Because of elevated political tensions in the West Bank, we decided to spend this winter processing our finds for publication, not excavating at ABR's dig at Khirbet el-Maqatir. Six brave pilgrims joined me for the expedition. Here is a summary of our very productive trip.
One of the few benefits of not being able to sleep on planes is that I get to do a lot of reading. This time I read the first 150 pages of the final report on Shiloh from the 1980s excavation there. So, I am well prepared for my Tuesday morning meeting with the Antiquities Authority regarding our desire to open a new dig at Shiloh. On Thursday we will spend a day at Shiloh, developing a strategy for "attacking" the site if our proposal is approved.
I arrived Saturday afternoon, secured my rental car, and headed to Mevaseret to collect Ellen Jackson, a full-time Wycliffe Bible translator and part-time archaeologist. We were greeted at the hotel by Sandy Souza, a veteran of three decades of excavation in Israel. Both of these ladies are key members of my staff, and will be a huge help with the myriad of projects we need to accomplish over the next three weeks. On December 24th we will be joined by Anna Kingery, a friend of Maqatir Square Supervisor Steve Rudd. Then, on the 25th, Jacqui Maestrado and Larry and Carol Hamrick will round out the team. Jacqui is a Maqatir veteran, and Larry and Carol are friends from my home church, Sugar Land Family Church, who are making their first trip to the land of the Bible.
My first two stops today were to add minutes to my Israeli phone and to change dollars to shekels inside Jaffa Gate. My dear friend and Maqatir staff member Orna Cohen is supervising restoration work in the famous Tower of David, so we popped over to have coffee with her on the beautiful back patio, with the foundations of Herod's three great towers as a backdrop. As we visited, the bells from historic Christ Church began to ring. Life is good. Orna is one of the most renowned archaeologists in the world, and I am very blessed to have her as a staff member and a friend. By the way, we got a behind-the-scenes tour of the latest excavations inside the tower.
Leaving Jaffa Gate, we headed west to the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) storage facility at Bet Shemesh, where we were given a fantastic tour by my friend Debi, one of the curators there. Debi's husband is in charge of the prominent Givati Parking Lot dig across from the City of David. The branch of the IAA that is in charge of Khirbet el-Maqatir is much smaller, so we were blown away by the quantity and quality of excavated items in storage there—over 1 million and counting!
I spent the rest of the day making phone calls, returning emails, and setting up our itinerary for the next week. We had a visit in the afternoon from dear friends Joel and Kathy Kramer from Sourceflix. Joel and his son Barry have provided us with state-of-the-art drone photography the past two summers, so I brought him the most sought-after prize that an American living in Israel could hope to get—bacon. They were VERY happy. Check out their amazing work at sourceflix.com.
Tomorrow morning we are heading to Maqatir to assess the condition of the site, hoping that it has not suffered vandalism. While there we will deliver a Christmas present to our good friend, local landowner Khaldoun Bakkar. He makes the best tea in the West Bank, so we are looking forward to that. Khaldoun stores our tools and helps us in many other ways. In the afternoon we have a meeting at the Israel Exploration Society to speak with the editor and Senior Israeli Archaeologist Hillel Giva and to pick up copies of the new issue of the prestigious journal Qadmoniot, which includes my article on Maqatir.
The weather continues to be amazing here—very different from the snow of two years ago. On Monday morning we headed out to Khirbet el-Maqatir to assess the condition of the site. In recent years we have suffered some pretty significant vandalism. Last year was especially bad. While there was nothing like last year, we did have damage in two areas of the site. Looters come in with metal detectors in a search for "gold." In the process, they knock over walls and disturb unexcavated areas, thus ruining any stratigraphy. Before we left the site, we had a long visit over tea and Palestinian pastries with Khaldoun. Later, as we left, two questions were on my mind. First, why can't we have this nice cool weather in the summer? Second, what secrets does this important site have yet to tell us? Once we were back in Jerusalem, we headed to the Israel Exploration Society, the home of several important publications, including Qadmoniot. The newly released issue has my article in Hebrew on Maqatir. It is a full-color journal, and I was impressed with how it came out. This is widely read in Israel and is equivalent to Biblical Archaeology Review in America. From the IES, we rushed back to the hotel to freshen up for the Grand Opening of the Hadrian exhibit at the Israel Museum. Dr. Yoav Farhi, a member of the Maqatir staff, secured VIP passes for us. Along with the ambassadors from several countries and numerous other dignitaries, we were the first to see the new exhibit. There were about 300 "movers and shakers" in Israel there, and it was awesome to see how many of these people I now call friends.
Tuesday began with two early morning meetings at the Antiquities Authority. First, we met with the Director regarding plans for 2016. He again commented that our reports and overall work are of the highest quality, and he was most pleased about my new article in Qadmoniot. He assured me that I would have the 2016 dig permit before leaving the country. We also had a very promising discussion about plans beyond 2016. Stay tuned for details on that. The second meeting was with the curator of our finds. We sorted through the 2015 findings and removed all of the flints in preparation for a special flint report which will be done for us by Steve Rosen from Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Rosen is the top flint expert in Israel. We have corresponded for several years, but this will be my first opportunity to meet him face to face. The second goal for Tuesday was to assist a close friend, Frankie Snyder, with her ongoing crusade to register and publish flooring tiles called opus sectile coming from the New Testament era and beyond. We help Frankie on projects when we can, and in turn, she helps us on her days off. The material recently excavated at Caesarea Maritima is in private storage between Bet Shemesh and Bet Guvrin, about one hour's drive from Jerusalem. We sorted through the storage area, loaded up fourteen boxes of tiles, and unloaded them on Frankie's patio. One day next week, we will actually register them. It is a great learning experience for my team members.
Next, we had to move from the Ambassador to the Ritz Hotel, our normal headquarters. The Ritz just completed three weeks of renovations. Not only did we need to move in, but we needed to set up our office and work areas. Sandy and Ellen made record time in building a flint database in preparation for our meeting tomorrow with Dr. Rosen. Afterward, we enjoyed a late dinner at Azura, one of the many good restaurants in our neighborhood. It is famous for its pizza, but I had lamb with stewed okra. Yummy!
On Christmas Eve, we arrived at Ancient Shiloh at 9:00 A.M. This was the center of Israelite worship for over 300 years. Long before Jerusalem, God's mishkan (tabernacle) dwelt at Shiloh. The second messianic promise in the Bible is about Shiloh (Gn 49:10). It is one of the most important sites in Israel, and I have been interested for the last several years in opening an excavation there. Archaeologists Israel and Reut Ben Arie live in the modern settlement, and they spent several hours with us going over the details of the ancient tell. The Antiquities Authority and the local community are enthusiastic about ABR opening a new dig there, so I am researching all aspects of the site before submitting a formal proposal. Please pray for all of the final pieces to fall in place. For my Facebook friends, see the two videos that I posted from the site.
From Shiloh, we drove 15 minutes to the community of Ariel to investigate a possible new hotel for our dig headquarters. The hotel has many advantages, not the least of which is a huge swimming pool which our team would put to good use during the summer dig. They have built a full size replica of the tabernacle in their biblical garden, and it is right next to the tomb of Joshua. We have an awesome headquarters in Jerusalem, so there are a lot of factors to weigh before a final decision is made.
We arrived back in Jerusalem in time for a quick dinner before heading to the Christmas Eve service at Christ Church in Jaffa Gate. The Holy Spirit moved among the large gathered crowd as we sang Christmas carols and worship songs. I left there in the Christmas spirit and grateful for so many things. The church sits right on the true Via Dolorosa and only about 50 meters from where Jesus was scourged for our transgressions (Is 53:5). Selah!
On Christmas Day, we spent 2-3 hours setting up our processing work area. Over the next few days, we will finish processing some pottery and other finds that we did not get to this past summer. One of the objects is a ceramic bowl with a painted pattern. This is the first of its kind that we have found at Khirbet el-Maqatir; it is typical of Jerusalem ware, so I have broken off a small piece for neutron activation analysis. This will tell us if the vessel was made in Jerusalem (clay from Matzos) or if it was locally made. We were treated to an afternoon brunch at the Ambassador Hotel. I can't remember having a finer meal. It was a buffet, so we are all quite stuffed. After lunch, we took a quick drive up to the top of the Mount of Olives to absorb the most spectacular view of Jerusalem. Then, it was back to work on processing finds.
I am about to head to the airport to pick up my dear friends Larry and Carol Hamrick. Tomorrow Jacqui Maestrado arrives, rounding us out to a team of seven. Tomorrow, we are off to explore two ancient sites. Stay tuned...
Shabbat is always a good day to drive in Israel because there is less traffic. So, we eagerly headed to the region of Lower Galilee via the Jordan Valley highway. Our first stop was at Archaeleus, a first-century city built by, and named after, one of the sons of Herod the Great. The large site is in ruins and is suffering massive vandalism. The vandals only take whole vessels, so there is amazing surface pottery, and even stoneware, for groups like ours. From Archaeleus, our next stop was Sephoris, "the ornament of all Galilee" according to Josephus. Only four miles from Nazareth, it is strangely not mentioned in the New Testament. It is likely the site where Jesus and his family plied their construction trade. Next, we set out for Khirbet Cana, the likely site of biblical Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle. We eventually located the tell but were not able to reach it before sundown, so its exploration awaits another day. Cana is not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, but John mentions it three times; perhaps he was personally acquainted with the site.
Sunday began with an expanded behind-the-scenes tour of the new excavations inside the Tower of David. This was arranged by Maqatir conservator Orna Cohen, who is supervising the conservation work there. I then took about an hour to walk our group of eight around the Armenian Quarter, noting the true Via Dolorosa and places of Jesus's passion. From Jerusalem we headed south down the Dead Sea Highway to Masada, Israel's most-visited tourist site. Here, in AD 73, the final remnant of the Great Revolt was brutally crushed by the Romans. We sat in the synagogue and contemplated the incredible choice that the Zealots faced—mass suicide or slavery at the hands of the Romans. They chose death. We arrived back in Jerusalem just in time to watch the sun set from the top of the Mount of Olives—the most spectacular view of the Eternal City. Our hotel restaurant was closed for the evening, so we went to Azura, where I had the best pizza that I can remember—thin wheat crust, extra cheese, pepperoni, black olives, and mushrooms!
Monday morning began at the Armenian Museum with a meeting with renowned Jerusalem archaeologist Shimon Gibson. Shimon and I have collaborated on several projects, and we had a great discussion about possible future work together. He is not only an encyclopedia of archaeological knowledge, but a very helpful and humble friend. If you have not read his book entitled The Final Days of Jesus, you should order it today. We returned to the hotel at 10:30. Three of us spent the rest of the day finishing the processing of our pottery from this summer's excavation. The others walked the Old City, taking in the sites and buying souveneirs. Sandy Souza has worked with ABR since 1987, and she has extensive experience in processing objects and pottery, so it was a real blessing to have her with me this winter.
As I write, our gorgeous weather has turned into rain, and we are getting ready to bring in the New Year in Jerusalem. The last three days have been fast and furious.
On Tuesday morning we stopped at Qumran (Essenes and Dead Sea Scrolls) to use the restrooms and grab a coffee. As I was getting my backpack out of the trunk, I heard a voice behind me calling out, "Scott, what are you doing here?" I turned to see the head of the Antiquities Authority for Judea and Samaria in a Honda right behind me. Hananya Hizme issues all excavation permits, so he is my boss. I am pleased to say that we have a close personal relationship. He immediately asked me if we wanted to see the new Qumran excavations. I think you know what my answer was. He got our group free entrance to the site, and we spent about 30 minutes learning about the excavation of a portion of the Qumran cemetery. The visitor's center is expanding, so the dig had to be done right away. The people at Qumran were buried about 6 feet under the ground and with no grave goods. From Qumran, we proceeded to En Gedi (where David spared Saul's life) to hike all the way to the famous Chalcolithic temple at the top. Along the way we passed several amazing waterfalls. The desert has a unique beauty, and the view from the top was striking.
After our 2.5-hour workout, we rushed back to Jerusalem for my 3:30 PM meeting with Baruch Brandl. Baruch is the top scarab expert in Israel, and we are partnering together, along with Maqatir Supervisors Dr. Brian Peterson and Dr. Boyd Seevers, to publish a rare scarab found at our site this past summer. I am grateful for the friendship that I have with experts like Baruch to ensure the highest quality of scholarship for the study and publication of our finds.
On Wednesday, we picked up my friend and fellow archaeologist Frankie Snyder and headed to the Judean wilderness to locate a few of Herod's desert palaces. Frankie is the leading expert in Israel on flooring in New Testament times. We are helping her in our off time with locating and recording opus sectile paving tiles. She, in turn, uses her days off to help us in our excavation, or in this case, exploration. After taking in the spectacular view of St. George's Monastery, we arrived at Cypros, named after Herod's mother. From Cypros one looks down on Jericho and up to the Mount of Temptation. We headed to the Inn of the Good Samaritan for restrooms and a quick sack lunch before proceeding into the depths of the wilderness to Hyrcania. I tried to get here last year but could not find it. With Frankie's help we actually arrived, the final 2-3 miles being on a precarious dirt road/path. Hyrcania far exceeded our expectations. We were blown away by the remains there, including an aqueduct. The hike was extremely challenging but well worth it. Almost nobody goes here or even knows how to get here, and now I know why! Leaving the site, we got off on the wrong path, so the next hour became one of those adventures that one never forgets. Eventually we made it back to the paved road just before sunset. What a day! Before arriving at the hotel, I made one final stop to pick up something important from Orna Cohen. The next day, I had given Orna our scarab in the morning and asked her to make an impression for me. She surprised me with a phone call at the end of the day to come pick it up. We are very blessed.
On Thursday, we participated in the "dig for a day" program at Bet Guvrin, which is biblical Maresha. The Hellenistic houses there collapsed into their huge basements, so they are full of rich archaeological material. One of our team members, Jacqui Maestrado, had the find of the day—a perfect Hellenistic oil lamp. After digging, we toured the large and impressive site. On the way back to Jerusalem, we stopped in the Elah Valley and talked through the story of David and Goliath.
On a cold and rainy Friday morning, our team headed off to Megiddo. This important site sits right on the ancient Via Maris, the coastal highway that linked Egypt with Mesopotamia in the ancient world. The site was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times, and there have been countless Battles of Armageddon on into modern times. Water, defensibility, and access to trade routes made this very desirable real estate. According to 1 Kings 9:15, Solomon fortified Megiddo, along with Hazor and Gezer. Almost identical six-chamber gate complexes were unearthed at all three sites, confirming the reliability of the Bible. As we were touring the site, with its commanding view of the Jezreel Valley, a hail storm pelted us. We rushed back to the museum until it cleared. In the middle of our "second tour" the hail found us again, so we packed it in. After savoring some hot and fresh onion soup in the restaurant, we decided to head down to the Jordan Valley, where it is always warmer and dryer.
We arrived at Jericho with a huge rainbow overlooking the site, a certain reminder of God's covenant promises to us. Before heading to the tell, we ascended the six-story overlook above the Mount of Temptations gift shop. They installed an elevator since the last time I was there, so that was pretty nice. From our perch we talked through the story of the conquest of Jericho, including the pertinent archaeological discoveries. Next, we headed to the tell. I pointed out the various features that pertain to the account in Joshua 6. Fortunately, the weather was MUCH better than in Megiddo. It was awesome to see the lights come on in people's minds as the biblical account was set in its ancient Near Eastern context. After I dragged my group out of the shops, we made our ascent to Jerusalem, arriving at the hotel just before dark. While Jericho was fresh on everyone's mind, I broke out my computer and gave a more formal talk on the history of the site. Dinner was awesome as always.
Due to the cold and rainy weather, we decided that Saturday would be museum day. Our day began at the Israel Museum. The collection is stunning, and we all had a blast. That is, until we got in the car and discovered that we had a flat tire. That's right, cold, rain, and flat tire = character building. By the time that ordeal was past we were starving, and went to the Ambassador for the best cheeseburger in town. I must say that it eased my pain. The rest of the day was devoted to laundry, newsletters, etc. The weather is supposed to improve each day for the rest of our time here.
On Sunday morning, we headed south in search of warmer weather. We arrived at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba at 10:30. The purpose of the trip was to drop off the rest of our flint hoard from the summer of 2015. As I mentioned in a previous newsletter, my friend Steve Rosen is the top flint expert in Israel, so I am excited to see his report. From Beersheba, we continued south to Arad, Israel's southernmost fortress in Old Testament times.
This was one of the first Canaanite city-states destroyed by the Israelites. I have wanted to go here for a long time, but since it is in the middle of nowhere, I had not been. I am trying to learn more about Arad since the destruction mentioned in Numbers 21 has not yet met with archaeological confirmation. The site was larger than I expected, and the temple, with a "holy of holies," was amazing.
Sunday ended with an amazing worship service at Christ Church in the Old City. This is the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East, but its worship is cutting-edge and dynamic. We really enjoyed it. Important meetings tomorrow. Stay tuned...
Thanks for following along on our winter expedition to Israel. I greatly appreciate the feedback and prayers. Here is a rundown on the final two days.
On Tuesday morning Ellen Jackson took one vehicle to retrieve Frankie Snyder and the flooring tiles from Caesarea. They returned them to storage with a great sense of accomplishment. The rest of the crew went with me to the Antiquities headquarters where I had three important meetings scheduled. The first meeting was with Dalit, the new head of publications for Judea and Samaria. We clicked immediately, and I can tell that we are going to have a great working relationship. We covered details of our upcoming three-year report. Next, I met with Yoav, who is the curator of all finds for our region. I had a few objects and pottery pieces to turn in, and I needed to retrieve a small blue Roman die that needed to be photographed. I was glad that I had Sandy, Larry, and Jacqui with me, as we had to go through a lot of crates before finally locating it. Mission accomplished. The third meeting was with Hananya, the head of all excavations in Judea and Samaria—my boss. We had a great discussion about plans for 2016 and 2017, and after about a thirty-minute wait, he came out and handed me the excavation license for 2016. This is always a relief!
We headed back into Jerusalem in time to grab a quick shawarma wrap and pick up my former student Miriam, who now lives in Jerusalem. She had the day off and wanted to hang out with us. Half of our group spent three hours touring the City of David, while the other half shopped in the Old City. The City of David tour is the best tour in Jerusalem; I should know, since I have done it dozens of times! After dropping off Miriam, we met up with the rest of the gang in Mamilla Mall. Now the rest of the group wanted to shop. We made it back to the hotel in time for me to change shirts and rush off for a dinner meeting with Issa, our hotel manager and a good friend. We met the owner at the Ambassador. By the end of the night, we had solved most of the world's problems, including a better financial arrangement for ABR for the coming summer. Smile.
On Wednesday, we headed out for the Sea of Galilee. We visited four first-century sites: Capernaum, Geneasaur (where we saw the Galilee Boat), Magdala, and Tiberias. It was fabulous, especially since the nice weather has returned. We got home in time for our final dinner together before everyone headed off to pack for return flights tomorrow.
I hate to leave Israel, but I am comforted by knowing that I will be back in May/June for our big dig season at Khirbet el-Maqatir!