The Work Begins


June 10-11, 2014

The next morning was our first day at the dig site. We woke up promptly at 4:50 am and rolled out of bed, groaning with exhaustion. I packed up my bag and threw my hair into a ponytail before heading out to the bus. We watched the sun rise up over the rolling hills and splash brilliant color onto the lake, my eyes heavy with sleep and unwilling to stay open.

We’d been told beforehand to think about what area we wanted to dig in. There were three possible sections: area A South, which was working on uncovering the 10th century city wall; area A West, which was excavating the Roman remains; and area T, a brand new section with remains from the medieval Mamluk period. I hadn’t put much thought into it because I thought we would be able to move around from section to section if we wanted, but apparently we had to stay with the site leader we chose to be with.

I chose to go with Dr. Kate Raphael, who was softspoken and careful with her words, and very passionate about her field. She was leading the dig in area A South, at the 10th century city wall. Kate led us to our area and gave us all tools, pickaxes and shovels and brushes. She taught us how to dig properly, by going down level by level instead of digging one deep hole, trying to keep the whole area the same height.


A South

We started working while she took the other half of our group to another section of the dig. Not quite sure what to do, I plopped down onto the soft, dusty earth. “I’ll dig here,” I said. “We should probably spread out so we can keep it even like she said.” Everyone else agreed and we spaced apart. I started shoving loose earth into buckets, slowly, taking my time to look at the dirt and see if there was anything in my shovel. Kate came back to help us.

“You are digging too slow,” she said, taking a bucket. “Just go like this.” She set the bucket sideways on the ground and pushed big piles of dirt into it. “Then when you are done, sift the bucket over there.”



Over to the side were several sifters hanging from large metal frames, huge piles of dirt underneath them. I carried my bucket over there and dumped it over the grate. The earth fell through and created a black cloud, making me cough. Kate helped me identify my first finds– a few pottery shards too small to keep, a tiny bone fragment, and a smooth river stone. The stone was curiously polished. I had no idea what it could be. She plucked it out of my hand and, to my horror, licked it and rubbed the dirt away. “Just a rock,” she said, handing it back.

Last season, she told us, her group had found a large wall and courtyard area below the existing one from the later city. She wanted to see if the wall continued across the hill. “In fact, I have made a bet with Rami,” she told us, smiling. “He says this spot should contain the city gate. I don’t think it was here, maybe father down. The wall should keep going.”

“What are the terms of your bet?” someone asked.

“Well, since I am going to be right, Rami has to buy me a ticket to go around the world. But on the very very small chance that I am wrong, I had to wear a shirt that says ‘Kate was wrong’ in three different languages.”

Finally, 9:00 came around and it was time for breakfast. We left our tools at the site and clambered back over the rocks and across our home-made path that connected the dig area with the main trail. Back at the tool shed, tables had been set out, piled high with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, orange slices, chocolate cereals, slices of bread, yogurt, cheese, milk, and coffee. I realized suddenly that I was starving and filled my plate with more food than I could possibly eat.

Breakfast time

Breakfast time

Breakfast was the best time. We sat in the shade of several shade tarps all together, talking and joking and getting to know each other. The Australians were funny and we talked about American and Australian stereotypes. (Apparently in Australia, McDonald’s is called Macca’s.) It was nice to just sit in the cool air and talk with people and relax.

Around 9:45 we cleaned up breakfast and went back to digging. We were kicking the dry, loose dirt up into the air and I was breathing it in. It stuck to my throat and made me cough. I had forgotten to pack my gloves that day (of course I forgot something) and the pickaxe was giving me blisters on the palms of my hands. The early morning had been cool and shady, but soon the sun began to rise. The shade tarps hung above the square provided shelter from direct heat, but sweat was dripping down my face in steady beads. I had never sweated so much in my life.


Half of our area was now exposed to the bright, hot sunlight. Kate warned us not to dig in the direct sun and told us to all crowd in the shady area until the shade moved back over the whole square. The sweat on my face was mixing with dirt and my entire body was covered in a thin layer of dust. It was like natural sunscreen. There was no way I could get sunburned now.

Being down in a pit covered in dirt in the middle of nowhere in Israel might not sound like an ideal study abroad trip, but I had been dreaming of being part of a dig since I was a little kid. Dinosaurs had been my “thing” as a child, and I had wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up. This was my chance to fulfill my childhood dreams that I had played out so many times in my sandbox when I was five. Plus, I had never really grown out of playing in the dirt.


At 11:00 we had popsicle break. Someone came around to each of the dig sites with a bag of really delicious fruity popsicles and we stopped digging for a little while to cool off. Eating the popsicle and also not eating dirt at the same time was hard, since my hands were filthy and the popsicle was so melty. Often Kate and Rami came by to check on our progress, but other than that there wasn’t much supervision or instruction on what to do. Usually they would stop by and ask if we had found anything significant, but pretty much all we had found all day were small pottery shards.

The shards weren’t all that significant to the archeologists, but to me they were treasure. After spending all day in the hot sun, walking away with a bucket filled with pottery that I had found myself and dug up out of the ground made me feel like my time was worthwhile.

At noon we started cleaning up. All the tools and buckets were loaded up into our wheelbarrow and carted back to the tool shed and put away. We took down the tarps and covered the squares we with them, to prevent them from being disturbed while we were gone. We tagged our find bucket and filled it with water to loosen the dirt overnight before the pottery was to be washed.


The bus came at 12:30 and took us back to the kibbutz. Right away, without any time to take a shower or clean up, we went to lunch. It was pretty much the same food as the day before (meat, potatoes, and no dairy) but I ate it because I was famished after doing manual labor all day. I was exhausted and a little overheated and welcomed a cold shower after lunch.

A few people from our group wanted to go to the town nearby, Tiberius, for an afternoon excursion. Usually in the afternoons we would have pottery reading, when we went over the previous day’s finds with Rami, but since there were no finds to go over, it was cancelled. I wanted to go with them, but my day in the heat was starting to get to me. I didn’t feel well and opted for a nap instead.

The day passed uneventfully once I woke up. I unpacked, did some more laundry, and ate a Magnum bar. We ate dinner, which I picked at unhappily, and then at 9:00 we had lecture. We all went into a large room in the commons building and Rami talked about his new theories about the early Canaanite people’s move into Israel. It was very interesting and a long discussion followed afterward.

From there on, our days began to fall into the same pattern. We started to have a routine. Every morning my alarm went off at 4:50 am and I would hit snooze until my roommate’s alarm (blasting “Beautiful Soul” by Jesse McCartney) went off 15 minutes later. I would sleepily gather my things and get to the bus and go to the dig site and dig in the hot sun until noon.

Day 2

Day 2

The second day went pretty much the same as the first. We were on the edge of the site, near the dairy farm where the ruins had been discovered. The poor farmer had been forced to give up 20 acres of his land to the antiquities department when Bethsaida was discovered and he did not like us very much. Down the hill the sheep and goats passed through once a day, grazing through the pastures.

Early in the morning we had come across a lot of rocks and rubble. Kate told us she believed part of the wall or some kind of structure had been destroyed here. “We need to clear out the rubble,” she said, piling the rocks off to the side. I was worried I might remove a rock that was somehow vitally important or had some kind of writing or ancient secret on it. Kate told us not to worry. “Only remove it if it is loose. If it is still secure in the ground, leave it. But we need to get underneath all the loose rocks.”

Right before breakfast we tossed the boulders over the fence and into the dairy farm. I wasn’t sure if we were allowed to do that, but Kate said not to worry. One of the boys joked about hitting the sheep when they passed by, but fortunately the animals were far away. The rocks tumbled down the hill, kicking up huge clouds of dirt and crashing loudly to the bottom of the hill.


After breakfast, I began to find chunks of smooth black rock. Kate came by and asked how we were doing just then, and I gave her a few pieces of the rock. “Where did you find this?” Kate asked. I pointed to the area where I had been digging.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It is called clinker,” she told me, rolling the pieces in her hand. “It is made when bricks are heated to a very high temperature and they melt.” She regarded the area where I had been digging. “Put a few pieces in the find bucket so they can be cataloged, but do not worry about getting all of it.”

I continued digging in that area and soon began to find dusty red earth. Not too long after that, I found several whole bricks in the ground. Kate nodded approvingly. “Good,” she said, seeing the bricks. “You can keep one of them, but throw the other ones away. We don’t need all of them.”

“But why are there only bricks here and not anywhere else?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” Kate said. “But the clinker is important. Before bricks can melt, they have to be heated to extremely high temperatures. And we found rubble from something broken on top of them. I think there was probably some destruction, with a very hot fire here.”

I was amazed at her detective work. I had no idea how she just managed to put things together like that.

A little later in the day, one of the boys was attacked by a large beetle. I say attacked, but the poor thing just accidentally flew into him and freaked him out. It was a big, harmless little beetle with no evil intentions, probably just very confused, but it had very pretty spots on its back.


That night we had our first pottery reading. Rami gave us the baskets that had been tagged with the finds from each area and told us to sort them into piles. One pile for pottery shards, one pile for rims, and one pile for bones. Every so often we came across something that didn’t fit, like an odd-shaped rock or a small piece of glass. We made separate piles for those things. Then we had to count how many things were in each pile. It was a daunting task– my group counted 84 pottery shards that afternoon. It took forever.


Pottery reading

Then Rami picked through the baskets and found the important pieces and plucked them out to tell us what they were. He picked up a rim and showed it to everyone, naming it a Galilean bowl, a very popular style of bowl in the area because they were believed to be more kosher than other bowls. In another basket he pulled out a shimmering glazed piece of pottery with a swirly design on it.

“This is from the Mamluk period,” he explained, holding it up. “The designs were carved into the glaze by hand.” He passed it around so we all could see.

They couldn’t identify the large amount of animal bones that had come from A West, but he explained that the zoo archeologist would be here next week to look at them.

After Rami picked out the most important finds, two people working on the computer would log them and then pass them to the photographer, Hanan. Hanan put them in a light box and took pictures of them, and then they were bagged up and tagged by some more volunteers.

Later on we had another lecture before heading off to bed, our bodies exhausted from the labor and the sun, only to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.


One thought on “The Work Begins

  1. Wanderluster says:

    This sounds like it is going to be an amazing experience. I had a friend who worked on a dig a few summers ago in Greece and she said it changed her life.

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