A Season in the Field (is worth a year in seminary)
So I’ve spent the past three weeks on an archaeological dig in Israel, which is why I haven’t posted much recently. We’ve had some permit issues, so every day is valuable (and we’ve now worked 15 days with only one day off). But to the point, the above title has been uttered to me on now two occasions, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that the man who shared that bit of wisdom is incredibly right, a fact which I should have seen coming. I mean, the man looks like this:
His name is Dr. James F. Strange (yes, that’s his real name), and he is the co-director (with his son James R. Strange) of the University of South Florida excavations at the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris, a dig which I have now volunteered at for two summers. Let me explain to you just why Dr. Strange says this.
1. Encountering the material culture of ancient Palestine
This one’s by far the most important and the most interesting. We’ve been excavating a city called Sepphoris, which is only about 3 miles from Nazareth, which means that Jesus probably spent a significant amount of time in this city practicing his trade as a tekton. Spending four weeks in the dirt here (and listening to lectures or eavesdropping on other conversations) means I can immerse myself in the remains of that culture by means of artifacts and architecture. I can walk the streets of the city Jesus had in mind when he tells his followers they are like a city on a hill. I can hold bits and pieces of ancient oil lamps, the kind that no one puts underneath a basket. I can stand on the mosaic sidewalk where Jesus observed actors, the famous hypocrites he will constantly refer to in his teachings. I have held coins (though the ones I’ve uncovered are too dirty to tell) that may have been inscribed with an image of Caesar, to whom I am supposed to render them. Just by spending four weeks on the dig, everything began to make much more sense.
And it’s not just the things we see and do at Sepphoris, either. We take day trips all over the Galilee. This season, we went to Tel Dan, Megiddo, Capernaum, Caesarea and Nof Ginnosor. These sites are all of incredible biblical importance. Dan was the northern-most city of ancient Israel, and was heavily fortified by the Omride dynasty. It also features the ruins of an altar built by Rehoboam. Megiddo was another fortress city, and reportedly housed many of Solomon’s famous chariots (how many did he have again?). It also boasts much older ruins, including Iron Age temples. Capernaum was apparently Jesus’ home base, especially in the book of Mark, and this little fishing village makes a decent archaeological claim to have the actual house of Peter on the site. Not to mention the glorious 5th century CE synagogue and some other impressive artifacts, including a Hadrianic milestone and some very impressive architectural fragments. Caesarea Maritima boasts a palace of Herod’s – probably the place where Paul was kept during the later chapters of Acts – a beautiful theater, a Mithraeum, two hippodromes, and two very long aqueducts. Nof Ginnosor is actually a modern kibbutz, but it is the final resting place of the famous Jesus boat, the only one of its kind ever discovered. To see it is to step into the past and realize just what it may have been like to be a Galilean fisherman during the first century. You simply cannot attain this understanding of material culture, of the context, without being in the culture.
2. The People
At no other time in my life have I encountered the diversity of personality and opinion as I have here on the dig at Sepphoris. I’ve encountered Liberals, conservatives, Jews, Christians, Muslims, agnostics, men, women, college students, professors, economists, mothers, retired folk, Floridians, New Yorkers, funny people, weird people, and dozens of other personalities on this dig, and I’ve learned to get along with and work alongside every one of them.
But learning to deal with other people is nowhere near as fun as getting along with them. Take Joanna, for example, Dr. Strange’s youngest daughter and my area supervisor this year (essentially, I do whatever she tells me). I’m basically the little brother she never had, and she takes great joy in letting me know it. Which occasionally opens the door for a witty or sarcastic comment. Which will then send Dr. Strange the younger into song (I think he spends time memorizing them just so he can pop in with them at the most opportune times, like when he sings “All the Single Ladies,” or some obscure piece of Motown). Life as an archaeologist is damn hard work, but the relationships you build in the square and at the hotel are worth it. Joanna takes great care of me by buying me an ice cream cone every Friday afternoon, and when I finally make it to New York City, I have the supreme honor of staying on her couch with the kitties. The people here at Sepphoris are the kind of sweet, wonderful people (extended family, really) that everyone needs to have in their lives.
And it’s not just the volunteers. The hotel staff are marvelous. There’s Atef, who wakes up every morning at 4 am (when we do) just to make sure that we can all have cappuccinos at breakfast. Subhe, the manager, will do anything for us, from arranging for taxis to finding out about service times at local churches. The cleaning staff are equally marvelous, as are the men who serve us dinner (though occasionally I have to protest quite loudly before they realize I don’t want any St. Peter’s Fish). And they’re almost all Arab Muslims (gasp!). Living in this country has done wonders for erasing any stereotypes I once had regarding people who fall into that demographic. They’re wonderful, sweet people, and everyone needs to experience the realities on the ground here instead of simply buying in to the media hype and ignorant stereotypes.
3. The Holy Sites
This is an archaeological dig, not a pilgrimage, but I have been blessed to have the opportunity to experience the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that Otto describes. Just a few weeks ago, we went up to Cana, but not the Cana you may have experienced. This is not the modern Cana, with its prominent Wedding Church and modern amenities. This was ancient Cana, plopped down on a rugged hilltop across the Beit Netofa valley from Sepphoris. On one of the lower levels of the hill, hidden beneath a pomegranate tree is the entrance to a small cave, and within that cave is an altar, and six niches just big enough for carved stone wine jars. Pilgrim sources say that these are the wine jars (sadly only a fragment of one remains), and in that moment, I was seized by a great feeling of gratitude. I was so thankful that our God came to us in human form, came to risk himself in this great experiment of life and show us how to live. I was thankful that he cared not only for our needs, but for our satisfaction, and that when the day comes, I will spend an eternity satisfied in him. I was grateful that he left behind a church to preserve these artifacts and to pass on (however imperfectly) his teachings. I was grateful that I have a God who cares that much. These experiences cannot be had anywhere else.
4. The Food
Food is the archaeologist’s fuel. We actually eat four meals a day, and the labor that we engage in typically requires it. What sets this food apart from any other food, which would make just as good a fuel source, is how absolutely delicious it is. Everything is fresh and freshly made. The hotel overwhelms us with salads and hummus and pita and meats of all kinds (well, chicken and beef, but prepared in all new ways). It may not be a deep theological reason, but this food is excellent. Trust me, nothing beats a fresh pita spread with chocolate jam and crunchy peanut butter, especially after you’ve already been working in the field for at least three hours.
Plus, there’s the sharing of food at table. When we eat at the hotel we eat family style (with larger quantities, of course) and we really do feel like a family. There’s great conversation punctuated by the passing of dishes and the clinking of utensils. There’s the occasional spill, the splitting of portions (which can occasionally be insanely huge) and the good natured ribbing (which usually involves someone telling me to eat my vegetables). We share our lives around our food, and we become better and closer for it.
5. The Physical Labor
Depending on how you view things, this one may not be a particularly useful activity, but the monks were on to something when they began requiring all the brothers in the monastery to do labor during the day. There’s something cathartic about doing labor, a kind of feeling of great accomplishment and satisfaction, like the finishing of a paper, only ten-fold. When you look at your square or at the dump pile at the end of the season and realize just how much dirt got moved, you are amazed. The sheer ability of the human will astounds me. In one season, we’ve moved several tons of dirt and exposed all kinds of important structures, all because we wanted to. We may come in from the field tired and dirty and occasionally swearing, but the sense of accomplishment after the moving of a boulder or the excavation of several square meters of earth is something that cannot really be duplicated. You realize that you’ve given sweat (and occasionally blood and tears) to this project, and that the world is better for it. Your labor will eventually produce a more holistic understanding of life in the Galilee, and that’s a fantastic accomplishment.
So there you have it. These are the five most basic reasons why a summer digging in Israel is so incredibly valuable, especially if you want to be a minister or involved in the field of religious studies in any capacity. If you want to learn more about the excavations at Sepphoris, you can do so here or here. This article is broader, but also useful. Hope to see you in the field!