The Dig-for-a-Day Experience
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The underground chambers were filled with the sounds of the crunching of small picks against the dirt floors and the thud of earth dumped into buckets. Voices of a dozen children and their parents accompanied warnings not to swing picks at each other and to use the buckets assigned to each room. Discoveries of pottery sherds and bone slivers reminded us that we were doing real archaeological work. Unruly as this particular group was, they were “workers,” helping to expose the remnants of life inside and beneath dwellings from 2,200 years ago.
On this winter morning at Maresha, not far from the Elah Valley where, according to the Bible, David defeated the Philistine giant Goliath, I joined three families and two young couples posted at the American consulate for a day-long excavation experience. All of us were Americans, as are most of the 30,000 to 50,000 people who come to Dig-for-a-Day each year. Bernie Alpert invented the idea more than 26 years ago, not long after moving to Israel from Chicago with his wife, Fran. He turned his passion for volunteering at digs into something that people could do even if they had only a few hours to spend. At the same time, they could learn some history and archaeology, experience the land of Israel with their fingers and help support the cost of the excavation. Bernie was soon joined by archaeologist Ian Stern, who, with his wife, Heidi, now runs the parent company, Archaeological Seminars, and directs the dig at Maresha with Bernie’s part-time help.
Until 1984, when they began work at Maresha, Dig-for-a-Day brought groups to other dig sites—among them Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem, where the seventh-century B.C.E. silver amulets inscribed with the oldest known Biblical text was discovered in a rock-cut tomb,a and at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, where an earlier Roman gate was exposed.b
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Digging for a few hours doesn’t sound very serious, and in fact some people imagine that it will be a Disneyland-style fabrication with salted finds and artificial sets. But that’s not how it is. My 3 hours at Maresha began with Ian Stern introducing us to the ancient Idumeans (Edomites) who migrated north from the Dead Sea area after the sixth-century B.C.E. Babylonian conquest of Judea. The Idumeans built Maresha, which grew to more than 10,000 people, becoming the capital of Idumea in the third and second centuries B.C.E. In the hollowed-out cave quarries that had provided the stones to build their homes, the Idumeans housed numerous industries; so far 22 olive-pressing factories and 85 columbaria—walls pocked with open niches to house dovesc—as well as baths and cisterns have been found. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area in the fourth century transformed Maresha into a Hellenistic city infused with Greek culture. When Alexander died in 323 B.C.E., the southern part of his kingdom, including Maresha, passed into Egyptian Ptolemaic control until 198 B.C.E., when the rival Syrian Seleucids took over. Antiochus IV Epiphanes became ruler in 175 B.C.E. and less than a decade later he invaded Jerusalem, massacred Jews and desecrated the Temple. Incensed, the Maccabees revolted in 167 B.C.E. In 112 B.C.E., the Maccabean ruler John Hyrcanus conquered Maresha and destroyed most of the homes.
Although the stone houses of Maresha were razed in 112 B.C.E., 169 cave complexes made up of 5,000 chambers remained below ground. Only 15 have been excavated, with three excavations ongoing. Filled with the ancient debris of those who had lived above, the chambers offer a superb opportunity for untrained people to become diggers for a day: there’s no stratigraphy to be careful about because nothing is later than the destruction of 112 B.C.E.; there’s assured satisfaction from discovery of ancient pottery, bones, and sometimes coins and seals; in an hour or two even youngsters can move a lot of earth; and, especially important for Dig-for-a-Day, Maresha’s caves are dry in the rain, cool in the summer and protected from the winter cold, so digging has no season.
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After filling the buckets assigned to our chamber, everyone, except the smallest children, carried a bucket or two up the ladder. Ian then organized us into teams of four with a sifting screen. Each bucket load was thrown on the screen and shaken while we watched for small objects to save for later inspection. In the end, our group found little more than broken potsherds.
Once our work was completed, we had a chance to experience the “before” and “after.” The “before” location was a nearby series of unexcavated interconnected chambers, lit by candles. Seeing them required some crawling, slithering and lowering through small openings before we reached the exit. It was sufficiently challenging to give a shot of nervous anticipation but not too difficult for all ages to come along. Emerging from the “before,” we were led to the “after,” one of the industrial complexes built beneath the Idumeans’ homes. This one was a beautifully reconstructed olive oil installation with its crushing vat and press. We also saw chambers with columbaria, thought by archaeologists to have been cubbyholes for raising doves.
The final stop for the dusty diggers was the shed where pottery sherds are displayed on a long table. Ian showed us photos and told us about some of the more notable finds: a marriage contract inscribed on seven ostraca that fit together; gold earrings; 10,000 oil lamps—the light fixtures of underground rooms; a ceramic phallus; and, recently, some pieces from a large inscription on limestone, reported in BAR.d Perhaps the remaining fragments of this important inscription may yet be found by a digger-for-a-day.