archaeology 300: digging amidst a war in Israel

In 2006 I took my first transatlantic flight ever. But I wasn’t alone. I was part of a team from my school going to Israel to work at an archaeological dig. And I had my dad with me also, which was pretty cool because doing a dig was one of his dreams. The trip was the culmination of years of hard studying: archaeology, Hebrew, Aramaic, Old Testament history. After reading about all the fun things they’d pulled up from the ground over there, I was eager to get my hands into three-thousand-year-old soil. I was prepared. I had a suitcase full of clothes that I knew wouldn’t be coming home with me after five weeks of sweaty, dirty, wonderful digging. I also had my Indiana Jones explorer hat.

My team joined the summer dig season at Tel Dan, which is situated in a valley at the very top of the country where Israel is wedged between Lebanon and Syria. From our site we could see the neighboring Lebanese villages two miles to the west. Over the Golan Heights, several miles to the east, marked the Syrian border. Tel Dan is an important site because it’s where the ancient monument that mentions King David was unearthed.

Our dig schedule was tiring but rewarding. The previous season’s dig had unearthed a slew of 15th century graves that we needed to open and remove in order to get down to the level where people had built their homes and lived during the early Iron Age (3,000 years ago). It was a slow  and tiring process. First, we swung pickaxes into the ground around the tombs in order to bring the level of the ground down. We brushed all the dirt into buckets and took turns walking over to the designated dumping area. If we saw anything that didn’t look like regular dirt, we’d call the supervisors over. Several times each hour something interesting like clay dolls, ancient seeds, building walls, makeup remainders, fire ashes or large pottery sherds would pop up, get tagged and graphed. Once when my father was digging he thought he hit something that felt like metal. He cautiously brushed the debris away to reveal a dud mortar bomb that had penetrated deep into the ground during the Six-Day War of 1967!

After several days of digging we’d brought the ground level down to the base of each grave. From then on we worked closely with an anthropologist, who showed us how to delicately articulate the skeletons and other objects we’d find. It was pretty amazing seeing the outlines of the bones slowly appear. Some of the remains had bracelets and rings, necklaces with beads of many colors and missing teeth. One was a young teenage girl who, tragically, had died with a small fetus inside her. After all the skeletons were uncovered, the supervisors took hundreds of pictures from hundreds of angles to document the exact locations. And then it was time to plunge deeper.

After all that excitement it was hard to think anything could top what we’d experienced thus far. But as we started getting down to the lower stratas it continued to fascinate us every time we’d find something. Someone would hold a piece of a broken pot in their hand and announce “I’m holding three thousand year old trash!” Just knowing that we were touching something that a real person had used back then made us a feel a strange connection to the people that had occupied this same space so long before. We started uncovering house walls and ovens. It all seemed to be going so smoothly. And then it happened.

The silence of the hot afternoon was broken by a booming noise. We all froze and looked at each other, wondering if it was anything we needed to worry about. After a minute we went back to work. But five minutes later, the noise rang out again, and again, and again. This time we knew for sure that it was heavy artillery fire. And our hearts sank. Not only because of the proximity the blasts were to us, but also because we knew our dig was prematurely finished. We weren’t exactly afraid for our lives, but we had concerns that our families and friends back home would be anxious for us to get out of there. It’s kind of funny; I was more concerned about calling Jessie and telling her not to worry than I was about being bombed.

We left the site and bussed it to the nearby Mt. Hermon Field School where we’d been living. As large Howitzer guns set up on the eastern hills continued to shoot projectiles over the site and into Lebanon, we all hunkered down in our bomb shelter wondering what would happen next. We learned from radio news that Hezbollah terrorists had crossed over into Israel and killed several police officers and captured two more. As the rebels tried to flee with their victims through the hilly countryside of south Lebanon the Israeli military was taking out all the bridges to impede their progress. But others hidden in the hills were trying to draw their fire. Kiryat Shmona, the city we would have to pass through in order to get out of the valley, had been hit several times by rockets fired from Hezbollah militants on the Lebanese border.

After several hours the bombing died down and we ventured out of the shelter. We could see pillars of smoke rising up all over the valley. Our dig leader, who was an ex-Israeli soldier, tried telling us that it wasn’t a big deal and that this kind of thing happened all the time there. We called a group meeting and decided that going back to the dig site wasn’t worth the risk. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. We later found out that one of the hundreds of rockets fired into Israel that day had hit Tel Dan.

In Israel, all the buses for hire are located in Jerusalem. We urgently needed a driver to come up and get us out of there. But no one was willing to drive through a red zone in broad daylight with a huge automobile. We’d have to wait for the cover of nightfall for a safe getaway. Our dig director decided we could get our minds off of it all by going on an excursion to Nimrod’s castle, which was at the top of the hill just north of us. Nervously we piled onto the bus and made our way up the hill. Pulling into the parking lot, we found that we had a 180 degree view of the whole Hula valley where the skirmish had taken place. To our dismay, we saw that all of the villages we’d seen from our dig site, both Lebanese and Israeli, were engulfed in flames.

Finally night fell over the land and our bus came to us around midnight. We were terrified for the second time that day as the driver gunned the bus at top speed down dirt roads fraught with perilously sharp turns and steep drop offs. As we passed by Kiryat Shmona we observed an orange hue that the fires were casting over the entire valley. After Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, the road straightened out, the driver slowed down, I fell asleep and woke up safely in Jerusalem.

The conflict was later called the Lebanon War of 2006. Over the course of five weeks 4,000 rockets were fired, over 1,000 people died, and half a million were displaced from their homes. Most of the major cities in Lebanon and northwest Israel were bombed and many small villages were destroyed. A great portion of Lebanon’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, houses, schools, factories, hospitals, airports and water and electrical facilities were pulverized. It was awful.

I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: it’s really important to take enough time to think clearly in these situations so that you make good decisions. While you need to act quickly, you also need to keep your wits about you. Unless you’re right in the thick of it, it benefits no one to spring immediately into action like some blockbuster movie superhero. We all have wars in our lives, whether they’re actual physical fights, confrontations with friends or enemies, health issues or whatever else. But we can come through them if we give ourselves time to gauge the situation, weigh the benefits with the consequences, and make intelligent decisions before we react.

Tel Dan Archaeology

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2 thoughts on “archaeology 300: digging amidst a war in Israel

  1. Thank you for sharing this interesting story. I hope that you came back to finish the dig in the following year. It just happened to be that I was at the same place at the same time. I came with my wife and my daughter for a family vacation and on the day before the war broke we toured Tel Dan (perhaps we passed each other?) I still remember how peaceful the entire area was that day, not a sign of what was about to happen 24 hours later. I’m not sure if you know, there is a documentary film on Neflix about this war. It is called “My First War” (it’s in English)

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    • Wow! That’s pretty incredible! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go back to finish the dig. But hopefully I’ll be able to do another one some time in the future. Thanks for the heads up about the documentary too.

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