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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Jamie Ponce
Summer 2001

The newest addition to my bedroom wall is a framed enlargement of a summer solstice sunrise. It's not the only photo on my walls, but this one is different ... and not only for the fact that I shot it at 4:30 am, Middle Eastern time. In that photo, light from a nearly-visible sun looms up from behind a cluster of tents and human silhouettes that could easily date back to the Early Iron Age. In fact, those silhouettes belong to twenty-first century, Early Silicon Age students in search of thirteen hundred year old artifacts atop an ancient, artificial mountain that was created over centuries as successive cultures built upon the ruins of previous civilizations. For me, as for the other students and professors who worked this summer at the archaeological excavation at Tel Bet Shemesh, this photo conjures up memories of earth-sifters and wheelbarrows, rhythmically chinking pickaxes on stone, and excavation grit grinding between our teeth. Zvi and Shlomo, our fearless Israeli directors, would excitedly exhort us to sweep, scrape, and sift with near-reckless abandon, on only one condition: we could never, under threat of being thrown off the dirt-dumping plateau in a wheelbarrow, commit the ever-tempting archaeological sin of digging holes out of stratigraphic sequence.

During the three weeks I spent at the Bet Shemesh excavation, I gained an appreciation for both the art and science of cultural archaeology in the Middle East, as well as for the art and science of getting out of my bed at Kibbutz Bet Guvrin in time to be swinging a pick axe before sunrise on the longest day of the year. My time in Israel provided an excellent introduction to archaeology, allowing me to personally explore Israel's social and political history through a head-, feet-, and hands-on approach. Although I'd studied some Biblical history before my travel to Israel, I had very little appreciation for the process by which scholars construct that history from the evidence left by ancient peoples. Daily field work, readings, travel throughout Israel, and lectures from leading Middle Eastern archaeologists exposed us students at Tel Bet Shemesh to some of the many facets of ancient history, nation building, and archaeological technique. As scholars and excavators in our own right, we worked alongside Israeli professors to reconstruct Iron and Late Bronze Age Canaanite, Israelite, and Philistine culture. Though it was often difficult to grasp the how our work fit into the bigger picture of historical schemes and international excavation, my struggle to find a larger context for the pottery shards, arrowheads, flint blades, ash pits, and iron hearths found at the dig was intellectually and personally rewarding.

In addition to the work I did at Tel Bet Shemesh, study abroad gave me the opportunity to tour cultural and archaeological sites throughout Israel. During the dig, my fellow novice archaeologists and I explored ruins at Qumran, Beer Shave, Bet She'an, Megiddo, Masada, Caesarea, and Tel Arad on journeys that included Jerusalem, the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Negev Desert. Following the dig, I was able to travel on my own to neighboring Jordan and Egypt, where I built upon my excavation experience and exploration. Literally and figuratively, I only scraped the surface of sociopolitical evolution in the Middle East, but this summer's travel and study gave me a unique and invaluable introduction to ancient history, the science of archaeology, and regional politics.

Not only did the excavation open my eyes, ears, and mind, to another time and civilization, but it was especially important to have studied in Israel during this particular season despite (and because of) social and political struggles in the region. I found the relationship between ancient history and modem Middle Eastern politics incredible, and I'm particularly grateful for having had the opportunity to bear witness to the region's ongoing violent social conflict. Because of the government's involvement with archaeological exploration and archaeology's dependence on international volunteers at Israeli excavation sites, not even remote digs were spared the political posturing that characterizes Middle Eastern life.

I highly recommend this experience to students who have a passion for cultural or political history, who are willing to work long hours, and who can live in a close community with other volunteers. Enthusiasm more than makes up for a lack of previous archaeological experience.