Joanne Besonen’s letter to us began typically enough: “I am a graduate student in classical archaeology at Tufts University … This summer I plan to dig at Khirbet Yatir, which is codirected by my advisor, Jodi Magness. My goal is to study and photograph the subject of my thesis, the mosaic floor of Yatir’s Byzantine monastery.”

But it was the next portion of her letter that caught our attention: “I am not the typical graduate student. I am the mother of six children, who has found the challenge of a new vocation and career in the second part of my life. I count myself extremely fortunate to have taken my education this far while helping to put my four older children through college … To be part of the excavation at Khirbet Yatir and to have firsthand knowledge of the mosaic, its environment and history is exactly the type of growth experience I envision.”

We awarded Joanne Besonen one of three dig scholarships to enable her to join the Yatir excavation, west of the Dead Sea. Excerpts from her report to us on her experience follow:

What a reward awaited us at the top of our laborious climb! We would arrive at the crest of a rocky hill just as the sun was rising above the hills around Khirbet Yatir. From our vantage point at the site’s Byzantine church, we could watch the golden line of the sun spreading across the valley and hills. Some mornings we had an even better treat. We would watch a low-lying mist, which filled the Beer-Sheva valley, lift and clear in the early morning light. It was almost magical, like the enchanted village of Brigadoon coming to life from out of the brume.

My team was assigned to work on the church, which has a typical basilical plan—a long rectangular hall with rows of columns creating side aisles and an apse at one end. Since the southern wall area had not been previously excavated, that is where we concentrated our efforts. By the third day, the inner southern wall of the church was exposed. An affixed bench ran along the plastered wall. By the end of the next day, we had laid bare the full depth of the bench.

On the northern balk of our square, we uncovered one of the columns, found by previous excavators lying parallel to the north-south walls under the backfill. The column had been protected with a cloth that extended down to the floor of the southern side aisle. On the fifth day, we were able to clean up enough of the backfill to see the tarp spread over the aisle mosaic.

The following day, we finished cleaning the aisle mosaic within our square. It was absolutely beautiful! It is all white except for a small flower pattern spaced quite far apart. Each flower consists of a few red tesserae in the shape of a W, with a blue-green stem.

My one disappointment was that I was unable to study firsthand the nave mosaic of the church. Unfortunately, the church had been left untouched for the previous two dig seasons, and the fill that covered and protected the mosaic had become hard packed. Our dig season was too short to use our manpower to uncover that same area a second time.

Despite the hard, dirty work, I learned a great deal and had a huge amount of fun. Perhaps the greatest reward of all was making many new and wonderful friends, who served as my surrogate family while I was away from home. With a number of different faiths represented—Seventh-Day Adventist, Anglican, Catholic and Jewish, among others—our little ecumenical choir even performed two-part harmony with Hebrew words to an old Latin hymn. It was gratifying to bond with the people with whom I lived, ate, worked and played at Yatir.


BAR offers travel scholarships of $1,000 every year to a few people who would otherwise not be able to volunteer. In 1998 three individuals whose reports appear on the pages that follow benefited from the scholarships. To apply, simply send a letter to BAR Dig Scholarships, 4710 41st St., NW, Washington, DC 20016, stating who you are, where you want to dig and why, as well as why you need financial aid. We require your address and phone number and the names, addresses and phone numbers of two references. The deadline in March 5, 1999.