uncovering ancient Jerusalem


First Three Days of “Digging”

First Three Days of “Digging”

When I and 15 other students from Herbert W. Armstrong College arrived at the dig site on August 22 for our first day, we didn’t traverse through a jungle dodging poison darts and sand pits, we weren’t handed whips or tan fedoras and we didn’t find any hidden treasure. Instead, we were handed hoes, brushes, gloves, buckets and bags, and we trekked down dusty steps to a barren layout of stone walls that protruded from the dirt beneath. Perhaps our experience doesn’t sound exciting like an Indiana Jones movie, but it was in fact more exciting!

We learned quickly that the first couple days of “digging” are comprised of prep work and clean up—no digging at all. The first day, many of the men constructed stairs and bridges to enable navigating through the site more efficiently. The girls used tourya (hoes) to scrape off the top surface of soil that was filled with dead grass, trash and loose rocks. It felt a lot like doing yard work—almost like raking.

It was ironic being told to clean an area when the whole section was just a bunch of dirt and rocks. Nevertheless, we cleaned! The “dirty” dirt (the top part we scraped off) was loaded into bags that were 1 square meter in size. We could literally taste what it was like to be an archaeologist as clouds of dust surrounded us as we filled the ba’alot (bags).

After lunch, a shipment of supplies including wood, buckets, gloves, etc. were delivered to the site. All the students helped carry the supplies from the road side to the site, and then continued to clean up the areas in which we would soon be digging. After day one, we were dusty, sweaty and eager to start unearthing history.

HWAC junior Chris Eames helps clean up by hauling a ba’alot out of the dig site.

The second day was filled with many of the same tasks as the first. We carried heavy objects such as tree branches and the ba’alot that were stuffed full of grass and other dead vegetation up staircases and walls about 100 meters until we reached an area away from the dig site, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount. Several of the men worked to erect a shade tarp over the area to block the sun. This not only provides extra shade for the workers, it also enables better lighting for the pictures that will be taken throughout the excavation. It was definitely hard work, but every time we’d look up to wipe our brows, we’d glimpse the Mount of Olives or some other distinctive Jerusalem landmark. That’s right, we’re digging in Jerusalem! we would remember.

Day three came on a Sunday—the first day of the work week in Jerusalem. We were pumped and ready to dig, but the prep work was not yet finished.  There was more cleaning to be done, but this time instead of using tourya we used broom brushes to make the different areas look level. It was finally starting to look like an actual excavation site instead of just a bunch of ancient ruins.

Alumna Sarah Patten cuts away unwanted grass and rocks.

As each area of the site was prepped and ready for digging, excavation photographer Ryan Friesen took pictures to record what the site looked like before the excavation started. By the afternoon, one area was finally ready for excavation, and alumnae Rachel Dattolo and Sarah Patten put on their gloves and began to dig.

It might just sound like a bunch of work, which it is—but it’s work with purpose. What makes it exciting is not only the location that is full of rich history, but simply the fact that it’s real! We are actually digging up tangible facts that verify biblical history. As we prepped the site, we were walking on and touching walls that were built nearly 2,500 years ago.

Learning the humble beginnings that every excavation site starts with only increased our anticipation for the results that would come from our hard work–and to see what lies just beneath the surface in the Holy City.

Expect Royal Structures to Surface

Expect Royal Structures to Surface

If Dr. Eilat Mazar’s record continues unchanged, the finds from the dig she’s currently starting will be famous one day. August 22, the Ophel Excavation began under her direction, just south of perhaps the most hotly contested area in the world—Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The Ophel dig is situated on a slope of ruins, just north of the Ophel Road and just south of the Temple Mount toward its far east corner.

This dig will cause some sparks of excitement and controversy. It will leave monuments of the ancient world, now under the burden of earth above, exposed to the eyes of passers-by for generations to come. Results like these don’t come about by accident. They take planning, early mornings, late nights.

Roughly two weeks ago, at a large table among a maze of offices in the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar conferenced with her staff in preparation for this dig. She expressed a good measure of sureness regarding the importance of this area.

Dr. Mazar is convinced that as the dirt and debris is removed, what’s left standing may be a surprise. About seven short years ago, Dr. Mazar’s crew was gifted an unusually early find—and a large one at that—when her team began digging and found not far below the surface, in the City of David, the “Large Stone Structure.” It was a royal construction with certain majesty that spoke for itself: this was a big deal. One can only wonder if the wind of advantage will blow her way again on this dig.

“[W]e can be surprised by the facts”, Mazar said.  “[W]e are in the very heart of the Ophel—very heart of the acropolis, and what we should expect is royal construction ….” That would not be anything new for Mazar. Her spade seems to be a magnet for royal constructions.

With an eager smile, she highlighted a few goals for the dig this phase. She has practical plans to dramatically improve the turn-around time for publishing finds from the Ophel and wants to be “as ready as possible for publication.”

The Ophel Excavation 2012 is going to be a direct continuation of what her team did in her first Ophel phase—near the water gate complex. “[W]e are in the very core of the Ophel—the most important part,” said Dr. Mazar. “The potential is fantastic.”

The Ophel has not been bursting with this much activity for some time.

As the sun crested over the Mount of Olives August 22, 16 students and alumni of Herbert W. Armstrong College ascended the Ophel, donning hats, work gloves and grins. If you should ask any one of their expectations, you would hear the same thing—they share the same excitement Dr. Mazar has for what lies underneath.

Workers scaled ancient Byzantine walls and rooms to raise huge, black shade covers to provide some relief from the burning sun. Others removed trees, weeds and other debris from the site. Thursday morning, once again, the Ophel was a hive of activity, as workers scurried about to create “base camp” for the Ophel Excavation–to begin in earnest Sunday.

This dig will likely keep about 50 workers busy throughout the Jerusalem summer and into the winter. It’s almost like the late 60s and 70s all over again, just south of the Temple Mount. For an entire decade in the late 60s and 70s, no less than 70 students from Ambassador College assisted Eilat Mazar’s grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, in the Temple Mount Excavations. They stand to this day the most extensive excavations in the history of Israel. As Ambassador College once operated as a workforce for Benjamin Mazar, Armstrong College now does the same for Eilat.

Discovering the Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem

With excavations re-commencing on the hill of the Ophel, now is the perfect time to read archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar’s book, Discovering the Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem.

The book recounts the fascinating 100 year history of the excavations on the Ophel, just south of the Temple Mount.

As Mazar relates, the book “is not a replacement for a detailed scientific report, but designed to be enjoyed by the general public, who can now share not only in the results of the excavations, which are important in and of themselves, but also in the events surrounding them, which truly have a spirit of their own.”

The book is an intriguing read detailing her own personal experiences from the time she was a little girl. It also relays the discovery of significant finds such as the 12 complete pithoi found in the royal basement, and the Akkadian Tablet—the earliest piece of writing found in Jerusalem to date.

Most importantly, Mazar explains her reasoning behind attributing the construction of the complex to the biblical King Solomon in the middle of the 10th century B.C.E.

A young Eilat Mazar joins her grandfather on the Ophel Excavation in the 70s.

As a third generation archaeologist, Mazar was practically born into the profession. Since running around excavation sites as a curious little girl, Mazar has now been digging in Jerusalem for over thirty years. She was part of the team that excavated the City of David under Professor Yigal Shiloh, and co-directed the Ophel excavations with her grandfather professor Benjamin Mazar in 1986. Since his death in 1995, Eliat headed excavations at the summit of the City of David, and from 2009-2011 she directed renewed excavations at the Ophel.

For an excellent overview of the Ophel excavations, read Discovering the Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem: A Remarkable Archaeological Adventure.