'It's just like undressing a woman'

September 15, 2000

What draws scholars to grubbing around in the dirt under the blazing sun and sifting soil for shards of pottery? To find out, Jennifer Wallace joined an archaeological dig in Israel

There are three qualities that a good archaeologist needs," says Amit Romano, who for two weeks this summer has become what might be termed my immediate line manager. "They are curiosity, knowledge and imagination. Without one of these, he is nothing."

I'm certainly curious. I'm curious about what drives intelligent, otherwise library-bound people to down their books and spend a month of their summer vacation shifting piles of earth in the blazing midday sun. I'm curious about what attracts scholars to grubbing about in the soil, raking it for shards of bone or pottery. And I'm curious to learn how they can transform a heap of rocks into an elaborate story about the past.

So day one sees me crouched in a patch of earth somewhere in the north of Israel, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, tapping at the ground with a small pickaxe and sweeping up the debris into a bucket for six hours. Every so often, as the bucket fills, I haul it to a growing mountain of earth nearby and tip it out. Occasionally, I empty the bucket into a huge sieve and pick out what I hope is a bit of pottery and not just a stone. And every 20 minutes or so, I take another gulp from my water bottle. We are working under canvas that cuts out the intensity of the sun but not the heat, and today is the hottest day that Israel has known for about 100 years.

The site of El-Ahwat is divided into four areas. Each is managed by an area supervisor - Romano in my case - who has under him a team of about ten diggers. The area is further divided into 5m sq loci, which are generally dug by a pair of excavators. At the end of each day, the pieces of pottery, bone and flint that have been found are carefully bagged and numbered, and the floor level of each locus is recorded. I leave Area D Locus 7419 - my new world - feeling proud. It has sunk 5cm and the mountain of earth nearby has, I suppose, risen 5cm, and, as Samuel Beckett might have appreciated, that is how archaeological progress is measured.

Day two starts at 5am. We are bussed from the kibbutz, where we are staying, and we collect our tools at 6, just as daylight creeps over the wide plain of Caesarea and the distant Mediterranean below. I brush and chisel at the rocks until breakfast at 8.30, when all the area teams gather at long tables in the shade of a huge oak tree. We diggers - archaeology students or recent graduates from Israel, Sardinia, America, Britain, Germany - swap stories about precious beads discovered or scorpions narrowly evaded.

The day continues until 1.30pm, with just a further 15-minute break for watermelon. I uncover a rash of tiny, black organic fragments and carefully bag them, thinking that they might be olive stones, spat from the mouths of Iron-Age men. But Romano tells me later that they are the remains of the Ottoman charcoal industry and will be binned. The day's highlight is a visit from the archaeologist leading the project, Adam Zertal of Haifa University, who makes a daily tour of inspection. He speaks to each digger individually, and for a moment that person's work no longer seems pointless but a vital element in Zertal's overall vision.

Day three, and I have never studied soil so closely before. It changes colour from the clay-red of the Roman level to the dark black of the earlier fill, to the ash-white of the Iron-Age floor level, and it smells dusty, like old books. Thomas De Quincey once remarked that an oxen farmer would dream only of oxen, no matter how much opium he consumed. What do archaeologists dream of?

Day four, and I am beginning to learn more about the site. It is not just a pile of rubble, apparently, but the foundations of an important early Iron-Age town (1200 BC). The structures of the outer walls - massive fortifications containing curious dead-end corridors - bear no resemblance to any other site in Israel but do, Zertal believes, share similarities with various ancient towns (or "Nuraghe") in Sardinia. From this, he deduces that El-Ahwat might have been a settlement of the Shardana, a northern Sea Peoples tribe originating in Sardinia, and he has teamed up with Giovanni Ugas of Cagliari University for a joint Sardinian-Israeli excavation.

But Zertal has also linked El-Ahwat to the Bible. He is Israel's foremost proponent of the notion that the Bible should be treated as history, not myth, and he conducts a regular survey of the Samarian hills looking for sites mentioned in the Old Testament. El-Ahwat, he argues, must be Harosheth Hagoyim, the headquarters of Sisera, who fought Barak in Judges iv. If the connection with Sardinia is real, this gives us information about the identity of Sisera, who was known before only to be one of the Gentiles necessarily defeated by the Israelites in their fight to establish their nation in Canaan. It seems that he might have been one of the lost Sea Peoples settled as mercenaries by the Egyptians under Rameses III, who were known previously only through vague documentary accounts.

Zertal tells us all this at one of the evening lectures. We sit outside our house after supper, still too warm to wear anything but shorts, and watch as Zertal projects slides onto a sheet hung from the washing line.

Inspired by my new knowledge acquired at this lecture, I return to the rocks on day five with a different perspective. Now it is not just a wall I am digging, but some kind of building abutting the wall of a typical four-room Iron-Age house. And as I sweep the floor level with my American locus partner, Andrew, I know that what I am supposedly proving is that this wall was built at the same period as the floor, not later, making this a "single-phase structure" that would fit Zertal's notion that El-Ahwat was occupied by the Shardana for just 50 years and abandoned after the battle. I am adding knowledge to my curiosity, or learning, at least, to see stones differently.

After the weekend break, during which Zertal has taken us on a tour of Jericho and Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, we return on day six to find Area D has been closed and our team has been moved to Area A. This really does look just like a pile of rocks. At least with Area D it was possible to trace some sort of pattern, but in Area A there are boulders strewn everywhere. I spend more than six hours loosening earth caught in crannies between stones and reach my point of lowest morale. You need a special type of imagination, it seems, to be able to distinguish random, fallen rocks from purpose-built walls, and I just do not have it.

"I am not interested in treasure and objects in museums," Romano explains to me as he kicks aside the stones that I have spent all day painstakingly and awkwardly cleaning around. "For me, the excitement of archaeology is in the process, not in the end result. Excavation is like undressing a woman. Five minutes after the object is finally pulled out of the earth, I am no longer interested."

On day nine, we have a party for the end of the season. The discussion turns to the whole purpose of archaeology. There are some sceptics, even among the area supervisors. "Archaeology is sad," says Drur of Area C. "It spends its time looking at things that are dead and the people themselves have gone." "Places should not matter," argues Avi, an Israeli Arab, as the argument gets more heated. "Holiness should be in the heart, not in stones. They should not worry about finding places in the Bible." Haifa student Amit Rozenblum responds: "There is a special feeling in El-Ahwat. Other sites might feel dead, but in this place you really get a sense of the people who lived here."

Zertal is excited, too. At the end of day ten, he pops in to wish the last few volunteers goodbye. "I've just had an idea about the site," he tells us, and quickly draws a plan of El-Ahwat on a scrap of paper. "Area C is the centre, not Area A. This is where the public buildings must be and where perhaps there is water, and this is where we must begin digging next year." His enthusiasm and vision are infectious. I am almost tempted to spend another summer brushing rocks.

The El-Ahwat website can be found at: research.haifa. ac.il/archlgy/projects/ahawat/index.htmNoinfo1. Jennifer Wallace is writing a book on archaeology and imagination.

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