Some days you never forget: sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not so good.
This is about one of the happy ones, and fortunately, it keeps turning up.
In 2015, my wife Susan and I volunteered to spend three weeks digging with the Fourth Expedition to Lachish, co-directed by Yosef (Yossi) Garfinkel of the Institute of Archaeology of Hebrew University, along with Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil of the Institute of Archaeology, Southern Adventist University. It was one of the hardest, yet most rewarding things we’ve done.
Like many volunteers, we were rookies, but quickly picked up the basic techniques of digging. We were assigned to work in what was designated as Area BB, near the northeast corner of the mound, under Garfinkel’s supervision. Our square director was Eythan Levy, a computer scientist and archaeology student from Belgium.
In the previous year, the same square had yielded a scarab, a fragmentary inscription on a potsherd, and a smiting god figurine. The latter was so unique that it became the logo for dig T-shirts.
It was a fortunate assignment fo us. On the first day of digging, Susan began to uncover a pyxis.
Careful digging calls for moving slowly keeping a level surface so everything remains in context, so it was two days later before she was allowed to remove it. That was fun. Along the way, we uncovered lots of broken pottery, piles of jumbled mud brick, and spots of white plaster, indicating the presence of a building that had collapsed in a fiery destruction. My right hip was badly in need of replacement, so I was assigned mainly to sifting countless buckets of dirt that came from the square. It was hot and dirty work, but yielded a number of beads made from pottery, carnelian, and shell, along with a handful of carbonized olive pits that we carefully saved for carbon dating. Other items of jewelry, including rings and gold foil, turned up without the need of sifting.
On July 26, during our second week, Susan was working near the edge of the square, where the slope had eroded the floor. While carefully working around some broken pottery, she began to uncover what looked like the tang of a bronze spearhead. Yossi was called over to inspect the emerging find, and as many others crowded about, we were surprised to see that the object was squared off on the end, and quite flat — clearly not a spearhead. Yossi suggested it might have been a sort of standard, probably bronze gilded with silver, perhaps affixed to the a staff carried by a priest.
After the excitement, the artifact was carefully packaged and we adjourned for breakfast, but I had a nagging feeling about a quantity of dirt near the find that had crumbled and fallen from the edge due to a couple of careless steps when others came over to look.
When we returned, I scooped up the loose dirt in a bucket and took it to the sifter, where a small bronze image of a smiting god, probably some manifestation of Baal, immediately surfaced. Again everyone gathered around and we posed for pictures. The standard was brought out and replaced in situ, with the smiting god placed beside it as a reminder that it had been found nearby, though not in that exact spot.
It was quite a day.
Fast-forward two more years of excavation, and three years of cleaning and analyzing those and other significant finds. The excavators concluded that we had indeed been digging in the remains of a 12th century Canaanite temple. In January of 2020, Garfinkel and several others published a lengthy article on the layout, history, and function of the temple ( “The Level VI North-East Temple at Tel Lachish,” Levant, January 2020, 1-29; see my blog from March 7). Our finds were featured in both text and images. It was rewarding to see how the hard work of all the professionals and volunteers had come to fruition.
More recently, Garfinkel has published another article in which he argues that the object Susan found was actually a scepter that might have been held by a life-size divine image, probably made of wood, that has not survived (“The Scepters of Life-Sized Divine Statues from Canaanite Lachish and Hazor,” Antiquity 94[375:June 2020] 669-685).
Analysis demonstrated that the scepter was indeed made of bronze coated with silver. It was incised with a circle and embossed with a dotted design that has thus far defied interpretation. It could be seen as an abstract figure with a large head, Garfinkel said, though it may rather have astrological significance.
The scepter is similar in design to one found at Hazor that features two serpents framing an anthropoid figure (now in the Israel Museum), and both are remarkably similar in shape to the scepter held by a miniature image (variously thought of as El or Baal) found at Megiddo and now in the Oriental Institute of Chicago.
The similarity has led Garfinkel to propose that the find could once have been held by a life-size image of the deity.
That’s exciting, and rewarding to think we played a role in bringing it and other relevant artifacts to light. Volunteers rarely, if ever, get credit for individual finds, and don’t expect to. We’re happy to be part of a team. If the COVID pandemic allows digging to resume next year, you may want to consider volunteering, too. You never know what you might find.