Can You Dig It? Archeology Students Uncover Mysteries in Ashkelon

By Naomi Kosman-Wiener, Staff Writer
Monday, November 11, 2013

c/o Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Not many people can say they spent their summers waking up at 4:30 a.m., six days a week, to pickax streets, destroy walls, haul rocks, sift through dirt, use a trowel to scrape the floor, and wash pottery until late at night. However, five Wesleyan students can.

Alec Jolicoeur ’14, Rosie Kelly ’15, Jasper Kubasek ’14, Marina Rothberg ’16, and Emily Shames ’15 joined Assistant Professor of Classical Studies and Archaeology Kate Birney this past summer on an archaeological dig in Ashkelon, Israel. Their mission was to uncover a neighborhood dating back to the 5th century B.C.E.

“Every day was just a great day,” Shames said. “We would find, like, 20 buckets of pottery, bags of animal bones, and 10 or so [pieces of] material culture, which is anything other than pottery and bones, such as coins, hunks of metal, et cetera. It’s just so many stimuli that you’re never bored.”

Birney’s doctoral advisor from Harvard started the excavation project in 1985 out of an interest in learning more about the Philistines of the Bible. Ashkelon is known as being the Biblical city of the Philistines: the group arrived there in 1200 B.C.E. as outsiders with Greek connections and settled five cities in the area.

Every year, students from various colleges spend six weeks excavating the site, alongside staff members who spend two months working in Ashkelon.

One reason students are drawn to the dig is that it provides a physical experience they can’t get at school.

“In the classroom, you’re learning about everything after the fact, whereas [at] the dig you’re working hands on; you’re in the moment, pulling artifacts out of the ground that haven’t been exposed for 2,500 years,” Jolicoeur said.

But because the program takes place at a field school, there’s also an academic component to it.

“Professor Birney and her supervisor would come around and make us go through some technical problems of digging and identifying features,” Jolicoeur said.

This year, the crew uncovered more artifacts than ever before.

“One thing we found was an Egyptian scarab seal that has a Greek hoplite warrior on the back,” Shames said. “It’s really cool seeing the Egyptian and Greek influence meeting up in Israel because it lets us know that trade was very prevalent at that time.”

Another interesting discovery was an ivory and bronze Persian dagger hilt with a lioness engraved on the back, which will be stored in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“It was found in the gully of a street that runs between two buildings in the neighborhood, so there’s some discoloration due to contact with street material,” Birney said.

Jolicoeur was digging up a Persian stone bin when he found a white-ground attic lekythos painted with a floral pattern.

“[The artifact] is a small, higher-end ceremonial object that’s used as a grave good, or you fill it with oil or wine and pour libations,” he said. “It was really exciting because it was in very good condition.”

Kubasek uncovered a piece of Corinthian pottery with a phoenix wing painted on it, in addition to excavating a buried puppy. Rothberg dug up a tabun oven, a clay oven used in Biblical and pre-Biblical times, that had collapsed in on itself but still contained coal remains in the bottom that could be analyzed. The crew also uncovered some Phoenician scale weights and a beautiful, bronze cloak pin from a tiny room in the building.

The biggest breakthrough, however, came with the uncovering of the skeleton of a Hellenistic man who had been buried in a shallow cave.

“Essentially, this guy, who was roughly in his 30s, had been thrown in with his hands tied between his legs,” Birney said. “This is a time period in which you don’t bury bodies in the building; you bury them outside the city walls in clear graves that are part of cemeteries.”

According to the students, it therefore seems likely that the man was murdered. Unfortunately, it was not entirely clear how the man was killed because the body revealed no visible cut marks or signs of damage. One possibility raised as to the cause of death was blunt trauma to the back of his head, but the crew wasn’t able to inspect it because the members had to raise the body out of the ground in order to keep it intact.

Despite mysteries like these, yearly digs uncover more than they obscure. The great thing about uncovering rare artifacts, Shames said, is that they tell a story about the city and how it’s changed over the centuries.

“It’s essentially solving a mystery, working backwards through time, figuring out how life was lived,” she said. “I love that the harder you work and the more dirt you move, the more you reveal about this past culture.”

c/o Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

The neighborhood the students excavated was founded when Ashkelon was under Persian control, and the archaeologists have been able to trace its transition from wealth to ruin.

“There are a couple changes you see in the material level,” Birney said. “As time goes on, the buildings are not rebuilt as nicely, there are fewer imports, the people start eating different cuts of meat because they’re really scavenging around for food, and then by the end of this time the neighborhood has [decayed] to the extent that someone has actually buried someone in it.”

Next year, the archaeologists will uncover even more of the story. The layers of dirt beneath the buildings, which they will be tackling next, are from right before the Babylonians destroyed the city in 604 B.C.E.

“We’d like to be able to see what the Iron Age City underneath the Babylonian destruction looks like in this particular neighborhood because we have rich neighborhoods, we have a market place, we have some fortifications, some central city areas, and this neighborhood is like downtown where real people live: this is real life, this is gritty Ashkelon,” Birney said.

Looking back on her experience in Ashkelon, Rothberg said that, even though the summer was long, strenuous, and exhausting, the payoff was worth it.

“Coming home each day after such brutal labor and sleeping so peacefully, knowing you’ve accomplished so much and that you’ve lived each day so fully, it’s incredible,” she said. “Every single second is so productive.”