A Note on Herod

Elvira again :)

Though anyone interested in the potential relationship of Herod the Great to our dig site should first read the blog page dedicated to Omrit’s historical background, I thought I might append a few words on this king of New Testament notoriety. Whatever the evidence for the Massacre of the Innocents, it’s beyond doubt that Herod oversaw an unparalleled building program in his kingdom. This program likely included the putative Augusteum at Omrit and certainly included several of the locations the team visited on day trips this season. While I made mention in my last post of three Herodian building spots we toured, I neglected an exhibit we saw that has much to do with another of the king’s haunts, Herodium.

Entitled Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, the impressive show is on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem until January 4, 2014. The exhibit’s organizational principle is the funeral procession that would have taken the ruler from his deathbed in Jericho to his monumental tomb in 4 BCE. Just as this procession would have been an opportunity to commemorate Herod’s life and deeds, the show features mixed-media reconstructions of the architectural achievements through which the king made his mark on the Levantine landscape. And like the processional route itself, these reconstructions begin from a chamber of Herod’s palace at Jericho and end at his mausoleum, a tomb the late Prof. Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University seems to have discovered at Herodium in 2007. Each display includes architectural fragments and other finds from the corresponding archaeological site, and this is especially true of the mausoleum, reconstructed from pieces of the original and complete with what are thought to be the sarcophagi of the king and his family.

The show has given new vigor to my continuing reflection on the motivation for Herod’s construction projects, first among them the Augusteum that may lie in ruins at Omrit. In underscoring the variety and scale of these projects, the displays make apparent that the ruler used architecture in a delicate, sophisticated process of statecraft. It’s therefore plausible that he erected an Augusteum at our site, where Temple I seems to have encased the structure and absorbed the cult activity of an earlier, locally important pagan shrine. The Augusteum at Omrit would not only have helped declare Herod’s loyalty to Rome and his embodiment of imperial authority in his kingdom, but would also have helped define this kingdom in more pluralistic terms, terms favorable to the region’s internal stability.

For more information on Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, check out the Israel Museum’s website at  http://www.english.imjnet.org.il.

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Another Day, Another Lesson

Elvira here. We recent graduates lost access to the Williams network in late June! Many thanks to Lydia for helping me circumvent the problem.

“Please don’t write that in your field notebook,” said Mike, one of the directors of the excavation, to my square supervisor Edward three weeks ago with casual aplomb. My square-mates and I had joined the rest of the team a few minutes earlier to begin a mid-season tour of the open digging areas on site, and Edward had just indicated what he and I were certain to be the curved wall in our square. Unbeknownst to the two of us, Mike hadn’t yet been consulted for his opinion on the relationship of this wall to the one we believed was its continuation in the square immediately south of ours. This director thought instead that our wall is positioned at a wide angle to the other and may be unrelated to it. He in any case invited us to exercise more caution before drawing a conclusion like the one Edward had shared.

How appropriate that, not long after posting about the benefit and even the necessity of desire to archaeology, I’d receive a striking reminder of the risk this feeling likewise carries. Mike highlighted not only the possibility that my square’s wall doesn’t join nearby features to form a monumental structure, but also the possibility that the wall’s very curvature is an illusion. Though I’d come to think of this curvature as self-evident, the blocks that would be most necessary to the curve’s articulation are in fact missing.

My little anecdote does something other than remind me, too. It illustrates the reality of what I described in my last post as the due rigor of good archeological inquiry. The engaged form of disagreement I witnessed among my directors is a messy, but integral part of this reality, a part often misrepresented in the scholarly literature where archaeological research is published. In this literature, the arguments of scholars with whom an author disagrees tend to be presented as mere foils for his conclusions rather than as shapers of the thinking that led to those conclusions.

For a student like me, whose basic form of intellectual engagement during the school year is the reading and discussion of precisely such writing, it’s been an immense pleasure to participate in something both as mentally absorbing and as experientially vivid as the dig at Omrit. It’s been no less of a pleasure to contextualize my work on the dig with visits to additional centers of historical significance around Israel. Below is a (mostly lighthearted) selection of photos from the team’s excursions during the last ten days of the season: the Biblical city of Hazor, the largest archaeological site in northern Israel, on June 23; the Herodian harbor and civic complex at Caesarea Maritima on June 24; the fortress and palace at Masada, also Herodian, on June 29; and Jerusalem on June 30. I’m deeply grateful to all the students, teachers, and others who made my time in this country unforgettable not once, but twice.

A view of the unexcavated part of the lower city of Hazor from an Iron Age defense tower at the edge of the upper city. I couldn’t resist the impulse to include a panoramic shot among these photos!

A view of the unexcavated part of the lower city of Hazor from an Iron Age defense tower at the edge of the upper city. I couldn’t resist the temptation to include a panoramic shot.

Team members entering the fortified upper city of Hazor through an Iron Age gate. The pavilion in the background protects a roughly contemporary administrative complex.

Team members entering the fortified upper city of Hazor through an Iron Age gate. The pavilion in the background protects a roughly contemporary administrative complex.

Most of the Williams crew in what survives of Herod the Great’s waterfront palace at Caesarea, with the modern resort town in the background. The brilliant blue belongs not only to the sky, of course, but also to the Mediterranean, that fundamental nurturer of the civilizations on which sites like Omrit shed light. From left to right, Elvira, Lydia, Prof. Rubin, Sharona, and Emily.

Members of the Williams crew in what survives of Herod the Great’s waterfront palace at Caesarea, with the modern resort town in the background. The brilliant blue belongs not only to the sky, of course, but also to the Mediterranean, that fundamental nurturer of the civilizations on which sites like Omrit shed light. From left to right, Elvira, Lydia, Prof. Rubin, Sharona, and Emily.

A candid shot of our digging companions from Carthage College in front of the Herodian hippodrome at Caesarea.

A candid shot of our digging companions from Carthage College in front of the Herodian hippodrome at Caesarea.

Lydia wearing a gelato-induced grin at the end of the team’s tour of Caesarea. Espresso and dark chocolate, are those the flavors?

Lydia wearing a gelato-induced grin at the end of the team’s tour of Caesarea. Espresso, is that the flavor?

 

The majority of the Williams crew by the steps to the most spectacular part of Herod the Great’s palace at Masada, the mountaintop that was also the final refuge of Jews revolting against their Roman conquerors in the first century. From left to right, Sam, Sharona, Emily, Prof. Rubin, Lydia, and Elvira.

The majority of the Williams crew by the steps to the most spectacular part of Herod the Great’s palace at Masada, the mountaintop that was also the final refuge of Jews revolting against their Roman conquerors in the first century. From left to right, Sam, Sharona, Emily, Prof. Rubin, Lydia, and Elvira.

The same Williams-ites in what may have been a banquet hall of the Herodean palace at Masada, with the breathtakingly still Dead Sea in the background. Our smiles are stoic—the steps to these ruins are vertiginous, and the sun was merciless on the day of our visit.

The same Ephs in what may have been a banquet hall of the Herodian palace at Masada, with the breathtakingly still Dead Sea in the background. Our smiles are stoic—the steps to these ruins are vertiginous, and the sun was merciless on the day of our visit.

From left to right, Amy, Lydia, and Elvira preparing to enter the Old City of Jerusalem through the sixteenth-century Damascus Gate. I confess that our childish excitement is as much for the bakery we’re about to hunt down as for the city’s monumental marvels.

From left to right, Amy, Lydia, and Elvira about to enter Jerusalem’s Old City through the sixteenth-century Damascus Gate. I confess that our childish excitement is as much for the bakery we’re about to hunt down as for the city’s monumental marvels.

Mission accomplished in the Old City! Williams students at Zalatimo, the unmarked shop where the eponymous family bakes an Arab confection called mutabbaq (“folded” in Arabic) from a 150-year-old recipe. Connor and Amy are masking their eagerness to dig into the sugar-drenched layers of phyllo, while Elvira already seems nap-bound after a few sips of minty lemonade.

Mission accomplished in the Old City! Williams students at Zalatimo, the unmarked shop where the eponymous family bakes an Arab pastry called mutabbaq (“folded” in Arabic) from a 150-year-old recipe. Connor and Amy are masking their eagerness to dig into the sugar-drenched layers of phyllo, while Elvira already seems nap-bound after a few sips of minty lemonade.

From left to right, Connor, Amy, Elvira, and Lydia in front of the Western Wall of the Old City’s Temple Mount. It’s fitting for the team’s season of sightseeing to have culminated at the most enduringly relevant piece of Herodian architecture in Israel, a structure that continues to be of supreme religious value to millions.

From left to right, Connor, Amy, Elvira, and Lydia in front of the Western Wall of the Old City’s Temple Mount. It’s fitting for the team’s season of sightseeing to have culminated at the most enduringly relevant piece of Herodian architecture in Israel, a structure that continues to be of supreme religious value to millions.

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Over the next few days, Elvira and Lydia will post several photos recording our group’s day trips to various sites around Israel.

Medieval and modern construction pile on top of each other and spill into the narrow, winding streets leading to Akko's Ottoman Jezzar Pasha mosque.

Medieval and modern construction pile on top of each other and spill into the narrow, winding streets leading to Akko’s Ottoman Jezzar Pasha mosque.

On one of our favorite trips, we visited Akko (Acre), a Galilean city perched on a small peninsula in the Mediterranean. The city’s access to the Mediterranean through its natural harbor has made it an attractive site for settlement since the 4th millennium BCE, and both the Hebrew Bible and Greek and Hellenistic texts mention the city. For the same reasons, Akko was a center of Roman and Byzantine military control over the Galilee region, and served an even more important role strategically when ruled by the Umayyads and Abbasids in the medieval period. In the 12th century, Crusaders captured the city and used it as a base for their expansion into the Levant. The eight centuries since the Crusader period have added everything from Ottoman mosques to Israeli administrative centers to the city, and today, a vibrant bicultural community thrives among the ancient remains.

A tower of honey-soaked baklava tempts window-shopping tourists to this pastry shop in Akko.

A tower of honey-soaked baklava tempts window-shopping tourists to this pastry shop in Akko.

A medieval city gate in Akko. At bottom, Elliot Culp (Carthage College) and Connor Dempsey '13.

A medieval city gate in Akko. At bottom, Elliot Culp (Carthage College) and Connor Dempsey ’13.

The spunky domes of a neighborhood mosque peep out among rooftop patios and the facades of more stately buildings.

The spunky domes of a neighborhood mosque peep out among rooftop patios and the facades of more stately buildings.

Vendors selling fruit and freshly squeezed juice line the streets of the Old City of Akko, providing much-needed sugar rushes to hot, thirsty tourists.

Vendors selling fruit and freshly squeezed juice line the streets of the Old City of Akko, providing much-needed sugar rushes to hot, thirsty tourists.

Five Williams students smile for the camera after a refreshing swim in the Mediterranean at Akko (Acre). To the right is the historic section of the city.

Five Williams students smile for the camera after a refreshing swim in the Mediterranean at Akko (Acre). To the right is the historic section of the city.

We traveled south to Bet She’an the next day. Containing twenty-two layers of settlement dating from the Early Neolithic period to the 8th century CE, Bet She’an (or Scythopolis, in Greek) became one of ten major centers of Roman administration in the Galilee region, together called the Decapolis cities. The site’s best-preserved remains, including a 2nd-century theater and a Roman bathhouse, date to this period as well as to the Byzantine and early Islamic eras. The site was abandoned after the earthquake of 749 CE.

Windblown and sun-scorched, Williams team members pose for a panoramic photo at the top of the tel at Bet She'an, which overlooks the Roman main street, theater, and bath complex. From left to right, Sam O'Donnell '15, Amy Berg '14, Lydia Heinrichs '15, and Elvira Miceli '13.

Windblown and sun-scorched, Williams team members pose for a panoramic photo at the top of the tel at Bet She’an, which overlooks the Roman main street, theater, and bath complex. From left to right, Sam O’Donnell ’15, Amy Berg ’14, Lydia Heinrichs ’15, and Elvira Miceli ’13

The theater front (scaenae frons) at Bet She'an.

The theater front (scaenae frons) at Bet She’an.

Detail of the well-preserved scaenae frons, or theater facade, at the Roman theater of Bet She'an. Its Corinthian capitals and elegant entablature firmly established this Decapolis city as a seat of Roman culture and power in the Middle East during the 1st century CE.

Detail of the well-preserved scaenae frons, or theater facade, at the Roman theater of Bet She’an. Its Corinthian capitals and elegant entablature firmly established this Decapolis city as a seat of Roman culture and power in the Middle East during the 1st century CE.

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Pottery at Omrit

In my time working here I have found that pottery punctuates the workday at Omrit with more regularity than any other aspect of the excavation. In my square, we routinely commence the day’s work by filling out our pottery tag for our open locus. Throughout the morning we collect the pottery sherds from that locus and save them in a particular bucket, and this pottery bucket makes its way back to the kibbutz with us when we leave the field at 11:30am. Occasionally the bumpy ride back to Kfar Szold puts the pottery bucket in jeopardy of spilling, but when an unexpected dip in the road sends people and buckets careening into the air, we (like the true, selfless archaeologists that we are) instinctively reach out to protect our pottery buckets, sometimes at the expense of an elbow or a knee.

Once we return to the kibbutz, pottery buckets from previous days await us and our scrubbing brushes! We must wash all of our pottery sherds so that Omrit’s ceramicist is able to analyze them later in the week. The wet pottery is then placed in bags and hung out to dry. After my squaremates and I have washed our pottery for the day, we grab the dry pottery and organize them into two sets: indicative sherds and nonindicative sherds. The former category consists of the rims of vessels, sherds with glazes, and sherds bearing designs. Nonindicative sherds are all of the remaining pottery sherds, usually from the bodies of vessels.

 

Khanh Nguyen '14 sorting pottery into piles of indicative and nonindicative sherds

Khanh Nguyen ’14 sorting pottery into piles of indicative and nonindicative sherds

At the end of a week of excavation, we assemble our processed pottery and show the indicative sherds to our ceramicist, who is able to use them to determine the dating of our loci. At these weekly pottery readings I have learned to distinguish the rim of a Byzantine cooking pot from the rim of a Byzantine storage vessel, recognize the striking red gloss of Roman fine ware and the exquisite green glaze of pottery from the Crusader period, and visualize the form of a vessel from a single fragment of its body. Pottery analysis is crucial to our understanding of our squares, and it is especially important since the focus of the excavation at Omrit has shifted from the temple itself to the area northwest of the temple—an area that appears to have been primarily domestic and industrial space, necessitating an increased dependency on the analysis of material culture such as pottery.

 

One day's worth of pottery bags adorning the beams of the picnic tables of Kfar Szold

One day’s worth of pottery bags adorning the beams of the picnic tables at Kfar Szold

For some, the fact that pottery is so commonplace at the site and so fundamental to the way we structure our time working at Omrit turns it into a bit of a chore, but I have always found pottery to be one of my favorite aspects of the excavation. The study of pottery also reflects a larger approach to the study of the past, and I find this relevant to my own major in modern history at Williams; I draw a parallel between the archaeological study of monumental structures like temples, palaces, and fortresses and the historical study of great men and decisive events, as well as a parallel between the archaeological focus on material culture like pottery and the incorporation of the “everyday” person into the field of historical study. In this way Omrit encompasses a diverse set of methodologies and approaches that keep me engaged on many levels, and pottery has been a very tangible way for me to try and piece together the story of Omrit.

 

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In her usual thoughtful manner, Elvira has articulated (in the post below) the sentiments shared by all of those returning to Omrit after months of nostalgia and excitement. Thus, I will spare all a reiteration and will simply begin with a short background of the state of our square. In this dig season, I am working with Professor Jason Schlude from Duquesne University, Connor Dempsey ‘13 from Williams College, and students from Carthage College and Queens College. We started not with a new square, but a “probe trench,” dug in the last two weeks of the last season.

View of the temple and Hulah Valley from our square

View of the temple and Hulah Valley from our square

This trench originally resulted from a survey of the surrounding area beyond the temple precinct, specifically 70 meters northeast of it. Although many fragments of pottery were found during the surface survey all over the east hill and the slope leading down into the wadi to our north, compelling factors such as distinct patches of lush vegetation (perhaps indicative of a spring source for a bath) and the surface finding of limestone and basalt blocks of former walls led us to start a probe last summer. Some of us, including Lydia Heinrichs ’15 and I, excavated the probe, which was never fully dug (bedrock had not been found), at various stages. When my new square mates and I returned to this probe at the beginning of this season, we found ourselves almost 1.5 m deep in an approximately 3 x 1 m trench surrounded by walls of rocks: we have a presumably early southern ashlar limestone wall in a header and stretcher construction, a northern basalt wall at roughly the same height, and a possible eastern wall, though it looks more like a collapse or fill of some sort with a mix of both limestone and basalt blocks.

View of Probe Trench Y7 (bottom) and Square Y6 (top) from the north

View of Probe Trench Y7 (bottom) and Square Y6 (top) from the north

 

We continued working in the trench and found some pottery and many chunks of conglomerate plaster paving. One of our special finds was perhaps a dark blue glass rim of a piriform or vase about 5 cm in diameter with its neck still intact. After several days of digging in this deep trench we still did not find bedrock and were unsure whether we’ve found the foundation trench for the southern wall at all. As we cleared out the area around the probe trench for another square that we’re starting this season, in addition to digging the old one, we discovered the surfaces of limestone blocks that lined southeast towards northwest, towards the southern ashlar wall in our trench. We then decided to open a full 4 x 4 m square immediate south of our trench to catch this possible wall in the east and to uncover more of our ashlar wall in the north.

Connor and I taking a photo break, courtesy of Professor Rubin.

Connor and I taking a photo break, courtesy of Professor Rubin.

Working in this probe area, we are unfortunately separated from other students and supervisors excavating in the squares just north of the temple, but it does not dampen our enthusiasm and excitement for what we might uncover each day, especially because our area has never been excavated before excepting the probe trench of the last season. After battling thick, snakelike roots and resilient bamboo stalks and hauling boulders and buckets of dirt out of the square into a lengthening dump promontory, we found four walls of different construction, and presumably different periods, and architectural fragments such as half a column drum and a cornice. Among our collection of artifacts are lots of pottery, a complete lamp and many lamp fragments, five coins, and three spindle whorls. Although we’ve found many plaster fragments in the upper strata of the square, we recently stumbled on a mass of plaster fragments that might be a collapse or a fill. Embedded in this accumulation are an intact rim and bases of storage jars and many large chunks of pottery from the 4th or 5th century. We’ve many speculations as to what our structure might be and how these chunks of plaster got there: perhaps we are in a storage room of a house with an upper story that had collapsed, or perhaps we are in a courtyard with a fill? Was this just an unfortunate meeting between a lamp merchant and a poor plasterer and his wife, a vendor of cooking pots, in a picnic pavilion? We eventually documented and removed this significant plaster-filled layer to discover something that we’ve been hoping to find. Stay tuned, for Connor will elaborate on our exciting find in this square (and why we’re returning to our trench) in his coming post!

How the mighty have fallen, indeed.

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On Being Here Again, and Following Our Noses

For this post, three images of things less often photographed at Omrit. First,   the bomb shelter at Kfar Szold that serves as the team's archival headquarters. Only when I snapped this picture did I recognize the understated loveliness of the building's exterior in springtime.

For this post, three images of what’s less often photographed during the excavation. First, the bomb shelter at Kfar Szold that serves as the team’s archival headquarters. Only when I snapped this picture did I recognize the understated loveliness of the building in late spring.

It’s a joy to return to a place that welcomes me like a friend even as it remains new and exciting. Though I admit with a language lover’s remorse that I still can barely mutter “good morning” in Hebrew, and though my role in this dig season is different from that in my last, I arrived at Kibbutz Kfar Szold two weeks ago to find a number of things affectionately familiar: the smell of unwashed pottery in the bomb shelter where the team catalogues its finds; the adrenaline rush, still a little bleary-eyed, of our brief ride to the excavation at Omrit every sunrise; and, of course, Omrit’s temple, which marks our time on site as it glows pale blue, then pink, and finally auburn in the changing daylight.

The details of my digging routine are themselves a mixture of the new and the not so new, and only in part because of my responsibilities this season. As assistant supervisor of a square north of the temple, I share in the charge of teaching first-timers how to go about their tasks. I’m also investigating a part of the site with which I had no experience last year, an area known to have seen significant Byzantine as well as Roman activity. Fortunately the process of excavating falls into basic steps that I remember, at least after clarification from my patient supervisor Edward, and fortunately I have absorbed Omrit’s general history to the point that it can inform my assessment of most parts of the site.

Second, the bomb shelter's main room, abuzz with activity at the end of the dig day. Archaeology's least romantic side is on display here in full, posterity-defining force. The artifacts being sorted, measured, and catalogued at the table are destined for the storage boxes in the background.

Second, the shelter’s main room, abuzz with activity at the end of the dig day. Archaeology’s least romantic side is on display here in full, posterity-defining force. The artifacts being sorted, measured, and catalogued at the table are destined for the storage boxes in the background.

After about ten days of work, my square-mates and I have unearthed what seems to be the continuation of a wall found last year in a square just south of ours. Our part of the wall curves west, as if to form an apse. We also discovered a straight wall in our square’s south end that extends west from the curved one. In bringing to light these features, I have been struck by an aspect of archaeology that has further to do with the meeting of new and old, of now and then: the desire to locate one piece of evidence rather than another in the struggle to make the physical record of history speak to us today. Entertaining the possibility that the curved wall is part of a surviving Byzantine structure—a church, for instance—the directors of the excavation have encouraged us to look for more indications of this building further west, where we plan to dig next in the hope of following one or both of our walls.

Encouragement of the kind our directors have offered is sound archaeological practice, since time and other limited resources require decisions to be made efficiently and efforts to be concentrated effectively during fieldwork. After all, the director of the excavation at Huqoq, a site the team visited last weekend, is there with the specific aim of finding support for a certain dating of a synagogue type that was characteristic of the ancient Galilee. At the same time that I accept the realities of archaeology, however, I wonder how desire must color the interpretation of what the ground yields. Is this almost inevitable feeling a trap, a hindrance to the understanding of the past? I like to think instead that desire is advantageous, even when an archaeological question can be investigated with extreme patience. Desire’s charge is necessary to the flashes of intuition that, if paired with due rigor, produce what I believe are our best attempts at historical insight. Who knows what flashes of intuition will illuminate this season at Omrit!

Third, team members bringing their archival work home to the veranda outside our rooms at the kibbutz. From left to right, my square supervisor Edward and my square-mates Andrew and Susette as they label pottery sherds we recovered. Note the red onion bag in which the pottery was left to dry after its post-excavation washing. Prosaic, but effective.

Third, team members bringing archival work home to the veranda outside our lodgings at the kibbutz. From left to right, my square supervisor Edward and my square-mates Andrew and Suzette as they label pottery sherds we recovered. Note the red onion bag in which we left the pottery to dry after its post-excavation washing. Prosaic, but effective.

 

 

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Aside

Unlike the veteran archaeologists making their mark on Omrit for the second time, I and the other first-timers have learned very quickly that we signed up for a difficult job. At the end of each day, I change out of my dirt-covered pants, wash the dust and dead gnats off my face and arms, and rest my aching lower back on my (suddenly luxurious) twin bed. Lying in silence, I’m full of a sense of accomplishment and a yearning to continue with the important work I’m doing in the field. Still, as rewarding as this experience is, even a seasoned archaeologist would admit the need for some downtime to alleviate the physical stress of a dig.

For this reason, Professor Rubin and our other fearless leaders pack our weekends with activities. Since the trip is meant to be an educational experience, our weekend activities typically consist of excursions to places of historical, archaeological, religious, or cultural importance.

This past weekend, we visited several sites relatively close to home—our temporary home, that is. On Saturday, we worked at the site from 5 to 8:30 AM (!), came back to the kibbutz, ate breakfast, and made our way to Banias. This site, located in the Golan Heights just northeast of Omrit, is associated with the Greek god Pan (for whom it is named). Here, one can find a cave dedicated to Pan as well as several niches in the adjacent cliff face in which statues of deities would likely be located. Near to this site is a temple and larger city erected by Herod the Great. We walked through these sites while Professor Rubin and Professor Jason Schlude of Duquesne University gave short lectures about the history of Banias. After the guided tour, some students and I made our way to Banias Falls, which, according to an unnamed Carthage College student, is the highest waterfall in the Middle East. Regardless of its relative height, the falls were beautiful and entirely worth the trek.

Prof. Rubin in front of Pan's cave. Crazy to think a creature once revered as a god is now representing the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Oh! how the mighty have fallen.

Prof. Rubin in front of Pan’s cave. Crazy to think a creature once revered as a god is now representing the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Oh! how the mighty have fallen.


How the mighty have fallen, indeed.

How the mighty have fallen, indeed.

 

On Sunday, we made our first trip of the season to another active archaeological site, Huqoq. Under the direction of Professor Jodi Magness, the excavators at Huqoq are making great strides at revealing the remains of a late Roman synagogue notable for its largely intact mosaic of the Biblical character Samson. Prof. Magness spoke electrically about her site, and we relished the opportunity to see how other students and professors work at a different location.

Unfortunately, I couldn't take any pictures of Huqoq since their finds have yet to be published. Instead, here's how the Israeli Parks Authority warns people against drowning.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any pictures of Huqoq since their finds have yet to be published. Instead, here’s how the Israeli Parks Authority warns people against drowning.

 

Later in the day, we made our way to Tiberias, a modern city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Though we were eager for shawarma and souvenirs, we were willing to make one last stop at Hamat Teverya, a national park known for its hot springs (still in use by the spa across the street) and its synagogue featuring a brilliant mosaic floor. This mosaic is particularly interesting for its depiction of the zodiac, complete with what appears to be Helios, the Greek sun god, in the center. This has led to numerous speculative theories on what the Helios character really means in the context of this synagogue.

"This Enoch, whose flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and whom God placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron." - Gershom G. Scholem

“This Enoch, whose flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and whom God placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” – Gershom G. Scholem

 

By this point, though we were enamored with the mosaic, we were ready to explore the modern city. Some students and I quickly headed for the nearest shawarma stand, and we were thrilled and overwhelmed to find three directly adjacent to one another, each proprietor holding up pieces of meat and falafel for us to sample. To be fair, we split ourselves in three equal groups and bought food from each enthusiastic vendor. Watching the cars drive by merely inches from my left shoulder, I ate my falafel in stunned silence.

At Paresky Snack Bar, I order my falafel with French fries. In Tiberias, my falafel comes with French fries inside.

At Paresky Snack Bar, I order my falafel with French fries. In Tiberias, my falafel comes with French fries inside.

 

Michelle, Queens College class of '13, trying not to stare directly into oncoming traffic.

Michelle, Queens College class of ’13, trying not to stare directly into oncoming traffic.

 

After this experience, I purchased a banana-date-pecan smoothie and walked down toward the water. What was far more interesting to me, however, were the rows upon rows of kitschy souvenir shops and stands on the walk down to the Sea of Galilee. I would be lying if I said souvenir stores and gift shops aren’t very important to me. As breathtaking as the national parks and archaeological sites were and will always be, my weekend was only fully complete after this indulgence.

I know of no other way to express my love for a place than with a tacky shot glass.

I know of no other way to express my love for a place than with a tacky shot glass.

 

As we rode back to the kibbutz, I felt the warm satisfaction of having explored an entirely new place. That is what I’ll always remember.

Four Williams students at Banias Falls, a site only a few kilometers north of the temple at Omrit. From left to right, Sam O'Donnell '15, Emily Loveridge '14, Lydia Heinrichs '15, and Elvira Miceli '13.

Four Williams students at Banias Falls, a site only a few kilometers north of the temple at Omrit. From left to right, Sam O’Donnell ’15, Emily Loveridge ’14, Lydia Heinrichs ’15, and Elvira Miceli ’13.

As I readjust to life on Kibbutz Kfar Szold, I am struck by just how comfortable I continue to feel on the dig. In large part I owe this feeling to the wonderful people who have made this trip possible for me, not once but twice—everyone from Greta, in charge of our lives on the kibbutz, to the wonderful and endlessly entertaining Professor Rubin, to my square members, new and old, to my lovely suitemates in Room 29. Yet, having recently wrapped up another intense semester at Williams, I can also appreciate just how unique a learning experience Omrit has provided me. Too often I finish a class at Williams oversaturated with information that I forget a few weeks later. After only a few days at Omrit, however, I feel myself hit my stride once more, identifying pottery sherds, taking and recording elevations, and trimming balks, as if I had never left. The qualities that I love the most about the Omrit experience, however, are those that every college class seeks and, perhaps by nature, cannot obtain: both depth and breadth. I am already developing a close familiarity with the 5×5 meter square in which I have worked for the past three days. This, in turn, contributes to my understanding of Omrit as a whole, and, therefore, of provincial life in the Roman Empire during the Early Roman and Byzantine periods.

I have found my work as an assistant square supervisor particularly helpful in piecing together a broad understanding of my square from a few individual artifacts and seemingly meaningless fragments. Last year, one of my least favorite jobs on the dig was to “do the book”—measure artifacts, keep track of elevations, draw top plans, and (formerly the task I most dreaded) write daily narratives, or records of our progress and thought processes throughout each day. Still basking in wonder at the tactile aspects of archaeology—the “finding cool old stuff” part—I struggled to resign myself to actually writing down everything our square uncovered, instead focusing on the stuff I myself had dug up. Inevitably, as the joy of finding new things wore off, I found myself disappointed that we had not made any earth-shattering discoveries. This year, however, taking charge of the book as a square supervisor, I have realized that the task of the book is not simply recording, but also an invaluable opportunity to take a step back from individual artifacts, to draw together seemingly disparate observations, discarding some ideas, reevaluating old ones, and uncovering new connections, as well as new questions. Accompanying this understanding of the “bigger picture” of the site, of course, is a newfound acknowledgement that individual artifacts, architectural structures, and even whole squares don’t always make sense together, or knit themselves into one cohesive archaeological picture. This is quite a humbling revelation.

In fact, despite my feeling that I have come a long way since last season, I must remind myself that I have served only three days as an assistant square supervisor. Learning is a lifelong process, and the past week as a returner at Omrit have only brought home to me how much more I have yet to understand about everything—square F19, archaeology as a discipline, Omrit, and the Golan, never mind the Roman Empire, the history of the Syro-Palestine region, and, in particular, my own interest, the Late Roman and early medieval periods. Let the journey begin!

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Back for another season!

Welcome to our blog section for the 2013 season at Omrit!

This summer we have six squares open for excavation at Omrit, and on the blog we’ll be hearing from Williams students in each square about their experiences. I am in a team with Sam O’Donnell ‘15 in square K22, a probe trench to the northeast of the temple complex. Hopefully we will discover something new about a wall running along the north-south axis through the site. Our first few days have consisted mostly of clearing out the top layer of contaminated soil, and this has revealed what appears to be a lot of wall tumble from the initial collapse.

Setting up shade on the first morning of the season

Setting up shade on the first morning of the season

The first week is the most difficult. Opening a new square involves a lot of exhausting preparation- we had to clear shrubbery, set up our tent, measure and string up the boundaries of our balks, and try to level out the depth of our square. New students also must absorb lots of information for the first time—how to take elevations, draw top-plans of the squares, record and catalog archaeological data, and wash pottery—all while recovering from jet lag and adjusting to our work schedule (ah, the cherished 4:30am wake-up knock on the door!). They are also experiencing for the first time the refreshing smell of the kibbutz cows, the chorus of peacocks in the morning at the site, and the swarms of gnats that fly straight for our ears. We all look like quite the fashionable group when we’re out working at Omrit. Drastic steps (and brightly-colored bandanas) are sometimes necessary to protect ourselves from the sun and the bugs!

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Sam O’Donnell ’15 modeling standard Omrit attire

 

Those of us who are returning have missed these scents and sounds and bug bites… Okay maybe not so much. The gnats, though, will hopefully be only a temporary nuisance!

Elvira Miceli '13 shooting an elevation for her square

Elvira Miceli ’13 shooting an elevation for her square

 

Our intense mornings are usually balanced out by relaxing afternoons, when students can catch up on much-needed sleep or cool off at the swimming pool. Eventually I will make a return trip to the kibbutz sculpture garden as well. Yesterday we were rewarded with falafel for lunch, and I have to admit that I’ve been waiting eagerly for eleven months to eat that falafel again. It really is great to be back!

 

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Musings

So pleasant was the after-dinner lull two Fridays ago, my insides warmed by fragrant tea, that the beginning of the Muslim call to prayer over Jerusalem almost startled me. The same hauntingly beautiful cries had accompanied the team’s exit from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that afternoon, at a high point of our day trip to the Old City. Only now, however, did they set my mind in motion. As I admired the dusky Temple Mount from our rooftop restaurant, they made me aware of the rhythm of Jerusalem’s daily life, a rhythm shaped and yet not fully shared by the pilgrims and other visitors who for centuries have flooded this place. How exciting it’d be to live in such a concentrate of history, I couldn’t help imagining.

But perhaps, I sighed to myself, the thrill of the old would soon fade into indifference. I thought of the kibbutz that’s hosting us for the dig season, where one resident uses a column capital from nearby Omrit as a lawn table. Then again, how correctly was I judging the attitude of those who’ve long lived among ancient remains? And should these inhabitants even be expected to treat those remains as if they were museum property? In a country like Israel, the very idea of which has radically different meanings to different groups, the remote past seems after all as much a living subject as the recent one, a subject to grapple with and rewrite more than timidly guard.

The feeling in such a country toward the remnants of antiquity would thus transcend the scale between apathy and enthusiasm, I dared conclude. Those remnants would be no more and no less than part of the fabric of existence there, akin to the language and cuisine. The spoliation I saw at Kibbutz Kfar Szold could itself be viewed, then, as part of a tradition that originated (at latest) in the Byzantine repurposing of Roman stone. I realized that while my reflection had begun on the surface of life in Jerusalem, my travel experience, if terribly limited, had maybe allowed me a glimpse of something deeper. Realizing also that this couldn’t be more than a glimpse for now, I rose from the dinner table with a tourist’s typical, melancholy yearning to leave a piece of herself behind.

Jerusalem

From left to right, Amy, Khanh, Lydia, Elvira, and Cathy in front of Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

 

 

 

 

On the temple podium at Omrit, a Corinthian capital virtually identical to the one I saw at Kfar Szold.

On the temple podium at Omrit, a Corinthian capital virtually identical to the one I saw at Kfar Szold.

 

 

 

 

 

An example of ancient spoliation at Omrit: stones from the Roman temple used to build a Byzantine chapel.

An example of ancient spoliation at Omrit: stones from the Roman temple used to build a structure further east, possibly a Byzantine church.

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