Life on an archaeological expedition feels a bit like being in the army, with a regimented schedule that brings order to the day and makes sure everything gets done. In Israel, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, since Shabbat (the Sabbath) goes from sundown Friday until sundown on Saturday. The work week starts on Sunday, as does the dig.
Volunteers arrive by 11:00 a.m., settle into their rooms, have an early lunch, and leave by 12:30 p.m. to dig from 1:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m., then return for a late dinner, a shower, and collapse into bed knowing that wakeup time is 4:00 a.m.
Monday through Thursday, we arise early enough to get our gear ready, fill water bottles, and load the bus with Styrofoam-coated containers of water. We load the bus and leave promptly at 4:40 a.m. – if you’re not there, you get left.
A twenty-minute ride brings us to the foot of Lachish, where we climb the tel in the very dim light of earliest dawn. By the time we reach the top, it’s just light enough to see the shipping container filled with our work tools, and there is a mad rush as the supervisors of each square start filling wheelbarrows with big and small picks, heavy hoes, square and pointed trowels, dust pans, hard brushes and soft brushes, lots of black buckets for dirt and fewer color buckets for finds, along with surveying equipment, a tool chest, and sifters made from wood and wire mesh.
We arrive at the square shortly after 5:00 a.m., erect the poles and netting that shade the work space, and get instructions for what needs to be done from Ethan, our square supervisor. He, Susan, and I were the only regulars in the square all day long every day, though others came and went on shorter assignments. Some of the volunteers are local Israelis who have regular jobs, but take a day or two off each week to come and dig.
We dig, either quickly or more carefully, depending on the circumstances, until 7:00 a.m., when the camp staff shouts “Coffee Break!” We then stop for coffee or tea, and some sort of cookies, with supplies available to make peanut (or hazelnut) butter and jelly sandwiches.
Fifteen minutes later we’re digging again, it’s getting hotter, and our backs are beginning to feel the pain. If sifting hasn’t started before coffee break, someone (usually me) gets started on that, schlepping buckets of dirt to the sifter and going through them carefully to look for any interesting finds that were missed the first time through.
Digging continues until 9:00 a.m., when it’s time for breakfast, where the menu never changes: sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, tahini sauce, canned tuna, boiled eggs, soft cheese, yogurt, and some sort of corn flakes for those who prefer cereal. Tuna never tasted so good.
Fortified with some food, we trudge back up to the square for another couple of hours of digging, brushing, sifting, removing finds, and whatever else needs to be done. It’s really hot by now, and Ethan constantly reminds us to drink water. We stop periodically to photograph the square, and get a chance to wander over to other squares to see what they’ve found.
At 11:00 a.m. we pause for watermelon break, where an Israeli hybrid cantaloupe shaped like a football is also usually available. Sometimes we have a few peaches, apples, or lychees on the side.
A breeze usually picks up about that time of day. With the breeze and the shade, the heat is not so bad unless you’re working the sifter, which I’ll say more about in a later blog. We continue digging until noon or 12:15 p.m., then stop digging and clean the site, finish the sifting, and gather the tools. By 12:30 or so we’re taking down the tarp and rolling the wheelbarrow back to the container, where all the tools have to be resorted and stored. Our finds are carefully marked and collected in colored buckets, which are whisked away in a truck while we walk back down the dirt road that leads down the tel and back to the bus.
We leave the site at 1:00 p.m. and get back by 1:30 p.m. for lunch, which is the only meal of the day that contains meat. The camp keeps kosher, so we use plates with a red band on them for lunch, and different plates (with a blue band) for other meals, lest meat and dairy products should ever touch the same plate. We generally have some sort of meat, often recognizable, along with a vegetable option and the regular salads.
After lunch, mercifully, we get to take showers and have a much needed siesta break until 4:30 p.m., when all hands are expected to arrive for pottery washing and reading (more on that later). We wash pottery until 6:00 p.m. or later, have a field school lecture from one of the professors or a visiting archaeologist at 6:30 p.m., and get to dinner at 7:30 p.m.
If we can find a wifi signal, we have a little time to try getting in touch with folks back home before heading to bed with the knowledge that the alarm will go off again at 4:00 a.m., and we’ll know exactly what to expect on the morrow – with the main mystery being what we’ll find beneath the next layer of dirt — a complete juglet, a fertility goddess, a line of stones indicating an earlier building?
And that’s what makes it so much fun.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.