Israel Archaeological Dig #7

2018 Israel archaeological excavation at biblical Gath (home of Goliath)
by John Stringer, Tell es-Safi, west of Jerusalem.
Week One, Days 2-5: The Tools of Our Trade.

The tools we use in archaeology are selective and important, determined after years of experience re practicality and versatility. As well as high-tech (GPS, electro magnetometery, drones) we use a variety of hand tools largely unchanged since archaeology started 250 years ago.

We use a heavy pick (foreground) at first to loosen the soil, which is then meticulously sorted with a small trowel into a black soil bucket (“processed”). We work from the back wall forward, at about 20cm lengths deep, in a line. The heavy pick has a secondary narrow chopping or scrapping blade, and we have what we call a tourea (sp?) pictured in the background, a square bladed pick used to chop square sidings or scrape a soil level towards you (good for floor work).

Note the two large bulks on either side (above).  These have steel stakes pounded in and the spike tops are sealed with coloured plastic balls and a string is run straight and true between, at surface level for the length of the site (uphill). This sets right angle squares and matches the reality with what is plotted on the blue field plan. The coloured balls prevent people tripping and pitching head first into a ten foot deep pit often with rocks set in the floor. You have to be careful as the bulks are often very narrow and the edges can collapse.  As we find things, the square supervisor can plot the finds on the chart and draw in artefacts in situ. That is valuable data.  Without it, artefacts discovered become worthless.

We also use a broom head as a hand held duster, dusting over fragile artefacts of interest and to ‘clean’ a leveled surface (vertical or horizontal). Other implements include: the universal Marshall hand-held trowel (which does much of the work), a water canteen, vital in Israel. I like the brand pictured (below) at it is light, carries a lot of water, and can be hung in a tree for ready access or hitched over your shoulder while carrying other items.

Everyone wears gloves. I wear quality yellow leather gloves so they don’t get lost onsite; and leather is soft yet hard wearing. We are all attired in recommended long sleeves and long trousers (to ward off the UV despite the shading cover; insect bites, and skin snags on the vicious thorn bushes). Over top my trousers I wear heavy-duty knee pads as you spend a lot of time on your knees ‘processing’ soil.  These are a God-send and I’m glad I have good quality pads (particularly as I’m due a knee op. a week after I return to NZ, so underneath I have a knee brace on as well). Working for hours on your knees and then getting up, is tough on the back and knees. I also carry a large Bear Grylls knife, very useful in the hard soil (but which causes me no end of trouble in Korea- later) and a small Swiss-army-style pocket knife. (I actually get to use the fold out ‘stone from your shoe’ thingy – first time ever! that no-one ever actually uses).  At first I wear sunglasses but dispense with these as they discolour the coloured buckets (and pottery ends up in bone buckets) and it’s harder to detect the subtle soil differentiation’s. An ‘Indianna Jones’ hat is a must. I wear a Scottish gamekeeper’s-style ghillie. This is best as it has a chin strap for wind, and is vented on top so your head can breathe. Without this you sweat and overheat and salts build up on your forehead. Cowboy hats are not as good. Ghillies also press flat for easy packing.

Once on site I note professor Aren wears a similar hat, so I’m glad for this choice. Note Lucy’s hat behind him (below). After a career in the field in Israel, it is worth noting what he wears. He dons a small backpack with that fluid tube, but I prefer the separate canteen in a tree, as it is impractical to excavate with backpack straps under my armpits (as chief archaeologist he has a different role and function. I’m a grunt).

Below: 1) Aren and his backpack, note Lucy’s hat; and 2) on the trail up to the top of the Tell on the Day 1 Tour of the site. You can see the stoney nature of the surface and the need for robust footwear.

Arriving in Israel I had heavy duty hiking shoes, but these cause me real hell in the heat and after two days I’m hobbling with really painful blisters and raw foot soles.  So on the first weekend break, I purchase a cheap set of heavy duty soled boots like Aren’s, with soft sides that breathe, from an Old City Nazareth market store (more later). They only cost me $30 NZ and are a HUGE benefit in Week 2 making the archaeology way less uncomfortable. Israel shekel is 2.5 to $1 Kiwi dollar.

Donkey Work: Achish’s Ass


The filled black buckets are lifted up onto the bulk and must then be carried up the hill via the narrow bulk (which has a string on it that must not be disturbed) to a wheelbarrow, which must then be wheeled up a further slope to the upper soil dump site. The barrows can cope with 4 soil buckets each.  Anymore, and most people cannot wheel them up the slope. This is strenuous work, and as we are working with Ahuva and Erika, two of our veteran senior women, who cannot lift the soil buckets, John and I do their soil extraction work in 82C as well. As we ‘process’ with glove, trowel and bucket, we place any pottery into a blue bucket, and bones into a purple bucket (each bucket has two tags, more of which later).  Special or unusual finds (such as shells or flint) are passed to our square supervisor Eitan Meer, an ex-Israeli soldier and classics scholar.

Below: The upper soil dump site begins, and grows, and grows. This area is unshaded, so it’s very hard work in the blazing sun. One of the hardest workers on site is Dr David Kotter (pictured with barrow), Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the School of Theology, Colorado Christian University. A true servant to all. David and his colleague Dr Seth lead a student crew from Colorado. What a great bunch of Philistine diggers (verb not noun).

Occasionally artefacts are missed while being ‘processed.’ Wheel-barrowers extract artefacts in the dump soil and return them to the square they were from (if known) so they can be documented through the process. Significant finds are sometimes extracted from the dump site. This is because when we are ‘processing’ items, they are always covered in clay or dust and we often cannot see anything of significance, such as paint, so have to learn to bucket-sort by sight and feel what an object might be. For this purpose I keep a bucket with 2 inches of water in it nearby, to give oddities a quick ‘wash swirl’ to help identify where an item should go: pottery bucket; bones bucket; or dump bucket.  Better safe than sorry.

This colourful bichrome Philistine pottery sherd above, for example, was excavated by John and I from 82D but we did not see any of the fab painted decoration on it until it was cleaned 24 hours. It could easily have been tossed but for us discerning it by shape and consistency in gloved hands.

This Philistine leopard/lion rhyton (aka ‘The Happy Hippo’) below, I think was recovered from a dump site. It is Tell es-Safi’s official logo. Next to it I’ve posted some my photos from Ertez Museum (Tel Aviv) of similar Philistine zoomorphic sculpture, for comparison. The Philistines were very quirky in their art and clearly loved fauna and flora themes. We find a significant example in Week 3.



Comments (33)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment