Dig this tel

The past fuses with the present as archeology buffs unearth the secrets of Tel Megiddo.

megiddo arch 88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
megiddo arch 88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
More than a hundred years ago, German archeologists began to excavate the remarkable tel (mound) of Megiddo. Since then, artifacts galore from 26 layers of civilization built on top of one another have been discovered. However, the site still has many untapped secrets waiting for a trowel or shovel to unearth and expose them to the light of the new millennium. Scores of students from Israel and abroad, including archeology buffs of all ages, are hard at work hoping to discover the unknown as they participate in this season's dig on and around Tel Megiddo. For 25 years a German team worked the site, mentioned in ancient Egyptian writings as Thutmose III - one of the mightiest kings of Egypt - waged war upon the city in 1478 BCE. The battle was described for posterity in hieroglyphic detail on the walls of his upper Egypt temple. The Germans were followed by teams from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., some of their finds ending up in the US. In 1992 the first Megiddo expedition of the Institute of Archeology of Tel Aviv University took to the site, and the present dig is their eighth season since. The site, a former haunt of King Solomon, was settled continuously for six millennia. It is also known as Armageddon and of great significance for Christians, who believe that this will be the location of the final battle between good and evil when Judgment Day comes. Megiddo was a site of great strategic importance. The large mound overlooks an all-important artery to merchants and warriors of the past (and present) - the narrow pass leading between the Amir and Menashe mountain ranges. In l918, British troops invaded the north of Palestine through the Megiddo Pass to free it from Turkish rule. The commander-in-chief of the British forces, field marshal Edmund Allenby, was later granted the title Lord Allenby of Megiddo. The present holder of the title - and patron of the Megiddo Expedition - is Viscount Michael Allenby, the grandnephew of the legendary British general. Tel Megiddo is perched on a large hill hugging the lower slopes where the Menashe Hills peter off into the Jezreel Valley. Whoever sat on the prominent hill not only controlled the entrance to the narrow pass but was also afforded - this remains the case in present times - an uninterrupted view over a large portion of the valley below. Known as the Via Maris (Way of the Sea) - nowadays Wadi Ara, Nahal Iron or Route 65 - the ancient pass winds its way, flanked by undulating hills, to the Mediterranean coastline. In years of yore, it would lead one all the way to Assyria in the opposite direction. At present, the past fills every moment of the working day for British-born Israeli archeologist and coordinator of the Megiddo Expedition, Norma Franklin, as she oversees the smooth running of this season's 90-member team who hail from Finland, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Turkey, Australia, Canada and the US, as well as Israel. "We have 18-year-old students and lovers of archeology working alongside people up to the age of 70. And this year, many have come for the whole seven weeks," Franklin told Metro. There are also people working on the tel under the auspices of the National Parks Authority, among them Ethiopian olim and a group from the nearby village of Mukeiba, an Israeli Arab Muslim village sitting on the Green Line opposite Jenin in the Jezreel Valley. The village is clearly visible from the tel. A film crew is trying to capture the beehive of activity, and a huge sound boom suddenly looms up from behind one of the areas of black plastic netting strung across poles that gives the workers some respite from the beating sun. Cameramen and assistants gingerly step over rocks as old as the Bible, careful not to fall into one of the deep pits under excavation or uncovered in previous expeditions. A camera trains on Abed, a 40something from Mukeiba hunkered down in a corner, squatting precariously on his heels as he carefully brushes out dirt from between stones, totally immersed in the task of searching for the past - and quite oblivious to the camera capturing the moment for the future. Just down the road at the Megiddo prison, another archeological dig is underway following the discovery last year - while surveying to extend the facility where more than 1,000 Palestinians are imprisoned - of a mosaic floor of a 3rd- or 4th-century CE church, the oldest one found to date in the Holy Land and a very important discovery. From the main Wadi Ara road, one can see a portion inside the prison, which is also built on a hill. Clearly visible over the outer wall are the same black netting structures for shade as those spotted atop Tel Megiddo. Closing in on another area covered in black netting, voices float up from deep in the earth. Stepping off the beaten track and into ankle-deep fine white dust, I discovered three North Americans in a large pit some five meters deep, surrounded by piles of buckets, shovels, brushes and trowels. Lee Drake from Wyoming, Katherine Sirman from Ontario and Colby Bestten from Missouri have spent the past months rising at dawn and working on the tel until noon. The archeology students attend academic lectures in the evenings at base camp in Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet, earning credits toward their university studies back home. This is Bestten's third consecutive summer working on an archeological site in Israel. For Drake who, apart from archeology is also majoring in statistics and biology, being able to participate in the Megiddo Expedition is the answer to a dream. "When I was a kid I read about Megiddo, and the site has fascinated me ever since," he explains. Sirman is the only one of the threesome not studying archeology. Theater is her major, and she found out about the dig while surfing the Internet. What have they discovered so far after digging for eight hours a day for a month? "Pieces of pottery and animal bones," enthuses Bestten. The students continue with their back-breaking work, huffing and puffing to find the remains of a house that an earthquake or war had brought down. "To work on the expedition is always exciting," says Franklin. "We are looking for the big picture about those who lived here, how the people lived, organized their economy - about those who came and went."