I am an archaeology student, yet I’ve always felt that archaeologists are rather odd. They see houses and walls where other people see piles of stones. They scribble and babble among themselves in languages that the living no longer remember.

Despite their peculiarities, however, I always knew that I wanted to be an archaeologist. As I see it, they have two jobs. First, they must summon from soil, pottery and other debris an understanding of long-lost civilizations. Second, by telling us something about the achievements and failures of the past, archaeologists help us gauge the capabilities of our modern world.

If you have heard how hard dig volunteers work, you may wonder why anyone would be foolish enough to do this sort of thing. But it can also be fun. In what other line of serious scientific research do you get to race up a mound of rubble pushing a wheelbarrow? Or smash big rocks with a hammer? And the teamwork this kind of enterprise requires is phenomenal. Volunteers of every age and background come from around the world, all for the same purpose. They have heard of the marvels of the past and want to see them with their own eyes.

Because this was my third season of excavations at Hazor, I thought I knew what to expect, but one week into the 2002 season all our expectations were challenged. First we found a basalt column base where we believed a Late Bronze Age gate system would stand. Then we unearthed some masseboth (cultic standing stones) in that same area, in earlier strata. That seemed to be a good sign, because cultic sites are sometimes in orientation with gate systems. But we never found the monumental gate, although we did have an ongoing argument about whether this entrance was dated to the Middle or Late Bronze Age.

About 30 masseboth appeared in rows beneath the basalt threshold and around its foundations. This unusual locus resembled Flanders Fields, with rows of tombstone-shaped stelae. Digging through layers of burned bones and ash around each stone (reminiscent of the leftovers of summer barbeques), I wondered how long this cultic installation had been used. Soon the tops of more masseboth appeared among the standing stones we’d already exposed. I learned that cultic sites were generally kept in one location through the generations: As the old stones were worn down or broken, they were gradually covered in the upward progress of the tell, and new stones placed on top of them.

Unfortunately, the turmoil in Israel has halved the number of volunteers at Tel Hazor. If asked, I would have to say that it may not be safe to travel around Israel as a tourist, but digging at the tell doesn’t require much travel at all. You stay in one place, digging foxhole-like ditches.

Would I volunteer again next year? Yes! This venture is crucial in maintaining the contacts that will one day help me enter the Ph.D. program I seek. And apart from that, I wouldn’t leave my friends in the lurch. There are so many important finds churning up at Hazor, and too few hands to help.

Yep, I’m a-leavin’ the armchair behind, ’cause I’m a die-hard diggin’ volunteer!