One of the special dangers of excavating in Gamla is the Gamla Bug.

I know. I caught it.

It’s not difficult to identify those who have it. They come back year after year. A farmer from Moshav Ben-Ami comes for two weeks, leaving his orchards untended. A kibbutznik has to argue every year to be allowed to come even for a week. An officer in the British army—a woman—spends her annual two-week vacation at Gamla.

In an advanced stage, some sufferers become Gamla addicts. After their two-week original session, they stay on until the end of the season. Some of these addicts actually head for Gamla straight from the airport and return directly to the airport when the season is over. But these are exceptional cases.

Gamla’s attraction is somewhat surprising because digging conditions are very difficult. Because of the steep slope, earthquakes caused many of the buildings to fall on one another. Much of the work consists of clearing away heavy basalt building stones from above and inside the rooms. There is no way to bring in mechanical tools, so all work is done by hand, sometimes with the help of simple pulleys and hoists, under burning sun and constant dust. (Working in winter is impractical because the deep mud that then covers the area creates severe safety hazards on the slope.)

When the buildings collapsed, their contents tell into rooms below, so every ounce of dirt must be sifted to make sure we don’t lose any small finds.

Excavation seasons at Gamla are long—between two and six months—usually beginning in mid-April after the Jewish festival of Passover and ending just before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. The excavations are conducted under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority and, in the past year, under the academic auspices of the University of Haifa’s Institute of Archaeology.

The work force consists entirely of volunteers who come from all over the world, singly and in groups. A tradition has developed at nearby kibbutzim of having groups of 13-year-olds come for a week as part of their bar mitzvah observance. Groups of soldiers also come to Gamla, as well as members of youth groups. And then there are the addicts. Some of the addicts have now become area supervisors.

The permanent staff includes people like Zvi Yavor, a kibbutznik who normally works in a kibbutz bakery but turns into a field director during the excavation season, and David Goren, who arrived at Gamla as a teenager during the first season and is now about to receive his M.A. in archaeology. David is in charge of processing all the data from the dig.

I too arrived at Gamla as a volunteer—in the second season of excavation. I too am now pursuing my studies for an M.A. in archaeology.

Among the many dedicated technical helpers we have had over the years are Yosef Averbuch, a retired gentleman from Nahariyah who excels in pottery restoration. After nine years at this work, he has passed on his skills to an apprentice—another retiree, Avraham Bar-Golani. During the past three years, excellent drawings of pottery and finds have been prepared by Hagit Rosen, who, having been bitten by the bug, now studies—what else—archaeology. The field plans and sections have been prepared by the staff of the Israel Antiquities Authority, headed by Michael Feist, almost a Gamla addict himself.

The expedition camp stands on the narrow saddle connecting Gamla to the plateau above. The view is beautiful. And living in a tent camp decidedly adds to the romantic atmosphere. Conditions are quite Spartan, however. Water comes from a spring three miles away. The pipeline from the spring to our camp is constantly imperiled by army tanks running over it during maneuvers and by rodents chewing the plastic parts. The water temperature at noon is close to boiling, making it impossible to drink—or even to use for a shower. Until recently, our electricity came from a small portable generator that constantly broke down, but now a reliable generator, courtesy of the army, supplies the electricity. We eat under open shade in dusty conditions, constantly trying to discourage wasps from sharing our food in daytime and mosquitoes from eating us at night. The sanitary facilities are better not even mentioned.

Until 1981 not even a service road led to the camp. Everything had to be carried down the steep trail on our backs—food, tools, personal gear, gas bottles. Improvised stretchers were used on the fortunately few occasions when someone was injured. Now we have a dirt track, accessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles, but, nearly every winter, rains wash away the road, and large boulders fall from the cliffs and block it. In the spring, however, the army usually comes to our rescue and bulldozes it clean for us.

There are compensations that make us endure—and even glory in—the harsh conditions under which we work. Gamla lies inside a nature reserve. In the cliffs that surround the site are hordes of vultures and other birds of prey. On the ground, we see hundreds of coneys (also called rock rabbits), which resemble oversize guinea pigs. Coneys live in colonies of 20 or more among the boulders; they post sentries to watch for predators. Closer to camp we have mongooses, who continually try to raid our kitchen, even in broad daylight. Shy, but beautiful martens hang around the camp at night, waiting for a tasty morsel to be thrown their way.

Among the foxes is one we have named Vespasian after the Roman emperor. Especially fond of candy, he raids volunteers’ backpacks in the tents.

The biggest stars, however, are the wild pigs. Shy at the beginning of the season, they come to their designated place at the edge of the camp to receive the leftover food from dinner. Later they become more courageous and appear in full daylight, waiting. If we are late, they come into camp and loudly demand their share of the food. In May, the mother pigs come with their young, who look like watermelons with legs. They wander unafraid between the legs of the incredulous volunteers.

Gamla changes colors with the seasons. After the October rains the gentle green of the first seedlings gives way to the bold, dark green of December growth. In February, the anemones take over, carpeting everything in red, interrupted only by splashes of white dots from almond trees in full bloom. In March, the poppies come out, but they have a harder time monopolizing the landscape, having to compete with an explosion of colors from dozens of other kinds of wildflowers that cover the ruins and the hillside. The last major bloom comes in late April, when millions of centaurea flowers paint the whole area a bright pink. As summer approaches, the green fades into yellow. In a few short weeks, only the echinops thorns still add dabs of blue here and there. If nature had her way, the dry yellow grasses would hold sway until the cycle begins again, but great brushfires set by careless soldiers and visitors often turn the hills black, a color that only slowly fades as the wind carries the ashes away. The earth is then nude except for the rocks and the sprouting urginea in late August, standing 3 feet tall like white candles in memory of the fallen. When they die, the ground is bare again, ready for the first winter rains to start the cycle anew.