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Digging up the Past

 By Brenda Yablon

Community member, Brenda Yablon, is sharing with us some of her experiences while traveling through Israel. And now we’re sharing them with you through e-Yachad and Mark’s Message. This is her most recent blog post.

In Israel digging up the past doesn't mean going over past wrongs for the purpose of starting an argument; it means digging up the soil to literally unearth clues to past history. Israel is passionate about archaeology. In a country where history, like cleanliness, is not only next to godliness but very intertwined with it, the approach to it is something akin to sanctity. So when I found out about an archaeological dig at Ein Gedi in January, I decided to join.

Ein Gedi is in the Negev, on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It was actually a thriving city in Biblical times and later supplied persimmons for the Romans. (They considered it a great delicacy.) It was destroyed by Justinian, who burnt it to the ground in the sixth century A.D. The Mameluks settled there briefly in the 12th century, and was then abandoned. An archaeological excavation has been going on there for the past 17 years, initially under the auspices of the Hebrew University. A sixth century A.D. Byzantine synagogue with a beautiful mosaic floor had already been unearthed, and now we were going to continue working on excavating what was thought to be the home of a wealthy man named Halfi, based on clues provided in the synagogue, of which he had presumably been a patron.

The Ein Gedi dig is a rather minor one and no longer has official Hebrew University sponsorship. However archaeologist Dr. Gidon Hadas perseveres, and relies on volunteers who come in the month of January, and pay their own room and board for the privilege of spending seven hours a day digging in the sand. Remarkably there were about 15 people, myself included, willing to do so.

Our accommodations were in the Ein Gedi youth hostel, about a 15 minute walk from the site. There were four of us in a room that was as comfortable as it could be with four women sharing facilities. Two were from Switzerland, one from Australia, and myself from Canada. Our work day began at 7:00 a.m., which meant waking up at 6:00 a.m. when it was still dark and the desert air chilly. Wordlessly and somewhat dazed, (at least I was!) the four of us managed to coordinate our respective morning rituals very smoothly, and off we trudged to the site.

When we arrived, the sun was just beginning to rise over the Dead Sea, which was about 200 yards in front of us. Behind us were the pinky orange mountains, so characteristic of the Negev desert, and date and mango groves. (Ein Gedi is an oasis.) The other volunteers were already there. As I was soon to discover, many of them were seasoned veterans of the dig, having begun their participation 17 years earlier when it first began, and to them taking part in it had become something of a sacred ritual. They were from England, Germany and Switzerland, and ranged in age from 21 to 83, men and women, most of whom were not Jewish.

Gidon, the amiable coordinator of the dig, was there to greet us. Israel is a very informal country, and although Gidon is a PhD and an elder statesman in the world of archaeology, he was always addressed by his first name, even by a group of 18 year olds who were to join us later.

An old wooden trailer served as a storage shed in which all the tools we would need were kept. Not knowing what to choose, I was given a short handled pick axe, a pair of work gloves, a large metal dustpan, a brush and a tool that had no name but which looked like a small sickle with a serrated edge, and off we went to the site. For each of us, Gidon drew rectangles in the sand of about four feet by two feet and instructed us to dig down but no more than four inches and to dump the sand into the many plastic buckets that were provided. For me this was not so simple. The objective was to meet up with the person working on the rectangle "next door", and in this way remove what amounted to a layer. While most people managed to arrange themselves on a seat made from a bucket filled with sand and turned upside down, or on their knees on a rubber gardening mat, neither of these positions was comfortable for me. I preferred the somewhat ungraceful position of bending over from a standing position, while trying to remember to bend my knees so I wouldn't put too much stress on my back.

With the pick I loosened sand, or pried loose rocks. Rocks that wouldn't come loose had to be dislodged by scraping the sand around them with the serrated sickle. The sand, it should be mentioned, was not soft and easy to work with as on a beach or sandbox. Through the centuries it had become impacted so that it was rock hard. Sand went into one bucket, rocks in another. And the buckets of course had to be emptied: rocks in a rock pile that was accumulating behind the dig site, and sand in a flat bed attached to a tractor which Gidon would drive to a growing hill nearby and dump. There were no elves who appeared to dump the rock and sand buckets which became filled remarkably quickly, so the younger, stronger volunteers would do it. As a grandmother I fell into the blond area (I didn't want to say "grey") of whenever I felt like it, which was less often as the day wore on.

There was also a third category of bucket, called the "treasure bucket." Into this went anything that might be of value: pottery shards and glass fragments, but only big pieces as the small ones were considered useless, bones, teeth, coins, and anything else the earth might yield.

After an hour of filling buckets, boredom and hunger set in. Another hour to breakfast. Convincing myself that hunger melts fat, I persevered.

At precisely 9:00 a.m., came the call for breakfast which was served at the site, on a long picnic table. Breakfast consisted of bread, hard boiled eggs, olives, processed cheese, yogurt, chopped cucumber and tomato salad, dates, and tiny cubes of halvah in limited supply. I was too hungry to complain, but not hungry enough to be appreciative. The breakfast menu was never to vary. After half an hour, we were ordered back to work.

By now it was 9:30 a.m. and I knew that quitting time was 2:00 p.m. We weren't even at the half-way mark. This was not what I thought it was going to be. Actually, if I had given it some serious thought, I probably wouldn't have come. There's a reason it's called a dig – because that's what you do. Relentlessly! I listened to the other volunteers, happily chatting and laughing to each other, and I was jealous. Why were they having a good time and I wasn't? And they came back, year after year, with great anticipation. What wasn't I getting here?

I laboured on, filling bucket after bucket with sand and rocks, and then dumping them, occasionally finding a shard large enough to go into the treasure bucket. I resolved not to look at my watch. Instead every now and then I would look up from my digging, and look out at the green expanse of the Dead Sea, which was once used as a waterway to transport people and goods. I saw the groves of mangos and dates, and I knew that they existed in Byzantine times when the Negev was much less of a desert than it is today. The shards that I dug up were parts of jugs and dishes that were used in the preparation, storing and serving of food, wine and water. Civilizations had been here, destroyed by fire, wars, and the merciless progress of time. I was trying hard to find my purpose.

At noon a 15 minute fruit break was announced. We were each given an orange and two squares of chocolate. An hour and 45 minutes to go. To my delight and surprise 10 minutes of that was shaved off as we stopped a little earlier to put back the tools and clean up the site. Most of the volunteers then headed to the Ein Gedi Kibbutz nearby for lunch, but I was too tired and filthy to care about eating.

I slowly made my way back to the youth hostel, which seemed much farther away than it had at dawn seven hours earlier. I felt much better after a hot shower, a cup of tea and some fruit. I sat out on the balcony of my shared room, looking out at the Dead Sea, catching up on email, and reading. I was asleep by 9:00 pm. I woke up at one point and heard all three of my roommates snoring. I smiled to myself. This symphony was the result of shared labours.

The next day promised to be much like the first, but before long we were joined by a group of about 12 young Israelis, boys and girls, who were part of a program called Shnat Sherut, which means Year of Service. This is a voluntary service between the completion of high school and entering the army, where they do things such as serve as leaders all over the country in programs for youth at-risk, work on kibbutzim, help out on digs, etc.

These kids had energy! They swung big pick axes and crushed boulders to smitherines. They emptied our buckets! They sang while they worked. They laughed and joked with each other with obvious affection and camaraderie. It was clear that they loved what they were doing. And without really understanding why, I found their attitude infectious.

The days passed. We uncovered more and more of the inner and outer walls of Halfi's house. The site looked very different now than it had two weeks earlier. We found many coins, a black and white glass bracelet, and a couple of jugs intact and perfectly preserved. I found a partial jawbone with six teeth that Gidon said likely had belonged to an ibex, the goat that is native to the region.

And then came my last day. Gidon presented me with a certificate that I had successfully completed my time on the dig. I even bought the T-shirt. And I lost 10 pounds!

Would I do it again? Maybe yes, maybe no. But for me, whether or not I come back is not what the dig was about. Participating in it made me feel that I really am a part of a continuum of a people who lived here and continue to do so, that I was privileged to touch bits of their lives - literally - and that my smallness of being just one little human soul is made larger and more meaningful. 

If Brenda’s experience has inspired you to spend time in Israel, we offer a number of meaningful ways to experience the country. Check out our Israel and Overseas Experiences page. Whether it’s a free first-time Israel experience for young adults on Birthright, an Israel Government Fellowship, or a tailor-made kibbutz experience, we have the right trip for you.