house I am excavating. I walked these hills before. I trudged these paths.” It may be significant that the staircase is only wide enough for two people. The prophets, the kings, and the priests had to walk shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Israelites. They had little choice but to walk humbly with their neighbors, just as they were enjoined to “walk humbly 048with their God.”
At the same time, at every resting spot, the hills of Jerusalem must have beckoned as they still do now. On every horizon there was a vista worthy of those who would “lift up their eyes.”
There are flaws in such a formulation. The Canaanites lived on the same spot and could not devise a Torah. There were other hilltowns in civilizations throughout the world where the hostile terrain proved a hindrance to development, not a spur. But here it had worked. The spirit of Abraham, enriched by Moses and David and Solomon, took root and flourished in the rocky soil of Jerusalem. Paradoxically the Bible, for some of us at least, became both a more human and a more miraculous achievement.
My personal transformation was more subtle. It is difficult to admit publicly that some of us who rebelled at being categorized as “over 55” did in fact have inner doubts about the physical demands of excavating. Our macho self-image was at stake. A certain smugness developed after it became apparent that the will was still master over the body. It was not unlike the satisfaction that followed successful completion of a tough army training course in World War II.
The physical aspect, however, was much less important than the intense mental involvement that “on hands” voluntarism engenders. I was not only part of this dig, but could project myself into all others as well. When I toured other sites, I saw the ruins with new clarity and I saw the problems of those who worked on those excavations. My interest in archaeology is not new, but it certainly has taken on an entirely new dimension. The mind, like the solar system, now accepts the concept of an ever-expanding universe of information. Fairly heady dividends from a two-week dig!
Fortunately, the layperson’s addiction to archaeology is as rewarding to the discipline as it is to the individual. It may well be that the future of archaeology will depend in great measure on archaeologists’ ability to attract volunteers willing to give time and money in order to make projects viable. Dr. Shiloh, for example, felt strongly that without volunteers, not enough funds would have been available to carry out the historic City of David dig, soon to begin its fifth summer (1982).
Dr. Eliezer Oren of Ben-Gurion University, who headed a dig in the Negev not far from Beer-Sheba, also made extensive use of volunteers. The growing use of volunteers, he indicated, is a phenomenon “not matched in any other field.”
“There’s no question,” he stated in a recent interview, “that without volunteers, we would not be able to conduct the excavations. We don’t have the ability to hire the people. The costs are tremendous.”
This is not to imply that volunteers are simply tolerated as a necessary evil. They are actually preferred over other types of workers. When asked specifically whether he would rather work with students or with volunteers, Dr. Oren did not hesitate to praise the volunteers. “Volunteers know what to expect. They know what hard work is, and they’re very dedicated. Youngsters don’t understand hardship yet.”
What if he were given a choice between paid workers or volunteers, be they students or not? It’s just not the same, Professor Oren stated. Workers may work, “but then you’re a boss, you shout and scream.” With volunteers, as with students, there is a collegial relationship, replete with constant curiosity and intellectual interplay.
It was in Israel, where archaeology has reached the status of a national obsession, that the present concept of the archaeological volunteer took root. In his book, Archaeology Discoveries in the 1960’s, Edward Bacon points out that a series of excavations in 1960 and 1961 between Ein-Gedi and Masada used workers who were “all volunteers, students and members of kibbutzim. The expedition, which was headed by a team of four Israeli archaeologists, served as a trial run for the subsequent Masada expedition.”
The Masada dig represented a major and unexpected breakthrough. Professor Yigael Yadin, director of the expedition, writes in his book, Masada, that “one of the greatest surprises—and delights—of the enterprise, long before we had put scoop to rubble, was the response to two brief newspaper advertisements for volunteers which brought thousands of replies.” During 1963 and 1965, when the work was accomplished, an average of 300 people at a time participated in each of the 23 two-week work shifts. Not all were volunteers, of course, but it was the largest outpouring of volunteer assistance that archaeology had yet seen. “I doubt,” writes Professor Yadin, “whether we could have had the success we achieved, or undertaken so much in the time at our disposal, without the volunteers.” Masada’s success was a major factor in encouraging other archaeologists to work with volunteers on a large scale.
It is a fortuitous partnership. Archaeologists increasingly value volunteers as much as volunteers savor the excavation experience and become enriched by knowledge and companionship. What once was simply a romantic flirtation or a liaison of convenience has now blossomed into a true marriage—providing a whole new dimension to the future of archaeology.
Except in Woody Allen movies, there are no “man-in-the-street” brain surgeons. No journal that I know of invites its readers to spend two weeks as volunteer atomic physicists. It’s different with archaeology. From the very beginning, the amateur was a key figure. Heinrich Schleimann, who revealed the treasures of ancient Troy in the 1870’s by using Homer as a guidebook, was an import-export merchant, not an academician. John Lloyd Stephens, who, a few decades earlier, hacked his way through the thick Yucatan underbrush to rediscover 047ancient Mayan sites, was trained as a lawyer. His post as charge d’affaires in […]