I spent the month of July participating in an archaeological dig in Akko, Israel. Here’s the circle of life in photographs:
We opened the excavation by removing the sandbags placed at the end of last year’s season.
Then we were assigned a 5 X 5 meter square, with approximately four people to a square. From that point, we spent the month-long season sweeping dirt.
Sweeping dirt off the Tel meant literally using a handbroom and a dustpan. Sometimes we had to supplement this dirt sweeping with a pick ax and trowel.
While sweeping, we removed large pieces of pottery sherds, bone, and shell, separating them into baskets. Whole vessels were rarely found (rare find in photo).
Instead we were just looking for fragments.
Then we took all collected dirt to a sifter and looked for smaller fragments.
Then we took the sifted dirt and made sandbags.
At the end of the day we carried the baskets of pottery sherds down the hill. We soaked the pottery in water then cleaned the pieces with small brushes.
The pottery lab determined which pieces they wanted to keep, piecing them together. (Note: this was a photo taken from the lab the single time I was in there for a tour – I was not involved with this process.)
Then in the morning there were buckets of cleaned pottery for us to take back to the Tel, so we could discard the pieces the pottery lab wasn’t interested in. There seemed to be an awful lot of cleaned pottery returned to the Tel every day.
At the end of the season, we had created 2,700 sandbags and we stacked them around the squares, so that next year the circle can start all over again.
In summary, I spent my summer vacation carefully sweeping dirt from a 5 X 5 meter square and putting it into a sandbag. Then I put the sandbag of dirt back into the square. I also carried pottery down a hill, carefully cleaned dirt off of this pottery, then put the cleaned pottery back on the hill.
On weekends, we got to visit other excavations who found more intense artifacts than what we were finding.
Here are excerpts from my final paper, where I tried not to emphasize the fact that I never again wanted to look at the archeological finds of others, not even in an air-conditioned museum, ever again for as long as I may live:
Having no prior experience with archaeology short of watching Indiana Jones films, I effectively had a crash course in the subject in July 2016 when I flew into Tel Aviv, rode a bus to Akko, and participated in the 7th season of a 15-year archeological dig. The entire region has a rich history, but Akko, located in a natural bay on the Mediterranean Sea, was an especially important trading station throughout much of its 5,000-year history. Old city Akko sits directly on the sea and is a living, thriving city filled with inhabitants. Parts of the old city, such as the surrounding wall, a Turkish Hammam, and the Crusader city, have been excavated and preserved. Most of the city, however, is unable to be excavated because families live and work on top of the old settlements.
The site of our archaeological dig was Tel Akko, which is a few kilometers east from the old city. A “Tel” is defined simply as a mound, an urban space, or an artificial accumulation of artifacts. Upon first glance, Tel Akko appears to be a large, uninhabited hill covered in dirt and loose vegetation with a paved walking path encircling it. From the top of the Tel one can see a clear view of the Mediterranean Sea and can imagine the important role this location would have played during the city’s history. It is quite fortunate that the Tel is now uninhabited and we are able to conduct a thorough archeological dig on top of the area.
Archeologists attempt to reconstruct the history of the people that either inhabited an area or shaped it’s history by collecting data in the form of artifacts, architecture, observations, soil, bones, and shells. The Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project (Tel Akko TAP) is comprehensive in scope, taking a holistic approach to archaeology by incorporating excavation, pedestrian survey, 3-D modeling, conservation efforts, and public outreach to create an all-encompassing view.
It is important to note that the Tel Akko TAP is not the first excavation of Tel Akko. Between 1973-1989, M. Dothan led a 12-season excavation of the Tel and much of our digging is a result of Dothan’s initial excavations. The difference is in improved technology and stringent standards of preservation and recording that were not as critical during the 1970s and 1980s. Dothan’s team were not entirely accurate in their measurements or their documentation. In a hurry to get down to deeper lawyers, for example, Dothan blazed through strata using the assistance of a bulldozer, which is unacceptable by today’s archeological standards. Though the head archaeologist in the Tel Akko TAP, A. Killebrew, explained it was easier to begin excavating in a new region, as opposed to trying to piece together parts of a sloppily recorded previous excavation, she is heading this project due to a felt responsibility to properly preserve and record. By following Dothan’s previous notes and expanding his excavation, Killebrew believes we may be able to better place his findings in proper context.
Previous seasons revealed significant evidence that Akko was inhabited beginning in the Early Bronze I period (ca. 3300–3000 B.C.) and into the Hellenistic period (320–30 B.C.). With a great number of imported artifacts found throughout the Dothan and TAP excavations, Akko appears to have been a major player in the economic and maritime trade market.
The section, TT1, where I primarily worked was excavated for the first time on this project, trying to retrace Dothan’s previous findings. His notes stated that he had encountered many pieces of iron slag, believing that he was in the vicinity of a slag pit, so our section was drawn to encompass both his previous working section and a little further east, toward where the slag pit was thought to be situated. We did not find the abundance of slag we had been expecting and the square was off to a very slow start find-wise, however, in the end, TT1 revealed itself to be a very interesting section.
Though squares are typically five meters by five meters, TT1 was drawn five meters by approximately three meters, to avoid the paved path encircling Tel. The path cuts directly through TT1, so we stopped several centimeters short of the path, choosing a somewhat artificial cutoff based on the visual distance from the walking path, as carving our area too close to the path could be dangerous for those on an afternoon bike ride or walk through the Tel.
Square TT1 rested on a slope, so our initial measurements were as follows: Northeast 32.10 meters, Northwest 31.82 meters, Southeast 31.75 meters, and Southwest 30.99 meters. We began collecting what we believed to be top soil in our first locus, labeled 2824, beginning July 7, where we dug for three days, breaking the ground with a pick ax and scraping the dirt into buckets with a trowel. In the squares at Tel Akko, pottery sherds tend to be abundant, but there was a surprising lack of pottery in TT1.
When we dug down approximately 30 centimeters, the soil started feeling a bit different. It was less compact, sitting looser underneath the fill/top soil layer. On July 12, we opened a second locus: 2828, continuing until July 15, and we removed an additional 70 centimeters, taking our total section down approximately one meter. On July 14, we found an empty Doritos bag in locus 2828 with a 2007 expiration date and markings celebrating Passover 2007. The paved trail was completed at the end of 2006, so we were able to determine that the layer we had been digging through was not top soil, but was actually fill left over from the trail’s construction. This explained the alarmingly small amounts of pottery we had been finding and the decision was made to collapse this new locus 2828 into the original locus 2824, as both were from the same fill area.
Additionally, the pottery we found tended to be concentrated on the east side, almost coming out of an unseen wall that ended exactly at our artificial cutoff point, stopping short of the paved path. By July 18, Killebrew decided to push the boundary of our square back an additional 50 centimeters to the east, toward the path. We excavated this new layer for a day and finally we began seeing an abundance of material. That extra 50 centimeters was no longer fill, and instead we opened three new loci. There seemed to be three distinct areas within our very small working area. The north locus was 2854, the south locus was 2857, and between the two there was a large stone accumulation, causing a distinct separation and it was where I primarily excavated, locus 2858.
The most interesting of these sections was certainly the south locus, 2857, and we had a number of special finds in this area. We found two handles, one on July 18 and one on July 20, that came from distinctly different vessels but bore the same stamp of Greek letters: AE. This could indicate mass production, a regional stamp, a creation from the same potter, or the identity of the material inside the vessel. Additional special finds in this southern most region include two basalt grindstones found on July 22 and July 25, a fancy 4th century Hellenistic import pottery found on July 22, and a small sickle blade found on July 21.
Cutting back the extra 50 centimeters toward the walking trail transformed TT1 into a very interesting square, with a lot going on in such a small area. There was certainly a surface on the southern most tip of the square and a potential surface on the northern end. These two sections were separated by a large pile of rocks right in the middle. On July 25, after it was determined the rocks were not part of a structure, we systematically removed them by loosening the dirt around them and allowing them to fall. We wanted to see what was beneath the stones to determine if the northern and southern ends were indeed connected. By this point in the dig, we were at 100% sifting and I found modern plastic and glass in the dirt surrounding the stones, solidifying our speculations that the large rock pile was part of a dump site.
Blah blah blah… mud, mud brick, and beaten earth… blah blah blah…
After fully clearing away the stones in the center of the additional 50 centimeters on July 26, it seemed the northern and southern ends of the square were unconnected. However, something very interesting emerged. When we initially began opening up the additional part of our section, we had stopped at what seemed to be simply a dirt floor in the rest of our square. But after several days of sweeping, we had inadvertently shaved a few centimeters off of this layer and we were looking at a plaster and kurkar floor. The surface that we saw in the southernmost part of the square definitely continued into additional areas of the square. By the time we ended the season’s excavation, there was a distinct surface spread out over about a meter of our section on the southern end.
Blah blah blah… We learned that one of the bones in our sample came back as a single-humped cow that was not indigenous to the area. These type of cows were similar to camels and required less water to sustain them, so they were most likely around during times of economic hardship. Additionally, we found two left jawbones of what turned out to be full-grown dogs laying on top of one another… blah blah blah…
Archaeology involves more tedious and detailed work than what is featured in the Indiana Jones films. In reality it is a lot less glamorous and requires a team of people spending dedicated and concentrated time piecing together the pottery and completing the story with soil, bone, shell, and artifact analysis. Those who attended this dig tended to be very passionate about the process and embraced the work required to understand what exactly we were looking at. Though I tended to enjoy the modern luxuries of present-day old city Akko, like the hummus and Hammam, more than the actual process of digging and excavating, it was thrilling to be around so many passionate people. I shall certainly never look at the archeological findings in a museum in the same way again.