Digging At Omrit
Since 1999, Macalester's Classics Department has taken students and alumni to this important archaelogical site in Israel. It's hot, hard work, but they keep coming back for more.
At Omrit the students’ day begins with a loud rap on the door and a “Boker Tov!” (“good morning” in Hebrew) from Macalester classics professor Andy Overman. “Boker Tov!” A sleepy response from inside confirms the inhabitants are awake. It’s 4:30 a.m. and darkness covers Kibbutz Kefar Szold in northern Israel. It’s painfully early, but temperatures are cool and gnats won’t arrive for another four hours, so it’s prime time to head to the Omrit site, the archaeological dig headed by Overman.
By 5 a.m., students and faculty have gulped down sandwiches and loaded tools into rented trucks and vans. The Citroën Jumpy vans are aptly named for the ride up to Omrit—a bumpy 10-minute drive through the fields on a half-washed-out road. In the lead truck, the radio plays “Folsom Prison Blues” and someone points out a jackal sprinting across the fields. They are facing another hot, dusty day, but for nine current and recent Mac students, three alumni, and an assortment of faculty and other collaborators, this is the life.
Since 1999, Overman and a crew of archaeology, classics, and ancient history devotees have been excavating this large temple complex on land wedged between Lebanon on the west and the Golan Heights and Syria on the east. It began in 1998 when a huge wildfire revealed that there might be more than a few odd basalt blocks here. “I was finishing at a dig in Ukraine when a friend called,” says Overman. “He knew I’d worked in Israel; he knew my research and my desire to involve students. So I came and surveyed the site.”
After doing preliminary research and mapping, Overman proposed a project to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA ), the organization responsible for excavating and preserving the region’s antiquities. The IAA granted Macalester a license to direct a dig at Omrit. Since then, more than 200 Macalester students have come to Omrit to learn the history of the ancient world using pickaxes and buckets, wearing leather gloves, bug nets, and boots.
Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and dig codirector Dan Schowalter joined the project in 2006; several Carthage students now are routinely part of the dig teams. A final codirector is architect Michael Nelson of CUNY-Queens. Carthage contributes to the cost of the excavation each year, with a budget determined by Overman and Schowalter based on that season’s goals.
Occupation at Omrit dates from the middle of the last century BC. It lies on the ancient trade route from Tyre, on the Mediterranean coast, to Damascus. Over time, an Early Shrine (40–30 BC) was buried within and under the podium of a structure referred to as Temple One, which dates to the time of the Roman emperor Augustus and regional king Herod the Great, who likely built the temple to honor Augustus. Later building expanded the complex, becoming what is called Temple Two. It appears that the Omrit settlement was occupied for about 2,100 years, though the temple complex itself collapsed, possibly due to a major earthquake in 363 AD.
Each team of four or five people digs in a specific 5 x 5 meter square. One member of the square loosens the dirt with a pickaxe, while another hoes the loose dirt into a bucket and dumps it into a wheelbarrow. Both keep a sharp eye out for artifacts. Whoever has drawn “barrow” duty rolls the dirt away and dumps it. Meanwhile, others carefully sketch the square from several perspectives, visually recording the process. Any pottery shard larger than a thumbnail is placed in a bucket with a tag indicating its origin. When the occasional bit of glass, coin, or bone turns up, it is stored and cataloged separately. Each layer of earth is assigned a locus number, indicating the relative depth of that layer.
Careful documentation at this 2,000-year-old site is crucial. As three-time Omrit veteran James Mayer ’11 (Houston) notes, “Once you excavate something, it can never be re-excavated.”
At 9:30 a.m. Mayer and his teammates at square M-11 break to join other excavators in the shade for “second breakfast,” prepared by the kibbutz kitchen and hauled to the site. Then work resumes until 11:30 a.m., when final notes are made, tools collected, and the heatweary researchers—it’s nearly always sunny and over 90 degrees by then—pile into vehicles to return to the kibbutz. After lunch, students scatter—square supervisors to write the daily excavation report, some to nap, others to catch up on email or visit the kibbutz store for a snack.
One constant is the washing of the day’s excavated pottery shards, of which there are usually many. Pottery expert Débora Sandhaus travels weekly from Jerusalem to “read” the pottery for revelations about the place and historical period from whence it came.
She meets with each square’s team to read what they’ve found. For first-time Omrit students, she explains how to read the shards. For example, a piece from a vessel’s rim helps determine the diameter of its opening. “Storage vessels have a small neck and rim because they have lids,” she explains. Another clue: “If the glaze is on the inside, it’s an open vessel because you would see the decorative glaze. If the glaze is on the outside, it’s a closed vessel.” She rapidly pages through reference books, pointing out what a complete example of a given vessel might look like.
With a more experienced group, the sorting is quick but intense: Late Roman. Byzantine. Frying pan. Storage jar. Sometimes a terse, additional note: “This is a critical locus [archaeologically significant layer].” “Save these shards for drawing and publication.” According to Sandhaus, by the third week most students can identify the type and the general time period of pottery artifacts.
Although 25 people worked at Omrit this summer, a more typical group is 45. This year smaller teams were needed for surgical excavation in tiny areas, explains Overman. Students pay $3,000 for travel and room and board for the five-week season. They earn no college credit for the dig, but given the mystery, camaraderie, and intellectual excitement of the experience, reap many benefits— enough to keep some coming back for up to three summers and well past graduation. Indeed, three alumni worked at Omrit this summer—Greg Stoehr ’98, Ben Rubin ’01, and Amy Fisher ’07.
Stoehr—a PhD student at the University of Maryland—has been working at Omrit since the beginning, and is currently surveying the area in an attempt to answer puzzling questions. Was there Students carry their notebooks and tools back to the trucks after putting in a full day’s work—by noon. Left to right: Ben Rubin ’01, Amy Fisher ’07, and Greg Stoehr ’98 “Students have hands-on experience with remains from a critical historical era— the Roman period of the Galilee.” —nanett e goldm an, Classics professor a town around the temple? If so, how did this community grow up here? They’ve found the remains of pipes. Was there a spring here? Perhaps sophisticated plumbing?
Rubin—a classics professor at Williams College— was a first-year student in Overman’s office, waiting for him to conclude a phone call, when he saw a photo of the Ukraine dig. Overman’s call over, Rubin offhandedly said, “It would be great to go someplace like that sometime.” Overman said the call had been somebody cancelling, and asked Rubin, “Do you want to go?” “I said yes, and it was one of those chance events that changed the trajectory of my life,” says Rubin.
A six-season veteran of Omrit, Fisher—now in a PhD program at the University of Toronto—intended to major in history at Mac, but got hooked by classics professor Nanette Goldman’s Hebrew class, taking the full sequence, and then adding Greek.
Goldman, who teaches Latin as well as Hebrew and Greek, focuses her scholarship on the literature of the Second Temple period. A veteran of Omrit, Goldman believes that students come away from the experience with a greatly expanded perspective, both historical and geopolitical: “They have hands-on experience with remains from a critical historical era —the Roman period of the Galilee, the time of Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, and Jesus. But they also encounter what life in Israel is like now, not only for Jewish Israelis but also for Arab Israelis and Palestinians. I also think that the rigors of physical labor and group travel foster a deep sense of self-confidence and an ability for teamwork.”
At Omrit, Goldman provides on-site instruction in archaeological methods, teaches Hebrew classes, organizes lectures, and coordinates logistics for the field trips that provide context for understanding both the ancient and contemporary worlds. “Nanette is close to our friends on the kibbutz and helps us build community with Israelis,” says Mayer. “She helps students explore the connections between the physical immediateness of archaeology and the mental discipline of textual analysis.”
While the ancient mysteries are intriguing, the intricacies of the contemporary Middle East are just as compelling, and the students dig into that with equal gusto. Last spring, Overman’s students in his “Advanced Seminar on the Middle East Conflict” held regular videoconferences with their counterparts in Israel, a group of students at Tel Hai College’s Center for Peace and Democracy (see story below).
While at Omrit, Mac students joined Tel Hai students for a politically controversial film at the college and a discussion over pizza at the kibbutz. “We believe it’s a responsibility of people studying and doing research abroad to become part of the community,” says Overman. “Engaging with Tel Hai is an example of that.”
Over the years, Overman and others have hosted two Mideast Peace Summits at Macalester. Participants have included key figures in Middle East diplomacy including the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and, as moderator, former vice president Walter Mondale ’50.
Weekend field trips took students to other archaeological sites, as well as to contested areas of the West Bank including Ramallah, a Palestinian city six miles north of Jerusalem. “Israel and Palestine are not dangerous, but they are tense,” says Overman. “It’s good for students to know that people live every day with that tension.” In Jerusalem, the group met with Dalia Rabin, chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, and daughter of the man it honors.
The Omrit experience is equally significant to experienced scholars. A unique Roman temple complex, it casts light on the early Roman Empire and the reign of Herod, as well as on biblical history. Research suggests that Omrit may be the famous Caesarea Philippi mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, the place where Jesus is said to have renamed Simon, declaring in chapter 16: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church . . .”
“Andy discovered one of the most interesting Roman temples we have in Israel,” says Mordechai Aviam of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology, “a series of three temples, one inside the other. The team also made an important contribution to history and archaeology by identifying the second temple as the one built by King Herod the Great and dedicated to Augustus.
“Andy and his partners make good connections and friendships wherever they go, in Kibbutz Kefar Szold, the Regional Council, Tel Hai College, or with the Druze workers from the Golan [a minority community],” continues Aviam. “They’re moving ahead with great plans of reconstructing the temple and opening it for the public.”
Reconstructing and preserving the site, as well as providing tours and education to the public, will be crucial elements of future work at Omrit. Indeed, a condition of Macalester’s excavation license is that dig leaders arrange to stabilize the site and protect it from the elements. Roofs, walkways, and signage will be erected to make Omrit available to the public and other scholars. And that takes money.
“For 2,000 years cows walked across it,” says Overman. “For 60 years it was the site of war. As long as Omrit was buried, it was safe. Now the frescoes and stucco are exposed. We are responsible for keeping it safe from other humans and the elements. For starters, over the next year we’ll spend more than $100,000, from gifts already received, to stabilize this unique site and turn it into an educational site.”
Although cost estimates are still being secured, initial estimates for all phases of the stabilization project put it in the $1 million range. Project leaders and college administrators are beginning to explore possible sources of support, including individuals and foundations, in order to preserve this exceptional site. “At Omrit we have an almost fully preserved building,” says Overman, “a rare event in history.”
With careful oversight, Omrit will continue to be a treasure trove for archaeologists—and the place where a curious student uncovers an artifact with the potter’s fingerprint, sparking a connection across 2,000 years.
My Best Day at Omrit
The power of Omrit, the place and the epxerience, is readily apparent when you hear it straight from the students.
Grace Erny ’12 (Petaluma, Calif.): I was digging in what we called “the pit of despair” (because it’s about two meters down) when I found a piece of a lamp. I cleaned it up a little and could see a picture of a man with a beard. When Gaby [archaeologist Gabriele Mazor of the Israel Antiquities Authority] cleaned it more, you could see that the man had horns, so we realized it was the god Pan. I also found a lamp with the maker’s fingerprint on it. When you find things like that, you can really relate to the people who made them.
Joey Frankl ’14 (Wilmette, Ill.): It was a hot and gnat-filled day. We were all pretty miserable when we started doing sing-alongs. The rendition of “Piano Man” was especially good. Singing really brought us together.
Emily Prosch ’14 (Boulder, Colo.), Carthage College: We were just finishing up a trench by the early shrine when I looked in my dustpan and there was an unguentarium [a glass vial often used in ritual]. I was just troweling and it appeared. We found a total of eight unguentaria in that area. [Prosch attends Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This year the dig drew students and faculty from Carthage, Williams, and Queens Colleges, as well as from the University of Toronto, the University of Maryland, and Yale.]
Nora Kassner ’14 (Santa Barbara, Calif.): One of the best days was when Grace found a dedicatory inscription. It looked a bit like Braille because there were holes where the bronze letters were attached with pins; it’s hard to read. At field breakfast I was just sitting around—a sophomore— with these great professors discussing and trying to read the inscription.