Uncovering the ancient world

A Jesuit priest reflects on an archaeological dig in northern Israel.

By Michael R. Simone, S.J. ’95

The following are some of my reflections about my recent work as part of an archaeological dig in Israel.

First, a little background. I entered the Jesuits in 1997. After working at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo and The University of Detroit Mercy, I attended Boston College to study theology. I finished my studies in 2007 and was ordained a priest in June of that year at Gesu Church next to Carroll. After working as a priest in Boston for a while, my provincial sent me back to school to earn a Ph.D. in biblical studies.

Currently, I’m a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Although Johns Hopkins is famous for its hospital and medical school, it has a strong humanities program, including the Department of Near Eastern Studies, in which I’m working. I expect to finish in the spring of 2013.

Johns Hopkins isn’t a religious university. In my classes, we focus less on biblical theology and more on context – the literature, language, culture, economics, and archaeology of the Ancient Near East. To fulfill part of that archaeology requirement, I spent June and part of July 2010 working on an archaeological dig in the ancient city of Hazor in northern Israel.

A backdrop
Hazor is about 30 miles northeast of Jesus’ childhood home, Nazareth, and about 14 miles north of Capernaum, the city where he lived as an adult. In ancient times, the main road from Israel to Damascus ran near Hazor’s ancient city wall. Next to that road flow several natural springs. Ancient travelers frequently stopped there, and it’s likely Jesus did, too, during his journey from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum (Mark 8:27‐9:33).

In his day, Hazor already would’ve been a ruin; it had been abandoned more than 700 years before his birth. During Hazor’s heyday from 2500‐750 B.C., it was the largest city in Galilee and enjoyed almost 2,000 years of prosperity, engaging in trade and diplomatic relations with cities and kingdoms as far as Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Long before the time of Abraham, Hazor already had grown to a vast size, containing almost 200 acres and thousands of people within its walls. By 1500 B.C., Hazor was the largest city in the Levant; it was probably one of the larger cities in the world.

Like the ruins of many ancient cities, those of Hazor are stacked one on top of the other, forming a hill called, in Hebrew, a tel. Tel Hazor has 21 different layers at its highest point. Each layer, called a stratum (pl. strata), represents a period of 30 to 150 years. At certain times, as the city grew in size or wealth, the inhabitants flattened older buildings and built new ones right on top.

Other times, enemies besieged and burnt the city, and the inhabitants returned and rebuilt right on top of the debris. Most ancient cities grew throughout time in this manner, giving ancient tels a distinctive shape: steep sides and a bowl pattern on the summit, the edges of which trace out the perimeter of the ancient city walls.

A story to tell
Tel Hazor’s two lead excavators, Amnon Ben‐Tor and Sharon Zuckerman, are professors of archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since 1990, they’ve dug several areas of the tel, uncovering items that have enriched our knowledge of biblical culture. Several years ago, they located a spot where they believe an ancient palace archive is buried.

Since then, they’ve been digging toward the strata that represent the years 2000 to 1500 B.C., a period known as the Middle Bronze Age, the setting of the biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If their hunch is correct, their discovery will be one of the most valuable finds of ancient texts since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Archaeology, however, advances slowly. Each layer has a story to tell. Every stratum is studied carefully before researchers move on to the one underneath it. During the course of a year, excavators are lucky to get through just two strata of the tel, representing a historical span of sometimes less than one century. To dig to the level professors Ben‐Tor and Zuckerman intend will take several more years of sustained effort. When our team arrived in June 2010, the excavators had reached the early eighth century (about 775 B.C.). When I left in July, we only had dug down until about 820 B.C.

The history of this period appears in the Bible in 2 Kings, chapters nine to 15, and 2 Chronicles, chapters 18 to 25. The northern part of Israel, where Hazor is located, was ruled, at this time, by kings of the Jehu dynasty, which started out weak but grew stronger. The last king of this period was King Jeroboam II (ca. 785 to 745 B.C.), whose reign was a time of prosperity and international strength. These last years also are chronicled in the books of the prophets Amos and Hosea, who took a dim view of the social injustice that allowed merchants and princes to gain such affluence.

During this complex time, Hazor was a city on the border of the Kingdoms of Israel and Damascus. Although still a wealthy trade entrepôt, it had declined from its earlier grandeur. It lay in a frontier zone, providing trade opportunities but also recurrent international conflict. Hazor changed hands several times during the period, each time losing population and infrastructure that were difficult to replace.

After a young Jeroboam II restored peace to the region, Hazor began to grow again. An invasion cut this rebirth short in 732 B.C., when an Assyrian king, Tiglath‐Pileser III, attacked the city, wiped it out, deported its people, and left its ruins abandoned. Although small villages came and went on the slopes of the tel for many centuries after that, Hazor never was rebuilt.

Poignant reminders of the day
Disasters and military invasions aren’t difficult to see in the course of an excavation. The peculiar structure of a tel preserves vivid reminders of the day of destruction. During an invasion, ancient inhabitants gathered what they could and fled, taking only what was precious and easy to carry. If they came back and rebuilt, they did so on the top of ruins or burnt debris. This same debris sealed what was left behind as if in a tomb.

Thousands of years later, excavators digging through such destruction layers find poignant reminders of the day on which disaster struck: oil presses full of burnt olive‐pits, abandoned before the fruit was completely pressed, or half‐finished ceramics still on a potter’s wheel, or storage jars full of grain waiting to be milled into flour. I had the unique opportunity to excavate such a pile of grain, the charred wheat kernels still perfectly shaped after almost 3,000 years.

Whoever abandoned it had left behind enough grain to feed a large family for several months. To the subsistence farmers of ancient Israel, such a mass of stored food represented a huge investment in wealth and time. It was a haunting monument to an ancient family’s panicked flight.

Trash to treasure
Most archaeological finds are more prosaic. Walk over an Israelite tel for even a few minutes, and you will find one or two ancient potsherds lying bare on the ground. Dig into the tel, and you’ll find thousands of sherds from vessels of every kind. Ceramics were the plastics of the ancient world. They are produced from simple materials, easily fashioned into a variety of shapes, and inexpensive to replace. Unlike plastic, though, ceramic breaks easily. In a city as large and as old as Hazor, the streets were littered with pieces of broken crockery tossed out with the household rubbish.

What was trash to the ancients is treasure to archaeologists, who can read potsherds using characteristics to determine the date, place of manufacture, vessel type, and original use. Oil‐lamps, for example, appear everywhere, but a collection of storage jar fragments can indicate a granary or warehouse. A concentration of cooking‐pot fragments signify places where food was purchased or prepared. Jug fragments show where wine and oil were likely distributed. Highly polished or painted sherds indicate elite sectors of a city. Certain bowl types are witness to religious activity.

Every artifact gives a little bit of information about the world from which it came. Collecting and organizing the artifacts brings their information together in a coherent way, just like a camera lens brings the various wavelengths of light into a sharp focus.

In addition to potsherds, stone tools and beads are common. Our team found several stone bowls and grinders and the remains of what’s believed to be a cosmetic palette. Other items are much more rare. During the month our team dug, we found only three metal objects – two iron blades and the remains of an unidentifiable bronze tool. We found no items of precious metal, but this isn’t surprising because the inhabitants would’ve fled with such things, or if they didn’t, the invaders would’ve seized them as plunder. In either case, nothing would’ve been left for archaeologists to find.

Strong foundations
Most ancient buildings were made of stone and mud‐brick, which can survive the worst fires. Even if a building’s higher stories toppled when the city was sacked and burnt, the foundations always remain. Once excavators remove the dirt, the floor‐plans of ancient buildings become plain to see. Structural items such as pillars were reused again and again throughout the centuries.

As we dug through the eighth‐century stratum, we found four neatly spaced rows of stone pillars that held up the roofs of small houses in a domestic quarter of the city. As we removed houses, we realized the pillars went much deeper into the fill. Their careful spacing was no accident. A century earlier, they had supported the ceilings of two spacious royal halls. When some disaster had destroyed the buildings, the returning inhabitants had built new houses around the standing pillars, and the entire character of the neighborhood changed.

Fr. Simone

An intense experience
Days are long on a dig. The afternoon sun punishes anyone under it, so we tried to finish the day’s digging by 2:00 p.m. We left our sleeping quarters every morning at 4:45 a.m. to arrive at the tel at 5:00. We dug until 7:00, took a break, and then continued until 9:30 when we had breakfast. Then we went back until 1:00 p.m. when we stopped for pottery washing.

We were free then until 5:00 when we’d review the finds of the day with the team members. After dinner at 7:30 p.m., we’d have lectures until about 9:00 about various topics relating to the history and culture of Hazor. Each day was a mix of hard labor and concentrated learning. I worked with about two dozen dedicated excavators of every age and background. The team support kept any one of us from becoming worn out by the intensity of the experience.

As I hacked my way through Tel Hazor, I couldn’t help but think about Jim Krukones, Ph.D., and the ancient history class I took my first semester at JCU. The love he had for the topic was infectious. He was one of the people who inspired me to follow my own study of the ancient world as a biblical scholar.

I never could have predicted in 1991 that 19 years later I’d be thousands of miles away from Cleveland, rooting through parched earth of Israel for potsherds and loving it all the while. My education at John Carroll was just the first step on a lifetime’s journey of fascinating and challenging experiences. I, for one, can’t wait to see where I’ll wind up next. JCU

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