Gary “Termite” Lindstrom is a dig director’s dream. Lindstrom owns and operates a termite and pest control company in Oakland, California, and his profession requires him to inspect the dirt under buildings. But each June for the past 22 years, Gary has kissed his family goodbye and headed for Israel to dig in a different kind of dirt—historical dirt.
Since 1984 he has worked at the Sepphoris excavation, four miles outside of Nazareth, with Professor Jim Strange of the University of South Florida. In 1986, Gary became an area supervisor. Before that he worked several seasons at Khirbet Shema, two miles south of Moshav Meiron; at Caesarea Maritima, Herod’s magnificent Mediterranean sea port; at the village of Jish, or Gush Halav, as it is called in Hebrew; at Nabratein, which lies between Jish and Safad; at Meiron; and at Tel el-Hesi, about 20 miles south of Ashkelon.
What possesses a person to take valuable time away from family and career and to pay his own expenses year after year to dig in the dirt? For Lindstrom, it is a sense of identity and a love affair with history.
With a scruffy blond goatee and a fair complexion weathered by too many days in the sun. Lindstrom looks as though he would be more comfortable talking about the mechanics of an engine than discussing the dating of artifacts. But when he begins to speak philosophically, another Lindstrom comes out, and when he speaks about life, you can tell he’s a man who knows what he’s talking about.
Lindstrom led what he calls an ordinary life, running his pest control business, poking around under houses looking for insects or evidence of their existence. The business Lindstrom bought from his uncle after returning from the service became very profitable. He worked diligently to build it up, and financially he was successful. But Lindstrom felt a restlessness that would not leave him. He felt that there was more to life, but he had no idea what it was or where to find it.
One night he lay on his bed reading an article about archaeological expeditions in the Middle East. At the end, the article said “volunteers needed, no experience necessary.” To Gary, the story was a siren’s call. He wrote to the Department of Antiquities in Israel, and it sent him a list of current digs with the name and address of the director of each dig. He picked one at random, signed on as a volunteer laborer under Professor Eric Meyers and 22 years later is still up to his goatee in Middle East dirt. That first experience changed Lindstrom’s life, as he explains:
“It is an awesome feeling to be digging underground and suddenly break through into someone’s bedroom, which has not been entered since the second century. It really made me examine what’s important. This work has given me a new perspective on life, a new peace with God. It’s hard to explain, but when you dig down through layers of dirt and are able to see hundreds of years of life, you realize how short it really is. It is too important to waste any of it.”
To Lindstrom that room represented a person’s lifetime, someone’s history; he had the privilege of entering that person’s domain, of making contact with the past, for the first time in 1,800 years.
During that first season of archaeology, Lindstrom stood on a hillside overlooking Safad, a small village in northern Israel, and watched the people below. He had seen the dust of their ancestors. Now, as he looked at the town before him, he saw his own generation. They were alive down there, going about their daily lives—maybe shopping, cooking dinner, visiting friends, going to a wedding, earning a living, having babies and also dying. “One day,” he thought, “someone will sift through the sands of their lives and wonder who these people were. What did they do? What was important to them? What stories will they have to tell?”
Gary then asked the same questions of himself. What was he going to do with his life, and what meaningful things would he leave behind? “I knew that from then on I had to live my life in such a way that I would have no regrets,” he said, “to do things that were meaningful and, in the end, to leave life having made a worthy 051contribution to it.”
Lindstrom’s restlessness was appeased that day. He had touched his own mortality. He knew he could not escape it, but he could control the story he left behind.
Although he lacked formal education in archaeology, Lindstrom more than made up for it in his quest for knowledge, even at the risk of personal rejection. He tells of how, when surrounded by academicians on his early trips to Israel, he felt self-conscious because he “was just an ordinary, uneducated, common-type fellow” who loved history and wanted to learn all he could about archaeology. He devised a unique means to educate himself:
“I used to go over to the Albright Institute [for Archaeological Research] in Jerusalem for afternoon tea in the garden behind the main building. A lot of the archaeologists, graduate students and professors would gather there and discuss their digs and stuff like that. There were little tables scattered around the patio area. I would sit down with a newspaper and pretend I was reading, while eavesdropping on the conversation going on next to me.”
“I felt very much out of place,” Lindstrom explains, “but now I feel very comfortable. Archaeology has given me my formal education.”
Lindstrom’s value as a volunteer grew with each season as he vigorously threw himself into the projects. The names of ancient cities and archaeological sites now roll off his tongue like old neighborhoods. The mechanics of ancient construction and cultural peculiarities are as easy for him to discuss as current events.
The dig directors who have worked with Lindstrom praise his skills. Professor Strange, who heads the Sepphoris dig, says:
“He gets things done. To look at Gary, you wouldn’t think he is organized, but he is. He is very good at analyzing the mechanical problems associated with excavations and is great at reconstruction. He spent one whole summer reconstructing a third-century synagogue with another director who kept trying to recruit him back. He is one of my best hands.
“One day I was in the Rockefeller Museum [in Jerusalem] when Gary and a group from our dig came up to a glass display case filled with first- and second-century artifacts. He didn’t see me, but I heard him give an excellent interpretation to the group as to what they were looking at. That’s when I realized just how much he had absorbed through his work with us.”
Professor Strange recalls with a hearty laugh how Lindstrom has also contributed some humorous anecdotes. Since he is used to crawling around under houses, Lindstrom was nominated to go underground whenever needed, and he was always willing to go into any hole in which he could fit.
“One afternoon [says Strange], Gary was assigned to excavate some tombs we had found. I left him alone in one of the chambers for a while and returned later. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. He was stuck. He evidently had found a smaller opening at the end of the bigger room and had decided to explore it. He squeezed through the hole and found another double tomb. However, the hole he wriggled his body through to get in was so small that the same contortions that got him in wouldn’t get him out. But he wasn’t yelling in panic. Instead, I heard him saying, ‘no that won’t work, if I twist my elbow back this way and then bring my knee under here … well, let’s see … no, that won’t work.’ It seems he was talking himself out of the hole. We finally got Gary out and everyone had a good laugh.”
Another time Lindstrom jumped down into an excavated square about 10 feet deep by 20 feet wide to remove one last rock. His helper stayed above to lower a ladder for him to get out. When Lindstrom turned the small boulder over, a huge snake—as long as Gary is tall—jumped straight up in the air. His assistant ran away screaming, and a frantic sort of dance ensued between Lindstrom and the snake. “That was the darndest thing you could imagine. We were both high-stepping it, trying to stay out of each other’s way.” He later discovered the snake was harmless.
Then there was the time Strange, Lindstrom and another archaeologist went into a tomb that had not been exposed to light for centuries. Strange recalls:
“We were attacked by albino ticks. They had been in the dark so long they had mutated into a white color. It was unusual because we couldn’t feel them. They had some sort of anesthetic they injected with their bite. We discovered them on us when one of the guys swung his flashlight beam across my shirt. We [the two archaeologists] had red welts all over us, but they never did bite Gary.”
The group later decided the explanation for that was “the ticks must have sensed he was the exterminator.”
Lindstrom’s wife, Evonne, having been to Israel a couple times with her husband, says she can appreciate the nuances of his experiences. “He really loves the people there and has made many friends,” she says. “It’s wonderful for Gary. At work he’s the boss with lots of responsibilities. But in Israel he can be just one of the people.” Lindstrom says archaeology has given him many fringe benefits. It has given him an appreciation for differences and dissolved any ethnocentric views he may have had. It has given him a worldview and a love of all life, past and present. It has also given him the self-confidence to go after anything he feels strongly about, especially if it can make a difference in the world he leaves behind.
Gary “Termite” Lindstrom is a dig director’s dream. Lindstrom owns and operates a termite and pest control company in Oakland, California, and his profession requires him to inspect the dirt under buildings. But each June for the past 22 years, Gary has kissed his family goodbye and headed for Israel to dig in a different kind of dirt—historical dirt. Since 1984 he has worked at the Sepphoris excavation, four miles outside of Nazareth, with Professor Jim Strange of the University of South Florida. In 1986, Gary became an area supervisor. Before that he worked several seasons at Khirbet Shema, […]