Dan, 921 B.C., 5 a.m.: King Jeroboam I of Israel sits on a stone bench in the entranceway to the walled city of Dan and watches Israelite laborers and slaves construct an altar for the golden calf. A stonecutter, wearing a sheepskin loin cloth, swings his stone hammer, putting the final touches on a basalt slab. Another worker levels the foundation with a plumb line, then takes measurements by extending a strip of flax. Nearby, a mason pours mud into a wooden form and waits for the sun to bake the bricks.
Tel Dan, 1982 A.D., 5 a.m.: I sit on a picnic table bench shaded by a giant eucalyptus tree and the spirit of King Jeroboam. Forty other archaeological volunteers, dressed in “I Dig Dan” T-shirts and torn Levis, gather with me near the tool shed at the head of the path leading to the icy waters of the River Dan. Pickaxes stand soaking in troughs to keep their wooden handles from splitting. Small handpicks, brushes and sieves wait to be loaded into wheelbarrows. Over a kerosene stove, coffee boils and bent metal pick heads are repaired. The blacksmith, a Bible professor from a North Carolina seminary, hammers the red-hot metal. Soon the picks will be ready for another day’s battle with basalt foundations.
We volunteers, men and women, old and young, choose our tools. Peter reaches for a pickaxe, Bertha for a handpick and Martha drapes a coil of heavy rope on one arm.
The wheelbarrows move off to the various sites under excavation at Tel Dan.
My tools for the day are a marking pen and a bottle of black ink. Trays of pottery, already cleaned and tagged chronologically, cover the picnic table, waiting to be marked. Many generations have occupied Tel Dan. Many generations have passed away. But the pottery they made lasts virtually forever. By dating the pottery, I feel like Aladdin, rubbing the lamp and raising a genie who will reveal the past of these lost residents of Tel Dan.
I lift a Canaanite lamp and mark today’s date on a spout still blackened by soot—it was made in about 2300 B.C. An Early Bronze Age family used this lamp to dispel the night in their mudbrick house or to light a fire for cooking lentil stew. A piece of a pilgrim flask from 1800 B.C. was perhaps carried by Abraham when he visited Dan. The pink handle from a small decanter from 900 B.C. might have held olive oil.
Tel Dan: 2300 B.C. 1800 B.C. 900 B.C. Lives lost, then found. Narrow ink marks on the sides of the balks define civilizations long hidden and slowly awaken them beneath the summit of Mt. Hermon.
At the dig, I notice that each volunteer gravitates toward a specific tool. Although we are not entirely specialized, certain tools seemed to fit certain people, and all of us, young or old, find appropriate tools for our personalities. Can I learn about the volunteers at Tel Dan by the tools chosen by members of each work team?
Peter, for instance, works at the ramparts that protected Dan from invading forces, the sloped walls that repelled Assyrian climbers and battering rams. The ramparts are hardly a match for Peter’s pick, however. Standing on the thick dirt fortifications, Peter digs down into the core and uncovers a guardhouse. A scar on Peter’s arm flashes red as the pickaxe searches for the roots of Dan and occasionally becomes entangled in the roots of a cedar of Lebanon, roots of another kind.
When the day ends at two o’clock and most of us drag ourselves onto the bus, Peter jogs to the River Dan, takes a swim in the icy rapids, and then jogs back to the bus.
Bertha is a big woman. She seems large for the small handpick she carries. Bertha lowers herself slowly into the square, her legs and torso covering the dirt floor. The folds of her blue T-shirt heave up and down as her handpick explores each crevice of earth covering the rim of something Peter’s pickaxe has discovered. Careful not to crack the pottery, Bertha guides the pick in and out of history.
Suddenly I hear a song.
“There was a green hill far away without a wall.”
A pile of dirt collapses behind the rim.
Bertha is singing a hymn learned from her days as a missionary.
“Christ the Lord has risen today, Hallelujah.”
The rim rocks slightly in its earthly anchorage.
Bertha is a Bible scholar. Since childhood she has studied with her father, a minister in Toledo, and has even brought with her to Dan a collection of ribbons won at Toledo’s yearly Bible quiz. If Bertha had lived at the time the Bible was written, she would probably have been a proofreader. No one, not even Moses, would dare misquote God in Bertha’s presence.
Numbers 29:12–17: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month … you shall present a burnt offering … thirteen bulls of the herd, two rams, fourteen yearling lambs … second day: Twelve bulls, two rams, fourteen yearling lambs ….”
Bertha doesn’t miss a number as she recites Biblical verses. She knows each chapter, verse, and even each translation: King James, Revised Standard Version, Good News.
When the rim is finally removed (unfortunately only half a jar), Bertha brushes the area and sifts the dirt in a mesh sieve. A tiny piece of stone falls through the opening. Bertha catches the fragment before it meets a second burial in a waiting wheelbarrow, cleans it with water from her canteen and notices a beetle design.
“I think I found a scarab. The Egyptians were really here!” Bertha cradles the bead in her palm.
The jar, awakened from its resting place, is photographed in situ. The camera lens records the fragment of time, and then the past is lifted 3,000 years into the 20th century and carried away. Soon the site will be reclaimed by thorns and thistles, and history will return to dusty archives.
Martha works with her stack of pails and coils of heavy rope. She grew up on a family farm in New England. Her qualifications: “Reading old travel books on the Middle East packed in a dusty carton in an attic, I acquired an interest in archaeology. The books belonged to my grandmother, but no one in the family even knew they existed.”
“I have special expertise in shoveling: manure in the summer and snow in the winter. And I’m great at milking cows! Any cows on the dig?”
Very few cows have survived since Dan was last settled. The golden calf was probably melted down in an Egyptian or Assyrian palace after Jeroboam’s death. But each day Martha takes her place next to the wooden hoist at Area M, ties the pails to thick ropes and lowers them into a hole 20 feet deep.
I watch the dirt rise slowly to the surface. Maybe I can catch footprints left on the grains of earth by a passing civilization. Are there still impressions from sandals worn by the prophets of Baal, bringing word of graven idols worshipped by Jezebel? Hand over hand Martha lifts the rope. She can talk with visitors or watch a lizard scamper up a tree and never break the rhythm of her pull.
“Martha,” calls the area supervisor, “you’re the best hoist operator in Israel.”
“Nothing to it. Each tug is another udder. Give me an empty pail and I know what to do!”
Perhaps of all the tools necessary to a dig, none proves more functional than the wheelbarrow.
During fruit break the barrow serves as a resting place for diggers’ bodies already contorted into strange shapes. And during work periods it removes dirt and stone to distant borders of the excavation. Not everyone can push a wheelbarrow. A full barrow can tip, sending dirt and rocks cascading down to the pit. Arnold sees to the barrow. Grabbing the handles, Arnold pushes his load of dirt with great finesse. Skirting the edge of a pit, maneuvering around ashlar stones, between volunteers, then breaking into the clear, he empties the wheelbarrow onto the dump pile. Touchdown!
“I never lost a load. Never left a telltale sign!”
For Arnold the dig is a lark. He doesn’t understand the history of the different strata, falls asleep during the late afternoon lectures, but is reborn whenever he faces a loaded wheelbarrow. Already in his 60s, Arnold has retired from a successful scrap metal business and approaches the wheelbarrow as he once approached his eight-ton backhoe.
“Why this tel’s nothing,” Arnold jokes. “A lot easier to move centuries of time than to move rusty metal. At my place in Pittsburgh we had a pile of steel that towered over buildings, and you could see it shine in the morning, like the sun. Car wrecks, old refrigerators, steel beams. You name it, I’ve moved it!”
Arnold moved steel for more than 40 years, a brief time in archaeological reckoning. A lifetime for Arnold. But now he is tired of working with a throwaway civilization.
“I guess I came to this dig because if I’m going to work with wrecks, they might as well be eternal! Oldest junk I ever moved dated from 1937.”
Most of us on the dig hope to uncover a lost civilization. Our tools, artifacts of revelation, delve beneath the surface of vanished lives. But Roger, a college junior, has joined the dig to find himself. Instead of the traditional tools, he digs earth with calloused hands and probes his inner feelings with an inquisitive chisel.
Roger grew up in Los Angeles and enrolled in a yeshiva. Although he loved the study of Judaism, he asked too many whys.
“I lasted about two years and then decided to study science. I took the first two years at Stanford. Then last year, I realized that the lab and the yeshiva were pretty similar … one looked for absolute religious truths and one for absolute scientific truths. I felt pressured into a test tube.”
Roger is satisfied exploring the vast spaces of history. But at the moment, crouched under a bulkhead, he concentrates on a tiny space enclosed by large stones. Rolling back the protective covering of stones, Roger has unearthed an amazing find. At bedrock level, next to the remnants of a Canaanite home, lies a tiny tomb containing the skeleton of an infant, still intact, curled in the fetal position.
Who was this child who never experienced the passage of years? Did he die at birth 4,300 years ago? Was this site a graveyard? Or was the baby a sacrifice? Deprived of its own life, forfeited as a gift to a god?
“Hey,” shouted Roger, “will you look at this!”
Roger’s discovery caps the day and will provide scholars with years of questions … and only partial answers.
It is time to return along the stone path where Jeroboam sat, where 30 centuries after Jeroboam built a kingdom, archaeologists attempt to rebuild history with tools of steel and vision.
It is time to leave a vanished world, concealed in the warm earth.