Dan McLerran studied archaeology and anthropology while in college during the mid-1970s; he is also an artist, specializing in highly detailed pen-and-ink drawings. Neither his educational background nor his artistic talents seemed likely to put food on the table after he married and started a family, so McLerran earned a master’s degree in public administration and landed a job with the government. Today he lives in the Washington, D.C., area and works for the U.S. Farm Credit Administration.

But McLerran never lost his interest in archaeology. “Since childhood I have dreamed of being part of an important mission of exploration and discovery, to be on the cutting edge of new research,” he wrote us. McLerran wished to join the Bethsaida excavation, just north of the Sea of Galilee. He was intrigued in equal measure by the site’s significance in the New Testament and by the promise it held for illuminating the Iron Age, the period of the Israelite settlement and of the United Monarchy. “I also feel that I can make a contribution through drawing/drafting, applying my talent to support important research and reporting,” he added. McLerran’s drawing of a massebah (standing stone) in the high place beside Bethsaida’s Iron Age city gate (also shown in the photo above) appears below.

Thanks to a dig scholarship, McLerran spent two weeks at Bethsaida last summer:

“This place is BIG,” I think to myself, as my eyes survey the view on orientation day. Bethsaida was clearly no small fishing village. According to Rami Arav, co-director of the excavation, the town was home to the fishermen apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44, 12:21) and, a millennium earlier, to one of the largest Iron Age sites in Israel. The site boasts massive Iron Age fortifications, including a basalt defensive wall and glacis, a chambered gate complex and towers (now collapsed and in disarray). What kind of blood, sweat and tears did the ancients shed to hoist all these stones into place?

My team’s job is to slowly remove the soil down through Roman and Hellenistic period debris layers, collecting and sifting the soil for finds and artifacts as we go. We hope to determine where the top of the remaining collapsed Iron Age tower lies.

The work is physically demanding. The three of us in my square work with picks, hoes and shovels. Fine trowel work is more the exception than the rule. Excavated materials are collected in buckets and hauled down the slope of the mound to the sifters, which are perched near the edge of a steep ravine surrounding the site. We dump the material, one or two buckets at a time, onto the wire mesh screens of the sifters. The loose soil falls through as we shake the screens back and forth. Artifacts are carefully placed into a “finds bucket,” and the empty buckets are then hauled back up the slope to our square.

Hot, sweaty and incredibly filthy, we are breathing dust. But the hard work cannot diminish our fascination with what we find—or may find. Sprinkled throughout every bucketful of soil, ancient potsherds are as abundant as shells on a beach. (For those of us on the pottery-washing shift, this becomes overwhelmingly apparent.) Some of us find more significant artifacts: the complete handle of an incense shovel identical, or nearly identical, to the incense shovel unearthed two seasons agoa; what appears to be a Bronze Age cylinder seal; the remains of a severely charred wooden beam in an ash layer identified with the Assyrian destruction of the city in around 733 B.C.; Assyrian arrowheads; Bedouin tombs with skeletal remains; a Roman period ring; portions of Herodian oil lamps; and at least two coins.

At 4:30 every afternoon, we gather for “pottery reading,” where we sort, count, interpret and record the finds of the day. This, for me, is where much of the learning takes place and where I see the fruits of the day’s work. On my very first day, I examine a beautifully preserved ancient incense shovel about the size of one of my daughter’s small plastic beach shovels, and I scan the delicately and skillfully formed features of a small statuette dated to the Roman period. Both of these finds came from past seasons, but from the beginning of my involvement with the Bethsaida dig, I’ve been offered a chance to share in the excitement of discovery.