Friday, April 1, 2011
YOU might have mistaken it for a typical summer barbecue: friends sprawled on a sandy ledge, shielded from the sun by a tarp flapping sporadically from an elusive sea breeze, listening to Kings of Leon blare from minispeakers connected to an iPod as they poked at the embers of a campfire.
Except the fire went out 2,500 years ago.
Still, the campers in Ashkelon, Israel, about 35 miles south of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean coast, were mesmerized by the layer of white ash that adhered to a blackened base. Deftly wielding bamboo sticks, dental tools and trowels, they sifted the soot gingerly in an attempt to identify those who might have flanked this fire pit around 500 B.C., what was being cooked and where it came from.
I had eagerly gone to every new Indiana Jones movie, but had never longed to venture on an archaeological dig. Nor had I been to Israel. So when my wife and I were invited by a friend to tag along for a week last summer, we more or less leaped at the opportunity. (Any lingering doubts were dispelled when we were told that the hotel room reserved for us in Ashkelon faced north, which meant that it was less likely to incur a direct hit by errant missiles occasionally fired from Gaza, about a dozen miles to the south.)
Every June and July, the six-week Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon (digashkelon.com) draws an eclectic mix of college students and mostly other young adult volunteers who discover themselves — and often their vocation — as they uncover and connect with the past. Sponsored since 1985 by the Leon Levy Foundation, administered by the Harvard Semitic Museum and a consortium that also includes Wheaton and Boston Colleges and conducted under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the program accepts applications from anyone who meets three criteria. “They must be physically able, have at least a six-week interest in archaeology and be prepared to have fun,” said Tracy Hoffman, a grid supervisor. “We’ll take anyone who wants to dig dirt.”
“It’s like an adult sandbox,” said another supervisor, Kathleen Birney.
The dig draws singularly disparate individuals. One year, a couple came to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Last summer, about a third of the 40 participants had no formal training in archaeology. They included students majoring in French literature, Russian history and political science; a Harvard philosophy student who said he came “on a lark because I had never seen this part of the world”; and Hillary Smith-Wikle, a third-generation volunteer whose professor at Troy University in Alabama and his professor had dug at Ashkelon. (Ms. Smith-Wikle is applying to the Defense Department’s Forensic Science Academy, which recovers the remains of soldiers killed in combat. “As an army wife with a husband in Afghanistan, I think it is a good fit,” she said.)
Michael Goble, an archaeology major at Wheaton, returned last summer with his girlfriend, Heather (a number of the participants have since paired off and married) and his 50-year-old father.
“It had been my dad’s dream as well to go to Israel ever since he studied for ministry in college and seminary, yet he was willing to send me there first,” Mr. Goble said. “As soon as I returned from my trip to Israel I told my dad that he had to go back with me the following summer.”
“All three of us had the time of our lives moving dirt, uncovering large Roman architecture, finding pottery and traveling around,” he said. “I got to witness my father baptize Heather in the Jordan River near Bethsaida.”
The deadline to apply for the 2011 expedition is April 5. The full program runs from June 5 through July 15. Some scholarships and fellowships are available to defray the cost ($2,900, including room and board; a half session is $1,450). The full for-credit academic program offered through Harvard for undergraduates and graduate students is $5,500. (The several Sudanese and Ethiopian workers hired to help on the site laughed out loud when they heard that the volunteers were paying for the privilege of what, from afar, might have seemed like the opportunity to be hired as extras playing the roles of hod carriers in “The Ten Commandments.”)
The expedition is a mix of Outward Bound and summer school. The classes are all outdoors — below ground, mostly — in deep pits excavated in grids marked on a 130-acre bowl atop an eroding cliff that overlooks the beach below. The site is part of a national park, populated by picnickers and jackals and mongoose, with guest appearances by the pink, black and white-crested hoopoe, Israel’s national bird.
The accommodations are vastly improved from the first year when, with the group camping out near the dig, the director stumbled into a cesspool and had his pants stolen. These days, the accommodations compare very favorably with sleepaway camp and the hotel food is tolerable (it’s served at a buffet, so at least there’s plenty of it).
Breakfast is at 5 a.m. A bus leaves for the excavation before 6. Digging usually ends for the day by 1 p.m. because of the heat. After lunch, participants clean and analyze the morning’s discoveries.
“We’re voyeurs,” said Adam Aja of Harvard. “We’re going through ancient garbage.” To the untrained eye, the broken pottery and other artifacts may seem indistinguishable, but archaeologists take great care not to contaminate distinct layers of ancient civilizations.
Ashkelon was the site of 20 cities from the Bronze Age (around 3500 B.C.) through the Crusader period (in the 1500s) and was occupied by Canaanites, Israelites, Philistines, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Mycenaeans, Greeks and Romans.
What is striking, too, is the juxtaposition of ancient ruins and modern technology. Each artifact and the daily changing dimensions of the dig are meticulously digitized.
“Every field book is typed onto a laptop, every bucket is assigned a bar code to enable us to communicate the results to the archaeological community faster,” said Dr. Daniel M. Master, an archaeology professor at Wheaton College and the expedition’s new co-director with Dr. Lawrence E. Stager, a Harvard archaeology professor and director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, who has overseen the dig for 25 years.
Amateur and professional archaeologists can dig for months elsewhere without ever finding anything (although as Zach Grossman philosophized, “Even when we find nothing, we find something”). But Ashkelon, with prompting by passionate experts and the amateurs they tutor, regularly disgorges an astounding number and variety of ancient artifacts: in recent years, a silver statuette of a calf, a dog cemetery, arrowheads, bi-chrome pottery, amphorae once filled with wine from Cyprus and Rhodes and silver coins bearing the portrait of Alexander the Great. (I found an almost intact unguentarium, a small perfume flask.)
“It is the most rewarding experience when you can piece together small bits of evidence and paint or theorize a bigger picture,” said Patricia Kim, who is pursuing a double major in art history and Near Eastern archaeology at Berkeley.
Ashkelon is so rich in artifacts that a few months after we left, a storm collapsed a cliff to reveal a 2,000-year-old white marble statue of a woman wearing a toga and sandals. It was discovered by a beachcomber, which prompted Bob Lenzner, a friend who recalled sweating with us in a pit in Ashkelon last summer, to remark, “Maybe next year, we just wait on the beach.”