The real dirt on sifting is that the dirt is on you. The glamor side of a dig is the digging: after someone else has conceived the plan, designed the dig, surveyed the squares, lined them with sandbags, and worked through the topsoil, the fun begins.
Using a variety of tools, diggers work quickly down to a level where stone walls, mud brick, or broken pottery begins to show. Then we work more carefully to articulate the line of any walls or fallen mud brick, meticulously uncover enough of any relatively complete pottery to take a photo and measurement of its location, and eventually remove any finds.
Nobody really likes to sift, so for several days either I or Susan ended up doing the lion’s share of it while others stayed in the square and dug to their heart’s content. When Yossi Garfinkel, the director of the dig, noticed what was happening, however, he insisted that everyone should have a chance to dig, stopping to sift their own dirt every four or five buckets. That proved to be a more fair and workable solution.
The downside of sifting is not just the back-breaking and shoulder-wrenching labor of hauling buckets and lifting them one-handed to dump into the sifter, but that fine dust is constantly drifting onto your legs and arms, onto your shoes, and into every orifice of your face. We often wear bandanas, outlaw style, to cover our noses.
The upside of sifting is that you find some really nice things. We’ve found tiny beads, for example, that would otherwise been lost. Susan even found a golden earring loop for pierced ears — and her eye is so sharp that she found it digging rather than sifting.
We also find less attractive but even more valuable things, like carbonized olive pits. Through the use of radiocarbon dating, such finds can tell you within a few years how long ago they were burned.
After sifting hundreds of buckets of dirt, I’m pretty sure that somewhere in excess of 99.99% of what we sift is little more than rocks, gravel, and dirt, with a sprinkling of worms and roots that have worked their way down. When that .01 percent find shows up, though, even sifting can be rewarding.
(Thanks to Susan for several of the pictures, both here and in other blogs).
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.