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Buried Treasure: Past vs. Future

By Laura Ben-David

The landscape changed quite suddenly. Out of the blue, my sister Hindy’s Ramat Bet Shemesh neighborhood of stone-faced duplexes, synagogues and schools sported a huge, white tent-like structure on a hill near her house. Puzzled, we imagined it was for a big bar-mitzvah or the like. We were astonished to discover that in fact it was the site of an archaeological salvage-dig being done in advance of developing that hill.

Despite our surprise, archeological surveys prior to development are rather common in a land that has seen ‘settlement activity’ for millennia. After all, once a parking lot or a building complex goes up, whatever’s been buried until now will stay buried. And there are so many rich treasures in this land just waiting to be unearthed.

With all the rumors we heard about the Ramat Bet Shemesh dig, (possible graves? Besides for the problems a cohen – or Jewish ‘priest’ - would have being in proximity to a grave, nobody wants their house built on top of graves. Think “Poltergeist”...) we were all completely astounded to find out that a relatively large Hasmonean-era village was discovered there! We’re not talking a few artifacts; this is a heavy-duty 2000+ year-old archeological site with multiple dwellings, Herodian remains, ritual baths, a wine press, even a First-Temple era house!  What was even more astonishing – unthinkable, even – is the fact that there are plans to cover over or even annihilate the site to make way for something new. They call it progress. I call it total insanity.

In the meantime, volunteers have been invited to come in groups to help recover as much as possible. Hindy and I didn’t hesitate in deciding to be part of that effort. There may be archeological remains all over the country, but to suddenly discover a whole Hasmonean village right in your backyard? Our very own ancestors may have dwelled in those houses. (In fact, statistical probabilities indicate they were somehow our ancestors…) There was no question that we would get our hands dirty and in fact we were quite determined to be super amateur-archeologists and be the ones to dig up the most valuable finds yet.

We found out that “Hindy and I” did not constitute a valid group so we had to solicit some strangers to join us. On the designated day, with two and a half month-old Maya strapped on, we arrived at the site bright and early, and ready to rock. Well, ready to dig into rock. We happily entered the fenced-in area with the “Danger! Do Not Enter” sign, and were amazed to discover that the site, which we’d seen countless times from the street, was in fact much bigger than we’d imagined. A myriad of stone walls, structures and dwellings had been unearthed in the ground where we stood. Sandbags, cordons, rocks and wheelbarrows dotted the area, protecting and designating the various structures and findings. A dozen or so workers and volunteers were working in various areas in twos and threes. A smaller tent in the back held the supplies and the growing collection of artifacts that had been found.

The archeologist in charge took one look at Maya and apologized, but told us that the insurance only covered adults, and Maya would have to leave. Crestfallen, we racked our brains for a solution. We were too psyched to do this, and didn’t know if another chance would come. Luckily Hindy’s husband was available to watch Maya. We trotted home, put her in for a nap, and came back with full spirits. Of course the “group” we had organized was already deeply involved in their work, while we had no clue what to do.

Ilan, the foreman came to our rescue. He took one look at us and said, “Oh good – you’re both small. You can do something much more interesting.” We were thrilled though I’m not sure what made us happier – getting assigned to something “much more interesting”, or being called “small”.

Ilan brought us over to a hole that had been dug in the ground. It was somewhat round, about three feet deep by three feet wide and partially lined by a wall of huge rocks which had clearly been there since ancient times. He sent us to the equipment lady for our supplies, including helmets to protect our heads, in case the wall of huge rocks holding up our hole decided to come crashing down. The equipment lady was more than a bit surprised that we needed helmets. I said that Ilan had assigned us to something “much more interesting.” She gave me a look that I’ll take as impressed, though it may have been merely amused.

Ilan instructed us to dig into and break up the packed dirt in our little hole, shovel it up into buckets, then sift it for artifacts such as pottery shards, coins and bones. We were so excited about having a special spot that the fact that it was a microscopic pit, and by the time we crouched down and folded ourselves into it we barely had room to actually dig, was irrelevant. After all, it was our own exclusive place to dig, and we expected to find a huge cache of – well – something, at least.

Of course, it didn’t matter what we discovered. There we were sitting in the dirt – in fact quite covered by a layer of dirt – digging into it with a trowel, a shovel, even our bare hands. We were honestly excited by every shard and fragment we found. We imagined each fragment as a part of a vessel used by our forebears more than 2000 years ago. It was so powerful a feeling that we only wanted to dig deeper and find more.

Every time we picked something up, we’d examine it carefully to decide if it was a keeper for our official bucket, or just a rock.  One item I was carefully examining turned to dust in between my fingers. That one didn’t make it to our bucket… We each thought we had found something really valuable but my ‘find’ was just Hindy’s partially buried hammer and hers was the toe of my partially buried sneaker. Good thing she caught herself before trying to hammer my foot out.

By about 10 AM we had 3 buckets full of dirt, next to our own wheelbarrow, ready to sift. Suddenly the foreman blew a whistle and all of the paid workers dropped everything to take their lunch break. We didn’t think much of it. Nor had we packed lunch. But when we got up to sift we found that the workers were sitting right near our wheelbarrow. We figured they’d be done shortly, so we kind of bided our time. They didn’t budge. So we headed over to the sifter and glanced over at them and at the sifter, but they ignored us. Finally we just blurted out, “Do you mind?” To which they all kind of looked at us with “You must be joking” clearly on their faces. We just sidled back to our little hole and patiently waited for the next whistle to blow.

Finally the workers went back to work and it was time to sift what we’d dug up. We’d been surprised to note that the sifter was this huge wooden frame with 4 handles around a screen. (Yes, we’d somehow imagined it more like a flour sifter.) Hindy and I took turns shaking the fine dirt through the screen in the heavy, bulky sifter so that we could carefully sort through the remaining rocks and debris for fragments. Sifting was really hard work. After we’d done countless siftings Ilan showed us how it was actually a two-man job. Duh…

As we had no one nearby to compare ourselves to and had never done this before, we confidently believed our pace to be swift, and our finds – nothing more significant than a three-inch shard of pottery – to be amazing. I can only imagine what the people who found pottery handles, even nearly intact items must have felt. It was also a truly bonding experience. Not only did my sister and I really bond with each other, but we bonded with history by connecting with our deep heritage in this remarkable land.

The signs of the vibrant life that existed at this site more than two millennia ago was tangible everywhere you looked. It is impossible to imagine that this ancient village of our ancestors is on the chopping block to make way for ‘progress’. These remains should be preserved. Perhaps they can build an archeological park. By simply installing paths, gardens, benches and trees they will succeed in incorporating the past with the future. And in turning a buried treasure into a rich testament to our heritage.
© 2010, Laura Ben-David   
Laura Ben-David is the author of numerous articles and the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a humorous chronicle of her family’s move to Israel. For more from Laura Ben-David see her blog at http://www.aliyahbook.com .

 

To volunteer you must fill out an AA volunteer questionnaire and submit it
beforehand by fax.  You can download the Hebrew version here
http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/volunteer_questionnarie_heb.pdf, or the
English version here
http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/volunteer_questionnarie.pdf.  
 
Anyone who works with students might want to organize more than a small
group. Volunteers on this dig must be at least 16-years-old.

To make arrangements to participate, contact Meyrav Shay at the IAA at
620-4672 or 052-428-4366. She will then put you in touch with the
archaeologist at the site.