Religious Studies News

16 Jun


Joseph | June 16th, 2012

Bethsaida has been laborious—no doubt about that! But a few days ago, we were rewarded with a demonstration in pottery “reconstruction” that really highlighted the end product(s) of our collective efforts. In most archaeological scenarios, we all spend hours under the sun collecting what oftentimes seem like very random pieces of history—pottery shard, after pottery shard, after still more pottery shards. Though a keen imagination can visualize the once active lives of such material history, it is nonetheless helpful to see some of the completed clay puzzles come back to life before our eyes.

After our second to last day on the dig, we were taken to Ginosar’s museum basement for a lessen pottery resurrection. Here is a table full of random shards, rims, and handles—a ceramic puzzle desperately in need of being put back together again:


It looks daunting and intimidating, but we must start somewhere. If you look closely, here are two pieces that obviously fit, and just to make sure, temporary white chalk lines are drawn to mark their relationship:


Then, apply a little old-fashioned Elmer’s glue (for if there is a mistake, or if excess squeezes out from the cracks, it is water soluble and can be cleaned up easily!):


After the application of a little bit of tape in strategic areas, as well as some small clamps if necessary, shapes, once missing, begin to reappear. Here you can see early stages in process, and a once jumbled mess begins to be reconfigured:


After a short workshop, in which various student-workers took a shot at these processes, we were all led to a room just stuffed with the finished pieces. As you can see, here is just a sample of jugs, jars, cooking pots, casserole dishes, and oil lamps. For those who’ve been digging now for days, this is definitely a sight for sore eyes (and sore bodies!). It really gives us all a feel for what will become, if not years down the line, our our excavations:


Lastly, here is one of the prized possessions of the Bethsaida collection, affectionately called the “Jesus Jug.” Please allow your mind to consider the possibilities!


with just one day left to dig, we were all given a short poem—a little bit of inspiration—that I’d like to share with our readers. The print is small, but please take the time to view it closely if you can—for it beautifully summarizes the sentiments of why this whole endeavor takes place. It is called, “At an Archaeological Site”:


Alex Snow

16 Jun

Phase III, the final phase of our trip. Today we leave Bethsaida, and travel on to Jerusalem. Along the way, however, we will be making stops at the Dead Sea, Masada National Park, and at least in passing, the caves at Qumran.

Here you can see the lowest point on planet Earth—the Dead Sea:


Located hundreds of meters below sea level, it’s salinity levels reach upwards of 30%, significantly more than most ocean bodies. However, it is also in danger, as modern projects like the damming of the Jordan river have drastically lowered water levels, leaving Israel and neighboring countries concerned about its future viability. Nonetheless, its striking landscape begins to paint a much different geographical image than the northern environs we’ve been exploring for the past several weeks.

Though our end goal of the day is the holy city of Jerusalem, our trek will take us through major aspects of Jewish history, culture, and religious identity. The overwhelming star attraction of this journey is the hill fortress of ancient Masada, officially named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. According to myth, legend, and historical data, Masada represents the final stand for Jewish Freedom fighters against the Romans in the 1st century CE. It’s eventual destruction puts an exclamation on the end of the Kingdom of Judea—and it has since transformed itself into a symbol of Jewish resistance and the continued human struggle for freedom from oppression. Here you can see the stark and barren beauty suited so well for a fortress, rising majestically a full 450 meters above the Dead Sea:


Recording the events of the siege around 73-74 CE, Josephus Flavius tells a tragic story. A Roman legion of approximately 8000 troops eventually battled and battered their way to the top of the mountain against less than 1000 members of the Jewish community. Knowing that their choice was either death or slavery, Eleazer Ben Yair convinced his people that suicide was better than living in shame and humiliation. Though impossible to prove for sure, they apparently “drew lots” for the awesome responsibility of executing the families of men, women, and children. Here is an image of inscribed pottery shards (ostraca) that some scholars believe marks this momentous occasion:


There’s so much more to Masada, including a brief 5th century occupation by Byzantine monks, but I will leave the rest to your own research, and a reminder of the iconography such events can inspire and create:


Israel can indeed be a rough and rugged place. Upon leaving Masada, we found ourselves driving through the barren hills of the Desert Fathers. Though we did not have the time to stop at the caves of Qumran (where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found), here are a couple of snapshots that will give you a feel for this harsh and infamous environment:



After driving for a hour or so, and with many of my travel companions nodding off for heat-induced naps, we approached the outskirts of Jerusalem for the first time. Here is a lucky shot I took upon coming out of a tunnel—an oh-so-brief and tantalizing view of a city too rich in heritage to fully encapsulate by camera—but nonetheless, there stands the glittering brilliance of the Dome of the Rock, a prescient portent to the final days to come:


We all checked in to our final destination before coming home. It is late, and we are tired—“good tired” as my favorite folk singer Harry Chapin used to say. After dinner I sat quietly with my wife, looking out over the Jerusalem night-scape, wondering what the final couple of days might bring. I can’t share with you my thoughts, but his is what I could see from my balcony perch:


Good night for now,
Alex Snow

15 Jun

Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

Carl | June 15th, 2012

Shalom my friends!

Yesterday afternoon, we finally arrived in Jerusalem—the last leg of our journey throughout Israel. It has been quite the experience!

On our trip to Jerusalem, we stopped at Masada, the Jewish fortress perched high above the desert near the shores of the Dead Sea. This fortress, originally built by Herod the Great at the beginning of the First Century CE as a fortress to defend the territories against invaders. Among the ruins of the fortress are palaces, garrisons, churches, and other buildings. In 73CE, three years after the destruction of The Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Romans laid siege to the fortress. It was the last hold out against them in the region. It took nearly a year for the Romans to penetrate the fortress walls; they were only able do so when by building a ramp up to the city walls, and endeavor that ended more than a year after it began.

Remnants of frescoes in the palace at Masada.
The ramp the Romans built to access the fortress.

When the Romans finally entered the city, they found that all of the Jews living and fighting there—save a few women and children—had committed mass suicide rather than be subjugated by the Romans.

After our arrival and check-in in Jerusalem, we quickly showered and dressed for Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Center. In all honestly, this was the most difficult experience of the trip. The museum detailed a history of anti-semitism, the rise of Nazism in Germany, Germany’s eventual extermination projects, and Germany’s defeat by Allied Forces. The sadness of the atrocities committed against the Jews mixed with anger at the world’s initial inaction moved all of us to tears at some time or another; for me, it was the Hall of Names. The Hall of Names is a large circular room filled with catalogues of names of Holocaust victims. Imagine this somber place juxtaposed with the hopeful sound of children singing the Hatikva—Israel’s national anthem, a song of hope and joy. Though the museum is heartbreaking, it is also inspirational. It reminds us of the destructiveness of hate, the power of love, and that we must never let it happen again.

We ended our day with a wonderful Italian dinner and plenty of laughs at a restaurant near our hotel—a pleasant recovery from Yad Vashem.

Look for more stories of our travels as we finish our trip!

Until next time,

11 Jun


Joseph | June 11th, 2012

Today’s blog entry will be a “rapid report.” After a much needed and restful weekend, complete with multiple dips into the relaxing waters of the Galilee, we resumed digging. We’ve made a lot of progress over the past six days, and now we’re starting to see some more results. Here you see dedicated WVU student diggers—Heather Hill, Chris Peterson, and CJ Rice—continuing their excavations outside the eastern edge of the city walls:


If you, the reader, have in fact been scrupulous in your observations over the past week, you should notice a new member to our team. There in blue, sitting in the middle, is WBOY’s very own Stacy Jacobson. In case you’re skeptical, here’s a close-up, complete with pick axe in hand, water bottle nearby, and hat to shelter her from the scorching sun.


Everyone should follow Stacy’s reports and blogs as she finishes the week with us—helping to complete our work here at Bethsaida and continuing on to the Dome of the Rock and Western Wall in Jerusalem, just to name a few. Check her out at’s “Special Reports” section, as well as her page at Facebook.

We had a couple more “special finds” today. Below you see Dr. Alyssa Beall carefully picking through an area which revealed what we all tentatively believe is an Assyrian spear point!


Unfortunately, I’ll have to apologize for not getting more specific photos, but the finds were quickly whisked away to those who take care of such ancient treasures. Hopefully I can provide them in a couple days, after the pieces been cleaned and classified. Until then, allow me to entice you with this beautiful piece of Hellenistic pottery displaying a wonderful Dionysian celebration!


Alex Snow

11 Jun

Mountaineer Media Days at the Dig

Aaron | June 11th, 2012

Although it was Monday and we needed to get back in the swing of things, today was a busy one for the WVU group. In addition to some great finds (ancient Iron Age arrow heads) we were joined by an NBC reporter from WBOY in Clarksburg, WV. Stacy Jacobson is an energetic, creative reporter (who sometimes anchors as well), and she will be joining us for the remainder of the trip to chronicle the WVU experience. We are excited to have her join us!

Stacy was already hard at work this morning organizing stories, shots, and interviews. Here is a picture of Stacy on the job:
Stacy Jacobson

In addition to the reports from the field on this blog (which also rolls to Facebook and Twitter), Stacy will be blogging and tweeting and for WBOY as well. Also, stay tuned for reports from Stacy on WBOY TV once the trip concludes.

Finally, there are other film crews that have visited the site as well. There is an Israeli film crew shooting a documentary on Bethsaida, and FOX News was on-site today to shoot some footage of the WVU group for an upcoming documentary on Jesus. Guess who they want to interview next week? Hint: one of the people is me! More about that later, but for now I will close with a quick archaeology lesson: if are digging and you see 3 or more rocks all in a straight line, it could indicate a human-made structure. Interesting, huh?

Aaron Gale

9 Jun


Joseph | June 9th, 2012

I’ve officially finished my first week of work at a professional archaeological dig. I’ve experienced many things: the surprise and horror of an alarm clock intruding itself upon my blissful slumber at 5 am; watching from the bus in slightly awed silence as the brilliant orange sun rises over the Sea of Galilee; arriving to my dig pit clean and un-sweaty, knowing full well that that would come to an abrupt end all of about 5 minutes later; and then settling in, physically and emotionally, to a hard day’s work that leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment not always found within the academic halls of my normal life.

I remember my years of working construction many moons ago—and I recall how much time one has in one’s own head while performing repetitive, manual labor. It’s no different now. With pick axe in hand, chipping away at 3000 years of compacted dirt, occasionally striking a hidden, embedded boulder bigger than my head (some of you may know how impossible that may seem) so hard that the vibrations shake me from limb-to-limb, I find myself asking certain questions: Am I getting anything done? Will I ever see the fruits of my labor? Has my work helped, in any significant way, those who’ve made Bethsaida their life and their love? Will I ever do this again? The answers to such questions do not come easily or simply, but I’d like to hope in the affirmative.

Today my mentor, Dr. Gale, introduced me, with a slight bit of humor, to the world of “middle-management,” otherwise known here as “area supervisor.” Early next week, as he attends to other pressing issues, he will hand the keys of Area A-East over to me, if only metaphorically and ever-so-briefly. Nonetheless, as he as described in a previous blog, I will try my hand at the arts of drawing maps, recording finds, taking readings, and generally pretending to be the leader in this situation that I’m not. Here’s to hoping my compatriots are loyal, and that no strategic coup overthrows my oh-so-temporary reign of imagined importance.

As it is the end of the first week, we all participated in a bit of old-fashioned “show-and-tell.” As previous blogs have attested, there are approximately 5 different dig sites going on simultaneously at Bethsaida, and today was the first time all week I’d had the opportunity to see what other teams were working on. I wondered: would their sites be cooler than ours? Would they have accomplished more? Found more? Or, would I see similar struggles with dirt and stone that we had encountered at ours? The answers to all those questions—yes! But nonetheless, it was fascinating to hear about their work, the stories of their finds, the speculations and theories as to the origins of their scattered remains, etc. In the end, it leaves me confident that we are indeed adding to the legacy of this once thriving community.

As I now sit back at the Kibbutz hotel, a bit more at ease with the knowledge of a relaxing weekend ahead (maybe even a nice dinner out in Tiberius!), I’d like to provide a few summary photos of the past week’s finds—inspiration for heading back out on Monday morning:

A 10th – 8th century BCE Scarab Seal


A Roman Era Nail


A Flint Knife and Core from the Iron Age



And a Hellenistic Pottery Shard


Have a fantastic Weekend!
Alex Snow

7 Jun

I’m still digging at Bethsaida after eight years. Some people think I’m a little “out there” to keep coming back to the desert heat, dirt, and dust year after year to volunteer on an archaeological dig. And in the hopes of finding what? More pottery (if that’s even possible!)? Fame and fortune (I doubt it)?

Here is a picture of me (way back in 2008) working on the engineering at the site.
Dr. Gale

Admittedly, part of the reason I come back year after year are my students. I enjoy watching the wondrous expressions on their faces as they discover new things in Israel each summer. But selfishly, there is more to it than that. Quite frankly, I don’t enjoy getting up at 4:30am in the morning, or feverishly gulping water all day in the hopes that I don’t pass out from heat stroke. On the other hand, I’m somehow drawn to Bethsaida each summer for many reasons. I feel like I’m part of a family (albeit a sometimes seemingly dysfunctional one), and that I’m part of a team that is on a mission to uncover history. And seeing the different volunteers (and some of the same ones) each year is, well, interesting unto itself.

I began eight seasons ago as a volunteer, and I spent much of the dig that year moving boulders. Eventually, I learned more about how a dig works until one summer Dr. Arav told me that I was now going to be an area supervisor in the A-East section of the dig. My first thought was, “How cool, a field promotion!” Then I began to ask myself, “What the heck does an area supervisor do anyway”?

Well, I soon learned that a supervisor does many things, including keeping daily logs, drawing maps, fixing broken equipment, taking elevations and doing other engineering work, instructing diggers, assisting other areas, etc. Interestingly, a 21st century archaeological dig is a fascinating mix of old-fashioned hand work integrated with an ever growing influx of technology. Let me give you an example:

Here is a picture of a daily sheet (or diary, as it is called), containing information about what each of my groups are doing every day. Alongside of it is a picture of a laptop computer data entry page. Both the hand sheets and the computer data are used side-by-side to help give the dig directors a clear picture of the entire archaeological site, including significant findings, roads, walls, gates, etc.
Bethsaida Daily Sheet Bethsaida Computer Entry

More probably goes on at an archaeological dig than people realize. Personally, even though I may now be considered “middle management,” I still love the raw nature of the work that goes on at an archaeological site. And Bethsaida, in some ways, has become a kind of summer home for me.

Alright, alright, I confess that there is a part of me that is dying to discover something earth-shattering like a snippet from one of the apostles’ diaries or an ancient stone monument dedicated to an Egyptian pharaoh who was passing through the region. I’m human, you know? But in the bigger puzzle that is Bethsaida, I’d like to think that I’m adding at least one tiny piece to it each summer.

Aaron Gale

6 Jun

This is How We Do It...

Joseph | June 6th, 2012

I’d like to give our loyal readers as much of a visual feel for what we’re actually doing as possible. Upon returning to Bethsaida, our first job was a little old-fashioned gardening. As other bloggers have noted (Beth Warnick), this was not necessarily what we expected! As you can see, our site was profusely overgrown with very green weeds. However, after much pulling and tugging, we were able to reduce our whole site to its rocky and dirty glory. Here you have the barren product of our labor:



After constant checking and verifying from maps of digs from past seasons, next comes plotting out the loci: 5 X 5 meter squares in which we carefully map out our progress. Here you see Dr. Gale, long time kibbutz resident Shai Schwartz, and several WVU student workers, beginning the process of keeping us on the proper grid.


Now, the fun really begins! Bucket after bucket of mostly miscellaneous dirt and rock are taken over to what we affectionately call the “sifters.” Here is where we search, in meticulously back-breaking fashion, for that rare gem that makes this job so special and rewarding.


Next on the daily agenda is the rough construction of a tarp shelter—welcome respite from the blazing morning sun. Then, ever-so-slowly, one bucket after another, we dig! Bucket, after bucket, after bucket!



Later in the afternoon, after much needed showers (and naps for some!), comes “pottery hour.” Here, we carefully count and organize the day’s finds—pottery shards of all shapes and sizes must be tagged and bagged for more careful analysis later on.


And here, folks, is the payoff!! It’s hard to describe what it feels like to hold something this old in your hands, the product of a long day of your own sweat and labor. I highly suggest you try it sometime!


Alex Snow

6 Jun

Archaeology is, in many ways, a fascinating subject. The point of archaeology is to learn as much as we can about a society by examining the material remains which have been left behind. These objects, called artifacts, inform our understanding of past civilizations and cultures.

This is my first time working as a laborer on n archaeological excavation. I love it. Though the work itself is very physically demanding and meticulously slow, it’s also exhilarating. Knowing that, with the turn of one more trowel-full of soil, exciting new artifacts may be waiting an incredible feeling.

As I have said, the work is very meticulous. The process, however, is rather simple. An excavator begins excavating by clearing the area of any debris that may impede excavations. We spent most of Tuesday doing just that; we pulled weeds for nearly five hours! After clearing the area, the next step in the excavation process is to map the area according to its location on the grid, and identify was is called a locus in archaeological jargon. A locus (loci in the plural) is essentially a location in which an excavator is digging. Once the locus has been identified, the next step is to begin excavating. Diggers use trowels and brushes to clear layers of soil from the area, while they search for finds. The soil is placed in buckets, carried to a sifting station, and then sifted for other artifacts that the excavator might have missed. The finds are placed in what is called a “find bucket” (original, I know!) to be cleaned, sorted, and “read” (a.k.a. analyzed) later.

diggingCJ siftingCJ
WVU students doing archaeological things.

What surprises me most about our work however is the vast amount of pottery scattered throughout the cite. In the pre-modern world, pottery was used for many things. For example, storage jars, plates, bowls, cooking pots, etc. were all composed of fired clay. It should come as no surprise then that pottery will be found at any pre-modern site. The sheer number of pot sherds however is huge, sometimes in the thousands from a single locus. Interestingly, the shape, color, style, and thickness all helps trained archaeologists determine from which period pottery dates. Learned, trained archaeologists can look at a single sherd and immediately recognize its date and place of origin. I, however, am not yet that skilled.

The analysis and cataloguing process is intriguing. After every sherd found has been cleaned, they are all counted one by one, diagnosed (a fancy word for analyzed) and catalogued in both a digital and paper-based system for analysts to determine their signifigance.

Again, archaeology is a long, tedious, slow process. That being said, the information found at sites like Bethsaida complements the historical records of ancient texts, often completing our knowledge of a period or a culture with information that would otherwise be lost. It is for this reason that archaeologists and volunteers from three continents gather annually to work long, hard, hot days.

Shalom and best wishes!
CJ Rice

5 Jun

Getting Oriented at Bethsaida

Joseph | June 5th, 2012

So, we begin Part II of our Israeli archaeological adventure—now, we dig! Along with a large contingent of students from Truman State (ironically, my alma mater from 1993, then called Northeast Missouri State University), as well as an experienced collection of various digging enthusiasts, today we were introduced to Bethsaida by its intrepid on-site leader, Rami. As you can see, we are being filmed for a cool new documentary, so we all better do our jobs well! Over the course of a few hours, we were given the “do’s and don’ts” (drink lots, I mean lots, of water, always wear a hat, and no sandals allowed, just to mention a few), and then oriented to the geographical and geological history of the area, including a short lesson on plate tectonics and the various fault lines that helped create this beautiful valley.



As we made our way toward the city gates for the first time, we paused briefly at an area dated to the Iron Age that Dr. Aaron Gale’s team unearthed just two summers ago—this will be my home and my “dig pit” over the next week and a half. Amongst the many stories told today, it was suggested that there wasn’t much to worry about from the likes of local, “non-human,” inhabitants, but as you can see, and much to Rami’s chagrin, the very first thing we found was relatively recent evidence of snakes—oh my!!


On to the main site. Below is the impressive main gate, complete with stele, high altars, and a very famous “moon god” similar to the Assyrian traditions which conquered the inhabitants of this city. In between several rather humorous re-enactments (think History Channel, or National Geographic), we try to imagine what life might have been like so many millennia ago, and maybe even what type of rituals took place. Here you see Dr. Alyssa Beall sprinkling water on the god—let’s all hope that such propitiation brings good results for the days ahead!



We spent the next couple hours touring the entire site, for with as big a team as we have, there will be multiple excavations going on simultaneously in hopes of showing the complexity of Bethsaida’s multiple time periods and various cultures. Near the end of the day, as we slowly make our way back to the air-conditioned bus (and out of the nearly 95 degree heat), we are introduced to the very real possibility that Jesus himself may have walked these streets nearly 2000 years ago. Below you see one such path—some people even suggest that this could be the origin of the Via Dolorosa, a very humbling possibility indeed.


After drinking gallons of water today under the oppressive summer sun (we are also some 600 meters below sea level, which definitely doesn’t help!), we will come back tomorrow morning bright and early (5:30 am), with pick axes in hand, wheel barrows and buckets in tow, and eager to take our first steps into the field of amateur/professional archaeology!

Take care for now,
Alex Snow

Recent Articles
Links of Interest

RSS Articles