“You’re going to Jericho tomorrow,” announced an official at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and with that terse instruction I joined Operation Scroll—the large-scale search for undiscovered Dead Sea Scrolls and other finds in the caves around Jericho and Qumran.

I had been cooped up in the Rockefeller Museum since August, working on the publication of my most recent excavation, so I didn’t mind getting out for a couple of days.

I was picked up at six a.m.; we were soon joined by eight soldiers who would provide our security during the excavation. A few minutes later we arrived at “Camp Hanan,” temporary headquarters for the team digging on the Qarantal Ridge overlooking Jericho on the west. We were greeted by Amir Drori, director of the IAA, Yitzhaq Magen, head of archaeological activities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, and Giora Biran, head of logistics. We picked up our supplies and were shuttled to the site, passing on the way Tell es-Sultan, the remains of ancient Jericho, excavated by the late Dame Kathleen Kenyon.

We split into three teams, each digging its own cave. Our cave was about 50 feet above a sheer cliff. The path to its entrance was narrow and, to me, frightening. The Arab workers, accustomed to such conditions (many of them had excavated with Paul Lapp at Wadi ed-Daliyah in the 1960s), bounded nimbly inside. But I had to be pushed.

The cave was shaped like the Hebrew letter resh (r), with each side measuring some 20 feet. Donning surgical masks to protect ourselves from clouds of powdery sediment, we began digging at the far end and worked our way towards the entrance. Each bucket of earth was sieved, so as not to miss small objects and fragments of scrolls. We attempted to cut a section in the soft powdery sediment, but it wouldn’t hold. My glasses were fogged; I was covered with dust, but not as much as the two ghost-like workers who were sifting sediment. I have excavated in tells, tombs, a tophetf, harbors, and churches, in Israel, Tunisia and Sicily—but never in conditions like this!

Finds from our first day included several buckets of pottery (primarily Hasmonean and Herodian, with some possibly Early Bronze Age), pieces of cloth, seed remains (mainly dates) and pieces of wood. I had read about the excellent preservation in the Dead Sea region, but was nevertheless amazed to see it. All the ancient remains we found—cloth, wood, date pits—looked like they had just been deposited.

My work crew leader was the famous Abu Issa, who has been excavating continuously (and legally) with archaeologists since 1956. We conversed the whole day in English, which he learned in the British Army in World War II. Abu Issa admits to being 74 years old, but others tell me he must be closer to 80. Believe me when I tell you that he never stopped working, and kept pushing the rest of us to keep up with him.

After a visit to workers in a nearby cave, I slipped on loose stones and fell, injuring my thigh and cutting my hand as I broke the fall. My injured hand prevented me from getting a good grip, so I was unable to reenter our already formidable cave entrance. The end of the day was near; I sat out the last hour, entrusting the excavations to Bella Davidson, my assistant. Just as Bella was about to leave the cave, a worker arrived with a metal detector. With it, he found one Hasmonean coin and a well-preserved nail.

When I got home at day’s end, bruised from my fall, I could barely move. I threw myself into a hot bath, but I could not soak for long because I had to hurry to my seven-year-old son’s school Hanukkah party, where I barely managed to stay awake.

On the second day, starting with a new crew, I immediately noticed that the cave was less dusty than the previous day. We were digging a lower, less powdery layer. We found a nice collection of potsherds in this layer, but less organic material. Moving towards the cave’s entrance, we came again to the dusty level. The metal detector had no luck, but we ourselves found three coins dating to the Hasmonean and Herodian periods.

Operation Scroll has been criticized for its excavation methods in the caves. I cannot appraise what happened in other caves, but I can speak about mine. It was easy to excavate, stratigraphically speaking, and to record. Bella and I drew a plan and two sections to illustrate our verbal descriptions. All the excavated earth was sieved and everything found was saved. I won’t say that another archaeologist couldn’t do a better job than I did, but I am confident that my final report will present the results of the excavation in a perfectly acceptable manner.

Only a few papyrus scraps were found in Operation Scroll. But politics and money aside, I believe that if the goal of the project was to characterize the occupational history of Qarantal Ridge (or “to add to our knowledge of the past,” as the IAA spokesperson stated), then it was a success (or will be a success when published). The discoveries, mundane as they may be, are from many periods, but especially from the Chalcolitic and Early Bronze Age (fourth millenium) Hasmonean (142–37 B.C.E.) and early Roman periods (37 B.C.E.–132 C.E.).

The operation was not enjoyable for me, but I’m glad I did it. The most touching moment came at my son’s Hanukkah party. After lighting the hanukkiah (the eight-branched candelabrum lit with increasing numbers of candles each night), I thought, “Here we are, celebrating the victory of Judah Maccabee in the second century B.C.E., and I have just excavated a cave that once sheltered the fighters in the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucids.” Few moments in archaeology provide that kind of satisfaction.