Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We've moved!

The blog is moving to our new website, digashkelon.com. The site is very much a work in progress -- we welcome feedback -- but we want to let everyone know it is live. We plan to add new content over the next few weeks and months so check back frequently to see what we are doing!

Welcome to digashkelon.com

See you there!

(I'll be making up for the lack of blog posts over the past few weeks in the coming days. Good things have been happening.)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Race to Pottery Washing

Quick, can I write an entry before pottery washing and still have time to get some Ice Coffee? Let's see.

Today, in our latest edition of "Getting to Know You" I'd like to introduce you to Dr. Daniel Master, Co-Director Ashkelon Excavations and Associate Professor of Achaeology at Wheaton College. Here goes.

Dr. Master doesn't remember what he wanted to be when he was little but he does remember that he was notorious for telling his cousins where to dig. Today, Dr. Master is still telling everyone where to dig. In fact, that is an important part of his job as co-director. Dr. Master's job is to plan the season's work, find people who want to do the same work and then make it happen and do whatever he can to make sure all the work gets done. His favorite part of the job is working with people he likes. And he has no least favorite part of the job because, he told me, if there was something he didn't like he would change it.

Favorite tool: Trowel
Most interesting find he has excavated: 604 BC destruction of Ascalon
Favorite treat while in Israel: Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia Ice Cream Bar covered in Dark Chocolate

BTW, the answer to the question is "no." I wasn't able to post this before pottery washing. At 8:19 it is now just 11 minutes until my bedtime. Until next time, the dirt is ready!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Getting to Know You

Today's installment of "Getting to Know You" features Robyn, a Ph.D. student in the Classics Department at the University of North Carolina. When I asked Robyn what she wanted to be when she was little she looked a little sheepish and confessed that she always wanted to be an archaeologist. There were obvious signs she told me. First, she was always digging in her back yard when she was a child. And, whenever she played with Barbie dolls she dressed them up as characters in Greek mythology!

Here on the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon Robyn is a Square Supervisor in Grid 47. That means she oversees the day to day excavation of a 10 x 10 meter area within the grid. Robyn's favorite part of the job is the people. She loves meeting new people and teaching them about archaeology. Her least favorite part of the job are the spiders and lack of coffee.

Favorite Tool: WHS trowel
Least Favorite Discovery: A never ending pottery pit she excavated last year
Favorite treat while in Israel: Ice Aroma (basically a mix between a coffee slushie and a coffee milkshake)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tel Tour

Today we had our first Tel Tour. It started in Grid 38 where Josh detailed the latest events. In Square 85 Johnathon and his volunteers have waded through Byzantine and Roman period drains on their way to the Persian period and, happily, what appears to be the first well preserved 8th century BCE floor ever found at Ashkelon. That is certainly a big discovery!

One of the goals of Square 85 is to keep moving towards the level of the gray sandbags you can see in this picture and the one below. Last year they uncovered a very important building dating to the Iron 1 period which extends into Square 85. Stay tuned for Johnathon's progress throughout the season as he gets closer and closer to uncovering the remainder of this important building.

Further down in the grid in Dana's square they are dealing with fill layers from the LB 1 period and a house with a courtyard from the LB 2. (LB = Late Bronze Age. The approximate dates for LB 1 are 1550 - 1400 roughly and for LB 2 1400 -1200.)

As mentioned previously, Grid 38 is the longest continually excavated grid on site but much of it is coming to the end of its long winding journey. Dana's may very well complete the excavation of his area this summer after which point Johnathon's square and the quest for the remainder of the Iron 1 building under the sandbags will be the focus of work.

From Grid 38 it was on to Grid 51 and happily I have pictures! Up first, Kate, who you met in our first "Getting to Know You" segment. Here she is explaining her very interesting grid which is newly expanded this season. With the new expansion Kate and her team of supervisors find themselves dealing with a wide range of time periods. They have everything from Islamic and Crusader through the Persian period. All in all some very interesting stratigraphy.

I have a few more details and, I hope, perhaps even a description of the grid from Kate herself who tells me she also has some great pictures to share.

They are very hard to see but if you look at the ground to the right of the volunteer with the red backpack can see some ceramic tiles which come from a Byzantine period villa.

In this picture Kathleen is standing inside a large drain which proved to be much bigger than expected. They also found some great things while excavating it which I hope to have more information on soon!

Under the shade cloth is where the earliest material in Grid 51 comes from. It is here that they hope to come down on the first occupation levels after the 604 BCE destruction of the city

I realize this is a bit skimpy but pottery washing is fast approaching and I must head off. I promise to have more than just pictures of Grid 51 soon!

Enjoy the dirt!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ashkelon Happenings

I am most tardy with a blog entry so without further ado here is the answer to the most recent "What? Where? When?"

This is a dog burial that dates to the Persian period, approximately 538 - 322 BCE. Between 1985 and 1992 over 1200 dog finds were recorded during the excavation of Ashkelon. Typically single dogs were found in shallow, unlined pits dug into large fill layers. Sometimes they were found dug into narrow streets. The burials were at many different heights suggesting, perhaps, that the burial of the dogs happened sporadically. There is no evidence that the dogs were either killed or diseased. And there is no evidence, such as skewed limbs or other types of distortions, that the dogs were just thrown into the pits. Rather, the dogs were generally buried on their sides with their tails carefully arranged to curl toward their feet.

What can we say about the dogs? Both male and female dogs were buried. They ranged in age from just a few days to extreme old age. There never was any evidence that one type of dog was selected over others although puppies did make up the largest percentage of burials. What about the breed? One of no particular ancestry. Parallels for this outside of Ashkelon are few and far between. If you want to learn more you can read the work of Dr. Brian Hesse and Dr. Paula Wapnish who have studied and written about Ashkelon's dog burials.

We will have another "Getting to Know You" this week. Stay tuned. I also hope to have a guest write a paragraph or two about Grid 51. We will have photos too... Fingers crossed. I know they have been dealing with a big drain which means that things have undoubtedly been interesting of late.

On the recording front. Another way we record information is to take photos of objects, architecture and, of course, stratigraphic relationships amongst other things. So here, for instance Ryan is cleaning a large piece of stone so that we could photograph it before doing any further work.

And it is a good thing we decided to take the picture. Last Friday we decided to expand the area of Grid 47, where I work in the theatre, in order to better expose the entirety of the building. So today we had a little extra help and the results couldn't be more impressive -- or messy, truth be told. We'll be cleaning up for a while but that's okay. We'll also have a much better understanding of the building.

So what exactly did we do? Well, stay tuned for pictures from tomorrow's work.

Wednesday is our first tell tour so we should be able to get the scoop on the other grids.

And for today a return to "Who? What? When?"

Until next time, the dirt is ready. Get digging!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Finding Artifacts

Work continues and everyone seems to be making progress. I went on a field trip to Grid 51 today and saw Dr. Kate's newly expanded empire which is quite impressive. One of the most interesting things I saw in her grid was a floor made of mudbrick tiles! There were a number of other interesting things to see in the grid and I hope to post pictures soon so that everyone back home can see all the exciting material.

We have found a number of interesting artifacts in Grid 47 this week from the very large to the very small. For instance, we found a large architectural fragment. We think it might have decorated the of the theatre we are excavating. Ryan is making sure that the marble fragment is labeled so that we know where it came from. Behind him, Mark is entering data into the computer so that everything is recorded properly. We have been finding many pieces of the building as we dig. We have found roof tiles, floor tiles. fresco fragments, mosaic floor fragments and much more. Today we also found a blade or knife made out of iron. The most exciting thing about it was that part of the wooden handle was still preserved which is rather unusual. The knife came from a pit where we found a lot of interesting things including lots of broken pots, a large number of iron nails and lots and lots of bones.

And finally, for the students at Hamilton Elementary. Perry was there when Emily, one of our volunteers, found her fourth oil lamp of the summer! Everyone agrees she is very lucky.

I want to send out a big thank you to the Hamilton students and families who have been following our work here on the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. I know that the school year is almost over but you can keep following our work until July 16th when the season ends.

Next entry the answer to our last "What? Where? When?" And hopefully, a new staff member for everyone to meet.

Until then, the dirt is plentiful.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who Becomes an Archaeologist?

Who becomes an archaeologist? Good question. There are as many different answers as there are people doing archaeology. Today in our first "Getting to Know You" segment I'm going to introduce one member of our team of archaeologists. I was hoping to have the video working but since that hasn't happened yet I'm just posting a brief paragraph about Dr. Kate.

Kate has a Ph.D. in archaeology from Harvard where she studied the pottery of the Sea Peoples on the coasts and inland in Anatolia & northern Syria (The Philistines are part of the larger phenomenon of the "Sea Peoples"). When in elementary school, she dreamed of becoming either a conductor or a donut maker. While she still daydreams of pastries, she is now the fearless leader of an entire area of excavation. In this area, she supervises the excavation of material from the Islamic through the Persian periods. During the excavation, Kate spends her mornings teaching the square supervisors how to be better excavators. In the afternoon, she "reads" pottery & teaches her supervisors & volunteers about the pottery that has been dug up during the morning.

Favorite Tool: Pick Axe
Least Favorite Excavated Item: Dog Burials
Favorite Gummy Snack: Gummy Eggs

Coming soon the answer to the most recent "What? Where? When?" and the next installment of "Getting to Know You."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Professionals

This week Grids 47 and Grids 38 benefited from the assistance of a team of professionals. First up, Jeffrey, Lucy and Noah. After helping with the cleanup in Grid 47 they went on to Grid 38 where they were able to help in the digging there. The trio did an excellent job shoveling dirt, collecting pottery and bringing smiles to the grid.

Jeffrey, Lucy and Noah weren't the only ones to help in Grid 47 this week. Today the head of the excavation Dr. Master took the opportunity to get his trowel dirty excavating monumental Roman architecture with us.

As director of the excavation Dr. Master is very busy and doesn't often have time to dig in the dirt so it was a thrill for us and exciting for him (I'm sure) to spend a few moments in the dirt. Stay tuned for an interview with Dr. Master as the season progresses. We'll soon have an opportunity to ask him about what is new at the ancient city of Ascalon.

As I've mentioned before Grid 47 isn't the only place that we are excavating. Today I wandered on over to Grid 38 to see what they are doing there. In Grid 38 they are excavating a Late Bronze Age house which dates to the 13th century BCE. The house has beaten earth floors and mudbrick walls. When the house went out of use, when the residents left, people used the area for large grain silos that cut through the earlier houses. In one picture you see the ladder that leads to John's square. This square has the latest (or more recent) material in Grid 38. John has Roman and Persian period material as well as material from the Iron Age. He has a long way to go until he catches up with everyone else in the Late Bronze Age. In the other picture you can see another one of Grid 38's Square Supervisors, Madeleine. She is hard at work at her computer. We use laptops in the field to record all of our work and discoveries. By putting everything on the computer it makes it easier for other scholars to see our research as they do their own work.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Grid 38 is clean . Grid 51 is getting there and in Grid 47 we are definitely making progress. If you remember, in Grid 47 we are excavating what we believe to be a Roman period theatre. Partially exposed by the excavations of John Garstang in the 1920s we have expanded the excavation area and are hoping to expose the full extent of the theatre. We also need to confirm it is a theatre and not some other type of structure using apsidal or curved walls. To do that we are looking for the stage of the theatre. In a Roman theatre there is are very specific words for the various parts of the stage. First, the front wall of the stage is called the proscaenium. The stage itself is called the pulpitum. And the back wall of the stage, through which there would be three entrances leading onto the stage, is called the scaenae frons. These then are the architectural features we are looking for that would help us to identify the structure as a theatre. Happily, today we found a wall, at least two meters wide, that may be either the proscaenium or the scaenae frons. We'll keep you posted our progress. In the meantime, here are some pictures after our first two days of cleaning in Grid 47. We'll take a look at some of the other grids too and let you know what is going on there.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Night Before Digging

What's up Hamilton Elementary School and the Wider World? Shhhh, Perry (Hamilton's world traveling bear) is in bed. He has to get up very early in the morning to go to work. Tomorrow is the first day of digging. Here are some "before" pictures of Grid 47 where we are uncovering a Roman period theatre. We'll keep posting our progress so make sure you check back!

More about what we are doing in Grid 47 will be forthcoming this week. In addition, we'll be adding a new feature to the blog. It's called "Getting to Know You" and every few days we will introduce and interview a member of the staff. (And if we are really on the ball this new feature will include video footage!)

Until next time, get to bed! The dig day starts early.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Just a quick hello

So, "What? Where? When?" or as I suggested last time, "Who? What? Where."

The answer is that the image (which I can't post right now since my computer is being a little complicated) is a fresco uncovered in what Professor Stager, co-director of the excavation, identifies as the Church of St. Mary of the Green which is located near Ascalon's Jerusalem Gate. The church, built in the 5th century, was originally laid out as a basilica divided into three aisles by two rows of columns which supported a gallery and a pitched roof. Tradition holds that the church continued to function as such throughout much of the Islamic period before being converted into a mosque by the Fatimids (late 9th - mid 12th century). When the Crusaders conquered Ascalon in 1153 CE the building was restored to a church with some changes in its plan. It was also during the Crusader period that frescoes, part of which you see here, were added to the central apse and two side niches of the church. In the central apse the frescoes are of four saints/bishops reading Greek scrolls, each scroll containing excerpts from the homilies of St. John Chrysostom, who was bishop of Constantinople from 398-407 CE.

Here's the next one. Any ideas?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Day in the Life of an Archaeologist

Hi everyone. Today I thought I would talk a bit about our daily schedule. See what you think about this...

Wake up is at 4:30 AM unless like me you are crazy enough that you manage to wake up at 4:00 without the help of an alarm. (Like I said, crazy!). We wake up that early in order to finish a full eight hour work day before it gets too hot but you don't really think about that when you wake up and it is pitch black outside. You mostly think about how you must be crazy.

Once we manage to pull ourselves together we wander downstairs for First Breakfast (like Hobbits we have a few extra meals built into the day) which usually consists of tea or coffee, bread and jam and what we affectionately call "bug juice" which is sorta but not really like Tang. 5:00 sharp the bus pulls up to take us to the dig site. It is still dark and the ride never takes as long as we would like it to.

By 5:10 we are at the Pottery Compound where we one and all race to grab our tools. We do this by the light of the florescent moon which pierces the still dark morning. Honestly, it is still dark! Then, tools in hand we strike off in the direction we believe will lead us to our designated excavation areas. (We haven't lost anyone yet and, fingers crossed, we won't this year.)

By 5:30 we are usually hard at work even though we can't really see anything. We work using a range of tools from dental picks and tiny paint brushes on up to full size pick axes and shovels (although they have a more fancy name). We dump all the dirt we dig up into buckets called gufas and then haul it away.

We break for Second Breakfast at 9:00 which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because we get a break after a morning of
manual labor and because the meal is pretty good even though we sit in the dirt to eat it (unless you are lucky enough to track down a nice patch of grass). And breakfast is pretty good; all you can eat (at least until it runs out) eggs, bread, olives, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt and more. The only real problem is that you have to go back to work and it always seems much, much hotter after the break.

And then we go back to work until our next opportunity for food or sleep, whichever you need more. Fruit Break happens at 11:15 or so and it only manages to be a Fruit Break if you saved some fruit from breakfast. From that point, however, the morning is almost over and even
though it is so hot your eyeballs are sweating the last bit of the day doesn't seem too bad. 12:50 we pack up our tools. 1:00 we board the buses and go back to the hotel. Once there we get cleaned up and go down to lunch.

After lunch we have free time until 4:00 when we get back on the bus to go back to the Pottery Compound (basically our office at the site) where we work on processing and analyzing the objects we found earlier in the day. We do that for a couple of hours before getting back on the bus to return to the hotel where we then attend evening lectures on any number of subjects from numismatics (the study of coins) to my favorite, Ashkelon in the Islamic period. And then, only then do we go to dinner (usually around 7:15) after which it is again free time. Which in my case lasts until about 8:30 when I go to bed.

So what makes us do it? Well, next time I'll write a bit about what we do when we are working.

Also, the answer to the latest "Who? What? When?"

Hey staff and volunteers! We are inching our way ever closer to the start of the season. Room and grid assignments are done, the hotel is
full (at least on the weekends) and the grids are dirty! See everyone on Saturday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Basilica

It was a busy day of work today as we started preparing two areas for excavation. Perry, Hamilton Elementary School's traveling bear, visited one of those areas. This is an area in the central part of the site where many of the city's important public buildings were located. It is here that a man named John Garstang first identified one of ancient Ashkelon's basilicas. Today the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon continues to work in the same area so that we can better understand it. We are currently in the process of expanding the area in which we want to work and getting it prepared which means we have to clean the dirt. That's right, clean the dirt. What that means is that we sweep it so that we can see everything in it and believe me there is a lot. When we can see different colors in the dirt we can see things such as pits, floors and sometimes even walls.

This was Grid 47 before work commenced today. Wait until you see it after!

Today work also began in Grid 51 which is being expanded and prepared for excavation. After a week of cleaning both it and Grid 47 should be ready to go.

Monday, May 24, 2010

In Ashkelon

We are here! And I'd like to send a big shout out to the students of Hamilton Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois who will be following this blog for the last few weeks of school. Welcome to the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

Accompanying my son and I to Ashkelon this summer is Perry, Hamilton's traveling bear. He will be making appearances throughout the summer so keep an eye out for him.

In the meantime, while we begin to prepare for the summer season we are simultaneously working on a number of projects. Here you can see two of Ashkelon's staff members "reading" Iron I pottery. Iron I pottery dates to 1200 - 1000 BCE and the time of the Philistines. When we "read" pottery we look at the shape and decoration of pottery (bowls, pots, lamps, jars, jugs and so on) to determine when it was used. The Iron Age
pottery in Ashkelon comes from many different places including Cyprus and the
Greek Islands. There are even imports from Syria. The vast majority of the pottery, however, was locally made.

We "read" ceramics from all different periods. While Josh and Laura are working on the Iron Age I am working on Islamic period pottery. At the site of Ascalon, our Islamic period pottery dates from 640 - 1270 CE. During this period we have imports from many different places including North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and as far away as China.

The sun is hot, the breeze is mild and it's time to start digging. Stay tuned for more from Perry and for regular updates on our progress this season.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Let the Fun Begin -- Soon

The answer to the last "What, Where, When?" is that the picture was taken standing on top of the remains of an unexcavated church located on the South Tel. The view is looking to the southeast towards what may very well have been the intersection of the city's main north-south road with its southernmost east-west road. The stones at the very bottom of the picture are from one of the church's apses.

This summer we return to Ascalon's city center and a building first discovered by John Garstang in the early 20th century. The building he found was a long rectangle roughly oriented north-south with an apse on its southern end. Garstang believed he had uncovered the city's main basilica with, perhaps, a senate hall or some other type of attached structure. In 2008 we decided to return to the basilica to test the accuracy of Garstang's work and to further expose and examine the monumental structure he unearthed.

Over the course of two seasons of excavation we found that Garstang's work was generally very accurate. What we also found forced a major reinterpretation of the building. It now seems clear that the apse at the southern end of the building is in fact an odeon, a small Roman theatre. What does that mean for the remainder of the building? Is it a basilica? Are we actually looking at one single structure or are we in fact looking at several? How does the odeon fit into the urban plan of Ascalon?

We hope to answer these questions and more as we expand Grid 47 to the east and the south. Moving east is particularly important because we believe it will be an area undisturbed by Garstang's earlier work and, therefore, an opportunity to better understand the occupational sequence in the city center.

In addition to Grids 38 and Grid 47, which I will be supervising, there is one more area that will be excavated. Grid 51 is situated on top of the South Tel near the Mediterranean Sea and was originally opened as an excavation area in order to determine to full extent of the ancient city. In other words, we wanted to know whether or not the area of Grid 51 was inside or outside the city wall. This season work will continue and be expanded under the direction of Dr. Kate Birney with the goal of reaching the 604 BCE destruction of the city.

Three excavation areas, three different periods of the site's occupational sequence, three sets of questions and a world of archaeological exploration. This season promises to greatly expand our understanding of some key aspects of Ascalon's past. It will almost certainly be fun and tiring and fun and exhausting and fun. To those of you joining us, welcome. To those of you thinking about next year, keep an eye on the blog for regular updates. And for those of you just curious about an archaeological excavation and what we do, enjoy.

See you there! One week and counting.

Now, "What, Where, When?"

Friday, March 19, 2010

Summer Plans

The object shown in the most recent "What, Where, When," is a Fatimid imperial inscription over which a Crusader knight carved his shields. The inscription was found, broken into many pieces, at the bottom of a section of stone talis located just to the west of the main park entrance. The inscription was carved into what excavators suspect was originally a marble tabletop, measuring approximately 1.49 x .63 x .10 m, from the Roman period. The 22 line inscription commemorates the construction of a fortification tower by the local Fatimid governor on the orders of the Grand Vizier in Cairo and even includes the date of the work, 1150 CE.

Just three years later Ascalon would fall to the Crusaders for the first of three times. What happened to the marble slab and the Fatimid inscription after that is unclear until it fell into the hands of a knight named Sir Hugh Wake who went on crusade with Richard earl Cornwall in the mid-13th century. Richard is believed to have built a fortress in Ascalon in the 1240s and it was at that time that Sir Hugh Wake carved his emblem over the earlier Fatimid inscription. The three large shields belong to Sir Hugh Wake, the smaller shields belong to a less important knight accompanying him.

The importance of Sir Hugh Wake's shields on this marble slab cannot be overestimated as to date they are the only direct proof for Crusader occupation in Ascalon in the 13th century. This in spite of the fact that sources record Ascalon was occupied until 1270 CE when it was finally destroyed once and for all by the Mamluks.

For some of us departure to Ascalon and the 2010 field season is only two months away. For the remainder, departure isn't too far behind that so it is a good time to start thinking about the season and our research goals. The longest continually excavated area (including a hiatus of a few years) is Grid 38 which is centrally located near the city center of ancient Ascalon. This summer Grid 38 will be supervised by Joshua Walton, a graduate student at Harvard University. I asked Josh what his goals were for this season and this is what he told me,

"This year in 38 we have three areas of focus. In [square] 74 we will be trying to further understand the LB levels, particularly the domestic structure that was partially uncovered in 2008, and trying to get a better idea of the LB sequence there. In [square] 84 we will be trying to find any evidence for the MB occupation of the site, which was hinted at by the ceramics in some of the deeper probes in 2008, hopefully we will be able to uncover some accompaying architecture. In [square] 85 we will be finishing the excavation of the Iron 2 fills, and hopefully reach the phase 17 and 18 philistine levels, which we will be attempting to connect to the last few years of excavation in [square] 75 to gain a better picture of the philistine domestic structure on the east side of the street. In this area we will also be working with the Weisman institute of archaeological science to try and employ some of their techniques for understanding the philsitine occupation."

In addition to working in Grid 38 Josh will continue to lead the Persian period pottery project. Work began on this project last summer when staff and volunteers processed several industrial sized containers worth of Persian pottery that had been in storage for, well, seemingly forever. More than one scholar has tried to tackle the Persian period pottery project and failed but this time it looks like things are well on their way. After last year's progress this summer Josh tells me the plan is to work on identifying phases, marking the pottery and, if all goes well, to start a general typology.

Josh will also be involved in a pre-season project which will refine pottery readings for some of the earliest Philistine floor assemblages.

That is just one of the excavation areas and some of the projects that we'll be working on this summer. Stay tuned to learn more about what we'll be working on this summer.

Now, "What, Where, When?" This time it's a little different. Where was this picture taken and what does it show? (The photo quality is terrible but you should be able to get the idea.)

Remember, there is still time to apply for our summer field season.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On the Road to Ashkelon

"What? Where? When?" The short answer is that it is a Roman period bath (dated to the fourth century CE) discovered on the North Tel in the mid-1990s. Excavation of the bath uncovered the furnace, hypocaust tunnels which supported a partially preserved floor and two chambers. The scene depicted in the picture is a group of Romans hanging around in their togas as they relax at the bath. Ok, truth be told it is some volunteers engaged in a re-enactment for the benefit of other volunteers on a Tel tour, a once a week opportunity to visit other excavation areas and learn about what is being discovered. For bonus points, where exactly is the bath located on the North Tel? And can you name one of the two supervisors of this area?

On to other things...

I found this article while procrastinating on some work and include a link to it here as an introduction to Dr. Daniel Master, co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

The story is a familiar one as my road to Ashkelon parallels that of Daniel’s to a great extent with some obvious differences (he is a co-director and I am not for example).

This is my story.

My freshman year of college my roommate was an anthropology major which I thought was cool though less practical then my history major. Sure Indiana Jones had lots of great adventures but really, who would pay you to do that sort of work? I wasn’t convinced there were too many people that would. I was, however, more easily convinced that it would be fun to try an archaeological excavation, that spending a summer digging in the dirt under a blazing hot sun would be a great experience.

So, like many students before me I perused the help-wanted ads in Archaeology Magazine and Biblical Archaeology Review. In other words, I combed through their annual listings of excavations that take student volunteers and chose one at random. Ashkelon was the winner. I suppose the Harvard University name attached to it may have had something to do with my choice but I really don’t remember. What I do remember is that once the idea hit me I didn’t let it go until I found myself in Ashkelon several months later.

I liked it enough that first season that I returned a second season as a volunteer happy to pay for the privilege of once again wallowing in the sewers of Ashkelon. My hard work, enthusiasm and willingness to dig just about anything paid off and I was invited back as an assistant square supervisor for the 1991 field season.

In those days Ashkelon was huge. On average 80 to 120 volunteers and a staff of 50 to 60 people. The excavation was large not just in terms of numbers but also in numbers of areas being worked. Each excavation had a Grid Supervisor, the person in charge of directing, collating, processing and interpreting the data collected from however many 10 x 10 meter squares were opened for excavation within that grid. Each square, of course, had a Square Supervisor who was responsible for the day to day decisions within that square. And it was not unheard of for each square to have an assistant supervisor who, obviously, assisted the Square Supervisor while receiving the training with which to overthrow their bosses.

Such was my position in 1991 when not even a week into the season I was promoted, without any overthrowing required, to a Square Supervisor in Grid 50 where I stayed for many years. I even made the cover of BAR one year -- of course, the scenic excavation area overlooking the Mediterranean Sea undoubtedly had more to do with that than I did.

And maybe along the way the power went to my head because I decided archaeology really was cool and that it didn’t matter it was less practical than history (remember, I was young then and I liked to study history). I decided graduate school was the way to go but I wouldn’t do what it seemed like everyone else at Ashkelon was doing. No Bronze or Iron Age archaeology for me. No, I decided that I wanted to study the late periods, specifically the Islamic period. This proved to be a very fortuitous decision as I was able to write about Ashkelon for my dissertation. No one else wanted to do it and I had my choice of topics.

I continued digging at Ashkelon throughout graduate school and in 1997 I became a Grid Supervisor and had the privilege of opening a new area for excavation.

Next it was on to a stint as the Ashkelon Lab Director for which I am most well-known as the author of an unheralded but very amusing (I am told) Lab Director’s Manual. The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon maintains a lab facility year round in the city of Ashkelon in order to facilitate research and other ongoing projects associated with the excavation. That can mean anything from moving pottery crates from one rat-infested warehouse to another, hosting visiting scholars or team members working on various research projects to supervising, shall we say, the delicate use of mechanized equipment to prepare for the upcoming season of excavation. A varied and demanding job it is nonetheless quite rewarding and puts you in near proximity to some amazing archaeological discoveries on a daily basis.

In 2008 I went back to serving as a Grid Supervisor and there I have stayed. Every year there are new problems, fresh faces and the opportunity not only to uncover the history of Ashkelon but also to teach the next generation of archaeologists who will pursue our dream of revealing and interpreting the material remains of this ancient city.

How will your Ashkelon story read?

And now for the next installment of “What, Where, When?” Thoughts?

Until next time.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dr. Moshier Part 2

Here is the second installment of Dr. Moshier's blog reprinted with permission. Enjoy!

Blog Entry: The big one that got away (posted July 6, 2009)

Ashkelon is a city on the coast. There is a casual “beach town” vibe here that is not much different from places in the USA like Corpus Christi or Ft. Lauderdale. During the weekends (Friday-Saturday) the population of Ashkelon must triple, at least the occupancy of our hotel does.

Of course, there are disadvantages to living along the coast. The beaches of Corpus Christi and Ft. Lauderdale are frequently traumatized by hurricanes. But, such violent storms are not spawned in the warm waters of the Mediterranean; it’s just not big enough and lies too far north of the equator for strong cyclonal patterns to develop. Other dangers lurk in this tectonically active region that can result in devastation to the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. Something really catastrophic happened here about 3600 years ago.

In the Aegean Sea between southern Greece and western Turkey, and due north of the Island of Crete there is a crescent-shaped island (or rather strand of small islands) named Santorini, also known as Thera. The Minoan culture was thriving in this region during the Late Bronze Age. Minoan art and ceramics are colorful and sophisticated. There may be cultural and ethnic connections between the Minoans and other people groups scattered around the Western Mediterranean, such as the Philistines, Phoenicians, Hyksos, etc. But Minoan culture basically ended with a bang when Thera blew up. Thera is a giant volcano. Or was.

So much ash was pushed up into the atmosphere that it probably explains evidence of climate disturbances in China and frost damage to trees in California and Ireland (Science v. 312, p. 548). Ash from the eruption has been recovered in Greenland ice cores and sediment cores in the Nile Delta. A little global cooling was the least of worries for people living along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. The eruption resulted in the collapse of the center of the island creating a caldera and surges of pyroclastic material flowed in to the surrounding sea. The displacement of water produced the dreaded tsunami waves that propagated in every direction.

Even some 500 km away, the coast of Israel could not have been spared of this disaster. Computer models show the waves hitting our Late Bronze city of Ashkelon about 100 minutes after those pyroclastic surges hit the ocean floor. With wavelengths of over 100 km, tsunami waves build in height as they run up on coastlines. Waves hitting the Levant could have been up to 12 m above sea level. Surely Ashkelon was smacked, but what actually happened and can we find evidence of that fateful day of doom?

Finally, there is controversy over the date of the eruption. Geochronologists using carbon-14 date the eruption at about 1600-1620 BC. Archaeologists, particularly those working Bronze Age sites in the Nile Delta and Levant, believe the archaeological indicators and chronologies put the date at 1500 BC!

Henrik Bruins, a geochronologist at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has been looking along the coast of Israel for deposits that might be linked to the Thera eruption. He has described in great detail Thera tsunami deposits on the Island of Crete. In the spring of 2009, Ashkelon Excavation Director Daniel Master and Dr. Bruin discussed the possibility of tsunami deposits at Ashkelon. Daniel recalled a particular massive sandy layer on top of the hard kurkar dune rock along the beach cliff. It is about 6 m above present sea level. Perhaps if this deposit had the characteristics of a tsunami deposit and contained datable material and diagnostic pottery, we could establish the presence of the tsumani at Ashkelon and contribute to the resolution of the debate over the timing of the eruption.

My very first morning here two weeks ago we looked at that bed (we could not reach it due to its position on the cliff) and made plans to clean it up for study. What that means is that daredevil archaeologist Josh Walton would scale a ladder and chisel out a smooth surface with a pick and trowel. That did not happen until this past Sunday after our drilling project was finished. It took two hours hard labor by Josh and my geoarchaeology student assistant Ben before I had my first look at the deposit. Josh had already determined that the pottery beneath and within the deposit was much later than Bronze Age. I could see no evidence that the bed was anything other than typical tell sediment (thebrownish yellow loam soiling all my T-shirts). Shoot.

We decided to comb the beach cliff for other candidate deposits, using information from a previous geoarchaeological survey. About 250 m north of the disappointing deposit we found an old covered trench that was documented to contain, “fluvial sand” with Chalcolithic and Early Bronze pottery. Fluvial infers water deposition. The geologist who had described the trench wondered if flooding on the tell had resulted in the deposition of sand in narrow channels running toward the sea. It is hard to imagine that enough rainwater could collect on the tell to create such a torrent. It made sense to us that “the flood” may have been from run up or back wash from the big one. So this morning, Josh and Ben were at it again with pick and trowel, only this time they did not need a ladder. They cleaned a 4 m section and dug a 2.5 m trench. We found nothing even remotely similar to the previous description of that level (in all fairness, we might not have been in exactly the same place described in the previous report). We see no other reasonable places to look for evidence of the elusive tsunami deposit. I joked with Josh and Ben, “there goes our article in Nature.” Josh was not sure if his hours of digging would even have been acknowledged, anyway. Because they worked so hard to create a nice clean trench, we dedicated the next hour to describing the 4 m of sediment in detail, just for the record.

Even though we don’t have geological evidence for the tsunami does not mean that ancient Ashkelon was spared. From now on, archaeologists digging levels of Bronze Age occupation will be mindful to look for evidence of natural destruction. Our work to create a “bedrock” map of the tell will be used to model the effects of a wave on reconstructed Early Bronze Age topography. If waves were even as much as 12 m high hitting the coast, either as a wall or rapidly rising water, we know that some Bronze Age levels are as high as 17 m above present sea level. Even better for them, sea level during the Bronze Age was about 2 m lower than present! The ancient citizens of Ashkelon would have certainly been terrified by the giant wave or waves soaking the coast, but many may have survived by virtue of the elevation provided by the old kurkar dune beneath their city. They probably had more to fear from the falling ash. Who knows what human or natural activity might have erased physical evidence of the event? Or, have we looked in all the right places?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Core Sampling Project

As promised, here is the first two of Dr. Moshier's blogs reprinted with permission.

Blog Entry: A big pile of sand (posted July 1, 2009)

All of my T-shirts have brown stains on the part over my belly. The hotel laundry just can't wash out the silt and clay that we are drilling out of Tell Ashkelon. I think the size of the stain is proportional to the size of the belly, a theory confirmed by a quick look at individuals in the pottery compound. I think I’ll have salad tonight for dinner.

The dirt doesn't seem to show as much on my pants, as they are very pale brown to begin with, a shade close to 10YR7/4 on the Munsell scale of soil colors. My typically pale “white” skin color is changed, too, either due to the sun or the absorption of Holy Land clay into my pores. Sunscreen only serves to give the clay something to stick to. Even after rigorous scrubbing in the shower, mud still smears the towel.

On Monday we started a second round of drilling. Archaeology students Ben and David assisted me again. Our driller Efni showed up at the park with his rig at 7 AM. We had been there since 5 AM. Efni packs up and leaves at 3PM and there is no time for lunch before he leaves. Our strategy Monday morning was to push up close to some of the excavation sites. The archaeologists know that the Middle Bronze settlement is built on a cover of yellow sand that extends beyond the (safe) level of excavation. Is the sand part of a dune that covers older cultures? We really wanted to punch through that sand to find out.

The drill is called a bucket auger that looks like a medium-size garbage can with jaws. The rig is mounted on a large tractor that is part forklift and part bulldozer. The drill string rotates and lengthens like a radio antenna, as the bucket churns down through the sediment. It is strong enough to grind through soft rock like the local sandstone, but the scraping sounds like fingernails on a blackboard and louder than a dinosaur in Jurassic Park. When the bucket is full with about 30 to 40 cm of sediment, the drill string is retracted and the bucket returns to the surface. The driller mechanically shakes the sediment out of the bucket, which falls on the ground for examination and sampling.

If everything goes well we can reach a total depth of 11 meters below the surface. Things did not go well Monday morning. At about five meters depth we encountered the yellow sand, but the sand was dry and started caving into the hole. We typically have to pour one or two standard buckets of water down the hole every time the auger goes down in dry sand. The water gives the sand cohesion and conditions the side of the hole to prevent caving. The idea of pouring fresh water down a dry hole seems ironic and perverse. It just did not work and we never got deeper than six meters. We moved the rig about 4 m to the side and tried again with the same results. If there is if there is older archaeological material beneath the sand, we will have to find a better method of drilling to find it. Next, we moved to another location near an excavation site. Same thing. Dry caving sand. Excavation Director Daniel Master stopped by to hear my complaints and told me, “Tell Ashkelon does not easily give up its secrets.”

The last three probes on Monday were more successful. We drilled in the main parking lot located between the north and south tells. The lot was probed in the 1980s but the reports from that survey are difficult to interpret because the descriptions are ambiguous and the depths don’t seem correct. We have good data now and that is the important thing. Even if I offer a lousy interpretation, I want our descriptions of the material and stratigraphy to be useful to future scholars working here.

On Tuesday we started by drilling very close to the beach cliff next to the south rampart built by Crusaders. The goal is to trace deposits evident on the beach cliff landward. Drilling was painfully slow through the sand. David and Ben carried gallons and gallons of water (uphill) from a park faucet some 50 m away from the drill sites. At about 9 AM the cable on the drill rig snapped. Efni called someone to come with a new cable. We were down for about 30 minutes. I fell asleep in the shade sitting up with my legs crossed on the ground. It was hot, but we had a constant breeze from the sea.

The next probe turned out to be our last of the season. It took nearly four hours to drill 10.4 m. We needed lots of water to get through the sand. David and Ben got quite a workout carrying jerry cans of water from an irrigation tap David found about 75 m from the drill site. I wanted to find a place where we would drill to bedrock. We have all assumed that hard sandstone, called kurkar, underlies the tell because it is exposed to elevations of up to 18 m above sea level. But, we have never encountered hard sandstone in our course landward under the tell. We do encounter lots of sand (remember the dry yellow sand from Monday?). We should have reached hard rock in our first probe near the south rampart beach cliff, but we did not. So for this probe we moved the rig to the north tell and set up near the cliff face (about as close as we could safely put it). We should have reached hard rock there, but again we did not! So it appears that the hard rock only occurs along the beach cliff. Hypothetically, the ancient sand dunes that formed the original topography of the tell were only cemented in this narrow zone against the sea. Seawater contains the dissolved calcium and carbonate that probably cemented the rock. We find no other obvious source of rock for the crusader ramparts and structures than the area of the beach cliff and a small quarry close to the cliff on the north tell. It seems then, when we encounter yellow sand anywhere under the tell, we are at, or near, the level of the original topography of the tell. Ashkelon appears to be built on a pile of sand. Our drilling efforts have provided the data to reconstruct the original topography of the site before human habitation and modification of the land.

We did not always encounter what we expected (that would be too easy). But perhaps Tell Ashkelon is beginning to reveal some of its geological secrets after all.

Read more from Dr. Moshier and his team next time to learn more about how geology is contributing to the archaeological exploration of ancient Ashkelon.

Archaeology, It's Not Just For Archaeologists Anymore

"What, where, when?"

First things first, the answer to last month's "What, where, when?" is that the photo shows a Roman period road discovered during the 1992 season. The road and its associated drains were excavated in Grid 2 on the North Tell just outside the ancient city walls. Though exposed the street was never fully excavated and today it is buried under the parking lot just outside the Canaanite Gate

Technology, or How We Get Things Done

The privilege of old age is that I can reminisce with little rhyme or reason about the things that manage to stick out in my memory. So, here are some random thoughts that have managed to linger in the deep recesses of my mind.

Unsurprisingly, over the 20 plus years since I first went to Ashkelon there has been a great deal of change particularly in how we do things. Maybe not going from a horse and carriage to a car level of change but certainly revolutions in both technology and methodology that have changed how we investigate the ancient city. Yep, how we investigate the site and how we stay connected with the wider world as we live in the whirlwind that is an excavation season.

For instance, back in the day technology at Ashkelon meant those ultra thin, light weight air mail letters you could send home. You know the ones you fold and seal shut no envelope needed. That was pretty fancy stuff.

Archaeologically speaking pencil and paper were the recording tools of trade and the only computer on site was a cranky old thing in the dig office that all the supervisors shared along with the team of dig registrars. At the end of the season when square reports were due BEFORE the final dig party that machine saw a great deal of love and attention.

By the early 90s we advanced sufficiently to have access to e-mail. By “access” I mean that the e-mail was sent to the aforementioned cranky old beast in the dig office where it was then downloaded and printed (one screenshot at a time) before being distributed to the designated recipients. And by “we” I mean members of the professional staff. In other words, while a limited few of us had e-mail we had little privacy and certainly few secrets. Did I mention that e-mail came via a 300 baud modem? For those of you not old enough to know what that is, imagine a bunch of hungry alley-cats fighting over food and then toss in a chorus of crying babies. Finally, drop a spoon into the kitchen disposal, listen to all those glorious sounds together and you’re just about there.

Today things are quite a bit different. Pencils and paper are a thing of the past. We actually use laptops in the field to do all our data entry. Anyone with a laptop and I do mean anyone has access to e-mail and the joys of the internet. Need to check the score of the Cubs’s game? You can do that -- just about anywhere you want. Need to update your Facebook page? Doable.

The pervasiveness of computers, both in and out of the field, isn’t the only thing that is different about Ashkelon and the way we do things. In the past few seasons we have started some new projects, one doing ground penetrating radar and another doing core sampling, to help us investigate more areas of the site. These projects use methods that are less invasive than traditional excavation and not only do they help to further our research goals but also they help to shape those goals.

The core sampling project is headed by the team’s geologist Dr. Stephen Moshier who is an Associate Professor of Geology at Wheaton College, Illinois.

Born and raised in upstate New York Dr. Moshier studied geology at Virginia Tech (BS, 1977), SUNY Binghamton (MA, 1980) and Louisiana State University (PhD, 1987). His previous professional experience included working in the petroleum industry and a faculty position at the University of Kentucky. His teaching responsibilities cover areas of general geology, earth history, sedimentary petrology, and geoarchaeology. Prior to 2000, professional interests were focused on ancient limestones and petroleum geology. From 2000 to 2007, Moshier served as team geologist for the Tell el-Borg excavation in the NW Sinai, Egypt and in 2008 he joined the Harvard University-Leon Levy Expedition to Askhelon, Israel.

Dr. Moshier has generously allowed me to reprint some of his blog entries about his work during the 2009 season. The first of two entries will follow after this one.

Now, for the latest “What, where, when?” Any ideas?

One final note, we have a new website for you to check out. The address is digashkelon.com. Visit it to see our flyer about the upcoming season. The site is still under development but check back in the future to see more about Ashkelon and what we do. We also have a new e-mail address, info@digashkelon.com.

Thanks and see you next time!