We do not typically receive applications for Dig Scholarships from former second lieutenants in the Chinese Army, but Yiyi Chen was not our typical applicant. Chen earned a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew language and literature from Peking University in 1994 and is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Cornell’s Near Eastern studies department. In addition to his academic workload, Chen is translating the Hebrew Bible into Chinese, the first such translation in more than a century.

In his application for a scholarship, Chen told us that he wanted to join a Cornell team digging at Tel Dor, along northern Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The team would be trying to identify the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. “The finds from this excavation will illuminate the social, economic and cultural context of the early Biblical period, and will probably also shed light on the hotly debated issue concerning the origin of the early Israelites,” Chen wrote us. He also hoped that the dig would uncover new epigraphic material—material that would be directly relevant to his dissertation topic, northern Hebrew dialects in the Bible.

Chen added that even if the dig failed to produce any new inscriptions, it would nonetheless “equip me with firsthand knowledge of the people who lived in this region, with whom the northern tribes of Israel had a close relation, and from whom they received significant influence, both cultural and linguistic.”

Here is his report on his experiences at Dor last summer:

Life on a dig is a combination of extremely hard work and the continual excitement of discovery. On the physical level, our greatest sense of fulfillment came from the bucket chain that we formed four or five times a day. People stood in line to pass buckets of dirt from the 6- to 7-yard-deep Area G up to ground level. The work required coordination and strength. According to our raw calculation, one person would lift and pass three or four hundred buckets in a typical day. This amounted to more than a ton of dirt; in the whole season, an average volunteer moved 20 to 30 tons of dirt!

On the intellectual level, the most educational parts of the experience were the stratigraphy discussions and the pottery- and bone-reading sessions held after our daily afternoon nap. The artifacts we uncovered included two examples of Iron I glassware, a large bronze ingot, ceramic tableware, a scarab seal, bones of Nile crocodiles and many Egyptian, Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery sherds. When we learned about the background and origin of the pottery we had excavated during the week, the relation between the floor levels that we had uncovered, and the kinds of animals that were eaten and sacrificed 3,000 years ago, we truly felt the reward of our hard work.

Also extremely valuable were the various field trips held on Thursday afternoons and weekends. We visited excavations at Megiddo, Caesarea, the Carmel Caves, Hazor, Dan, Banias, Beth-Shean, Belvoir, Hippos, Hammat Tiberias and Jerusalem. Our director and “tour guide,” Jeffrey Zorn, visiting lecturer at Cornell University, always pointed out each site’s archaeological characteristics in addition to its historical and cultural significance. Having our own digging experience fresh in mind made it easier to understand the unique archaeological aspects of the various sites and deepened our understanding of our own work at Tel Dor.

My personal goals on the dig were to gain firsthand knowledge of field archaeology and of Phoenician culture and language. Those goals were only partially met. I learned more about Phoenician seafaring, pottery, architecture and the purple-dye industry than I had ever learned from my academic reading. But my desire to find a new Phoenician inscription was not realized (the only epigraphic find was a scarab seal written in hieroglyphic Egyptian, not yet published), so I will have to use already-published Phoenician inscriptions in my dissertation.

Another disappointment was that we never reached the Late Bronze Age level as we had hoped. We did notice, however, an ever-increasing percentage of Bronze Age pottery during our pottery-reading sessions. We are more and more convinced that we will soon discover the Late Bronze Age settlement, most probably next season.