Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Exciting Conclusion


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sepphoris 5/21

Sepphoris Wrap Up

So what does an archaeological numismatist do when the excavation he is working with does not find many coins? Sepphoris 2011 found lots of interesting information but only around 8 coins give or take. That was fewer than one a day, and except for one that was so corroded there was no chance to identify it, I was able to put tentative identifications on each of them rather quickly. (One cannot give full attributions until the coins are cleaned. Unlike coins that are found on beaches or on the surface of the ground, coins from excavations are usually heavily encrusted, and often cannot even be easily recognized as coins. Luckily all of our Sepphoris gang had very sharp eyes, and combined with the advance warnings of the metal detector, I do not think we let any escape.)

                With so few coins to examine, I had lots of free time to help out in other areas of the excavation.  Since I am a bit old to remain bent over digging and sweeping for 3 or 4 consecutive hours, I did not do much of that, though I did spend some time cleaning up areas of dirt where the ground was too dirty to excavate or to be seen properly in photos or drawings. But the main jobs I undertook were carrying dirt and sifting dirt. Most of the excavated dirt was sifted, but some of it was simply dumped.

                When we began the excavation our leaders carefully selected a dump site. Did you know that esthetics is an important consideration for good field archaeologists? Not only do they want to make sure that excavations are thorough, well- organized, and properly recorded. They also want to be certain that the selected areas are excavated in such a way as to leave them as pleasing as possible to look at in years to come. Finally, all of the dirt that is removed must be relocated to the most innocuous possible dump site, that is carefully marked on plans so some unsuspecting archaeologist does not spend days or weeks re-excavating it in the future (an unfortunate event I am assured has occurred more than once).

                The dump site chosen on the first day of our excavation was a previously excavated area where nothing of significance had been found; it was right on the edge of the western acropolis where we were digging, so it would not become an eyesore. We began with a square, previously excavated pit that was about 10 by 12 feet and around 6 feet deep. It contained a few stones, and tree branches, but it was mostly empty. When we began dumping our junk and our sifted waste in this spot, it never occurred to me that we might fill it even half way. Day by day, however, the dump pit began to be filled, and by our last day it had not only been filled to the brim, but we had smoothed it over approximately 2 feet ABOVE ground level. I suspect that this will settle considerably in the next rainy season. In the meantime, my limited ability with higher mathematics has allowed me to calculate that our little group moved around 960 cubic feet of dirt and stones (about 36 cubic yards) in just under two weeks of six-hour work days. I learned by way of Google that a cubic yard of gravel/dirt weighs around 2,400 pounds, so our little group has, in order to further the understanding of ancient Sepphoris, moved a bit more than 86,000 pounds (40+ tons!) of dirt and rocks. This is roughly the equivalent of 12-13 small dump truck loads of dirt. Because the site was not a flat surface, we could not use a wheelbarrow except as something over which to sift dirt. So all of the large stones were carried by hand, and smaller rocks and dirt were carried in 10 liter buckets. (In fact our complete group moved considerably more earth, perhaps 50 percent more, because Milton and Byron operated in a lower area, with different dumps, and moved a great deal of dirt as well!)

                Keep in mind that ours was a limited excavation, with modest excavation goals. Imagine how much dirt might be moved over a 4-5 week period with more than a hundred participants.

                This is the last entry in the Sepphoris 2011 blog, although I will continue to use this blogspot to post some regular articles and commentary related to archaeology and ancient coins of the Holy Land.

                Above this post you can see a large contingent of our group at the bima, or prayer platform, at the Talmudic period (4-6 centuries CE) synagogue at Umm el Qanatir. They are: back row, from left Sean Burrus (Duke University grad student, religion), Emanuel Fiano (Duke University grad student, religion), Alan Todd (Duke University grad student, religion). Front row from left, Jessica Vahl (Duke University grad student, classical studies), Elizabeth Baltes (Duke University grad student art history and visual studies), Professor Carol Meyers (Duke University), Professor Eric Meyers (Duke University), Ben Gordon (Duke University grad student, religion), David Hendin (American Numismatic Society). Missing from this photo were Stephen Wilson (Duke University grad student, religion) who was ill, Professor Byron McCane (Wofford College) and Professor Milton Moreland (Rhodes College), both of whom stayed behind to excavate.



Friday, May 20, 2011

Sepphoris 5/19-20

Sepphoris is "the ornament of all the Galilee" – Flavius Josephus, 1st century CE

Although we found plenty at this brief excavation season at Sepphoris, we didn't find the Lost Ark. We were not looking for it of course, but, nevertheless, the first thing that most people ask upon hearing that I have been at an excavation is: "What did you find." We definitely found satisfaction in our experience and, happily for the research, much data to justify it. I think that all 13 of us who participated in Sepphoris 2011 found a certain pleasure in getting to work at 6:15 a.m. and working (playing) in the dirt until 1:30 p.m. (Although nobody who saw any of our group working in the Galilean dust and heat would have considered it play.) Yet the banter and joking between everyone was a great part of the experience. A lot of sweat was expended by those who dug, carried, and sifted the dirt. A number of members of our group were supervisors, but even our most senior archaeologists jumped in and out of trenches and pits and carried buckets of dirt and sifted them literally every day of this brief season of probing the earth, measuring, and sketching structures in preparations for the final excavation report of this remarkable ancient city.

                Yesterday we had another excellent session of pottery reading with all of the important areas showing consistent pottery from appropriate periods. Noteworthy were additional significant late Iron Age fragments including large pieces of a saucer-type oil lamp and a large cooking pot of the period, again underlining our belief that there was significant settlement here during the biblical period even though no trace of actual construction from that time has yet been found.

                Today the sun was bright although much of the haze from previous days remains in the air. Yesterday it was overcast and the air was heavy and still, making for our hottest, sweatiest working conditions. On hindsight, however, I don't think even one of us would have traded the days at Sepphoris for time on a beach.

All good things must come to an end, however, and today was the last day of our excavations. Remarkably, Milton Moreland of Rhodes College in Memphis, is leaving Israel to return home Friday night. By Sunday he will be digging and supervising at his second summer excavation in Western Tennessee, where a group of experts and students from Rhodes will be exploring ancient American Woodlands and Mississippian cultures from as long as 2,000 years ago. What a remarkable experience it must be for Milton to excavate the soil of Sepphoris, Israel, from 2,000 years ago, and within a few days to be excavating 2,000-year-old American civilizations. I hope he will write an article about the fascinating contrasts and I'll look forward to reading it.

                At Sepphoris Milton and Byron McCane of Wofford College in Spartanburg SC worked tirelessly together (see their photos above) to solve some mysteries regarding areas they had excavated and studied during previous seasons at Sepphoris. They dug probe trenches in some incredibly interesting areas, rich with pottery from the late Iron Age (Iron II) up to the Middle Roman Period. One of the objects they pulled from the earth may have been the most fascinating single find from our Sepphoris season. It was a Hellenistic period jar handle (circa 3-2 centuries BCE)…jar handles are generally plentiful, but what was unusual about this jar handle is that it bears a stamp showing that it originated at Rhodes. It is well known that ancient Rhodes was an exporter of both fine wine and olive oil throughout the ancient Mediterranean and it is interesting that even though both of those commodities must have also been manufactured in or near Sepphoris (as they are today), the community was wealthy enough to also import these products. The handle shows a "rose" of Rhodes, along with a Greek inscription that probably refers to the manufacturer or the exporter of the wine or oil contained in the very large amphora once attached to this handle (see handle photo above).

                I would like to take a moment to point out that this type of Rhodian jar handle can frequently be purchased in the legal antiquities market of Israel for a relatively small sum. And the handles themselves are fascinating. But what gives this particular handle inestimable value is the fact that it was excavated at a known location by archaeologists who are able to better understand the place where it was found because of the object itself. When even a minor object such as jar handle is removed from its archaeological context without being properly recorded, an inestimable amount of information about earlier cultures and civilizations may be lost forever.

                Each of us were pleased whenever we found an interesting shard or object, today I also had the pleasure of hearing our excavation supervisor Ben Gordon exclaiming to himself over another discovery: "There is nothing quite so exciting as finding a new wall," said Ben as he surveyed and traced the lines of a wall, probably from an early to middle Roman period, that had been more fully exposed and delineated on our final day of excavations (see photo of Ben doing a measurement).

                To look at the plan of the western acropolis of Sepphoris where we have been working for the past weeks is really remarkable. It is a huge sheet of paper with thousands of tiny, intricate lines, numbers, and other details meticulously added as notations.  By getting all of this information onto a single sheet, it becomes easier for the experts to piece together plans of buildings, streets, and alleys of ancient cities.

                Our section of Sepphoris is a rather complicated site because it was built and rebuilt over a period of hundreds of years. Some of the houses have elements from an original house, and then elements added or modified at later dates. Sometimes water storage cisterns were capped, and new ones opened, at other times the openings to water cisterns were raised significantly to account for the new elevation of a building structure.

                The earth still holds many mysteries of ancient Sepphoris, some of which will never be revealed, but others will come forth in future excavations.

                In the next blog I will tell you the fate of an archaeological numismatist at an excavation during which not many coins are found!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

mysterious omission

Inexplicably, the remarkable photo of Emanuel was omitted from the post for 5/17. Here it is.......

Sepphoris 5/17

"Sixteen miles all around Sepphoris is a land flowing with milk and honey" – Jerusalem Talmud.
I don't know all about the radius, but last night it rained mud here in Sepphoris. I'm not kidding. The weather had been quite cool with some rain and a few days ago we actually had hail for a few minutes. But for a couple of days it has been overcast and on Monday night I was awakened by a heavy storm passing by. It sounded as if it was pouring rain, and I did not really know for how long. But when I woke up in the morning and went outside, the terrain was generally dry but all of the cars had mud splashed ALL over them and it was very clear that there had been so much dirt and dust in the air that when the rain came down it absorbed the dirt and literally rained mud all over the place. The windows are so muddy they will all need to be cleaned before I can drive.
                Today's pottery reading left all of the excavators jubilant (see photo above of jubilant people watching Eric Meyers read the pottery shards). Pottery was examined from key areas and diagnostic shards were plentiful and from quite early date….including late Iron Age, Persian Period, and Early Roman…also later Roman and Byzantine in some areas. All of this information helps to confirm and clarify dating for most of the areas in which we have been excavating…..in other words, we have found a great deal of the information that was being sought, and that's good news for the final excavation reports that are being prepared. (There are no known Iron Age [ending 586 BCE] or Persian Period [586-3rd cen. BCE] sites here at Sepphoris. But the large amount of significant pottery fragments from these periods suggests that there was a genuine occupation during these "Biblical" periods and one can predict that some time in the future another generation of archaeologists will locate them.)
                I don't think I have previously talked about the overall excavation site here and specifically the area on the western slope where we are digging. So here is a general overview of the western acropolis at Sepphoris a fascinating, flourishing, and largely Jewish city from the Hellenistic Period through its devastation by a massive earthquake in 363 CE.
                The western slope of the city contained around 5 or 6 homes (see photo above of the site taken from atop the Citadel on the top of the mound). These were generally fairly large (contrary to what I wrote about "small homes" a few days ago) Roman style homes that surrounded a central courtyard. It is a bit difficult to ascertain the exact nature of each dwelling, but they appear to have belonged to prosperous families. Each of the homes seems to have several stages of building, in which initial structures were modified and expanded as time passed. There are MANY underground storage areas and water cisterns that honeycomb the entire area under this portion of Sepphoris. Many of them have clear hard basalt well-heads (see photo below) that made it convenient for people to raise and lower water jugs to be lowered into them to draw water.
                Jewish ritual baths, called "mikvahs" (mikvahot in Hebrew) literally dot the entire area, and often homes have 3 or even four mikvahs in a single house. It seems that they were not necessarily used simultaneously, and when one became filled with silt or otherwise unusable, another would be built. The Jewish mikvah has certain ritual requirements, one of which is a source of fresh, running water into it. The mikvahs here in Sephoris are neatly made plastered installations, sometimes carved out of the bedrock, and at other times built independently. Their very presence in this city gives a very Jewish identity to the city. (see photo of Eric Meyers below pointing out mikvah, a plastered pool with steps, alongside a water storage pool on left).
                While we have found only around eight coins here during our brief (2 week) excavation (see photo of me below using metal detector and NOT finding coins….), the coins struck in Sepphoris very much help tell a part of the story of the city. For reasons we do not fully understand, the people of Sepphoris decided not to participate in the Jewish War against Rome which began in 66 CE and mainly ended in 70 CE when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. (Actually the war continued until 73 CE when Masada fell to the Roman legions.)  In deciding not to participate in this war, the people of Sepphoris were not necessarily being traitorous to the Jewish cause. In Jerusalem there were both "pro peace" and "pro war" parties. Prominent members of the "pro peace" parties were King Agrippa II, great grandson of Herod the Great, who pleaded with his fellow Jews not to enter into war against Rome, since they would surely be defeated. Another "peacenick" of the time was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who is best known as the founder of the Academy of Jewish learning established at Yavne, in the north, after the Temple was destroyed. This academy at Yavne was the origination point of Rabbinic Judaism in which the daily Temple sacrifice was replaced by daily prayer, and the earthly Jerusalem was replaced by the heavenly Jerusalem. Rabbinic Judaism was adoptive in nature, and many argue it was a central force in allowing Judaism to survive and thrive until today.
                At any rate, Nero (54-58 CE) rewarded the people of Sepphoris, by allowing them to mint coins (possibly under the direction of Agrippa II who had not yet become king, but was a governor in the area)—and these coins named Sepphoris as "Irenopolis" or "City of Peace." Later, under the emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), coins were minted in Sepphoris with one side showing the portrait of the emperor and the other side carrying the name of the city. These coins were also unique in that they did not show the usual mythological characters or pagen gods presented on the local coinage of other cities. Instead the wreath, palm tree, ears of grain, and other symbols not offensive to the Jewish population were depicted.
                Later Sepphoris was named "Diocaesarea" (City of Zeus) on its coins and a Temple to Zeus was shown on coins of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE).
                Within the next century, remarkable coins struck under Caracalla (197-218 CE) and Elagabalus (218-222 CE) talk of a special treaty between the sacred council of Sepphoris and the sacred Senate of Rome. These coins seem to reflect a notation in the Talmud that refers to a special relationship between a Roman Emperor named Antoninus (part of Caracalla's Latin name) and the senate of Rome.
                In case any of you think this stuff is boring, check out the photo below of our colleague Emanuel, a Duke graduate student in religion. As you can see, he has become demonstrably excited by the Sepphoris excavations. Among the reasons for his jubilant mood may well be Elizabeth Baltes, a Duke grad student in art history, and Jessica Vahl, a Duke grad student in classical studies shown hard at work in one of the areas they excavated.
                TUNE IN tomorrow……..for the amazing Sepphoris water reservoir and the only one of the many synagogues of Sepphoris that has been discovered so far….and more of the inside stories on the excavators of Sepphoris 2011...what will Sean wear?