Phillis-jane Stetser, Qumran

Phillis-jane Stetser, an assistant pastor in Mantua, NJ, used to be a professional pilot. That’s how she came up with the notion of applying airplane navigation technology to archaeology during her two seasons as a dig participant at Bethsaida. A breast cancer survivor, she and her husband, Robert, are the proud parents of two grown daughters and have three “absolutely grand” grandchildren.

You have to understand something about those of us who go out each year and excavate in the Holy Land: Archaeology is not simply our summertime hobby. It is our passion. We are exhilarated by the rare privilege of touching the past. We walk where those before us walked. Through the lenses of the many disciplines within archaeology, we see what the ancients ate, how they cooked and even how and when they died and were buried.

When I received the BAR scholarship I hoped to return to Bethsaida, but like many excavations, that dig was suspended for the 2002 season. Instead, Richard Freund, one of the Bethsaida dig directors, invited me to join a dig at Qumran, funded by the John and Carol Merrill Foundation and the Biblical Archaeology Society. It would be jointly directed by Freund, Hanan Eshel and Magen Broshi. I didn’t hesitate for a second!

At Qumran, I worked with Harry Jol, a geomorphologist at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who specializes in GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar), a geophysical technology that sends electromagnetic waves underground to detect buried objects and empty spaces. I used to be a professional pilot and have been experimenting with the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) in archaeology: A handheld radionavigation device that reads signals from satellites helps determine the exact position of any object on the site. Harry and his assistant, Robert Passow, would place GPR survey lines to “see” what was under the surface—and I would follow with GPS, pinpointing where it was. The use of GPS in archaeology has now become the focus of the Ph.D. degree I hope to pursue.

I also worked at the burial area called T1000, which sits on the most prominent hill overlooking Qumran’s cemetery. In 2001 the team had uncovered in this special tomb the remains of two women, which were dated by carbon 14 to the first century A.D. The women’s remains matched those of other Qumran denizens, indicating that women were part of the Qumran community.

Last summer, in the same area, we found the remains of a man, buried with a first-century A.D. globular cooking pot on his chest. Hanan Eshel identified the body as “first century, ancient, and part of the burial and a clear indicator of the antiquity of the find.” (For more on this important find, see “Whose Bones?”)

We spent an exciting summer excavating an exceptional grave, perhaps the tomb of someone of importance in Qumran, a community that offers information about the historical, theological and human connections between Judaism and Christianity. It is a special privilege to be inserted into a time, a place and a people through archaeology.

—Phillis-jane Stetser

John Raab, Tall al-’Umayri

For John Raab, who had a son in college and a daughter in high school, it was not an easy decision to enroll at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary to study the Bible. But his lifelong interest in the Bible lands not only led him to enter the Seminary, but to volunteer at Tall al-‘Umayri, a site in Jordan that many scholars believe offers clues about the early development of the Israelites. Though Raab was excited to win the BAR dig scholarship, he didn’t know just how much his dig experience would affect him.

Imagine uncovering a wall dating to the time of the Bible or handling the contents of a pithos (a large storage jar) that had last been touched by human hands 2,600 years ago. Thanks to a BAR scholarship, I had these experiences while working for six weeks on the excavation team at Tall al-`Umayri, a site just south of Amman, Jordan that has produced objects from the Early Bronze Age to the Roman period.

Tall al-`Umayri provides many educational opportunities. In biweekly lectures we learn about the historical-social background of the entire region. Weekly lectures at the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman are also offered by specialists from other Jordanian sites. The al-‘Umayri staff leads field trips to many of those sites.

At the dig I worked in a square with Gayle Broom and later with Pawel Surowka and Candace Jorgensen. We uncovered an eastern extension of the city wall and located an Iron Age II wall that formed the back of a house. But to find any Late Bronze Age structures, we had to take this wall down.

We disassembled it using the same method by which it was constructed 2,600 years ago: lifting one large stone at a time in the desert heat. I imagined the ancient builder—and felt sad. We weren’t just moving stones, we were destroying a house that someone had worked very hard to build. The Bible tells many stories of human beings who lived in houses like this.

After we dismantled the wall we found a standing pithos located under the northwest corner of the Iron Age structure. Pawel, Candace and I were eager to learn what was in that jar, which no one had touched in millennia. Near the bottom we found a 3.5-inch iron point of a javelin. This poignantly reminded us of the attacks that the ‘Umayri inhabitants had undergone. Their world, like ours, could be uncertain and violent.

The dig directors, Larry G. Herr (Canadian University College) and Douglas R. Clark (Walla Walla College), are amazing teachers. I was awed by Dr. Herr’s demonstration of how he dated small diagnostic sherds. And Dr. Clark knelt beside us to show us how to loosen the dirt with a handpick and scrape it away with a trowel. He also taught us how to “crisp up” a balk (a 3-foot-wide vertical section of earth left standing between excavated squares), using a plumb bob to create a perpendicular surface on the balk. This gives us a clear reading of the layers of earth, or stratigraphy.

I have read BAR for years, but nothing prepared me for this experience. You have to be there to appreciate what Biblical archaeology can be.

—John Raab


BAR offers travel scholarships of $1,000 every year to a few people who would otherwise not be able to volunteer. In 2002, two individuals, whose reports appear on the pages that follow, benefited from the scholarships. To apply, simply send a letter to BAR Dig Scholarships, 4710 41st St. NW, Washington, DC 20016, stating who you are, where and why you want to dig—and why you need financial aid. We require your address, phone number and the names, addresses and phone numbers of two references.