Raiders of the Lost Pot

So, it’s not exactly the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it’s not exactly much of anything—just a dirty shard of pottery the size of my big toe. But I found it. I had been scraping the floor of this Israeli cave when I spotted its sharp edge. I fished the piece out of the dirt and pushed on it, as instructed, to see if it crumbled. If it did, it was probably just the local limestone, which is as soft as a bar of soap. But my piece firmly resisted, so I brushed off the dirt until I could see smooth pottery, one side black, the other brick red. I’m the raider of the lost pot.

I hand it to my digging partner Ian Stern, the archaeologist in charge of this site. He glances at it and says, “Cooking pot. See the black part? That’s where it carbonized. Probably 2,200 years old, time of the Maccabees“—the Jewish heroes of the Hanukkah story. He tosses my shard into a plastic collection bucket. “That’s why this place is so great. It has instant gratification. There’s a biblical connection. There’s a Hanukkah connection. It takes it out of the realm of the abstract and makes it tangible. You can come here and dig up pottery from the time of Judah Maccabee. He fought a battle near here. Now, I’m not saying he ate out of that pot, but you see and hold this pottery, and he is not a fairytale figure anymore. He is real.”

I’ve spent much of the last year blogging the Bible for Slate,writing about reading the Good Book for the first time. Now I’ve come to Israel to see the Bible, to dig it. I’ve read the stories. Now I want to see where they happened and to learn if they happened—to experience the Bible through archaeology, history, politics, and faith.

That’s why I’m spending the day with Ian Stern. An American-born Israeli in his early 50s, Ian operates Dig for a Day, probably the biggest archaeology outreach program in the world. Every year, Stern’s dig here at Maresha is visited by 30,000 to 50,000 tourists—most of them American Jews. They do spadework for Stern’s academic research, get a hands-on crash course in archaeology, and experience their own history by digging in the dirt.

The Bible and archaeology are almost comically obtrusive in Israel. It’s a tiny, dense country that’s been settled, conquered, and resettled for 5,000 years, leaving history everywhere. Ian makes this vividly clear during our 45-minute drive down from Jerusalem. He has me pull off the road beside an unpromising pile of stones, which turns out to be ancient building foundations. Ian strides into one foundation, grabs a brush, and starts sweeping the dirt floor, revealing an elegant, daisy-fresh mosaic, the floor of the Roman inn that stood here 1,800 years ago. It’s like opening the door on a blind date and discovering it’s Kate Beckinsale. In America, this would be in a museum. Here, it doesn’t even rate a roof. Instead, Ian and I just sweep the dirt back to protect it from the elements. A few minutes later, as we’re driving through a small valley, not more than a couple football fields wide, Ian says, “This is the valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath.” He points out the western hill where the Philistine army and Goliath would have camped and the streambed where David would have collected five smooth stones for his slingshot—assuming, that is, that there ever was a David (probable), that he ever fought Goliath (possible, since Goliath’s name was found on a nearby pottery shard), and that Goliath was a giant “six cubits and a span” tall (highly unlikely).

As we approach Maresha/Bet Guvrin National Park, even my rookie eyes can spot where an ancient town once stood. There’s a hill that lacks the smooth roundish top that Mother Nature would prescribe. Instead, it’s squared off, like a Marine haircut, the result of centuries of human building. That is Tel Maresha, the oldest spot in the area. The park encompasses about 1,000 years of history, from the 2,800-year-old town on the hilltop, to the 2,200-year-old caves where Ian is digging, to an 1,800-year-old Roman city in the valley below.

Ian gives me a quick history of the site. Maresha plays a bit part in the Bible. According to the Book of Second Chronicles, Solomon’s son King Rehoboam of Judah fortified Maresha and neighboring towns as a bulwark against the Philistines. A century later, in the eighth century B.C., the Assyrians conquered the region during the invasion that wiped out the 10 northern “lost” tribes of Israel. The Babylonians took Maresha a century later, which probably was doomsday for the town’s Jewish population. Maresha rebounded and reached its heyday a couple of hundred years before the birth of Christ. By then dominated by Idumeans (“Edomites” in Bible-ese)—although perhaps with a Jewish minority—the town sided with Israel’s Hellenistic rulers against the Jewish Maccabean rebels. The Maccabeans won, and they took their revenge. Around 112 B.C., King John Hyrcanus, a particularly sadistic nephew of Judah Maccabee, ordered the non-Jews of Maresha to convert, leave, or be killed. (Here the Old Testament intersects with the New. Among those who chose to convert were the grandparents of Herod, the innocents-slaughtering king of the gospels. Herod was probably born at Maresha.)

Every ruin in Israel can tell a similarly dramatic story. What really makes Maresha extraordinary is what’s under our feet. Starting around 800 B.C., Mareshans began digging into the soft limestone bedrock to quarry rock for their homes. As they dug, they created bell-shaped underground caverns—thousands of them. According to Ian, who has been excavating here for 20 years, we are standing on an underground city: There are 170 cave systems, comprising 3,000 to 5,000 rooms. These caverns, protected from the desert heat, proved to be perfect workshops and storage spaces. Ian has found enormous olive presses, cisterns for water storage, and columbaria for raising turtledoves. He shows me the jaw-dropping Bell Caves, each 60 feet high and as big as a basketball court. (True cinephiles will remember that Sylvester Stallone rappelled down into them during Rambo III.) When early European explorers came to Maresha, they believed the Bell Caves verified stories in the Old Testament about giants living in the Promised Land. If only! Now we know that the caves weren’t dug until hundreds of years after those Bible books were written, and they were made by ordinary-sized men.

The combination of caves and John Hyrcanus’ forced conversion make Maresha an archaeological gold mine, or at least a pottery mine. At the time of Hyrcanus’$2 112 B.C. conquest, residents of Maresha dumped their possessions into their basement caves—filling them 10, 20, 30 feet high with detritus that has not been touched since. The Dig for a Day amateurs, like me, are essentially cleaning out an ancient garbage dump.

Ian and I clamber down a ladder into Cave System 169, which he and Dig for a Day have been excavating for seven years. Carrying flashlights, pickaxes, buckets, and hand shovels, we make our way to a far corner and start grubbing. In 15 minutes, I fill three buckets with dirt and find several pieces of bone and half a dozen pottery shards. (Pottery, Ian observes, is the plastic of the ancient world. It’s everywhere, and it’s impossible to destroy.) We tote our buckets up the ladder to the surface, where we shake our diggings through a screen, discovering a few more shards, including a piece of imported pottery, some charcoal, and a fragment of plaster. I’m embarrassed at how thrilled I am about our banal finds. I’m the first person to touch this potsherd in 100 generations! Though we’ve found nothing exciting, the Diggers for a Day routinely unearth genuine treasures. They’ve uncovered an ancient marriage contract (not Jewish!), coins, gold earrings, seals of kings, a stone phallus, and literally thousands of complete pottery vessels. (“The groups get incredibly excited when they find a whole pottery piece. I don’t tell them that we have boxes piled as high as the ceiling filled with complete pieces,” says Ian.)

Dig for a Day isn’t the only hands-on amateur archaeology in Israel. The Biblical Archaeology Society’s Find a Dig site offers more than 40 possible excavations. But most of these require minimum stays of several weeks. Dig for a Day is the light-speed way to dig the Bible. “We’re exposing more people to archaeology than any place in the world,” Ian says. “Over the 25 years we’ve been operating, I’d estimate that we have had about 1 million people come through and dig with us. Probably 20 percent of American Jews have experienced archaeology through us.”

After the dig, Ian takes me up on a ridge with a panoramic view, to show me the geography of the Bible. First, he points west to the coastal plain—the population center of modern Israel—”That’s where the Philistines and other sea peoples were.” Then he points east into the Judean hills. “That was the heartland of the ancient kingdom of Judah—Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.” Finally, he gestures to the north and south, along the line of foothills separating Judah from the coastal plain—showing me Maresha, Lachish, Moreshet Gat, and other ancient towns. These were the hilltop villages fortified by Rehoboam to protect his kingdom from the coastal enemy.

It’s a eureka moment for me. Suddenly, the wars of the Bible that made no sense on the page are perfectly comprehensible. The geography explains it all: On this side is the backward hill kingdom of Judah. On that side is the technologically advanced coastal kingdom of the Philistines. And here, in between them,is the fortress line that must not break. Standing on this ancient hilltop, looking over a landscape that has not changed much since the Book of Kings—well, discounting the Israeli army base a quarter-mile below—I can see the Bible more clearly than I read it. To my right, the mighty nations of the coast; to my left, a tiny tribal kingdom with only one god and the germ of a great civilization—the beginning of our world.