woensdag 30 mei 2012

What the hell am I thinking!?!

Spring over here has been pretty mediocre so far, with warm weather only prevailing the past week or so. The cloudy, rainy spring shows on the people, as they have a hard time adjusting to the 20-plus temperatures. Many complain about how warm it is and even more get careless, ending up sunburnt as a result.
It is therefore a pretty sweet feeling to be able to boast that you`ll be spending four weeks working outside in temperatures that are easily 10˚C higher, eliciting reactions like: “You actually pay for that!?!” It makes you sound like a badass, but at the same time you can`t help but think to yourself that you have to be crazy to do this job. It might be a good moment to take a look at just how much crazy it takes to get by working in field archaeology.
This is how early you have to get up. Most sane adolescents would be going to bed

Every morning at Karei Deshe starts early. Consider yourself lucky if you get up at 7 a.m., because that means it`s weekend. Weekdays start between 4 and 4:15 in the morning. There`s no point in showering yet, so you collect your things and go down to the foyer for what is known as ’sugar breakfast’. This consists of a cup of tea or coffee and one or two slices of sweet cake. If you`re really lucky, you have to fill the water canisters too. After breakfast the crew gathers outside to be shuttled to the dig site. One of the drivers has a style that comes close to rally driving, so the light breakfast is perhaps a good thing.
Around 5 a.m. everyone is ready to go to work. This part of the day is probably the best since temperatures aren`t as high yet and you get to see the sun rise over the Golan Heights in the distance. Yet the digging still is demanding physical labour that requires a lot of bending, lifting and scraping your knees over rocky tumble. Little wonder then that around 8 o`clock everyone anxiously monitors the director`s movements for the ´breakfast phone call´. Breakfast is served on-site from 8 a.m. until 8:45, after which the crew goes back to work for three more hours of digging: this time in the scorching heat. Although tents are set up against the sun, the temperature can`t be helped much and some jobs have to be done outside of the tents. The least favoured among those (for reasons that should appear obvious to everyone) is keeping the spoil heap in a usable state.
Three hours of work before you can shove something substantial in your stomach

Around noon every member of the crew is sweaty, dirty, dusty and exhausted enough to want to go back to Karei Deshe, so everyone is shuttled back for a well-earned shower and lunch. Afterwards, you`re given an hour of siesta time between 2 and 3 o`clock to catch some shuteye or relax and check your e-mail. The real fanatics however, can already be found in the lab.
From 3 until 4 o`clock there`s pottery washing. The job is shift-based so everyone is screwed at least twice a week. Brushing dirt off bits of pottery is not the most enthralling job in the world, but at least you can sit outside in the shade of the trees and have a chat with your colleagues. Once pottery washing is over, there are three routes open to you:
1.      You`re scheduled for pottery reading: you sit in the air-con`d lab and spend half an hour or so by weeding out the useless stones from the pottery shards and identifying what kind of shards there are. After that you`re free to go and amuse yourself in whatever depraved way you see fit.
2.      You`re not scheduled for pottery reading, which means you`re free until dinner. This time can be used to wash some of your clothes. There are occasional trips to Tiberias where you can sit on the boulevard and enjoy a drink or get some personal supplies like detergent, deodorant or sunblock.
3.      You volunteer to help out in the lab. The staff always enjoy it when you offer to help them out. There`s a variety of menial tasks that need to be done, from helping with prepping and packaging finds for storage to hand-counting the tesserae. Obviously not every job is equally desirable, but the help is always greatly appreciated and can even help getting jobs done before they`re due, which means that the research can go ahead faster and further. Helping out in the lab is advisable for those studying archaeology: after all, the directors are the ones who grade your performance…
Counting tesserae changes a man... photo courtesy of Tine Rassalle

Dinner is served from 6 to 7 and usually marks the end of the workday, unless there are lectures scheduled, which is about twice a week. Lectures usually run from 7 until 8:30. Once the lectures are over, you can enjoy the remainder of the evening, which is until 10 p.m. Turning in early is strongly advised, because between the rowdy type of teenagers that make all sorts of racket and the uneasy dreams about whether or not you`ve finally found the east wall of the synagogue, a good night`s sleep is a valuable commodity. At least you have to suffer such days for only four weeks, because KRP has one of the shorter excavation seasons.

It is therefore not surprising that people think you have to be absolutely stark raving bonkers to do fieldwork. There is even a famous quote about it; the kind that is ascribed to various great names. It`s difficult to be sure who was the first to come up with this wisdom. It is sometimes ascribed to Avraham Biran, but it could also be by the late Moshe Kochavi. The words themselves are clear as glass: “You don`t have to be crazy to be an archaeologist, but it helps…”. It is as the Italians say: “Si non e vero, e ben trovato”, because seldom have truer words been spoken about a profession.
No average person is able to find joy in long days of hard physical labour in nature`s extremes to chase down wisps of clues, for the sole purpose of being able to constantly readjust your hypotheses about what life in ancient times may have possibly been like. It requires a great deal of passion and determination. A little bit of extra crazy to help deal with all the little hardships and Tantalus torments you suffer might be just what the doctor ordered.

Let’s be honest: archaeology wouldn`t be half as much fun without it.

Signing off

woensdag 23 mei 2012

The scumbag with the hat

Recently, the mailman delivered some packages from the UK with kit for the coming season. Among them is a brand new dark brown Jaxon outback hat. Looking it over got me thinking about the colourful relation between archaeology and the wearing of hats. Easily the biggest and most persistent clich̩, it is perhaps even more synonymous with archaeology than alcohol Рespecially to the wider public. A sure-fire way to convince them that someone is an archaeologist is to portray them wearing a hat. The downside of that is it tells people straight away that such a person is a scumbag, and here`s why.

The character that for the general public has forever bound archaeology (or whatever passes for that in Hollywood) with the wearing of hats is Indiana Jones. Armed with his rather nicely cut brown fur-felt fedora, a whip that magically sticks to things like beams and weapons, and a summary knowledge of archaeology, “Dr.” Henry Jones Jr. quests for ancient mythical artefacts and saves damsels in distress while he`s at it, usually from unsavoury sadistic figures who tend to wear swastikas on their suits half of the time. This image of the George Lucas creation is so well-ingrained that wearing any kind of head covering (even a floppy bush hat) is an open invitation to anyone to call you ”Indy.” But to be called ”Indy” is to be identified with a scumbag.
Jones has a habit of dumping all these gals he`s fallen for and rescued, for no apparent reason other than the somewhat vague ”call of adventure”. Despite being portrayed as a seasoned doctor of archaeology, words like ´trowel´, ´spoil heap´ and  ´locus´ are alien concepts to him (or perhaps Jones just took Proverbs 26:27 to heart). The notion launched by Wheeler that archaeology is destruction is often taken too seriously and the preferred tools are usually big, clumsy and as blunt as Jones` own intellect. Most of his comments with regard to the locals are doused in colonialism and he entertains the notion that all ancient artefacts of value “belong in a museum”; one that, incidentally, is in America and belongs to a friend of his. In short, the character of Henry Jones Jr. is a nepotistic, womanizing, colonialist treasure hunter. This has created for the public a romantic but ultimately false image of the archaeologist as a person who is out to discover ancient shiny things in far-away lands to show to the world. For the record: ancient shiny things are worth fuck-all if they cannot be put in relation to a context and so help to clarify what purpose they served, which is the main issue that archaeology has with tomb-robbing.
Womanizing, tomb-robbing, nepotistic scumbag

Another world-renowned archaeologist with a healthy dose of scumbaggery is Zahi Hawass. Until recently the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Minister of State for Antiquities, most people know Hawass through his work for Discovery Channel, History Channel and National Geographic. Here he tirelessly searches for the history of his country and uncovers the secrets of ancient Egypt, all the while sporting a brown fedora (which isn`t exactly the same as Indy`s, but then again most journalist live for making generalizations). Hawass has, as he claims himself: ”given his life to protecting and preserving antiquities”. The fact that George Lucas has called Hawass ”The Real-life Indiana Jones” should give you some indication that he isn’t all that wonderful. Therefore, it shouldn`t come as a surprise that Hawass is surrounded with controversy.
Zahi Hawass had quite the reputation among Egyptologists: he takes substantial liberties when interpreting evidence, has a tendency to plagiarize both in his books as well as on television and somehow manages to publish the same information multiple times and present it as new and ground-breaking. But it not just his attitude towards the literature that is considered cavalier: despite his deep love for the heritage of Egypt, his handling of most artefacts shows an air of nonchalance. There was a small outrage in the academic community when Hawass used finds from the tomb of Tutankhamun for photo shoots to market his own clothing line. But that is just all the stuff about his questionable reputation as an archaeologist.
During his time as chief of the SCA, Zahi Hawass has allegedly abused his position to favour himself and to further political goals. He decided which sites would be dug on the basis of their potential for glamorous finds and was always there to present himself to the media as the one responsible for all these wonderful finds, brushing aside the people who had actually done all the hard work. In his quest to bring as much of Egypt`s treasures back `home`, he would threaten to, as well as actually suspend excavation permits for archaeologists from certain nations in order to pressure both museums and countries into returning artefacts. This might even be understandable, were it not that the museum in Cairo lacks the proper facilities to safely and correctly archive all these objects. Besides that, he apparently received an annual bonus of $200.000 for his work with NGC, while young archaeologists during the Arab spring clamoured around his workplace, demanding to know why there were so few jobs and such poor wages whilst a 7bn. profit was made. Furthermore, he has used his power to either obstruct or clear the way for various companies, usually benefitting those he had ties to. Finally, Hawass has always raised eyebrows with his almost Nasser-like criticism of Israel in general. While one can put serious question marks to the Israeli conduct towards the Palestinian Territories, one thing is certain: its archaeologists tend to have a better sense of scholarly ethics than Hawass. By now it should be obvious that the “Real-life Indiana Jones” is a more serious scumbag than the imaginary one.
Corrupt, fraudulous, megalomaniacal, egocentric scumbag

So obviously someone is pretty butt hurt about these images of would-be academics using hats to be passed off as the real thing. Here`s why people doing real fieldwork wear hats: most of the regions that are of interest to archaeology lie outside the comfort zone of most people. The weather can be either very hot, dry and sunny or very wet and humid. Despite the use of shade tents, many archaeologists wear a hat simply to protect their face and neck from the sun, because nothing is more annoying than having to work hard when you are sunburnt, let alone suffering from sunstroke. In wet climates, it is just downright obstructing to have to work while holding an umbrella, so a hat is more convenient. Apart from that, keeping the sun out of your eyes will prevent you from missing small details that could prove important.
So even if some archaeologists like to have this idea that they are associated with romantic images of adventurers that cruise the world and uncover a wealth of gold and such, they are serious enough to know that reality is different. The true romance in archaeology is the tingling feeling in the back of your head when you`re thinking about what a village may have looked like, the geeky joy of identifying pottery, the sense that adventure can be in smaller things like sitting on a slab that covers a 6-meter deep cistern and be oblivious to it. Of course everyone would like to find something special, but that something can be as simple as a faience bowl, which will hardly impress most museum visitors. You know that you have a true archaeologist on your hands when a grown man goes giddy from finding intact pottery, when finding the remains in of a wall become as vital to you as air or water.
So, it`s not that archaeologists wear hats because want to be seen as Jones and Hawass, but rather that Jones and Hawass wear hats because they want to be seen as archaeologists.
Lazy, annoying, dirty scumbag. - Photo courtesy of Eeva-Mari  Haapala

Although a hat does have purposes we can all agree on…

Signing off,

The Lost Dutchman

woensdag 16 mei 2012

From Araq to Zombie

Their relation is closely intertwined, some even call the two synonymous: archaeology and alcohol. Digging does not occur without drinking following suit. A cynical person might say that the relation is one of cause-and-effect and that archaeologists drink mostly to drown their sorrows over unsuccessful digs and on rare occasions to celebrate that they have found something mildly interesting.
One cannot truly claim to have been in a region until he or she knows what booze is locally available. Anyone who`s worked in Asia knows what Singha beer looks like once it`s made a U-turn in the digestive system and a true Egyptologist should most often drink Saqqara, but prefer Stella when  they can get their hands on it. Similarly, surveyors in Turkey are hooked on Efes Pilsen (supposing that they`re doing things right) and anyone who`s done archaeological work in Mexico without having gone wasted on Mescal is probably not a true archaeologist. Incidentally, anyone who`s done work in the Levant knows that going from Araq to Zombie is pretty much a straight line (more on that later). I therefore felt that I could not ignore the connections that KRP has with alcohol use. It must be noted that poorly moderated alcohol use is not instigated or encouraged by the staff of KRP.

In Israel, most domestic beer is brewed by the Tempo Beer Industries. Although their oldest brew, Nesher Malt, is a kosher malt beer, the most commonly drunk beers are Maccabee and Goldstar. Maccabee (recognisable by the blue/red label) is a pale lager of 4,9% abv with a relatively light taste. This makes it easy to swig, especially when cooled. Goldstar (recognisable by a red label with a gold star) is marketed as a dark lager, although it is only slightly darker in color than Maccabee. In terms of taste it is not quite as easy as its blue brother, still very drinkable. It`s a 4,9% abv too, so you won`t get drunk any faster. It`s merely a matter of taste or (more often) availability.
You don`t know anything about synagogues if you don`t know what this is.  It`s that simple.

Araq is a different story. This ouzo-like beverage is Arabian in origin and is mostly made of grapes and aniseed. It is known all throughout the Arab world, regardless of religious constraints. Like ouzo, it has a relatively high abv – 50-63% on average – which may explain where it gets its name from. Downing half a bottle of this stuff will hit like a head-butt from an angry bull and will even make you forget you own mother`s name. Drinking a whole bottle is probably the closest you`ll ever get to zombification (or death for that matter). It is therefore mostly consumed as an aperitif by  sane people. A bunch of young archaeologists looking for something to party with are usually not as composed in their judgement, making for some hilarious results.

The first evening of the digging season is the one where everyone and everything is introduced; from the diggers to the tasks to the schedules. The grease on the cogs for this meeting is a glass (or rather, a plastic cup) of vodka `n lime. This tradition has been part of the “homecoming feeling” for many veterans over the years and can be seen as an integral part of the first day of the season for the volunteers at Karei Deshe.
Besides that, there is the Midsummer`s Night celebration. It`s a well engrained Finnish tradition usually involving summer cottages, saunas, lakes and vodka. Karei Deshe has both the holiday feel of a summer cottage, the average temperature of a sauna and borders on “Lake Tiberias” (a.k.a. the Sea of Galilee). All you have to do is add vodka, so the evening just isn`t complete without passing around a bottle of Finlandia.
Regular workdays end with an hour of two or three off – provided that there are no lectures scheduled. With temperatures still quite high on those balmy Levantine nights, nothing hits the spot like a chilled beer whilst sitting on the beach looking out over the lake at the stars over the city of Tiberias. More special nights are the birthday parties. Hardly a season goes by without someone celebrating an anniversary: a nice occasion to get completely hammered. As a decent variety of strong liquor is sold in Tiberias, this should be both relatively easy and relatively expensive. In the end, you`ll have a lot of fun, but also have a short night and one hell of a hangover which you`ll need to deal with while digging. Clearly, this practise is not for those who are faint of heart.
At the end of the season, some people will celebrate the new discoveries with a modest toast. However, the most serious end-of-season drinking tends to happen at the final barbecue, or rather: after the final barbecue. It is an invitation to stay up as long as your body will allow as all leftovers from the past four weeks are taken care of and a final goodbye-shisha is smoked by those who were smart enough to buy some Mu`assel and a Hookah.
It has to be the Middle-East`s all-time favourite leisure time activity.

It is therefore not surprising that some anecdotes exist about the effects of alcohol on the volunteers of KRP. One of the better known stories comes from the 2010 season and is about a doctor in religious studies who has a legendary taste for fine whisky. After a night of steady drinking he would inevitably show up on site the next day with a doozy of a hangover. This led to him being called ´Professor Hangover´ and it has since stuck as a nom de guerre. His compatriot and fellow whisky lover earned the name ´Mr. Whisky´ after diligently cracking a bottle of Chivas Regal with ´Professor Hangover´ and another great whisky fan who comes to Israel annually. The power of these names is such that even on symposia you can hear “Hey, Mr. Whisky” and “ah, Professor Hangover” in regular conversation.

As noted in the first paragraph, there is a clear bond between archaeology and alcohol. In my mind, it`s a good thing: the booze can help you relax and cool off after a hard day of work (yes, we do in fact work there). It helps in the bonding, because if you like the same kind of liquor, you`ll always have something to talk about. Finally, nothing quite makes for celebrations like booze. It just wouldn`t seem right not to drink to a successful season and to properly spend some time together with your friends who so far away from home are the closest.

...and now I could do with a cold Maccabee.

Signing off,

The Lost Dutchman

donderdag 10 mei 2012

Swimming trunks or flak jacket?

Hello again,

Probably THE most asked question when you tell people you`re going to Israel, has to be: “Isn`t it dangerous to go to Israel? Are you not afraid to go there!?!” There is a general assumption that you shouldn`t go to Israel (or at least, not for very long) if you value your life and that anyone who does just might be a crazy person. Good thing then that most people who participate in archaeology fit that qualification perfectly (more on the virtues of being crazy in this academic discipline will follow at a later date). Therefore, it may be a good idea to take a look at what risks there are in Israel, where they originate from and how big their impact really is on the dear people of Horvat Kur.

The main reason why people regard Israel as unsafe is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The origins of the current conflict lie in the early twentieth century, when Arabs living in Palestine saw the influx of Jewish immigrants under Ottomans and later the British Mandate as a threat to their identity. Skirmishes and riots became quite common, culminating in the 1936-1939 Arab riots. At the beginning and end of the Second World War, there were veritable waves of immigration that – not unsurprisingly – forced tensions to the breaking point again and moved the British to take certain measures. One of the less smart things the Brits did, was promise to meet all demands on both sides.
Israeli troops preparing to go to war with an old enemy: a German MG-34

In the end the newly formed UN was brought in. With a prevalent colonialist approach left over from the pre-war era, an initially well-intended two-state solution was brokered. The Jewish representatives agreed to the terms of this solution, but the Arab representatives refused to accept the terms laid out to them. War soon followed in 1948, when the Palestinians, backed by – among others – Egypt and Jordan went to war with the Israelis.
The results were several thousand killed and the displacement of  about one million Palestinians from former British Mandate territories as well as several hundred-thousand Jewish people from Arab nations. The State of Israel controlled most of the territories except for the West Bank and East Jerusalem region (supervised by Jordan) and the Gaza region to the South (supervised by Egypt). There have been tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians ever since. Nowadays, most countries accept the 1948 “Green line” as the legitimate borders of Israeli territory. All other areas are now considered territories of the Palestinian state.
Despite a rather violent history and an invasion by the IDF in 2008, the Palestinian Territories seem to have been positively affected by the Arab Spring. Recent reports seem to indicate an increasingly positive disposition towards peaceful protest. The areas are still a travel-at-your-own-risk environment as groups like Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade maintain a strong presence and still oppose the very existence of an Israeli state, but more and more people see it as warmongering and a serious disruption of their daily lives. The last few months have been relatively quiet and in any case, mortars and missiles don`t have the range to reach Galilee. Nevertheless, there are some security measures that one should anticipate when going to Tiberias. Larger stores such as supermarkets may have seniors in high-visibility jackets that can ask you to show the contents of your backpack and private security guards armed with old carbines and flip-flops saunter along the shopping streets at regular intervals. The atmosphere is generally relaxed and easy-going.

The second biggest “threat” in the region is Israel`s rather coarse relationship with its neighbours Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iran. As noted before, some of these nations sided with the Palestinians during the 1948 war. Although they signed ceasefire agreements with the Israeli`s in 1949, they have for a long time refused to accept the legitimate existence with the state of Israel. Naturally, this is not a solid base for peace and it should have therefore come as no surprise that many wars have follow since. In 1956 the Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez canal in response to abrasive reactions from Great-Britain and France on its pro-Soviet Union policy. An alliance between Great Britain, France and Israel was struck in order to remove Nasser from power and regain control of the Suez canal. For the British and French, eliminating Nasser and regaining control were vital in retaining dominance over their colonies, which were striving for independence. Israel saw an opportunity to weaken a former enemy and gain a more favourable border in the Sinai peninsula, allowing them use of the Strait of Tiran. The war ended a year later with Nasser still in power and the coalition suffering huge political blows. In the end Israel did gain control over the Strait of Tiran, scored a tactical victory and forced itself on the agenda as a nation whose security needs would become of great importance to regional politics.
The second major war was the Six-Day war. This short war was initiated by Israel in 1967 when it began to receive strong reports that Egypt, Jordan (with Iraqi support) and Syria were planning an invasion. These nations had recently signed defence agreements and made aggressive moves monitored by Israeli intelligence. As Israel more or less knew what was coming where, they decided to strike the first blow by bombing Arab air bases. Superior training and tactics allowed the Israelis to quickly beat back the following ground attacks and in five days and a bit, Israel controlled the Gaza, Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West bank as well as the Golan. The Egyptian president Nasser consequently attempted to retake the Sinai peninsula until his death in 1970. This “War of Attrition” consisted mainly of smaller and larger skirmishes and did little to move the Israeli positions and plenty to waste lives of both soldiers and civilians.
Seeing as they had been scorned in 1967, Israel`s neighbours were out for revenge. Syria wanted its Golan back and Egypt still did not have control of the Sinai. Therefore, they launched combined assaults into Israel in 1973, in what is best known as the Yom-Kippur war. The intelligence services were well aware of the preparations being made against them, but the politicians were either not convinced of the threat or wanted to prevent controversy over the usual `first strike` doctrine. Because of the Yom Kippur celebrations, many troops were at home and thus the Arab nations initially made progress against the Israeli defences. Once the Israelis managed to get their act together, they retaliated and drove both far into Syria and Egypt, coming as close as 40km from Damascus and 101km from Cairo. Again, the UN and larger superpowers stepped in to force a peace agreement. Both Israel and Egypt would hold on to their gained territory until the 2nd half of the decade, when various agreements were made culminating in a return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1979. In trade, the Israeli state got concessions to use the Strait of Tiran. Later, in 1999 a peace agreement was signed with Israel, permitting use of the Suez canal.
Destroyed Syrian T-55s and T-62s litter the Golan during the Yom-Kippur war

Iran is a bit of a different story. It was never in open conflict with Israel itself, but rather has used the plight of the Palestinian people as a leverage to sanction its existence as an Islamic nation. By showing support to fellow Islamic countries, it gains support from them, which it needs since the US was opposed to the Ayatollah governments revolt against the Shah in 1979 and has been ever since. It`s not a matter of personal pride or direct involvement in a war with the State of Israel, but merely a matter of political justification. Nevertheless, Iran has vowed that Israel has no right to exist and that it desires its destruction. This is almost always related to Iran`s nuclear programme. Israel fears that the Iranian nuclear energy programme will eventually be used to build nuclear weapons which can either be used by Iran itself or sold to militant groups who are less concerned with nuclear retaliation. Consequently, the program has been under scrutiny from the UN. So far, IAEA-inspectors have been given access to Iranian nuclear facilities and are optimistic that Iran could not produce weapons grade material in the near future. The flip side of this coin is that Iran does develop advanced military materiel like medium-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Recent relations between Israel and its neighbours have not been heartily, but stable in general. Both Syria and Egypt have serious problems of their own since the start of the Arab spring so even if there were indications that they might want to start a war, they could not sustain enough forces because of the fear of another mass-revolt at home. The only serious threat would be Iran, but Israel is currently just flexing its muscles, showing that it`s not afraid of Iran. Although the international community would likely step in before things spin out of control, if Israel and Iran were to openly declare war onto each other, the digging season for 2012 would be suspended immediately. At any rate, the Kinneret Regional Project directors always keep a close eye on the security situation and will decide to call it off should the region become too dangerous.

Apart from all these “big” dangers, there are some smaller concerns that one should look out for when on excavation. You spend long periods of time in nature and it is a little less docile than what most people in Northern Europe are used to. Some of the things that can be hazardous to your health are vermin like snakes and scorpions, empty cisterns and bush fires.
The most direct problem are snakes and scorpions found on the site. Although they are not deadly to  healthy adults, the toxins of these critters can cause very nasty symptoms. Israel is home to eight species of the viper family and six scorpion species that don`t take kindly to being disturbed. The most notable among the scorpions are the Leiurus quinquestriatus (yellow scorpion) and the Hottentotta judaicus (black Judean scorpion). The former is the most dangerous of the two: its poison is considered lethal to older people, young children and those with health issues. The latter is somewhat less dangerous (although it will incapacitate you for several hours) but the most common one. Both were found on the site last year, but with careful handling and proper precautions, no one was stung. Any other species found in Israel fall in the area between these two in terms of venom potency.
Hottentotta judaicus: the most common hazard in Israel

Standard procedure is to move things like rocks and sandbags before picking them up. After the first days on the site, most of the grass and torn sandbags are cleared out and encountering scorpions becomes much more of a rarity. When a scorpion is encountered, standard procedure is to not touch it, but to shove it onto a dustpan and dump it on the side of the site. As a general rule: don`t piss them off and you won`t end up in a hospital with the feeling that your blood has been replaced with molten lava.
Another direct threat on-site are the various cisterns that dot the landscape. These ancient water collection pits have been mapped and lie off the trodden paths, but getting careless can result in a six meter drop to a rocky floor. Besides the broken bones that will result from such a fall, these old pits are a haven for scorpions and spiders. Watching your step when going to the site is just as important as doing so on-site.
There is another natural threat, but on a much larger physical scale than cisterns and scorpions. It is high summer in the Galilee: vegetation is dry and rain virtually non-existent. Farmers burning garbage, careless barbecuing and tossed cigarette butts can start bushfires that have a devastating effect on the landscape. Consequently, smoking is prohibited on the site and clear instructions are given on what to do when a bushfire is spotted.
Finally, although not very dangerous to humans, I`ll mention the presence of the Canis aureus, or golden jackal. Its presence is ironic, since it is used in the bible to signify desolation and loneliness, living in areas that are abandoned by, or somewhat out of the way of humans.

In conclusion, it is not the small arms and Molotov cocktails that you need to be wary of, but the small critters and embers. The chances of encountering angry men with AK-47s in the Galilee is very small indeed; much smaller than coming across a yellow scorpion. 
Don`t be afraid to encounter this Skorpion,  the others are much worse...

They`re both potentially very dangerous, unless you know how to handle yourself around them. Don`t go around being an idiot and going to Israel is about as safe as going to Amsterdam by train.

Signing off,

The Lost Dutchman

P.S. for those curious about the tumultuous history of the State of Israel, there are various books available: especially on the Six-Day war and the Yom-Kippur war. For more information on snakes and scorpions, check out this link:

dinsdag 1 mei 2012

I`m only here for the chocolate

All this talk of the Galilee is all well and good, but getting there is a matter in itself. Thankfully, that matter was resolved most satisfactorily when we booked tickets for a flight with Swiss.

Now, you won`t often hear me praise big companies, but Swiss International Air Lines merits an exception. Swiss stands out among A-carriers for two very important reasons. The first is that the inflight meals served on board are actually quite edible. Meals that don`t make you want to scramble to the nearest lavatory are a rarity in the world of air travel, so any airline that serves edible food is worthy of praise.
The second reason to like Swiss is their in-flight snack: Chocolate. The tiny bars they hand out are some of the most delicious milk chocolate I`ve ever tasted. In fact, my first reaction on finding that the best flight to Israel was with Swiss, was a Homer Simpson-like “mmmm, Choc`lit…” Some discussions on the internet suggest that the Swiss-Belgian company Barry Callebaut might be responsible for producing the base product. Even if that is so, both the Swiss and the Belgians know how to make grade-A quality dope, so it would be a win-win situation. But regardless of who makes it, the chocolate alone is worth flying Swiss for. Thus it proves the age-old adagio that the way to a man`s heart goes through his stomach.

Just to be fair, let’s look at something I don`t quite like about the company, namely their use of Airbus planes. Airbuses tend to have a nasty habit of acting like Windows OS, in that they`ll die on you in the middle of whatever it is you are doing for no discernible reason. It has become a bit of a running gag in our family that, if we know we are going by Airbus, we will tell each other ”It was a pleasure knowing you, see you in heaven.”
Last year we had a similar experience during our return flight with Lufthansa. Our Airbus from Frankfurt to Amsterdam remained at the gate for an hour after boarding, because of “technical issues” in the cockpit; that is how long it took the technicians to find the problem and reboot the flight control systems. After all systems were online again, the pilot informed us that they were “going to see if everything worked properly again.” In the end we landed at Schiphol airport without further incident, but during the flight I was entertained by the thought of what it would be like to fall down from 25.000 feet.
Even with my prejudice about Airbuses, it is a comforting thought to know that we`re flying with Swiss. If anything, the Swiss are even more meticulous than `ze faimous zjermans` and therefore well aware of the virtues that come from quality maintenance. A lot of buses and trains in Switzerland are older models that have long since been discarded in other countries. Yet, these older vehicles are almost always in better condition than more modern ones in other nations, which explains why they last longer. The same applies to planes: they may not always have the most modern ones, but they are in great condition, significantly decreasing the likelihood of `blue-sceen-of-death` occurrences in the cockpit.
Lastly, it wouldn`t be fair not to mention that the flight attendants from Swiss are some of the nicest you`ll ever come across. They are polite and quick to respond, which is a huge boost to your satisfaction if you are, like me, not a big fan of in-flight movies.

So am I truly concerned that my flight to Israel will end up being a journey to heaven (or, more likely in my case, a nosedive to hell)? Not really, because the Swiss tendency to take care of things the right way is sure to prevail. If I have any concern, it is how to get away with taking two chocolate bars instead of one.