I feel sorry and sad that I didn’t provide an update earlier on in my travels, but it was very difficult to access WiFi and the free time to write while I was at my first dig.
I am now sitting in a Hostel in Tiberias, preparing to continue my travels, on to Jerusalem, as soon as public transportation starts running again. I have officially completed my time at the excavations Tel Abel Beth Maacah, and the experience was simultaneously nothing like what I expected, and yet exactly what I thought it would be.
Before I delve into my deep, boring, moral and philosophical contemplation, I do want to start out by saying I have thoroughly enjoyed my time abroad so far. There have been challenges, and daunting moments, just as with every trip anyone ever takes to a new-to-them country. But those sticky times have been far outweighed by the moments of joy I have found.
I have made some great friends while here. Most of them have been human, but there are two very important mentions who are not of the Homo sapiens variety. The first is a stuffed camel who has accompanied me to every place I have visited. His handsome mug is featured proudly in every picture of every site I have photographed, and I have attached one of his portraits below. The second companion is a cat named Skippy, who I met at the Kibbutz the dig members boarded at. Skippy is supposed to be white, but he likes to follow his own trends, and has opted for more of a dust-streaked look, which I will admit he rocks well. I began feeding him the first week, and by the first weekend, he spent all day on the porch and would come great me at his meal times. He eventually also began leaving me little presents in the form of hunted insects, and when my roommate asked him to take out a cricket that had been chirping endlessly outside our window, he gladly obliged and it was gone the next day. He truly is a mighty hunter. I have also attached a picture of this stunning lad below. If I had permission, he would have gone home with me in a heartbeat. But alas, his soul belongs in the desert.
And now on to my ponderings.
Going to biblical archaeological sites, like Tel Abel Beth Maacah, I knew to expect some level of underlying religious drive in some of the dig members. But I didn’t realize just how deeply intertwined religious sentiment was and is with academic practices here. Many people on the dig team spoke of joining to have spiritual experiences. Lectures spoke about the use of Bible and Spade Archaeology, where sites are located based on descriptions of the areas in Abrahamic literature, and excavated in hopes of finding evidence to corroborate this religious literature’s depiction of events.
To be clear, I am not in any way trying to badmouth religion or its place in any academic’s life. I have simply spent the vast majority of my education being taught about the importance of separating my own spiritual views and biases from my work, and so it was astonishing to me to learn that there are places where almost the exact opposite is done.
We took a tour around the Sea of Galilee my second weekend here, and the Bible and Spade sentiment was extremely present in the sites we visited. Certain excavation areas had been plunged into a fog of religious sentiment so thick I could almost reach out and feel it.
Of course, this is the holy land for three different major religions in the world, and several other less widely spread ones. But time after time, site after site, I heard of the ways that this focus on a single goal, a single bias, could lead to the loss of so much potential knowledge. There were talks of entire layers of excavation sites being discarded without examination because excavators wanted to get lower down to biblical times. Pottery sherds being thrown away by the bucketfull because the Hellenistic Era was later than what was being sought – the Iron and Bronze Ages. Massive debates, sometimes strewn with profanities and sometimes leading to the publication of entire books, over whether or not artifacts represented something described in a single verse of Abrahamic literature. Razing of entire areas to get to buildings that may lead underneath. And the list goes on.
I felt, and still feel, extremely lucky to be able to come here to learn about physical imprints of history from an area with such a long and diverse story of human occupation. But there is a fervor here, too. A search for the earliest histories, for the most sacred places, for the most glorified people. And this fervor has manifested itself in mountains and mountains of discarded debris, some of it never sifted, some of it filled with found and intentionally thrown items. And I look at these mounds, and can’t help but wonder what makes the dirt below any more sanctified than the dirt above.
And it speaks to a bigger picture in the practice of our history making across the globe, but especially in the Western world. The victor tells the story. The governments and administrations dictate what can’t be placed in history books. The displaced peoples don’t get their voices heard. The oral histories don’t get deemed credible.
How much have we lost, not here solely but across the globe, by plowing through history to get to a specific goal? How many thousands of stories are we losing because we are too singularly focused to stop and listen?
Perhaps this is idealism on my part. Archaeology is, after all, by its nature, destructive (although scientific developments have helped to make it less and less ruinous by the year). But while history can be rewritten, excavation can never be fully reversed. How much of the broader story have we tossed to the wayside, in our rapid pursuits of what’s underneath?