The 2016 archaeological study tour of Israel is over, and to hear from the students, church members, and family members who went, it was a resounding success!
I have taken groups to Israel since 2004. This one was extremely memorable, in that it was the first time my wife Sheree went with me. It was very brief (only 10 days), but packed with many sites and activities, and we engaged in archaeological work in southern Israel of a type I had never done before: restoration of a Roman bath house and excavation of a Byzantine era synagogue! More of this below, but perhaps a few words about the history of this work are in order first.
I first went to Israel in 2004, mostly to visit the site of Tel Tamar, 40 kilometers south of the Dead Sea, under the auspices of Blossoming Rose, the group that maintains the archeological site and the park surrounding it. Dr. Craig Bowman of Rochester College was the moving force behind getting me involved, and he also went in 2004. I traveled with Todd Hall (Austin Grad’s librarian) and his brother Ron, an Austin Grad alum, and became friends with some of the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, especial Yigal Israel and Tali Erickson-Gini.
The following years, 2005–2008, were mostly spent doing small excavations in the 10th century BC level at Tamar (the period of David and Solomon; see 1 Kings 9:18) with a mix of Austin Grad students and church members. The excavations were overseen by Yigal Israel, and Dr. Craig Bowman, Terrance Christian (archaeologist for the National Park Service in Oregon), and myself were in charge of the volunteer workers.
Over those years it became apparent that we were, in a small way, remedying the “lack of artifact evidence” for the 10th century BC at our site—we increasingly found pottery and other artifacts datable to the 10th century. Because of serious health issues for Dr. Bowman, there were no excavations between 2010 and 2012, but we returned in 2013 and did several weeks of excavation on the same 10th century level, uncovering some buildings and finding a large number of potsherds and grinding stones. Of course, every year we also spent half of our time touring Galilee, the Dead Sea, the Negev Desert, and Jerusalem.
This year was my first “solo” archaeological study tour; that is, without Craig or Terrance! Also, this year the archaeological work component was minor and the tour component larger.
We packed a lot into just a few days. The group visited Caesarea Maritima, Dan, Banias, Ceasarea Philippi, Hazor, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Qumran, Masada, En Gedi, Tamar, Arad, Beersheba, and Jerusalem. We spent three days at the end of the tour in Jerusalem, visiting many of its famous archaeological and religious sites.
While we were staying at Tamar, we did a one day restoration of a Roman bath house. Our group of workers was fantastic. In 6-7 hours we took out the old mortar from 6 Roman walls, and re-mortared them using the ancient mortar recipe. Yoram, the head of the Antiquities Authority in southern Israel, was very pleased with the amount and excellence of our work there.
The next day we drove over an hour away, close to Beer-Sheba, to the kibbutz of Lahav and a 3rd-4th century AD synagogue site of Horvat Rimmon. As with the previous day, we had about six hours to excavate and clean three rooms of the synagogue, places which had never been excavated before. Some of our group members uncovered a column and base. Others uncovered ancient walls and exposed a room. A good bit of pottery was also found. Hard work, but everyone seemed pleased by the experience, the challenge, and the quality of our work at the end of the day!
Of course, not everything was seeing ancient sites and digging. Many of our group discovered “Cafe Aroma,” a spectacular coffee shop (take that, Starbuck’s!). Most got to float once or twice in the Dead Sea. In Jerusalem, we all went to the “Armenian Tavern, a mostly underground restaurant with lots of atmosphere and enjoyed an “awards ceremony” there (for example, the “I am terrified of goats” award, when one of our members came face to face with an ibex at En Gedi).
It was a pleasure and an honor to be with 20 other people who were excited to be there and who were “team players.” I have never had such a friendly, cooperative group of tour members/volunteers. I will remember this trip as the best Austin Grad sponsored tour of Israel ever!
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