A Beit Midrash for Archaeology
At the end of June, six YU students, along with Dr. Jill Katz, clinical assistant professor of archaeology at Stern College for Women, headed to Israel to participate in the archaeological excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath. For many, this would be a first: a chance to unearth the biblical past with an international team of archaeologists and student volunteers from the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia and beyond.
Perhaps no other Philistine city can be as closely associated with the earliest lore of the Israelite tribes as Tell es-Safi, identified as biblical Gath, the home of the giant Goliath. In operation for 22 years under the direction of Dr. Aren Maeir, professor of biblical and ancient near eastern archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, the Tell es-Safi/Gath dig has attracted Dr. Jill Katz and her adventurous and ever-changing crew of YU student volunteers for 15 of those years.
Back in 2004, Katz was looking for a new research project, one in which her students could participate. Goliath’s hometown provided the opportunity. “Archaeology remains very much a part of the Israeli national consciousness,” noted Dr. Katz. “In fact, archaeological digs in Israel, unlike other countries, always have a strong educational component. That means students, or other volunteers for that matter, do not need any experience to participate in one.”
At this summer’s dig, the YU contingent represented a variety of majors from mathematics to psychology. But that’s not to say inexperience or lack of subject matter knowledge didn’t provoke a few cases of beginner’s anxiety. “Some of the students were concerned about physically handling the artifacts we found each day,” said Dr. Katz. “They were nervous they might break something. But I would tell them not to worry, this stuff is already broken.”
Dig season for the YU crew ran from June 23 through July 19. The primary goal: to gain hands-on experience in the recovery and analysis of the site’s material remains and learn how archaeologists and historians use those finds to gain new insights into biblical history. “Usually we learn history as theoretical, but when we discover tangible evidence and clues to ancient daily life, it really makes history come alive,” said dig volunteer Shalva Eisenberg.
Hewing to a rigorous work schedule, students participated in all aspects of the excavation process: digging, sifting, washing, sorting and analysis. With pickaxes in hand, they arrived at the site at 5:30 each morning. Digging concluded at 1:00, followed by lunch and a three-hour lab session in which pottery sherds and bones were washed and identified. Research was augmented by afternoon field trips and evening lectures.
Dr. Katz feels that some of the most important takeaways for her band of student volunteers were the lessons learned in teamwork and attentiveness to detail. “Every summer, I see students gain an increased respect for pulling together as a team. Digs are labor-intensive activities, and there’s always work that needs to get done and it’s often not glamorous. But students learn to step up to get the job finished.”
It was a sentiment echoed by student volunteer Channah Klapper. “I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first archaeological dig. But one of the things I loved about Tell es-Safi/Gath was the environment it created. Students bonded not just with their peers but with professors and the site’s supervisors. It was awesome to share an experience like this with a diverse group of people from all over the world.”
Editor’s note: YU’s participation in the 2019 dig at Tell es-Safi/Gath was sponsored by a grant from the Leon Charney Legacy Fund of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies.
On November 17, 2019, the Center for Israel Studies, Bernard Revel Graduate School and the Yeshiva University Museum will co-present the “International Conference on the Philistines,” organized by Dr. Jill Katz and Dr. Steven Fine, the Dean Pinkhos Churgin professor of Jewish history and founding director of the Center for Israel Studies.