Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thoughts of Ashkelon


My name is Tracy Hoffman and I’m a grid supervisor on the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. As one of the longest serving members of the expedition team it is with some trepidation and even more excitement I take on the task of sharing Ashkelon with the world.


I first volunteered in 1989. I had just finished my freshman year of college and was eager to embark on the discovery of the hidden glories of the ancient past. Glories that I quickly discovered were not always hidden nor particularly gorgeous or even that ancient if it comes down to it. It is unfortunate, albeit sometimes gratifying and satisfying, that we don’t get to choose what impresses us, to hand select the memories that leave an indelible imprint on our life’s journey. If it were possible I would undoubtedly consider exchanging some of my earliest memories of Ashkelon...


My first few summers at Ashkelon were an adventure as might be expected of any “once in a lifetime” experience. One of my roommates, and there were four of us in one room, was adverse to shaving and had a propensity for sleeping in the nude. One of my fellow volunteers managed to drawl his one syllable name into three, sometimes four syllables leaving most of us confused about what his name actually was until halfway through the season when we were able to determine the two key letters that made up his name. There were a pair of supervisors who were affectionately referred to as “the Greek god” and “the Norse god” for their imagined resemblance to the oh so handsome, deities of old.


There were our accommodations which featured roaches (larger than any I had ever seen before and they moved fast), late night pool parties with hotel guests staying up into the wee hours of the night listening to the Chicken Dance on a seemingly endless loop. And, of course, there was the food which was always filling if not wholly satisfying.


Through it all there was the archaeology, the exploration of the ancient city of Ashkelon and its hidden glories. Which for me, that year and the next, meant an inordinate amount of time in sewers. Large or small, little more than rivulets running down the center of a dirt street or purpose built stone drains I experienced it all. And by the end of my first two seasons of sewer excavation I was convinced (and still am truth be told) that a rehydrated sewer, one newly re-exposed to the humid Mediterranean air, retained discernible vestiges of its former odoriferous glory. In other words, they still stank when the wind was blowing the right way.


Over the years I have excavated a wealth of archaeological material from those sewers to houses, warehouses, streets, burials and so much more. Along the way I have encountered a bewildering array of interesting people from those who didn’t like the sun and those afraid of bugs to students of history, archaeology and religion not to mention those more mature adults embarking on the adventure of a lifetime to borrow and repeat an apt, oft spoken cliche.


Ashkelon is many things to many people and as my thoughts turn to the upcoming 2010 season I can’t wait the meet the next group of hardy souls willing to take the 5:00 AM ride from the Gani Dan to the ancient city. With staffing well under way and discussions about excavation strategy and planning heating up it is only a matter of time before the months become weeks, and the weeks become days and the days become the morning after a really long plane ride. If the spirit of adventure moves you, come join us.


If you’re new to our site take a look at the National Geographic January 2001 issue where ancient Ashkelon is a feature article. Head to the library and peruse Ashkelon I, a comprehensive overview of the first season of excavation in 1985, edited by Lawrence Stager, David Schloen and Daniel Master. Or stay tuned to this blog where I’ll pass along interesting tidbits on the daily life and times, not to mention the amazing archaeological research, of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.



For those of you who aren’t new, something I’ll call “What, where, when?” Can you identify what’s in the picture to the right?


To learn more about the site, our research and volunteer opportunities please go to www.fas.harvard.edu/~semitic/ashkelon/. Send questions to leonlevyexpeditiontoashkelon@gmail.com.


Thanks and see you next time!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

2009 Post season wrap-up, part 3

Well, we've come a long way this season, but it's finally over. The staff have checked out, my excavation computer and tape measure have been returned, and the excavation areas are all closed up and sandbagged for winter.

But how, you might ask, did we get from what you see in that picture to the left, to the cleanly defined walls and surfaces that showed up in the last couple of entries?

Okay, I'll admit: We used a big mechanical excavator for some of it. But not all that much, really -- most of the dirt was shifted by hand, by one of the best groups of volunteers that it's been my privilege to have worked with.

Now, it's true that there were times that the supervisors did a bit of work themselves. Why, I've even got a bit of photographic evidence to support that assertion: Here's Philip Johnson, busy with brush and gufah. But honestly, we spent most of our time making sure everything was going the way it ought to be, and filling things out on our trusty computers.

Which weren't the only responsibilities the staff had. Every week, there'd be a tour of one of the areas of excavation, which meant that we had to have our squares clean enough that people could see what was going on, and we had to give a little discussion of what it was that we've been finding. This was difficult for me, as I was never sure about what I was finding, but other people did an excellent job of explaining exactly what it was they had turned up.
Here, for instance, you can see the estimable Kate Birney explaining what's going on in Grid 51. As Kate is a high level black belt, I fear admitting that I'm not sure what's going on in her grid, but I can't say that I remember much of what she had to say. Please don't kill me, Kate.

And then there were the side projects. I had this blog, which I'm almost entirely done with. Other people were working on things like ceramics typologies, geology, zooarchaeology, and so on. As far as side projects go, this was actually a pretty modest effort -- maybe an hour or so a day, more when I had time for it. Unlike trying to sort out the Persian period material from previous seasons of excavation, say, which is something that involves, y'know, real work.

Sean Burrus, for instance, was one of the excavation's photographers, in addition to being a square supervisor. Here, you can see him taking a picture of me taking a picture of him taking a picture of . . . aaah! That was on one of the days where everyone in Grid 47 worked their tails off in 47.44, cleaning up after the excavator; you can see the effects of that day's work in the less than pristine shirts displayed. And that was in something like hour two of ten.

Not all the work that the volunteers did involved heavy lifting, of course. Unfortunately, I didn't get any good pictures of pottery washing, or of people writing on their potsherds, both of which are jobs that are absolutely necessary for the excavation, and both of which require constant attention to detail.
However, I did get a shot of Heather Calhoon using a pair of tweezers to sort hundreds of tiny beads. Again, something necessary, and certainly something that requires constant and focused attention. Heather may have gotten roped into doing that particular job as a result of being the registrar's sister; there are consequences to things like that.

Which isn't to say that the dig was nothing but work; there were also field trips, and, as the season drew to a close, a couple of parties, as well. First off was the finds display and reception; here you can see the registrar, Jessica Calhoon-Long, and Sara Hoffman standing behind the table, while everyone involved in the dig stopped by to look at some of what had been found over the last two seasons.

And, all credit to Jessica, it was a heck of a display. Some of that had to do with the quality of the finds, but more had to do with the choice of which finds to display, the logic of their arrangement, and the descriptions of each piece that Jessica wrote up. I'd love to show some of that work in detail, but the finds are the sort of thing that are going to be finding their way into peer-reviewed publications before too long, and it's generally considered bad form to put that sort of thing in public view before it can be properly published. But trust me: it's great stuff.

And, in addition to looking at the finds that had been so expertly displayed, a pair of hand made and decorated plates were presented to the director emeritus of the excavation, Larry Stager, and the excavation's sponsor, Shelby White, in recognition of the fact that they'd been with the project for twenty years. Which is really a significant amount of time to spend on a project; unfortunately, there's kind of a reason why I wasn't one of the dig's photographers, which can be seen in my failing to get a picture showing the decorated side of the plates.

And, on a similar note, I didn't get any pictures of the final party, which took place last week. Which is unfortunate, as it was an excellent party. There were extremely silly presentations, and a pair of music videos, which . . . well, if you weren't on the dig, you'd probably find them puzzling. But they were hilarious, honestly.

And that's about it, really. I'm not sure how many people have been reading this, but I do get the sense that it's more than one or two; for all of you who have been reading, thanks for your time, and I hope you've found it some combination of enjoyable, informative, or entertaining.

See you all around!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

2009 Post season wrap-up, part 2

Now, while the stuff that I was talking about in the last entry might be interesting, it wasn't really what our excavation focused on this season; the two squares with the majority of the volunteers were on the east side of the area, and while my square was on the west, most of what we dug was huddled up against the eastern edge of the square.

No, while the stuff on the west looks a bit different than it did at the beginning of the season, the stuff in the east looks a lot different than it did at the beginning of the season. And we certainly learned a great deal of what had been going on there, at least during the Byzantine period.

As with the last entry, MS Paint has been used in an attempt to clarify.

This picture more or less picks up where the picture in the previous post leaves off; the wall that I've circled in red and labeled 2 matches the wall in the previous post that I had circled in red and labeled 1; the wall that I circled in black here and labeled 1 matches up with the one that I had circled in green and labeled 2.

Sometimes I make peculiar choices.

But anyway. The wall labeled 2 is earlier than any of the other features that can be seen in this picture, and was probably the wall of the apse of a Roman basilica. The wall labeled 1, on the other hand, was built later, and does not seem to have been part of a basilica at all.

One of the things that troubled us at the end of last season was the plaster structure which I've circled in green, and labeled 3; only a bit of it was visible at the time, so interpretation of it was postponed until this year.

And we do see rather a lot more of it this year, and we've got a theory about it, now: It's part of the seating of an Odeon, an indoor theater where musicians and poets would have performed (there are remains of a full scale theater in the Ashkelon National Park, perhaps a hundred meters to the south of where we excavated this season that hasn't been excavated. It wouldn't be unusual to have an odeon and a dramatic theater close to each other; if I'm not mistaken, most of the odeons that have been excavated are found close to theaters.)

Thus, the wall I labeled 1 would have been the rear wall of the odeon's seating, and the wall that I've circled in yellow, and labeled 4 would have been part of the banking of the odeon's seating -- the seats on our side would have been over the top of that wall, and the next block of seats would have continued from that level down. Or, depending on the size of the orchestra, that might have been where the performers would have stood; it's hard to tell without excavating more of the material to the north.

How the wall that I've circled in blue and labeled 5 fits in isn't entirely clear; it might have been a rebuild of the basilica that took place before the odeon was built. Whatever it was, it's covered over by the remains of the odeon, which means that it came before it.

And that is, more or less, what we've found in Grid 47 this year. But I've got at least one more post that I'd like to make; hopefully, we'll get to that tomorrow.

Monday, July 20, 2009

2009 Post season wrap-up, part 1

Well, the digging is done, the volunteers are gone, and much of the work that we had left to do after the season ended has either been completed or is well on its way to completion.

Which isn't to say that I've got nothing left to do; I keep feeling as though I'm about done with my paperwork, but it's a goal that seems to persist in moving toward the horizon. It's possible that I'll get into exactly why it's taking so long, but before that, I'd like to go through a bit of what we've done this season.

The first picture shows the western half of our excavated area, looking northward. Much of this was excavated by Garstang in the 1920s, but there's certainly a lot here that we've done. And I think that what we've excavated this season is helping us understand what had been visible since the 20s.

And, for the sake of explanation, I'm going to recourse to MS paint.

The wall of which we've got the longest contiguous piece is outlined in red, and labeled "1". For the moment, we're interpreting that as the apse of a Roman period basilica. The scale is about right, and that rectilinear room to the west of it is the sort of thing that you expect to see in a Roman period basilica.

One of the important things about this is that the straight walls extending to the west are bonded to the big semi-circular wall; that is, they're firmly attached to the semi-circular wall, with stones sitting half in one wall and half in the other. That's going to be important to understanding the wall that I've outlined in blue, and labeled 4. But let's not talk about that yet.

The other big wall in this half of the area is circled in green, and outlined in green. There area a couple of interesting things about this wall. First off, it does seem to be later than the wall I've circled in red; there's more of it left, for one thing, and there's also a small area (unfortunately not visible in the picture) where the green outlined wall actually covers a bit of one of the straight red outlined walls.

Which means that we have at least two phases of construction here. And this is where things get complicated. That bit of wall outlined in blue and labeled 4 starts off adjacent to the one outlined in red. But it's not bonded to it, so the assumption is that it was built after the red wall, but possibly while it was still in use -- if it was built after the earlier wall had gone out of use, it wouldn't have been fitted so neatly next to it, and might well have covered it, or been cut into it. So, let's say that this isn't a different phase of construction, but, rather, a later part of the same phase.

Now, all of the walls that we have had some of their stones robbed, and used in some other construction; we don't know how high they were when the buildings they were part of were in use, but judging by what we've found, and the trenches we've dug, we're looking at the foundations of a lot of these walls, and the floor levels for some of the others. In the case of the blue outlined wall, it was robbed out below where the current ground level is. But the material that filled in the trench made in the process of getting those stones is sufficiently different than the material around it that you can see the line of where the wall was, when it's very well swept, and the lighting is right. That may not be entirely true of the picture that I've taken, but I think that you can make out a bit of it if you click through on the picture without the scribbled lines. I've drawn brown lines on the edges of where that robber trench can be seen, and labeled it five.

Then you've got the somwhat lumpier wall that I've circled in yellow, and labeled 6. That wall is also semi-circular, and it goes on top of the robber trench material. So, for the moment, we're thinking that it's part of the later phase of occupation, and would have been in use at the same time as the big wall that I outlined in green.

Complicating matters, you have the two walls that I've outlined in white, and labeled 3. We don't know much about them, but they seem to be part of whatever was here before the basilica was built -- they either go underneath, or have been cut through in the process of making all the other walls. And we have the walls that I circled in pink, and labeled 7. These are the walls that Garstang built to preserve his open air museum.

Much of what I've been doing for the last few days is going through my notes, and showing, as clearly as possible, what is on top of what. And, hopefully, as the above demonstrates, that's more complicated than you might think; in a very small area, we had a bit of 7 standing on top of 6, which is on top of 5, which is on top of 4, which is on top of 3.

I've got a bit more of that to do, so I'm going to head off and do it. Hopefully, there will be a couple of more wrap-up posts when I'm done with that, and I'll try and explain what we think that second set of semi-circular walls were part of.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

2009 season, days 28 and 29

I spent today in the pottery compound, catching up on reading, but there were certainly people out in the field today.

As can be seen by this pair of pictures. The first shows the square as we left it yesterday, and the next one as the people working there left it at the end of the day. And you can certainly see the difference -- for one thing, someone seems to have left a trowel there today.

Also, they left it clean, whereas under my direction, it was left a bit messy. Now, as there is a great deal of dirt still left in the picture I'm calling clean, you might not see what I'm talking about. But take a closer look, particularly at the area beyond the bottom step of that big byzantine wall.

You'll probably have to click through to see it, but just by sweeping away the loose dirt, they found another course of stones, almost connecting that wall to the section standing in what had been Garstang's open air museum. Which had been something that I wanted to look for, but which I hadn't had the time for on Monday -- I had to push pretty hard to get the last bits I wanted excavated finished by the end of the day, as it was our last day of excavation.

So, all in all, I'm pretty happy with what was done; there will probably have to be a final sweep before the pictures for the end of the season, but other than that, field work is more or less finished in 47.53. Which isn't to say that work is done -- we've got a few more crates of pottery to wash and read, and then there's all sorts of documentation that needs to be documented.

But not tonight!

Monday, July 13, 2009

2009 season, days 25 - 27.

Unfortunately, I missed a few days worth of blogging; the fast day took me out of the field for two days -- one for the fast itself, and the other for recovery. And, while I did get some pictures yesterday, I didn't have any time to write anything up, as we went directly from pottery washing to an Israel Antiquities Authority reception for the staff of the excavations active this season.

In general, I think that not having enough time to write things up is going to be the theme for the next week or so -- there's a great deal that has to be wrapped up, and I'm a bit behind on a lot of it. So, there's a picture, but not much explanation. I will say that the stone feature was taken out during the time I wasn't around, as was much of the dirt under it, and a decent chunk of the material to the south of the large wall. Today was the last day of real excavation; hopefully, I'll be able to document what's been happening over the next few days, but I'm afraid that'll have to take a back seat to getting all my work done on time. Still, since the site shouldn't be changing much from now until the end of the season, things I don't talk about should be around until I have a bit more time to post here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

2009 season, day 24

Today was a slightly shortened day, as everyone went off to see what was going on in another part of the tel, ending the day about an hour earlier than usual.

But, all the same, we got a lot done. The stone feature, for instance, is a lot smaller than it was before; the bits that remain do so because there's dirt behind them, and they are useful as a retaining wall, keeping that dirt in place until it can be excavated. Which should happen in the next few days.

In addition to finishing up our work on the stone feature, we also took out a chunk of dirt, leaving that curiously circular divot in the plaster that you can see in the middle of the picture, and we cleaned up the loosely plastered material that had been on the edge of the large plaster feature. What we didn't do was get everyone over to help with taking out the loose stones that seem to be related to Garstang's wall. That's now supposed to happen tomorrow; when that's done, we'll be more or less done excavating in the northern half of the square -- there's the dirt below the stone feature to dig, and the material left that relates to the large wall, and a bit of what lies to the south of it, but the northern half is more or less done.

Unfortunately, while there will be excavating done tomorrow, I'm not going to be supervising it -- tomorrow, by the Jewish calendar, is the seventeenth of Tammuz, which is a fast day that I'll be observing. And while work isn't prohibited, drinking water is, which makes excavating an extraordinarily bad idea. I do hope to be back on the site on Friday, when we're either going to be digging or working in the compound; hopefully, those rocks will be gone before I'm back in my square.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

2009 season, day 23

Excavation continued today around that stone feature; we've brought the level of the material around it to that of the bottom of the feature, and cleaned off the face of the plaster that had been the outer face of the big wall.

Hopefully, there'll be one more picture taken early tomorrow morning, and then we can start taking the stone feature down.

The possibility exists that tomorrow we're going to get the volunteers from the square to the east to come and go through the loose rocks that we have at the edge of where Garstang's wall was. If that happens, I'm going to have to run around like a lunatic keeping an eye on everything. Which should be fun.

Monday, July 6, 2009

2009 season, day 22

Today was, I hope, the last day we spent most of our time on the stone feature. We've dropped a bit of the material to the side of it down, so as to show the section, as well as cleared most of the material to the left (west) of it.

I had been thinking of trying to get a picture in tomorrow morning, but it might be wise to hold off on that, and spend tomorrow bringing the rest of the area down, rather than going after the feature; it's the latest material we have, so it should come out first, but I'm starting to think that the most orderly thing to do would be to fully excavate the material around it, and then go after it.

Did I say that I was getting ready to take it out? If so, that is because I am. As you can see from the second picture, we seem to have gotten to the bottom of the feature. Or not; it's a little hard to see. But the ashy gray fill that we've been following throughout the excavation of the feature is gone, and we're coming down on the sort of pottery we're finding to the east of the thing, and there's a line where digging doesn't seem to find any stones, more or less where that fill ended.

Assuming that this is the bottom, and not a trick the feature is playing on me, it might be worth going into a bit more detail as to what it might be, and why we think that.

The first question that has to be answered is, when the thing was in use, was it above ground or below ground? And I think that there's evidence both ways. One thing that points to it being underground is that the outer surface is lumpy, with rocks sticking out every which way. If you were digging a pit, and lining it with rocks, that's the sort of thing that would happen -- you'd want the inner surface to be relatively smooth, whatever it is you were doing with it, but the outer surface wouldn't be visible at all. Another point in favor of the lined pit theory is that the material between the rocks seems very similar to that ashy gray material we were finding as we went down. Again, this makes sense if it was a lined pit; the rocks would have been stuck into the walls of the pit, and the material from the pit would have filled the spaces between them. Finally, it's a pretty thin walled structure for something as tall as it is; I'm not sure something like that would have survived as a surface installation.

All of which seems pretty convincing. But there are reasons to think that it wasn't a surface installation. For one thing, the feature is slightly bell shaped, in its upper layers. And that's not how you dig a pit; if you dig a bell-shaped pit, it falls in. If anything, you'd expect the opposite -- wider on top, narrowing as it goes down. And then there was the dirt that filled the feature. In the areas where we didn't get the ashy gray fill, we got material that was similar to the stuff from the outside of the feature. Which isn't what you'd expect in an abandoned pit -- if it was left partially empty, you'd expect things to fall from above. If they were falling from the side, you'd expect to see disruption relating to that spill. Which we were looking for, but didn't find. And then there's the question of where the missing rocks went. It's possible that they were robbed for later use, but that seems unlikely to me, given that the rocks are pretty small, and small rocks are something that Ashkelon has in abundance. If it were exposed, the rocks might have fallen and then rolled away, but that can't happen to a feature in the ground.

On the balance, I think that the evidence does seem to favor it having been a lined pit, but there are still problems with that theory. As far as function goes, honestly, I'm not sure we're going to know that; there are a few bags of that ashy gray fill that's going in for additional analysis, but if those don't give us something definitive, it's going to be a matter of guesswork, rather than hard data.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

2009 season, day 21

Last week, it was asserted with some confidence that Sunday would be a day for catching up with work in the pottery compound -- washing, sorting, and reading the material we've fallen a bit behind on.

And so it was, at least for the first four hours. But not for me! Instead, I supervised the hired workers in their demolition of much of what remained of Garstang's wall, and in cleaning up the mess that said demolition made.

Let the record show that I'm fine with changes of that sort.

As has been the case recently, the picture is one taken in the afternoon, late enough that shadows are actually reaching where we were digging, which doesn't happen during the time we're excavating. And it's an interesting picture, or at least, it shows some of the interesting things that have been coming up in the square recently. Behind where the wall was, we're getting a layer of rubble. That might be related to the construction of the wall, or it might be related to the plaster structure that we've got on the other side. This is something that can be determined by digging, and assuming all goes well, it will be.

The plan for tomorrow is to spend a little more time futzing around with the stone structure -- it's looking as though we're close to the bottom of the ashy fill, and I hope that means that we're at the bottom of the stones; hopefully, that'll be clarified early on in the day. Then, a bit of clearing of the sides of the structure, and getting ready for pictures tomorrow morning, and the rest of the time digging in what little we have left of the northern half of the square.

Unless circumstances intervene, like they seem to do every day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

2009 season, day 20

Looking at the first picture, you might think that we didn't get that much done today. There are other things that you might think as well -- "I thought he was going to take that stone structure out today," or "why can I see more of what's left of the open air museum in this shot than usual?" or "where did I put my car keys?"

Fortunately, I have answers for some of those questions.

The initial plan was to take out the feature, assuming that cleaning the inner surface undermined it sufficiently for it to be unsafe to keep up. But that didn't happen. We did spend the first hour cleaning it up for a photograph, which may eventually find its way here, and then scraping away at its inner surface. But instead of something that looked as unstable as the outer surface, we found an inner surface that looks quite solid and convincing.

Unlike the outside, where stones protrude at varying angles and distances, the inner surface is relatively smooth and regular. And there isn't a foundation where I expected to see a foundation. This is making me doubt my belief that it was built as a freestanding structure -- it's getting pretty tall and narrow for something not supported by the dirt around it. The aesthetics of having a rubbly looking outer surface strike me as being somewhat less significant.

So, what we're going to do with this is to continue to dig through the ashy material that's along that inside wall, and see what turns up as we go down. My suspicion is that there are two phases -- an aboverground phase and a pit, but I'll wait and see what the feature has to say before making a final interpretation.

The stone feature wasn't the only thing that we excavated today; we actually went down a fair amount in the northern corner of the square. And then, the plan was to take down a couple of courses of stone from Garstang's wall.

That's not exactly what happened.

Honestly, that collapse isn't bad news; we were planning on taking it down eventually, and once we get this cleaned up, we'll be able to get a good look at what's coming, once we clear away the debris, and I'm much happier about a wall falling apart when we were trying to take it apart than I would be if it fell apart underneath someone who wasn't expecting it.

All the same, we're going to have some cleaning up to do; I didn't get pictures of what we excavated in that northern part of the square because it's currently covered in dirt and rocks from the wall.

So, in addition to my complaints about Garstang's archaeological technique, I'm no longer very pleased about the masonry work that he supervised.

As the camera I've been borrowing doesn't have a video mode, this is probably going to be the week in review as well, so here's a look at what's been going on in the neighboring squares. To the north, they've dug a narrow trench across the length of their area of excavation. As I understand it, they've found the bottom of the cut that Garstang made in the 1920s, as well as what looks to be a part of a marble pedestal. I'm not certain if they're planning on going deeper, or widening their trench, or something else entirely. I do know that if they decide to remove that pedestal, it's going to be a bit tricky.

There's all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the square to the east of mine; for one thing, they've been coming up with a lot of ostraka, all of which seem to be written in greek, on a very similar sort of potsherd -- it's possible that there's something that'll be found when they put that puzzle together. And they've mostly cleared the dirt off some of the larger features, which was one of the major goals for the season.

But, what I chose to take a picture of is a little lump of stone in the corner of their square. It's a bit difficult to make out, but it seems that they've just barely clipped the edge of the outer wall of the basilica. Which, to be honest, isn't a wall that I've ever mentioned before, and probably not something of surpassing interest to most of the people who might be reading this.

Sometimes I make poor photographic decisions.

Oh, and as far as the car keys go, I'm really not sure. Maybe check the pockets of your raincoat?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 season, day 19



Looking at this picture, you might think that there wasn't as much done today as there had been on previous days; comparing this picture to that of the previous day, it would seem that we haven't excavated very much.

But you'd be wrong! We did a great deal, just not in terms of pounds of dirt moved. The times is coming to fully excavate and remove the stone feature, and I'd like to get a picture of it before we do that.

"Hold on a second," you might say. "You have pictures of that stone feature. I am looking at a picture of that stone feature this very second. What do you mean that you want to get a picture of the feature? Is this blog some sort of record of your descent into madness?"

Okay, I suppose it's possible that you wouldn't say that. But if you did, I'd explain thusly: When I'm taking pictures for my own record keeping, or for the amusement of others, there's not that much pressure to get everything right. The lighting can be off, there can be random detritus of the excavation around, you can see my shadow looming over whatever I'm trying to take a picture of, and so on.

But when you're taking an official picture, it's going to be something that goes into the records of the excavation, and which might wind up published. Certainly, if someone comes across a similar installation somewhere else in Ashkelon, they're going to want to look at the one I excavated. So the goal is to get a picture that shows the feature as clearly as possible, and with as few extraneous factors as possible.

So, basically, we spent the day trying to clean the feature up for the shot.

As you might be able to see, that meant cutting the edges of the dirt near the feature as sharply as we could manage, and clearing as much dirt from the stones as we could manage. There's going to be another pass with trowel and brush on the dirt on the inside of the feature, to bring out distinctions in the soil as best as possible, and I'll take some more dirt off some of those stones.

And then the stones are going to come out. I'm still not sure what this thing is -- it's got a very thin wall, with large gaps between the stones, but it very clearly does have at least one wall, and it's got a layer of fill inside it that follows that line of stones from the top to the bottom. But I've excavated it . . . well, I've told other people to excavate it as well as I could manage, I've documented what I've found as well as I could manage, and now it's got to go, so we can see what's going on underneath.

But, once it's out, I anticipate a rapid descent. The layer of fill that we've come across is a genuine pleasure to go through; it's soft enough that we can move through rapidly, it's got a decent amount of pottery in it, so it should be easy to find a date for it, and it seems to be deep and undifferentiated, which means that we can move.

Obviously, going in with that attitude means that we'll come up on some horribly complicated bit of archaeology inches below our current surface. Which would be fine too, really.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

2009 season, day 18.

Well, via the expedient of borrowing a camera, I now, once again, am capable of taking pictures. Unfortunately, despite it being a very good camera, I still don't seem to be capable of taking very good pictures. But this one, I hope, is at least illustrative.

As you might be able to see, we've taken down much of the northern half of the area in which I've been digging. Most of what you can see is a pile of plaster and rubble. It looks a bit like it might be a collapsed wall, or even fall from a ceiling, but it's hard to tell. Beyond that, there's a layer of reddish brown material, which seems to continue to go down. If all goes well tomorrow, we'll push into the stone feature, and get a good sense of what its foundation looks like. Then, we might take some pictures, and take the whole thing out. There also might be a pit that goes deeper than the feature that we have; that'll be a lot easier to see once we go further down as well.

And, perhaps sometime in the next few days, I'm thinking of taking the northern half of Garstang's wall down as far as it goes. That'll give us a cross section of what's coming, which is a useful thing to have. I would like to drop the area another foot or so before doing that, so we'll see what happens, and when it's likely to happen.

Monday, June 29, 2009

2009 season, days 16 and 17

Despite a couple of attempts to find a work around, I don't have a camera for the moment, so I can't actually show you what's been happening.

That's somewhat less problematic for day 16 than you might think; I unfortunately managed to get backed up on putting the notes I had into the system, so I had to take a day off digging to do that. You can imagine how hard it was to sit in an air conditioned room typing, rather than carry buckets of dirt around in the heat.

(Actually, I really would rather have been on the site. But notes need to be organized in a format that other people can understand, so needs must.)

Today also didn't go as well as might have been hoped. One of the new volunteers slipped on entering the square this morning, and seems to have done some damage to her ankle. I feel terrible about this; it's one of those things that you wish you could undo as soon as you see it happen.

There was a fair amount of dirt moved, after that -- there's a layer of orange-brown material that stretches over most of the area north of the stone feature, and we took out a lot of that, and we took out the last of the stones that seem to have fallen from that feature. That was one of the two major goals I had for the day, so that, at least, was accomplished, but the other goal was to clarify the relationship between the orange-brown fill and a layer of pottery rich fill, and that proved bafflingly hard to do; we'll probably take another stab at it tomorrow, assuming that all goes well.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

2009 season, day 15

There was less digging done today than usual, as one of the volunteers I have working in my square was feeling a bit under the weather, and wasn't able to make it out to the site.

But we did get stuff done; those four stones from yesterday don't look like they're part of a larger structure, anymore, and we're pretty sure that we've found the bottom of that stone structure we've been digging the last few days, though that will have to be confirmed.

Unfortunately, I'm probably not going to have pictures of that tomorrow, as my camera seems to have given up the ghost. I'll probably come up with some sort of work around for next week, but for now, I can't take pictures.

I did manage one last snapshot today, of the guy who was able to make it out to the tel today -- T.J. Thames. To continue my litany of woe, T.J. is one of those people who were here for the first half of the season, so he'll be heading back to America on Saturday. Best of luck, T.J., and we'll miss you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

2009 season, day 14

We were back in our square today, and we made more progress on defining that stone feature. The trailing line of stones that you'd expect to see on the left of my square has been taken out; it does seem to me that it was some of the missing stones from what we're excavating, but it'll take more digging to know if that's true -- if the feature itself is a lot deeper, I may have to come up with a different theory.

However, while those stones are gone, more are cropping up. There's a group of four stones to the right of the feature that are particularly interesting. It's possible that they're just later fill, or rocks which have happened to fall when there was a surface somewhere around there. But there are four of them, and they look sort of like their in a square. That's a lot of rocks, and a shape that can mean all sorts of thing.

My suspicion is that we'll learn more about them tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2009 season, day 13

No picture today, as I wasn't out in the field. Everyone in our unit was still working on getting through the material disrupted by the JCB, and today was my day in the pottery compound. And we've caught up on pottery, which comes as a surprise -- there are four crates left to wash, but there's nothing that's been washed and which is sitting and waiting for reading.

I did head out briefly, to see what had been done, and to have a brief staff meeting about what's been done thus far, and what we want to do over the next week or so. And, in my case, that changed my approach a bit. Rather than going deeper in the robber trench, we're going to be heading out to the north of the square, and hopefully bring it down to the same level as the square which was opened last year. If I was digging my square in perfect isolation, starting with the robber trench would make more sense. But there are some features which extend in from the square to the east that are going to be investigated over the next week or two, so it would be nice for them to know what their edges look like.

How fast that happens will depend on what we find. But, as always, I'm hoping it's going to go down rapidly.

Monday, June 22, 2009

2009 season, day 12

Well, as expected, we did a great deal of work cleaning up after the JCB today. As a result, I'm feeling a bit queasy, but I assume that'll pass.

And, though I tried a couple of times, I really didn't get any pictures of the work that was being done. Which was a genuine achievement -- there was an awful lot of material dislodged by the excavator, and most of it is gone, up what is now a very steep slope.

But I did manage to get a shot that conveys an impression of what we did yesterday, if not the whole of it.

In the picture to the left, we're looking mostly eastward, towards the large apsidal wall; you can sort of see another stone coming through -- we exposed perhaps an inch or so of it. And, interestingly, now that we're going down, it seems that the rubbly fill is now limited to the robber trench of the wall; the material to the south is much more ashy and clayey, though I have not been able to find anything as regular as a pit there.

Tomorrow, I hope to dig more in that trench; it does seem to be later material than anything else we have in the square, so logic dictates that we dig it first, and that'll give us a cross-section of the material to the south, which should inform how we excavated that, as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 season, day 11.

The JCB came back today, and as it was working near where our sunshades are normally tethered, we didn't have any shade today.

Nonetheless, we got a lot done -- we took a bit more out near that stone installation, and I think it's become clear that it more or less follows the line I expected it to follow, and we went further down in the robber trench of the big wall.

However, I'll admit that not much of that is visible in this picture; unfortunately, it's the best of a bad lot. But I should be able to get more tomorrow, as we're not planning on doing any additional digging in our square tomorrow. Instead, everyone is going to be in the northern part of the area, cleaning up the rubble that the JCB has knocked loose. So, in addition to reporting on that, I might get somewhat more intelligible views of what we did today.

Friday, June 19, 2009

2009 season, week 2 in review.

This morning was a working day, but not one spent in the field -- instead, we spent the day in the pottery compound, organizing some of the material gathered in earlier season, for a new study project. So not too much to report on that front.

video But another week is gone, so here's another wobbly bit of video for you. This is actually my third attempt at shooting this; I'll leave the quality of the previous tries to your imagination.

So, as far as a review goes, we basically finished everything that I had set out to finish this week. If we hadn't found that stone feature, we would have gone deeper, but it would be foolish to be upset at archaeology interfering with my ability to move dirt -- if that was the priority, we could have used a bulldozer.

Next week, hopefully, we'll dig a bit more in that robber trench, starting with the ash pit, knock a few more courses off of Garstang's wall, and head on down into a pottery rich fill that we've seen all across the site.


As with last week, I've got a few pictures from the other squares open in our area:
We'll start with the square next to mine. I don't seem to have a good picture of it, but they seem to be coming down on that same big wall that I'm coming down on. I think that over the next two weeks, the relationship between that wall and the other features we see in the square is going to become clearer -- there's certainly a lot going on, in different periods, and it does seem like exposing the architecture in that area is going to help clarify when different features were built, and what their relationship to each other is.

in the northern square, the big plaster lined pit from last week has been taken out, through the vigorous application of pickaxes. It seems to go a bit deeper than we had expected, so we're left with a little rectangle of plaster where it stood.

In addition to going down in the open areas of the square, they also dug a remarkably deep probe, to see if they could find a floor related to the basilica, or possibly one of the walls. They didn't find either of those, but a close look at the sides of the probe should give useful information about the levels that they'll be going through, as they dig down.

And that's all for week 2. Or at least, that's all I can think of for now.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

2009 season, day 10

A bit of a slow day today, as we had to spend a bit longer cleaning than we usually do -- it's best practice to leave a square looking tidy before the weekend, as that's usually when other archaeologists have a chance to stop by. Leaving things leveled flat and swept will make it easier for them to see what you've been digging, and will leave them with a positive impression of your field technique.

What this blog says about my personal field technique, I'll leave unexamined for the moment.

But, despite the slightly shortened day, we more or less finished what I had hoped to finish for the week, getting the square more or less flat, with the exception of the plaster feature and that stone structure. I don't expect either of them to last more than a few more days, but for now, they're telling an interesting story.

What I expected to find was more stones, and something closer to a complete oval shape as we went further down. We seem to have gotten one, but not the other -- rather than closing in, we've got a line of stones trailing outward. For the moment, at least, I think those stones aren't part of the feature, where they are lying -- possibly they're debris that were knocked loose from the feature, or they might be an unrelated thing.

We'll know more when we dig, but for now, who are you going to trust -- me, or some stones? Bear in mind that I have a degree in archaeology, and I'm pretty sure those rocks don't.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

2009 season, day 9

An eventful day, today. We've moved a certain amount of dirt, and as is so often the case, doing that made what we were finding a lot clearer. For one thing, the semi-circular feature that I thought was come up did come up, but it's a lot smaller than I had thought it was yesterday.

And, more interestingly, it doesn't seem to be a pit. This is more evident in the second picture than in the first, and it would be even more visible if I took another video, but what seems to be happening is that the feature gets wider as it goes down.

While it might be possible to dig a pit like that -- something that gets wider as it goes further down, it would be very hard to do that, as dirt tends to fall down when there isn't anything under it. So, it seems more likely that this was a structure that was built in open air, more or less.

What exactly the structure is isn't clear. There's a bit of soil along the inside of that crescent of rocks that we have which looks ashy, and shot through with small bits of charcoal. Expert opinion is that if it was a kiln, there'd have been more evidence of burning, but it might have been an oven, or something along those lines.

One point that's interesting to me is that there seems to be a notch cut into that large plaster feature, matching the angle of that stone structure. That helps establish a relative chronology for these things -- the stone structure had to have been built after the plaster feature. If it was there first, there would have been stones there, rather than a notch in the plaster, or the plaster would have cut through it. And, given that the walls of the stone structure slope outward, we can assume that the dirt around it had to have been deposited after the structure was built. Which means that if we were to find a coin in the plaster feature, say, that would give us a date earlier than the stone structure, or the dirt around it.

In either case, we're hoping to find more of the structure as we go lower down, and we'll take some soil samples for flotation analysis, which will use water to sift the sand, and hopefully find tiny artifacts and remains that simpler forms of sifting miss.

Speaking of things recovered by sifting, we've had some neat finds today as well.

You'll either have to take my word for it or click through, but that little stone cube is a six sided die.

I'm not a dice expert, so I can't tell you if it's Roman, or Byzantine, or Crusader, but I can tell you that the spots are arranged in the same way they are in modern dice, and that the 1 and 6 are opposite each other, as are the 2 and 5, and the 3 and 4, which is the way most modern dice are arranged.

Whenever that die dates from, judging from the finds around it, it can't be later than the Crusader period, so it's been hundreds of years since the last time that die was thrown. Then we dug it up, and it seems I rolled a four before taking that picture.

For those who are curious, the tag there is the sort of thing that we make whenever we find small finds of that sort. There's a bar code, which will let people find it with the stroke of a light pen in the upper left corner. Then there are the numbers 35/09, our Antiquities Authority license number, and the year.

Underneath that, you get 47 and 53, which is my area number and my square number, "unit 15", which is the area of my square in which we found it, 6/17 which is today's date, in the manner in which Americans write dates, ASR/RBN, which are my initials and the area supervisor's initials, 4054, which is the number of the pottery bucket which was open for unit 15 when that die was found, and MC59777, which is the number that'll identify that particular small find.

It's a moderately complicated system, but it lets us know where and when that die was found, with a certain measure of precision, and makes it easier to refer to that find, if we were to find another die, or a medieval Settlers of Catan boxed set, or suchlike, or if we wanted to compare it in size and weight to other medieval dice, and so on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

2009 season, day 8

Today we moved less dirt than we have in previous days, but this is the difference between digging stratified archaeology, and digging homogeneous fills. Today we started on that triangle of dirt that isn't related to the Byzantine wall, and which isn't related to the 1920s wall, and as we had hoped, there seems to be stuff in it that's worth a closer look.

And, as on previous occasions, I'll recourse to drawing lines on a picture to show what we've been up to.

The area circled in red and labeled 1 is the line of plastered stones that we've been aware of since we got through the topsoil. It's looking slightly better defined now, because we've taken out some tree roots that were in the way, but it's basically the same as it's ever been.

The bit circled in green, and labeled 2 is a tiny fragment of a floor, that had been around in the previous seasons, and which might continue underneath the bits we haven't excavated. But we did get a bit more of it, after taking out a rather strange pair of well plastered, rectangular stones that seemed to just sort of be standing by themselves, with no relationship to any other floor or surface.

The bit labeled 3 is what's giving us the most cause for puzzled consideration. It seems to be bounded by a semi-circle of stones, which I've circled in yellow, but which remain hard to see in the picture, and judging by the bit of the crusader pit that we've dug, those stones do seem to go further down.

So, based on that, it looks like it should be a stone lined pit. The reason why I'm not jumping to that conclusion is that the material in the area marked 3 is not very different than the material to the north of it. And, generally speaking, when you get pits, you get something filling them.

So, we'll see what happens tomorrow -- My assumption is that this feature is going to be resolved, one way or another. Or at least we'll be able to make a guess, and work on that basis.

Also appearing in the picture, but not labeled, are supervisory staff, volunteers, hired workers, Garstang's wall, several other squares, a wheelbarrow, and a stick with a bucket on the end. See if you can identify which is which!

Monday, June 15, 2009

2009 season, day 7

Week 2 is great, because the preliminary stuff is out of the way, and the shape of what's coming is not yet clear.

Today we followed a trench of loose material next to the 20th century wall. The working theory is that this was something that was dug and filled by Garstang's workers, but that's not necessarily the case. You might notice that the triangular area we haven't dug sort of slopes downward into the trench with that bucket and stick in it.

This isn't poor field technique on my part! It seems that the trench that we're digging slopes inward, and we've been following the difference in the materials. Which is, more or less, the way features like that are supposed to be excavated.

Tomorrow, the plan is to finish up that trench -- there's a bit more dirt to take out, and then I'd like to flatten that area out so that everything we've dug will be approximately the same level, and then we crack that wedge of material that we've been avoiding.

And so on, all the way down. More or less -- it seems likely that we'll eventually find floors and walls and so on, which will make digging less orderly, but until then, the lines we've been following seem likely to be the lines that we're going to continue following.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

2009 season, day 6

The first day of week 2, and it's off to a great start, at least in my square. There's not much point showing the square in more detail, as we've flattened the entire area that we've been digging.

I'm not yet entirely certain if I'm going to dig there tomorrow, or open up the narrower end of my triangle, but whenever we do open that side up again, we'll probably divide it up into at least two, maybe more chunks -- there's an ash pit, that we can now see clearly, and a fill with a good deal more rubble, which pottery seems to be indicating is from the Crusader period.

There was an unfortunate incident today -- one of the volunteers in a different area did himself a minor injury with a pick, and had to get a few stitches put in. My understanding is that it wasn't terribly serious, but it does make it clear that we have to watch out for mistakes of that sort, particularly over the next couple of weeks; it's when you start getting comfortable that these sort of things can happen. So, on the off chance that there are volunteers reading this, try to keep control of your tools, and drink water.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

2009 season, week 1 in review.

In general, the first week of an archaeological excavation is a slow one. It always takes a day or two to clean up the effects of the off-season, or to clear the surface that's going to be excavated, and it takes a while for people who've never been on a dig to get used to their tools, and waking up at four in the morning, and so on.

And yet, I think we did about as much work as could be expected in a week. I think that we know where the good archaeological contexts are, and where they aren't, and we'll be able to be digging good material starting Monday, if we aren't already in a Crusader period robber trench. So, as far as the digging goes, I'm going to call this week an unmitigated success.

On other fronts, things were a bit more . . . well, mitigated. I've got a somewhat better handle on the computer system than I did at the start, which is good, as I'm going to have to start collecting and sorting more data, as we work through the better archaeological contexts. And, hopefully, managing that stuff is going to take up less of my time. But, as far as the last week goes, I'm going to have to chalk a certain amount of it up to a "learning experience", and spend the next few hours fixing mistakes I made, and getting in information that I've left out.

As far as blogging goes, there are a few things that I wanted to try, the first of which you can see below. I apologize in advance for the sort of Blair Witch cinematography (do the kids remember the Blair Witch Project? Should I call it Cloverfield cinematography if I want to be understood by the youth of today? In either case, what I mean is that it's not very good.)

Whatever you want to call it, it's a brief tour of the square, narrated by yours truly:
video Another thing that I wanted to do was to keep an eye on what was going on in the other squares; while I'm not planning on trekking out to the other areas, as they're scattered across the tel, I'm hoping to get a picture or two, and a general sense of what's going on in the squares nearby.

So, here's what I've got for the first week:


The square directly to the east of me was the only square open last season, and this week, they've been digging in the western half of their square. Thus far, they've come across a number of different layers of material, but they haven't found any structures or floors, so they're working on figuring out when various layers of material were deposited, and their relationships with each other; a complicated sort of job.

(The picture was taken on day 3; sadly, it seems that's the best picture that I've got of their square.)

There's one other square open in our area, directly to the north of this one, and to the northeast of mine.



For the moment, this square is defined by the trench that Garstang dug, and which the JCB redug. (It does seem that the JCB may have cut a bit more than Garstang, but such is the way of excavating equipment.) One of the structures they've turned up, on the southern side of that trench, is this large, plaster lined pit. It seems to have been poured, rather than free-standing, because the plaster walls are not strong enough to have stood on their own -- someone dug a pit, and then poured plaster in to line it. It may have been used as a lime kiln, which may have been where some of the statuary of the basilica were turned to lime, or it might have been something else.

On the other side of that trench, there had been a floor. That floor was taken out yesterday, and it's not yet clear when that floor is from; hopefully, they'll find good dating evidence in the fill directly below it.

This isn't all they've found -- there are other, subtler features that have turned up on the southern side of this square. But these are the large, dramatic features of which I have pictures.

And that more or less where we're up to, but there's one thing more that I wanted to talk about before closing up shop for the weekend.

You'll remember that sherd from earlier in the week. Yesterday, our pottery expert (who is also the area supervisor) looked at it, along with a great many other sherds, and gave her evaluation; it's a sherd from a glazed bowl, with incised decoration, and dating to the Mamluk period (1250-1517).



The next picture is a closeup; the bit of paper in the background is a top plan -- that's a sort of map, that shows where the dividing lines between the different units are, so we can know exactly where the pottery came from.

Once the pottery was read, that sherd was put aside, along with a lot of similar pieces, for further analysis -- there are some difficulties with the dating of Islamic period sherds, so the plan is to get several experts together, to look at what we come up with this season, and to try to pin down those dates.
And that's more or less it for week 1. I'm not entirely sure what next week is going to look like, but hopefully, I'll be able to do something like this the next time the volunteers are off on a trip somewhere.

2009 season, day 5

As you might have expected, there was more digging today. There was also a bunch of other stuff, including a short staff meeting before pottery reading, and work I had to catch up with on the computer, so there isn't going to be as much blogging today as on other days. However, tomorrow I have a day off. Most of the volunteers will be taking a trip to Jerusalem, but as I live there, I figured I'd pass on the tour.

So, after waking at some luxuriantly decadent hour, maybe seven, I'll see how much I can do as far as wrapping up the first week of the dig; I've got ideas and pictures and so on, so we'll see what we can do. But, for now, what I dug today:


This is a slightly different angle than usual. The reason that I'm only showing the southern half of the square is because that's where the vast majority of today's digging happened. And, hopefully, it'll be a little simpler to see what we've done in this picture, than it would be in a somewhat wider angle shot.

As usual, if you want to see the lines I've drawn, clicking through the next image is probably the best way to go, though I suppose it's possible that it's all visible on monitors with better resolution than mine.

While there's still a certain amount of flattening as a result of the bright, direct sunlight, I think that the difference between where we're digging and the ground two meters lower is sufficiently clear that it doesn't need outlining. On the other hand, the Byzantine wall looks flatter than it is, so I've outlined that in red, and labeled it one. Hopefully, you can now see that we've come across another course of stones -- while some of that wall was robbed out, not all of it was.

The bit that I've labeled two, and circled in blue is a line of white plastered stones. There are two courses in some of that, though I don't think you can see it, and we haven't found the bottom of it yet. If there's more of it further down, it goes from a little strange to a lot strange, as the bit in the next square over doesn't go very deep at all.

The orange line shows approximately where the trench for Garstang's wall begins; it's harder to see in this bit than in the bit further north, but it's something that you can feel in the consistency of the soil. Along with the trench, there's also a bit of the wall visible in the bit I've labeled three. There was more before I hit it with a pickaxe for much of the day, and took the rocks away. Which demonstrated how aggressively out of shape I am. I imagine that five more weeks of digging will do something about that.

The bit circled in yellow and labeled four is a little row of little stones. I have no idea what its deal is. It's in the middle of a rough-edged bit of ashy fill, and doesn't seem to go much further down. Maybe more digging will show what that is, and maybe it won't; finding out what those are is going to be one of the goals for Sunday.

And then there's five, which is basically all the rest of what we've dug today. Pottery reading is showing a lot of Crusader period sherds, so it might be fill from the robber trench, and it might have been someone in the Crusader period who dug that trench, and took the Byzantine walls stones to build something. I'm hoping to find out exactly what's going on here, and maybe define different areas on Sunday, and then spend the rest of next week digging the more northerly half of the square.