At the time of my writing this post I’ve been in Israel for a little more than a month. In in all honesty though it feels as though it’s been much longer since I’ve been keeping so busy. When I arrived here on the 19th of May I set out with a friend on a 10 day trip (although perhaps extravaganza or schlepp would be more accurate) in which we packed in as many sites as we possibly could while carrying our stuff and going from place to place by public transit with the occasional roadside pickup. Amazingly, we were able to make it to 12 national parks in 10 days with 5 of those days being spent in Jerusalem. I was thinking about writing a separate post for the trip but I figured that much of the material would fall outside of the scope of this blog which will continue to be into the foreseeable future limited to updates and reflections about my activities related to archaeology. Since the end of the trip, I’ve been at Hebrew University studying and helping out with the sorting and classification of artifacts from previous field seasons. My third season of excavation at Tel Abel-Beth-Maacah Begins on Sunday.
My time at Hebrew University was roughly split into two parts with most of my time going towards an independent study of the pottery of the Southern Levant. This study was mainly guided by Yosi Garfinkel’s Neolithic and Chalcolithic Pottery of the Southern Levant which guided my study of those periods as well as Ruth Amiran’s now classic Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land which I used to study EB, MB, and LB pottery. These readings were of course augmented by Hebrew University’s extensive collection of archaeological pottery which allowed for hands on learning. I was quite literally able to go from reading about a type of vessel or a specific style of decoration to actually seeing and picking up vessels and sherds which corresponded to the book’s descriptions.
Hebrew University’s pottery collection lends itself to this kind of study as it is all well organized chronologically with regards to complete vessels and organized by site, decoration, and time period with regards to sherds. Unfortunately though, I didn’t have enough time to start working my way through the Iron Age. However, I’ll still be reading the relevant sections on this key time period in Amiran as well as in Seymour Gitin’s new pottery bible, The Ancient Pottery of Israel and Its Neighbors: From the Iron Age Through the Hellenistic Period. The difference of course will be that I won’t have a controlled and diverse study collection with which to work although since much of the pottery from Abel-Beth-Maacah comes from the Iron Age, I’ll have an abundance of Iron Age I pottery to use for my learning. While I wouldn’t say that I’ve become overly proficient in my knowledge of pottery, I still feel as though I’ve gained a certain literacy. It was just today that I was reading a book which referenced a specific pottery ware without explaining it. This ware was central to his argument and a month ago if I’d been reading this same book I would have had to stop reading, look up the type of pottery, read about it for a bit, and try to connect it to what I was reading before. Now, I’m at least aware of what the ware generally looks like and was thus able to continue reading without upsetting my flow. This month I believe I gave myself a foundation which will lend itself positively to future learning.
Much of my time when I wasn’t studying pottery was devoted to organizing, checking, repacking, and classifying small finds and stone objects from previous field seasons. During an excavation nearly everything is hectic and oftentimes due to the sheer mass of new incoming material which has to be marked, packed, and entered into a database much of it won’t get more than a look before it is put into a very general category and placed into storage where it will likely sit untouched for months and sometimes for years. During the month I had at Hebrew University I was able to go through two categories of artifacts although if I had had more time I would’ve been able to go through more material.
I started with small finds by going through boxes from every season and then unpacking them. From there I was able to place artifacts into broader categories such as metals, beads, spindle whorls, and organics. Occasionally artifacts were misplaced in boxes which indicated a completely different type of material. This in one case even led to the finding of a specific zoomorphic figure which our excavator had been unable to find for over a year. Following this initial sorting, I then subdivided all of the categories into four groups: artifacts which had been photographed and drawn, objects that had only been drawn, objects that had only been photographed, and objects that were undrawn and unphotographed. Hopefully my work in separating artifacts into these groups will expedite the process of drawing and photographing material as it will now be clear what has been done and what needs to be done for each specific artifact in the small finds collection. I was also able to repack artifact types into larger boxes which mixed together every season. This means that all objects from a specific category will now be in one place as opposed to split into boxes which reflect only the material of a single season which could be dispersed.
I had a more difficult but perhaps more rewarding experience dealing with stone artifacts. While I was aware of many of the object types in the small finds category, before organizing this collection I had very little awareness of stone artifacts as well as their diversity, shapes, and use. To be honest, I had never really put any thought into them before besides being told on excavation that something that looked very much like a rock to me at the time might be a hammerstone. That said, this certainly was a learning experience as dealing with these artifacts forced me to read a couple chapters in order to become familiar with the material and forced me to look at each object critically as I learned nuances such as what might differentiate a stone bowl from a mortar or a rounded hammerstone from an oblong pestle. Perhaps most difficult was trying to figure out what constituted a lower grindstone, an artifact which comes in a great number of shapes and sizes. While I am confident in my assignment of many of these objects to specific categories, I know that it’s very possible that someone may disagree with my assessments. My work wasn’t meant to be a be all end all, but, rather a first line of organization and repacking so that future archaeological work around these artifacts may be made much more efficient and I believe I made great progress to that end.
All in all I’m incredibly glad that I’ve been able to spend a month or so at Hebrew University. In addition to everything I’ve described, I was able to meet new people, talk to and spend time with some archaeologists who I truly admire, finish several books, and watch what might be every show on Israeli netflix. My next post will be next weekend and will detail my activities and experiences during the first week of excavation at Abel-Beth-Maacah. Until then all my best.