Archaeology for everyone

Israeli government agencies opens digs in Holy Land to amateurs of all shapes.

Khirbet qeiyafa 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Foreign Ministry)
Khirbet qeiyafa 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Foreign Ministry)
When many people hear the word “archeology,” it conjures up images of Indiana Jones, with lots of drama, heroism and discoveries of ancient mysteries.
The reality, however, is much less exciting and painstakingly slow. Yet the part about revealing ancient secrets is possible, and in Israel you don’t have to be an expert to literally “dig in.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority and other government agencies oversee numerous digs throughout the Holy Land and operate a special volunteer program which attracts amateur archeologists from many backgrounds, from students of the Bible to hobbyists. The Foreign Ministry’s website promotes this volunteer program by promising work that “includes digging, shoveling, hauling baskets of earth, cleaning pottery shards and more.”
An average day on a dig begins before dawn and ends in the afternoon. The rest of the day may be devoted to lectures, additional excavation work, and cleaning and sorting pottery and other finds.
Depending on the location and funding levels for a particular dig, volunteers can expect to sleep in tents on site, or they may be accommodated on a nearby kibbutz or even a hotel.
Throughout 2012, the Antiquities Authority is conducting digs with the help of volunteers at such biblical sites as Ein Gedi, Ai (mentioned in Joshua 7-8), Ashkelon, Bethsaida, Megiddo, Hatzor and several other locations.
Many digs are conducted in coordination with major research institutes in Israel, Europe and North America. These institutions often send their own students to an excavation site for a season in order to earn credits towards a degree. As a rule, they find the experience to be personally, culturally and spiritually enriching.
Peter Hagyo-Kovacs of Toronto is a masters candidate in the Institute of Archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is writing his thesis on urban planning in Iron-Age Judea.
“Living and studying in Israel as a Christian with Jewish ancestors has been part of a process through which I’ve reconnected with my roots in a way which can only be experienced by living in the country of Israel,” said Hagyo-Kovacs.
“On the professional side, my reason for studying archeology here in Israel was not merely to explore the ancient past of the Israelites and how this relates to me personally, but the fulfillment of a longtime dream to study under world-renowned archeologists like Amihai Mazar, Yossi Garfinkel and others.”
Hagyo-Kovacs and his friends had such a good experience they decided to document it, and he directed and produced Inside Jerusalem: Identity and the Ancient Past. The documentary film pieces together interviews with his fellow students and his teachers, including world-renowned archeologists who are nonetheless quite down-to-earth.
It also features a multimedia presentation of basic facts and places related to the archeology and history of Jerusalem, as well as two important archeological sites outside the city, Khirbet Qumran and Khirbet Qeiyafa.
The movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and other venues, where it was warmly received by archeology enthusiasts but condemned by anti-Israel activists as “Zionist garbage.”
Hagyo-Kovacs expressed deep satisfaction with both reactions.
Benj Foreman, a teacher specializing in historical geography, biblical history and Hebrew, also participated in several Israeli digs alongside volunteers from all over the world.
“In the class that I teach, we consider archeological, historical and geographical questions. Put very simply, my ‘Historical Geography’ class is the study of biblical sites in their geographical context,” he said.
“The accuracy of the geographical details recorded in the Bible is amazing,” continued Foreman.
“The texts were written by local people who had firsthand knowledge of the lay of the land and not by some exile in Babylon who never visited the land. In one sense, therefore, historical geography gives credence to the ‘believability’ of the text.”
Whatever their motivation or experience, volunteers who come to help dig up Israel’s past usually leave enriched by the experience of helping to slowly unveil the land’s deepest secrets.