The Road To Israel, Part 2: Why We Dig

My departure for Israel is fast approaching, and given the groundswell of interest in my trip, I decided to create a three-part series to provide more information about what exactly I’ll be doing there. Part one covered basic facts about the history of Hazor, while part two covers the intentions and goals of modern archaeology (especially for biblical sites). Part three, tentatively, will feature some ideas and details about my journey around Israel once my three-week excavation is complete. (See also, my basic itinerary.) So, let’s dig in, shall we?

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Leave it to my grandma to ask the most basic, fundamental question imaginable after I announced that I would be traveling thousands of miles to participate in the excavation at Hazor: What on earth are you digging for?

Sometimes I tend to forget that not everyone is a student in biblical studies. The question seemed so preposterous to me, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, both in terms of material items we hope to find and the intentionality behind excavations.

In his 2002 autobiography Doors to Life, Dr. Gustav Jeeninga (the late professor for whom my fellowship is named) defines archaeological data as “human thought objectified and then fossilized.” If you ask me, this is a fantastic definition. Archaeology, then, becomes an endeavor not to uncover ancient writing samples, intact pottery or elaborate municipal structures, though the discovery of such items is certainly rewarding and of principal importance to academia. Rather, we seek these material objects only as clues to the ideas of cultures long left dormant and livelihoods of people long silenced. And specifically in regard to the Ancient Near East, our secondary interests include affirming the biblical record (or, at times, weighing the evidence against the biblical record) and attempting to fill its gaps. Such is the case for Hazor, a biblical town for which the gaps are numerous.

With Dr. Jeeninga’s definition in mind, we must note that we can only access this “fossilized human thought” through physical objects. The simple answer to my grandma’s question, in a material sense, is that we’re searching for whatever we might find. But certain items will be more valuable than others. Any objects containing writing will provide the most direct access to the ideas, needs, intentions, and daily life of the ancient people of Hazor, but it will be extremely unlikely to find writing on any intact items. More than likely, we could find writing on broken pieces of pottery or the ruins of old structures.

Pile of Potsherds
Potsherds: think of them like the garbage of the ancients.

At this point, it is necessary to explain a little bit about how cities were built, conquered and rebuilt over in the Ancient Near East. When people first settled a location, much like the North American settlers of the 17th century, location was everything. For the purpose of protecting a settlement from military bombardment, the highest points were often chosen for fortification. In some cases, these high points may not be any more than a hill or a mound (which we call tels), as opposed to a mountain or plateau, but any advantage the people could grab would be vital for security from adversaries. When a town would be overrun and rebuilt with frequency, new settlers–who were accustomed to first destroying or plundering everything of value from a previous settlement–would simply build on top of that previous settlement, either with completely new structures, or by incorporating the previous structures into their (perhaps only slightly) different vision for what civilization should look like.

As a result, there are two significant observations about doing archaeology at biblical sites that I should stress. First, with the exception of physical structures, which, if not destroyed by military edict, are easily preserved over time because of their intentional construction, we are digging through ancient peoples’ trash. Hazor is not Pompeii; the entire town was not flash-fossilized for posterity. It was conquered and plundered violently, and its new occupants would not have consciously built over items they regarded as valuables.

A second observation is that when you dig deeper and deeper at a location, you access more and more ancient strata of livelihood. Because the Hebrew University has sponsored excavations at Hazor for more than 20 seasons (usually six-week periods in the summertime), my dig will be exploring the 13th and 14th centuries BCE, which theoretically should not include any distinctly Israelite settlement. This is appropriately called the Canaanite Period, as it is associated with the time in which scholars believe Joshua wrote that Hazor stood as “the head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11:10 NRSV).

What is typically found when rummaging through ancient trash is pottery, pottery, and more pottery. Shattered pottery, mostly. If we’re lucky, we’ll find large pieces of pottery that can be later reconstructed and studied to understand its precise utility to the civilization. Pottery was also the paper of the day, so we will be highly interested in any engraving that we may find on the sherds of pottery. We could find anything from ancient business contracts to royal decrees to scribal alphabet writing practice!

Other items we may find include both municipal and private structures, human and animal remains, oil lamps, weapons, coinage, and deities (idols). In addition to preserved writing, these items would constitute the real gold of the excavation and, if found, will necessitate several pages of ink in the end-of-season report.

So as I’ve come to understand, though we dig for physical objects, we are simultaneously (and primarily) digging to learn more about ancient people who can no longer speak for themselves. We wish to understand their way of life, their beliefs, what they beheld as important, how they met their end, and, ultimately, what we can learn about our humanity from their activity and their temporality. In short, we dig to grant ancient peoples a voice.

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