Far from ‘Business as Usual’ at Tell es-Safi

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Pottery Washing: A temporary break from the tell didn’t mean a break in the work for the Safi volunteer crew. There’s always more pottery to wash!

By: Eric Welch, Sean W. Dever Memorial Excavation Fellowship Recipient

I spent the summer excavating at Tell es-Safi/Gath as a recipient of the Sean W. Dever Memorial Excavation Fellowship. It was a pleasant surprise to run into Sean’s father, Professor Bill Dever, at the Albright where we had the chance to catch up and discuss the excavations at Tell es-Safi. A few days later we were honored to host him when he visited the tell to tour the excavation areas.

This summer was far from “business as usual” at Safi. After a fairly normal start to the season, our second week was interrupted almost before it had started. On Monday, July 7, we were in the middle of listening to an evening lecture when the sirens at Kibbutz Revadim sounded. We hurried to the shelters and waited for the booms that would soon become the soundtrack of our excavation season. After taking two days off, the Safi team returned to the field where we were able to finish out our season safely.

At Tell es-Safi I oversee the excavations in Area F-Lower, the same area where I began as a volunteer in 2006. The centerpiece of F-Lower is the large fortification wall that was built in the Early Bronze Age and probably continued in use into the Iron II. This summer we focused on removing the remaining Iron I floors in the rooms behind the wall. With the latest pottery belonging to the Monochrome, or Philistine 1 style, these floors represent some of the earliest Philistine settlement at Tell es-Safi/Gath. Now, with 22 meters of wall exposed, we are completely in the Late Bronze Age behind the wall and prepared to moved deeper into another phase of the Late Bronze, or perhaps even the Middle Bronze.

The Area F staff and the Early Bronze fortification wall at Tell es-Safi/Gath.

The Area F staff and the Early Bronze fortification wall at Tell es-Safi/Gath.

Despite the complications brought about by the security situation, the Safi team made the best of the season. During our unscheduled days off the staff quickly put together mini-workshops for the volunteers. We had staff members teaching lessons in hieroglyphics, Philistine art, ceramic typology, and even a late afternoon yoga session. It wasn’t all fun and games though; anyone who has been on an excavation knows that there are plenty of small tasks that keep the project running. When we weren’t teaching or attending the mini-workshops, we were washing pottery or helping our registrar record and pack materials away. Ultimately, the morale was high this year, and I think most of the staff left feeling that the conclusion of 2014 season was one of the most enjoyable yet.

While the rockets themselves will probably be the thing that sticks with most people from 2014, my personal memories will be attached to moments of reflection I had because of the rockets. Standing on our wall in Area F and looking at the fresh smoke clouds from the Iron Dome over the coastal plain it occurred to me that I was excavating Safi’s major defensive system from 4,500 years ago while watching the most sophisticated defense system in the world protect Israel from the falling rockets. I was at a loss for words as I realized that even after advancing by 4,500 years, humans still need protection from each other.

Professor William Dever visits with Aren Maeir, Jeff Chadwick, and Eric Welch at Tell es-Safi.

Professor William Dever visits with Aren Maeir, Jeff Chadwick, and Eric Welch at Tell es-Safi.

As archaeologists we’re privileged to connect with the past in ways most people will never imagine; but at times, in the midst of the whole vessels or inscriptions sealed by the destruction layers we crave, we can take for granted the human element of war.

A prominent feature of Tell es-Safi is the massive 9th century destruction layer attributed to Hazael (2 Kgs 12:17). Despite excavating a site with almost total devastation across its tell and lower city, I had never taken the time to consider the emotional or psychological impacts of being under siege. This summer I was in a place to consider the emotions of a country at war. I couldn’t help but look out from the top of the tell and wonder what the ancient inhabitants of Gath thought as they looked down on the camp of Hazael, awaiting the inevitable. While my 2014 season didn’t produce any newsworthy finds, I think what I took away from the season has made me a better archaeologist and probably a better person. This summer reminded me that I’m not just digging walls or features. I’m digging a story—a story that had very real and very human characters.

Area F sits on the cliffs of Tell es-Safi/Gath, overlooking the coastal plain. The Early Bronze wall is the dominant feature of F-Lower.

Area F sits on the cliffs of Tell es-Safi/Gath, overlooking the coastal plain. The Early Bronze wall is the dominant feature of F-Lower.

Eric Welch is a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State in the joint program in History and Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies. He is currently a lecturer in the Jewish Studies program at the University of Kansas.

 

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