Season’s End

Sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Tel Aviv (on points) and watching all the American tourists it strikes me that they are probably looking at me as well because I’ve been here for more than two hours already and will probably sit here for another three before I head to the airport.  Flights to the U.S. typically leave at 11:00 or midnight and I had to check out at noon.  But the reality is, I’m not wearing plaid, or Bermuda shorts or a fanny pack logoed Hard Rock Café.  I look like a local in a skirt and blouse and so I look out of place.

I’ve been thinking about the dig season and what we accomplished.  Hard to see from an area loaded with sandbags, fenced and mothballed for the winter, but we did quite a lot.

One of the objectives is to try to understand the previous excavations that have taken place at Tel Akko, especially those carried out by Moshe Dothan.  I know that this season we managed to sort through boxes of bones collected during his excavations, although they are not analyzed.  Some of the soil samples he took have been floated and at least the heavy fraction sorted.

But there are other aspects of the project as well.  We have excavated to at least late iron age in most places now and are putting together a stratigraphy of the site to organize the old data and new.  We have found metal working areas in a number of places.  I ran a magnet through a heavy fraction from floatation and came away with 10s of grams of iron hammer scales and prills – flat scales of iron and tiny spherical pellets.  Once again there are piles of diagnostic pottery both local and imported.  The imported ceramics give us an idea of where the trade routes were and with whom trade went on.

Perhaps more importantly, a group of students who were complete strangers left yesterday as friends – good friends.  Hugs all around, a few kisses and a few tears. Students who would otherwise never have met, now will correspond on Facebook and Instagram.  Even some students from the same campuses met for the first time.  Who were they? Men and women; gay, straight and transgendered; Americans, Canadians, Turkish, Chinese; Jewish, Christian, Moslem and other.  While there may have been the normal simple misunderstandings and disagreements, no fights broke out, no names were called and everyone left friends.  Everyone was accepted for who they were, where they came from and where, hopefully they were going, and that is the final result of a wonderful field season.

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Who owns Akko

by Nathan Silver

After spending this past month living in Akko and being a frequent visitor to the City, I have become aware of a very particular issue. When it comes to the old city of Akko it is very easy for people to argue about who the city “belongs” to. This is an issue that is very common in Israel and in many cases appears to be without any viable solution. As a part of the total archeology program there has been a lot of involvement with the international conservation department. Through the various lectures and tours given by the department’s staff it seems to me that the solution to this question of ownership may have a solution that is not too far off.

The international conservation department runs a summer program that joins together Jewish and Arab youth to learn about the conservation efforts and to also participate in much of the work that the department does. The total archeology program offers an option for us to participate in the work that the conservation center does. When this was offered to us I jumped at the opportunity. As a student studying political science and international relations, this was right up my alley. The conservation itself was not by any means what tickled my fancy, but when I heard that the program brought together Jewish and Arab youth I was sold.

Though the program’s main goal is to teach kids about the history of their city and to educate them on the process of preserving the unique historical structures that make up the old city of Akko. All of the underlying political nuances that attracted me to the program were just that, underlying, and in many cases purposefully overlooked. It seemed as though the lack of emphasis placed on the question of ownership of the old city served as a way to implement and reinforce the concepts of cohabitation and historic universality. In my mind, the current situation of conflict is undeniably temporary, and it is efforts like this that not only reinforce this but also take the first step towards coexistence and tolerance.

The day I spent with the program involved making and then placing mortar between the bricks of an old building. There was nothing about whether the building belonged to Jews, to Arabs or to anyone else. The emphasis was that the building was a part of Akko’s physical history and that all of Akko’s inhabitants have a shared responsibility to maintain it.

I am now leaving Akko with a strong feeling of hopefulness that efforts like this, which show young Jews and Arabs how much they truly have in common, will continue with the work they are doing and possibly inspire others to begin doing the same.

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To See a World in a Grain of Sand

By Emily Jin

It all started with a single piece of pottery.

Well, diagnostic, of course – what I was holding on my palm appeared to be the remains of the rim of an ancient vessel. Completely baffled, I turned to the information sheet for help. Square, QQ19. Late Bronze Age, Persian period. I saw scribbles, checkmarks, none of which I could really manage to comprehend. As a newcomer to the pottery lab, I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoons spent in the bright, air-conditioned room, writing locus and basket numbers on every little piece of diagnostic sherd with my neatest handwriting possible. However, whenever it came to moments like this, I found myself trapped in a rather uncomfortable position – I did not know where to write.

The basic guidelines to marking pottery are fairly simple. Take a sharpie, find a spot on the sherd, and try to write with your smallest, neatest handwriting. The hard part, no doubt, is to find that spot. I have been taught a few techniques, but for some sherds, those techniques were simply inapplicable. For instance, by pressing the rim on the table perpendicularly and observing the direction in which the sherd fell down, we were supposed to be able to determine whether the vessel was open (a plate) or closed (a jar). For open vessels, we marked the outside of the sherd; for closed vessels, we marked the inside of the sherd. It seemed like a straightforward enough technique, yet the only problem was that the sherd I held fell both ways. The first time I tried the rim technique it fell inward, the second time outward, the third time inward again – was I supposed to record its falling pattern and figure out the ratio?

I turned back to the rim in my hand and sighed. Maybe it was because of the coldness of the room – or the slight pain in the middle of my thumb for pressing down too hard on the sherds – I began to feel a tinge of annoyance arise from the depth of my heart. This is a waste of time, I thought. For days and days all we’ve done was pulling out pieces of pottery sherds from the ground, carrying them back in full buckets, washing them until our fingers turned to prunes. Pottery, pottery, pottery. It was a work that seemed to never have an end, and really, never made that much sense. What could a piece of rim possibly tell you? I had absolutely no idea of what this vessel even looked like, let alone determining its time period, function, or some other implied information.

“Martha? I think I need some help.” After ten minutes of contemplation, I had no choice but to call out to my professor for help.

It only took her ten seconds to decide that I should mark this sherd on the inside. “But why?” I stuttered, unable to find a reason.

Martha smiled: “You see, the techniques are not always applicable. Out of all honesty, archaeology isn’t all about techniques. What’s more important is always experience, a good eye for observation, and the imagination for a grander picture.”

“What do you mean by a grander picture?”

Martha picked up the sherd and held it to my eye: “What can you see?”

I held my breath and observed. Thousands of years of time has worn away the glaze on this sherd and roughened its surface. The only remains of the rim that I saw were thin, and the curve was not very visible. There were some bumpy stripes on the outside of the sherd, neatly spaced, presumably some kind of decoration.

“Now, try to imagine – if this sherd was a part of a restored vessel, and this vessel was put in a museum for people to see, what would this vessel look like?”

Just when I was going to respond, “I don’t know”, I suddenly realized what she meant.

There – I finally saw. Under the sun, this sherd had a slight curve that could only be noticed if you look very carefully.

Try to imagine. Martha’s smile conveyed this message once again. I took hold of the sherd and tried to imagine. If we extend the sherd along this curve, what would it eventually become? In my head I constructed a vessel. At first the vessel was mysterious and unclear, but as the sherd stretched and grew, I could start to see a shape.

It was a jar. Not so tall, and the opening was about the size of my palm. Judging from the thickness of the sherd, it seemed that this jar was relatively easy to carry around. Most certainly it was used for storage – but what would it store?

Martha hinted: “Starting from the stripes here, apart from decoration, the other function is to allow the person holding the jar to have a better grip, and thus prevent the jar from accidentally slipping, falling and breaking.”

With deduction, I thought, this jar must have been moved around a lot, transporting things from location to location.

“And here.” Martha pointed to the square code on the information sheet, “QQ19. What do you know about this square?”

QQ19 was indeed the square that I worked in. I recalled the explanations that Amani made as she came over to supervise: “Um…we think that QQ19 could be the remains of a courtyard. We’ve been finding a lot of metal slag and bronze material, so there’s a chance that this could be an ancient blacksmith shop –”

“Exactly. Didn’t you guys find some cool bronze pieces there a few days ago?”

“Yes, we found several identical bronze pins, they are about the length of a fingernail, and both of their ends are sharpened deliberately.”

“If this pottery sherd and those bronze pins are all the information you know about QQ19, what conclusion would you make?”

I paused and tried to imagine again. However, this time, it was far less difficult – as soon as I closed my eyes, an image jumped into my head.

It was a hand – the hand grabbed the jar and brought it up. The bumpy decorations prevented the hand from slipping off and dropping the jar by accident. After a few steps taken, the jar was once again set down. The hand reached into the jar to take out something, probably to use – on the palm of the hand, some bronze pins rested, quietly, with a color of shimmering green. This was a blacksmith shop. Those pins were to be used in the process of forging or polishing. What came from that process could be weapons, tools –

I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. True, I admit that most of what came to mind was the result of limited imagination and probably exaggeration, but at that moment, I felt I truly understood the connection between archaeology and history. We always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, just a small piece of pottery sherd played so well into a given context, and thus provided infinite amounts of details about the lives and works of the ancient Persian people.

History was never dead. Every little piece of physical evidence we recover from the dusts has brought it back to life.

And, believe it or not, after this important lesson that I’ve learned from Martha, marking pottery was never a source of frustration or pain anymore.

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The Party’s Over

Today, students and staff placed 2,500 sandbags around the excavations at Tel Akko to protect them over the winter.  All the pottery is washed although not all is cataloged and recorded.  The field season for Total Archaeology @ Tel Akko is over.  Well, at least in the field.  Some staff will remain next week to finish up paperwork and a few more the following week in Haifa to tie up loose ends and complete some of the computer work.

I did not have to place sandbags today, which is a good thing as it is hot and very dirty work.  Instead, I was editing some student blog posts and creating a video of some of the students.  While all admit that sometimes this is really hard work, most of them loved it, even if they wouldn’t do it again.

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Belvoir – A one-of-a-kind adventure in Israel

By Logan Paiste

Arid mountains were seen out of the left and right side windows of the bus. The occasional house appeared for a moment’s glance out of the window and then disappeared from sight. The bus continued at its steady pace of 100 kilometers per hour and the student passengers were busy engaging themselves in conversation, remembering their last few weeks at Akko. A few others were taking naps, heads leaning on the window or the seat in front of them. Typical day for a field trip – everything was normal.

A narrow road appeared to the right side, leading up the hill. The road looked like a driveway… except, without a house at the end. Right blinker turned on, and the bus began to drive on the road. Higher and higher the bus went, and the road only continued to curve and snake its way up the mountain. There seemed to be no end. The views of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan valley were more magnificent and breathtaking the higher the elevation became.

A stone gate greeted us as we arrived at Kokhav Hayarden National Park (also known as Belvoir National Park). Dr. Killebrew added this site to the field trip itinerary for the first time ever, and no one knew what to expect of this park located at the top of the mountain. The bus driver dropped us off right in front of the big basalt fortress. The ground which we walked on descended 10 meters in height to become a moat, and we had to walk across a bridge in order to reach the interior layer of the basalt masterpiece. Grand stone arches welcomed us to the magnificent structure, and we roamed around the stronghold in awe of its size and splendor. In the northeast corner of the fortress, everyone  gathered in order to capture photographs of themselves with the Sea of Galilee in the background. Simply stunning altogether!

I was personally amazed by the amount of effort which went towards the construction of the Crusader-era fortress.  I thought to myself: how long did it take for the laborers to carry each large block of stone up the high mountain? How much did it cost to build the stronghold overall? How many people could fit inside of the fortress during times of war? Although I will never be able to travel back in time to accurately answer these questions, I nonetheless have incredible appreciation for the completion of the project centuries ago.

I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit Belvoir. This was my most favorite archaeological site which we visited during the field trips.  It’s like a secret gem in Israel. With the amount of time and effort that is required to drive up and down the mountain just to visit, I gather that not too many people travel to see the site. No matter how long I am traveling in Israel, there are always new adventures waiting for me and new people to meet. I hope that Belvoir will also be an adventure for one of you some day!

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Eid in Akko

By Tim Hay
Something made me smile about the Arabic Rap that was blasting from a horse drawn carriage decked out in colored lights  as it headed toward the old city of Akko. It was Eid al-Fitr, one of the largest holidays in the Muslim calendar, and though I had been in Akko last year during Ramadan, our group had to leave just before its last day when Eid begins. I know that a lot of people at home, who have little exposure to Muslim culture and have had many of their views shaped by news stories, would tend to be leery around such celebrations, but the holiday has a very appealing vibe.

Though a religious holiday, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the breaking of the month of fasting during Ramadan holds much more of a festival atmosphere. I had been told before that Eid in a Muslim country was something worth experiencing, and I can understand why. In Israel, the old city section of Akko is largely Arab, and since it is also a seaside and tourist oriented town, it is a magnet for many of the Muslim residents of Israel during Eid. In addition, Eid this year fell on a Friday and the celebration carried on for three days. It can be a bit hard to explain the vibe based on American holidays, but the best comparison I can make would be to take certain elements of Mardi Gras (minus the nudity, drinking, and public urination), then mash this together with the celebratory atmosphere of the 4th of July, the family feasting of Thanksgiving, and elements of Christmas. Among all of this is a family and community element that seems to have faded in many American holidays.

We were encouraged not to go to the old city during the celebration, not because any problems were expected, but simply because it is so packed with people, that it is literally difficult to move around. The horse drawn carriages, which I continued to hear on the street just outside of my room continued to roll by with music of various kinds blasting for the entire weekend, but no one seemed to mind because it made for a very cool atmosphere. These carriages were acting as taxies of sorts to ferry visitors into the old city (which has very little parking). Others would park blocks away in the new part of the city and walk in. It seemed like an almost constant stream of people was going in and out of the city with everyone happy, smiling, and excited. It was also interesting to see the various fusions of modern and traditional- as I said, this was a religious holiday and traditionally there are prayers involved, but there is also a small carnival set up in one of the squares with rides for kids, people bringing jet-skis into the city to take out into the harbor, and a lot of people hanging out at the various restaurants and hukka bars, as well as vendors selling all kinds of goods and sweets on the streets. Most of the women, including many of the younger ones, were wearing traditional hijabs, but again, here you could see the fusion of old and new. One young woman perhaps in her twenties who was walking in front of me as I went up the street for coffee was wearing a tight fitting hijab… along with yoga pants and a tight shirt. Though this may seem self-contradictory, it is just one more way of people to hang on to elements of their culture and traditions, while at the same time very much a part of the modern world. This was the same dichotomy that could be seen with the horse drawn carriages blasting the Arabic rap music and it was really interesting to be in Akko at this time.

As an American, one element of this celebration that I wish I could take back home was the one I mentioned previously- the family and community atmosphere. As an example, a friend decided to go into the old city one evening to see what all was going on, expecting to find wall to wall people, and instead arrived to what appeared to be relatively vacant streets. The reason for this was that they had gone during meal time, and everyone was with family and friends feasting. Though this isn’t foreign to American holidays, it sometimes seems that with each passing year, the busy life that many of us lead takes more and more of a toll on the community element of those holidays. I could really get into a holiday that had this much energy and lasted for three days… How about you?

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The Mona Lisa of Zippori

by Jamie Ranalli

As students of the Tel Akko Field School we have road trips to other nearby archaeological sites every Saturday.  It is a wonderful chance for us to expand our knowledge on this beautiful country and actually see more archaeology in progress.  This week we took a tour to the Galilee, stopping at various religious, Roman, and Crusader sites around the sea.

Our first stop of the day was to Zippori, more commonly referred to as Sepphoris.  This ancient Roman and Jewish city was absolutely marvelous, and the excavation going on here is rather vast.  You can walk down the cardo, or Main Street, and truly envision what an opulent life the people who lived here thousands of years ago must have experienced.  There were wide streets outlined by sidewalks covered in mosaic patterns, synagogues with a unique blend of Jewish and pagan images, spacious houses with indoor bathrooms, and a whole array of other luxurious features.
We all had a great time walking through this old city, seeing the amazing structures they have uncovered throughout the years, all the while silently wishing we would discover something so elaborate during our own excavation at Tel Akko.  Although the entire town was truly impressive, the most remarkable features were the many mosaics that had been uncovered throughout the entire site.  They ranged in size as well as in complexity; from very simple floor patterns to highly multifaceted pictures depicting ancient roman myths.  Out of all the lovely patterns and imageries, one piece (not much larger than a square foot) stands out amongst all of the rest.  It is the face of a lovely woman found in the house of Dionysus.  She is just one part of a large mosaic floor, which was probably used as a gathering space in a large mansion that overlooks the lower parts of the city.  She is believed to be the goddess of wine and merriment herself.  A brilliant artist, who made the goddess’s face so realistic that it looks as though she could come alive at any moment, carefully crafted her features from hundreds of tiny vibrant tiles.

If only that artist could know just how much his or her work is still appreciated and glorified thousands of years after its completion.  I wonder what this image has witnessed throughout its years; perhaps decades of elegant roman parties, several families moving in and out of the mansion, the children of the house growing up before her very eyes, destruction by the ancient government, and centuries of darkness beneath the rubble.

Also, it is interesting to see how very little has changed in our concept of beauty over time, for her sweet, symmetrical, feminine face is viewed with esteem from all nations even today.  Perhaps it is her ability to remain pertinent throughout the millennia that has so captured my attention.  I believe that this small depiction really captures the spirit of the ancient town and is a symbol of what the sight stands for even today.  For Sepphoris serves as a place for people from far and wide to come and be amazed by the skill and talent of the people who used to live there and to commemorate their memory. She is certainly a part of this site that I will never forget, and I would strongly encourage you all, if you ever journey to Israel, to go and visit her as well.

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The Remains of Plants


Pottery, metal working, glass making and building all leave fairly large, tangible remains at an archaeological site. Sherds of ceramics, pieces of glass and slag, large stones, walls and floors all stand out when excavating.  However, the remains of crop cultivation and the gathering of plants are not so easily seen as only the charred seeds and plant material remain and they are small and dispersed in the soil.  Archaeobotanists search through soil samples to find seeds and other vegetal remains.  They will use water to float the lighter material, including most seeds to the top while the heavier portion sinks and is caught in a net.  The lighter portion gets searched for seeds and charcol and the heavy portion contains pottery, slag, iron hammer scales and the occasional bead or tiny sample of red ochre or ancient glass.

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The Small and Mighty

Here at Tel Akko, pottery isn’t an unusual sight. In fact, most of the students here would probably say that it is something they see too often. What some might not realize is that such a large amount of pottery can tell us so much about life on the Tel. If you give someone who is knowledgeable about pottery a sherd, give them a few seconds and they can tell you what time period it was made in, what it had possibly been a part of, and even where it could have originated. We can find these things for ourselves if we look at pottery as they do. First, we can look at the surface of the sherd. Some paints and designs can be connected with certain places. For example, red and/or black paint was common from the Attic countries. If the sherd is a rim, one can also tell what type of object it had been. A wavy rim, especially if it has signs of burns, is most likely to be from a lamp and if the corners and edges are worn down, then it is possible that the soil that the sherd was in could have been moved and re-used multiple times.

By looking closer at the fabric, the clay that makes up the sherd, we can learn a lot more. Specifically, the breaks in the pottery give us a more detailed description of each specific sherd’s background. Cookware will usually have dark red clay with a black line running through it. In regards to the differences between Iron Age and Persian pottery, Persian will be found without grey coloring, something commonly found in Iron Age pottery. A chemical analysis of the clay itself can even tell you about where it came from. Being able to tell where the clay came from, and what kind of distinctive designs are found among them show a form of communication, most likely trade, between the people who lived on the Tel and other parts of the world. Also, a chemical analysis can possibly pick up what some vessels might have once held.

Even more information about the pottery can be determined depending on where on the Tel the sherds were found. If multiples of a certain type of pottery are found in an area in the same layer, then you can get an idea of its past purpose. For example, a large amount of sherds from cookware and storage could mean a person is working in what used to be a residential building. If there are gaps in the layers where not much is found, then it could be a sign that the area was not used continuously, likewise no break in the finding of pottery can mean that the area was never out of use. Also if the remains of a broken vessel are found, lined together as if it hadn’t been moved since it first broke, then that most likely means that whoever owned the building at the time decided it was too much trouble to remove it and just decided to make a new floor on top of it.

By putting all of this knowledge gained from these broken pieces of baked clay, along with the other information found during the excavation, we can get a pretty good idea of what went on here and when. They may be small and plentiful, but pottery is a large part of unlocking the secrets of Tel Akko.

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Swimming in History

By Madeline Hessmann

“You never regret going abroad. You regret the opportunities you missed while in a foreign land.”

The moment my friend and fellow digger said that this would be his phrase to live by for this trip, my entire mindset changed as well. I have made a conscious effort to take advantage of every opportunity to do and see the best (and worst) of Israel, understand and experience the abundant culture, and grow in knowledge about the historic background of structures, religion, and politics of this nation.

credits_edited-1On the 11th of July, our group made the trek across the gorgeous countryside of Israel to several sites, visiting the museum at the University of Haifa (and viewing several artifacts found at Tel Akko), exploring the Caramel Caves, and bopping around Caesarea. However, our tour filled day ended with a 20 minute stop at the Caesarea aqueducts.

When the itinerary was first laid out, Dr. Killebrew noted that, yes, the structures are near shore, and yes, swimming is allowed. My chase to prevent regrets kicked in and the morning of July 11th, I made certain that my suit and towel were packed and ready to go.

The minute my toes touched the Mediterranean, I knew I had made the right decision. The serenity of the air, the bold blue of the sea, and the mellowing late afternoon sun were the perfect complements to the strong sandstone arches that set the backdrop. After a hot day of education and exploration, the salty air and slight—but strong—pull of the waves put the finishing touches on a dream-like day.

This grand experience will continue to motivate my desire to take in each experience with open and curious eyes. I was a tad wet and sandy on the way home. I was disappointed to get out of the water and not spend a few more minutes on top of the ancient water-carrying structures… but my friends took a great group pic sitting on top of the ducts. These small fleeting flashbacks are not enough to taint the experience nearly as much as the regret of not taking a dip may have tainted my memories of this trip.

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