By Kristina Neumann
This past summer, with the help of some very generous donors, the Biblical Archaeology Society was able to help 27 volunteers from all walks of life—students, teachers, laymen and preachers—fulfill their dreams of working on an archaeological excavation. Their experiences varied; some had their work cut short by the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, some kept digging, others went home. We asked them to send us reports on their experiences, and most were more than happy to share their summer memories with us. All the essays can be read at our Web site at www.findadig.com/DigsEssays. One, however, seemed to capture the thrill, and concern, of an archaeological dig in the middle of a war zone. Our winning essay comes from Kristina Neumann, who joined Arthur Segal and his team at Hippos/Sussita in July.
When I first looked down into the cistern that would be my excavation project at the Northeast Church at Hippos/Sussita last summer, I could not have anticipated what the next two weeks would hold. Instead, as I gazed into the darkened, cobweb-infested hole, I pondered this Byzantine church of unremarkable architecture but extraordinary contents. Two tombs lay in the chancel of the church. The first one held the body of a sainted elderly woman with the means for continual veneration,1 and the second contained three bodies, including that of a young boy. None of their identities was known.
While the Northeast Church had not yielded the same quantity of small finds as other excavation squares at Hippos/Sussita, it did provide, in the previous year, the first pieces of gold from the site. Three belt pieces and a healing amulet were found hidden behind a cistern in the vaulted chamber directly south of the chancel. But like the nameless tombs, the reasons for the burial, as well as the usage of the large chamber, were unknown.
My role during the 2006 season was to supervise the excavation of Cistern D in the south vaulted chamber. Our hope was that the contents of the cistern would answer our questions about the sainted woman, the magical healing amulet and a possible healing cult at the church. After a week of fieldwork training in other squares, my team was at last prepared to tackle the excavation of the cistern. As soon as the cistern head was rolled forward, we climbed down, anxious to discover the cistern’s secrets.
First glances at the nearly circular floor revealed the entire bottom of a cooking pot resting on the western side of the cistern. At first the pot was left in its original position in case more pieces could be found. Several other large pieces of pottery along with this first pot fragment were later removed to be reassembled in the lab. Also in the initial survey, my fellow team member, Cameron Heiliger, discovered another piece of Byzantine gold in the form of an intricately designed belt-tab.
This discovery fueled enough enthusiasm for our team to work quickly through other layers of post-Byzantine soil. Theories abounded when the better part of a dog-like skeleton appeared in the dirt, followed by a bovine tooth and sheep vertebrae. As work continued downwards, I uncovered a heavily corroded coin. As with the fill around it (where we found bones and pottery), the coin probably came from the early Arab period (638–1099 A.D.) following the destruction and abandonment of the Northeast Church.
The bottom layer of 047the cistern consisted of highly compact, grayish silt. According to our soil scientist, Glenn Borchers, the silt formed during the cistern’s use as a collector of water in Byzantine times, as dust particles settled in layers at the bottom and became compact with the weight of additional water. Every chunk of silt was sifted, but very little was discovered from the buckets hauled out of the cistern.
By the end of the week my team was tantalizingly close to the bottom. Then, on Saturday, July 15, Katyusha rockets hit the city of Tiberias directly across the Sea of Galilee from Kibbutz En Gev, where we were staying. Our professor, Dr. Mark Schuler, made the decision to evacuate the students and any adult volunteers wanting to leave. Our disappointment at having to depart the dig so abruptly was devastating, but the experience of being in Israel during wartime provided me with a valuable glimpse into the centuries-old tensions of the Middle East.
Enough volunteers did remain at Hippos to continue work, with Glenn Borchers finishing the excavation of Cistern D. Many questions surrounding the Northeast Church remain.
It is the persistence of questions that fuels archaeology and will continue to drive the excavation of the Northeast Church and all of Hippos/Sussita. Why did someone bury their prized pieces of gold behind a cistern? What role did the cistern play in the possible healing cult? Who was the elderly woman and why did she warrant such respect as evidenced by her continual veneration?
For me, the constant pondering of these questions was the most rewarding intellectual activity on the dig, and it reinforces my desire to continue in archaeology. Every day on the site held the anticipation of uncovering that elusive “something.” There is a great thrill in digging out a place where people once lived, once worked and once worshiped. Even if nothing more than potsherds or animal bones came up, every bucketful contributed to the world’s knowledge. I can think of few more noble endeavors than that.
Kristina Neumann is pursuing a double major in history and classical studies at Concordia University in Wisconsin. She has a 4.0 grade point average. After she graduates this spring, she intends to pursue graduate studies in Classical or early Church history with an emphasis on archaeology.