Campus News

Bowdoin Student Recounts Field Work in Israel

Story posted July 29, 2010

By Caitlin Clerkin '11

First, we dug — handpicks, hoes, picks, brushes, sieves, buckets, dirt. It was a 4 a.m. wakeup, two breakfasts and all, for about three and a half weeks.

caitlin clerkin at site
Caitlin Clerkin '11, stands by the remains of an ancient oven with a nearly complete cookingpot inside.

I'm a classical archaeology major at Bowdoin and I've just now returned stateside from working at the Tel Kedesh project in Israel's Upper Galilee for nearly two months. Tel Kedesh was my first dig, and, being a small project with a super friendly team, was a wonderful place to learn how archaeology is done.

I had been in a state of high excitement since October when I received funding from Bowdoin's Grua/O'Connell Research Award and a Faculty Scholar Grant to go to Israel over the summer to start research on my senior honors project focused on the ancient Phoenicians while on an archaeological project.

The site is in Israel's Upper Galilee, up near the Israel-Lebanon border. Historically, Tel Kedesh has been in kind of a fringe border-zone, which makes it particularly interesting for investigating cultural identity under changing political control. The project focuses on a Persian/Hellenistic Administrative Building in use about 5th to 2nd Century BC, which was reoccupied by "squatters" shortly after the building was abandoned around 140 BC.

The site has been under investigation since 1997, by Professors Sharon Herbert (of the University of Michigan) and Andrea Berlin (Boston University), and this was the last field season — half excavation and half study and analysis.

I assisted in pottery analysis in the study season: During excavation, we washed (literally sitting under a tree with buckets of water and scrubbing shards with brushes) all the pottery we pulled out of the dirt we sieved.

clerkin at pottery dump
Clerkin at the pottery dump pile.

During the study season, we sorted and counted the diagnostic shards — rims and bases of pottery that had been saved from all previous seasons — to determine what specific vessel shapes were represented in the recovered pottery, as well as approximate vessel counts. This data can be used to specify chronology as well as reveal more about how much and what kind of vessels were being used — cookware, table ware, storage jars, for example — and economic/trade information.

When I moved onto the diagnostic shard sorting I found that looking at a bit of rim, comparing it to a diagram, and imagining the rest of the shape so I could identify it, was, at first, simply mind boggling. But when it needs to get done, I discovered that you learn how to do it pretty fast, especially when you are working with particularly forgiving people who explain things well and are willing to teach a poor confused undergrad.

The team was mostly comprised of Ph.D. candidates and recent recipients, in addition to two other undergrads, two professional conservators, architect, artist, registrar, and two directors. We lived on the moshay, a sort of gated cooperative community of Ramot Naftali, at the Avitan Guesthouse, so the living conditions were pretty plush (we got fed good food — falafel on Fridays — and didnít have to hand wash our laundry).

Shabbat, Saturday, was our day off, thus Friday nights were traditionally dance party nights for the Kedesh crew. On Saturdays, we'd relax, read, go to the pool, and sometimes go to other sites or other towns if we were getting moshav-fever. As it has always been an important geographic and historical spot for human occupation, Israel has a crazy-large number of archaeological sites, and many are open to the visitors, so I got the opportunity to visit a few super interesting ones, including a very well preserved Roman town, an ancient synagogue with a mosaic floor, and a Crusader castle.

View from the site
A scenic vista from the Tel Kedesh site in Israelís Upper Galilee.

During excavation we worked with a crew of Druze workmen who work on archaeological projects all over the region. The Druze are a religious and cultural people who mostly live in Israelís Golan Heights, across the border in Syria, and in Lebanon, and I swear they are some of the friendliest people Iíve ever met. Hani, one of the Druze who worked in my trench, and I had a lot of fun as he taught me words in Hebrew and Arabic. Interestingly, for the first time, there were two young women working on the Druze crew, which is something no one at Kedesh had seen or heard of before.

There was something tremendously satisfying about watching the sunrise over the site and shine on the nearby orchards, about tearing the dirt off of a good plaster floor that has been covered for centuries, about holding a lamp, a piece of jewelry, or even a humble shard — knowing that someone held it before you. Working and researching for the summer in Israel helped confirm for me that I do indeed want to continue pursuing this classical archaeology thing in graduate school and probably as a career too.

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