September 29, 2014

Professor: Israeli Archaelogical Dig Brings Ancient World ‘to Life’

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This summer, Prof. Lauren Monroe, Near Eastern Studies, led six student volunteers at an archaeological dig at the Israeli Biblical excavation site Tel Abel Beth Maacah.

The volunteers were drawn from two classes Monroe taught last semester: Archaeology 4800: Archaeology of Gender in Syria-Palestine and Archaeology 2550: Origins of Monotheism. According to Monroe, the trip helped serve as a field component for both classes, giving students a chance to apply what they had learned about ancient Israelite culture to the real world.

“[The trip was about] bringing to life aspects of the world in which the Bible and the Book of Monotheism emerged,” Monroe said. “For the students in the gender course, there was a more direct connection because those students were actually studying archaeological methods and then implementing those methods on the field.”

The excavation, held from June 24 to July 22, offered learning opportunities for non-archeology students — mainly those in Archaeology 2550 — as well, according to Monroe.

“The focus of the [origins of Monotheism] class was on the evolution of the idea of one god out of this ancient polytheistic background,” Monroe said. “Certainly the people who occupied the site where [the students] were digging would’ve been part of that polytheistic world that was kind of moving towards something more monotheistic,” Monroe said.

Because of its location between ancient Israeli, Phoenician and Syrian settlements 1.2 miles south of the border of present-day Lebanon, Abel Beth Maacah is a hotbed for Middle Bronze Age artifacts, many of which date back to about 1800 BCE, according to Profs. Robert A. Mullins, Biblical studies, Azusa Pacific University, and Nava Panitz-Cohen, Biblical archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who both directed the trip.

“The excavation at this cultural crossroads will expose more than the Biblical past,” Mullins and Panitz-Cohen said. “Scholars hope to examine cultural exchange and urban interaction during the second and first millennia BCE.”

The student volunteers included Kirsten Smith grad, Ezra Newman ’16, Ellie Reppy ’17, Xinyi Chen ’17, Magdalene Murphy ’17 and Fredrika Loew grad. They were also accompanied by Monroe’s husband, Prof. Chris Monroe, archeology and assistant director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, as well as Alex Chertok ’12.

Housed at the guesthouse of Kibbutz Kfar Szold, a small agricultural collective community in the Upper Galilee, volunteers would wake up each morning at 4 a.m. before being transported to the site to begin digging for the whole morning, according to Chen.

The volunteers were divided into teams called “squares” and used trowels and pickaxes to clear away large amounts of earth, which then had to be carted away in wheelbarrows, according to Chen. Each square was watched over by an Israeli Ph.D. student, many of whom previously served in the Israeli Defense Force.

After a brief tea break and breakfast, the students would continue excavating until 1:00 p.m., when temperatures were too high to continue working, Chen said. They would then return to the the guesthouse for lunch and relax for a few hours before returning to the dig site to wash the shards of pottery they found that day.

Students discovered a wide variety of objects, including preserved olive pits, ancient cups, parts of human skeletons and buried stone buildings, during the course of their four-week-long excavation, according to Chen.

“I think the main discovery in my square was part of a silo,” Chen said. “It was probably used for storage or something.”

Reppy said she learned a broad variety of things during the trip.

“I really enjoyed my month at Abel Beth Maacah,” Reppy said. “I learned a lot — from what a Middle Bronze age cooking pot rim looks like to the challenge of assigning stratigraphy.”

The students were assisted by additional volunteers from Azusa Pacific University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Trinity International University.