zondag 24 juni 2012

A tale of Finns and Romans

Well, the first week of the Kinneret Regional Project has just flown by. It`s almost hard to believe that we`re in country for seven days already. Yes, you read correctly: I`m falling in the cliché pit. I guess I have to do something now that our snake pit is gone.

Trying to piece it all together...

So let`s have a look-see at what has been going on so far. We have been tying up a lot of loose ends on the dig site, taking down baulks and bringing some of the deeper squares down to the bedrock. However, the knots are coming undone already. Not every baulk will be removed to facilitate communication and the lowest layers are turning up some really interesting finds: the most striking one has to be the finding of grains. These were carefully wrapped up in aluminium foil and stored away until they can be analyzed by a specialist. Apart from that we are finding large quantities of tesserae. This is double bad news, because they are found outside the Synagogue – meaning that we will most certainly not have a mosaic floor – and because they are a pain in the you-know-what to clean properly. If anything we are making good progress and soon, very soon, we will start to uncover the building in its entirety.
A smile and all of the sudden that load of stones weighs like a feather

I`m glad to be able to fly Sirpa Air again. There is probably no better way to wake up when going to the dig, than to be driven there at break-neck speeds over the rollercoaster-like roads by a seemingly gentle Finnish lady whining about what sissies we are. In general, having the Finns on board for KRP is great for the dig: If you need a strong man for something, you can always ask a Finnish woman.
Sometimes only a Swiss berserker will do.

The Finns also know how to get a party started. This was exemplified by the Juhannus celebration. Every year, Midsummer`s Night falls in the digging season and the Finns hold a customary gathering at which they drink and make merry to honour the occasion. This year, they taught us some of the older Finnish ballroom dancing. The most fitting way to describe what ensued is a hilarious polonaise of people jumping on each other`s heels. We were also able to offer the Finnish co-director a “piece of home” (read a bottle of Finlandia vodka). The German co-director had the time of his life not just because of the wonderful party, but also because in the European football championship, Germany took Greece to the cleaners. With the beautiful lake Kinneret as a backdrop it seems that a sauna was the only thing lacking. Then again: you cannot have a Midsummer`s Night party during the daytime.

But our dear friends from the north are not the only ones who know how to throw a party. Ioanna from the Romanian contingent turned 23 yesterday, which was an extra nice day because there was a fieldtrip. This meant that we could sleep late – until around 6:30 in the morning – before having a solid breakfast. After that we were piled in a bus with a very friendly (ahem) driver and we went off into the countryside.

First stop on the road was the archaeological site of Sepphoris. This site was under excavation as recently as a decade ago and features the remains of a Romanized city a theatre and a Synagogue. The site features many beautiful mosaics from the Byzantine period with exquisite patterns, striking amazons, imposing centaurs and a spectacularly large image of the Nile. This so-called “Nilotic image” shows people recording the height of the flooding on a nilometer, a hunting scene with lions and curious looking blue leopards, personifications of the Nile god and the city of Alexandria. The Sepphoris Synagogue is no less impressive, with the remains of a zodiac depiction. This is centered around a Helios sun disc riding a quadriga (four-span chariot).
She may not be the Mona Lisa, but she`s a beauty...

The visit to Sepphoris was marked by two high points. The first is the most beautiful mosaic of a young woman. This little masterpiece manages to capture blushing cheeks and glinting eyes in stone. It is often referred to as the Mona Lisa of the Galilee and although that title could be a subject for art historical debate, it certainly is hard not to fall in love with her. The second high point was a small performance at the Sepphoris theatre by Benjamin Lang. We were treated to Romeo and Juliet, act one, scene one. It was perhaps 1800 years ago that the theatre had last seen such a good, satirical piece. Our orator had his audience in fits and he received a well-earned round of hearty applause for his on-stage performance.
"Did you just bite your thumb at me!?!"

After lunch and souvenirs we dragged our overheated bodies back in the bus for the next leg of the trip. We drove from the hills towards the coastal plain where we would be visiting the ruins of Caesaria. This Roman-style harbour city was built by king Herod the Great and accommodated most of the Roman administration for Galilee and Judea. It features the remains of a impressive theatre, Herod`s palace (a popular fishing spot), a hippodrome and crusader-era ruins surrounding the artificial harbour. Most of the volunteers agreed that excavations at Caesaria would complement the KRP nicely, seeing as it offered the opportunity to float in the Mediterranean on a daily basis. The long and short of it is that Caesaria is a place with beautiful sights and interesting Roman ruins. Most notable are the bathhouse mosaics and the seawater crashing on the seawall that supports the hippodrome.
Yeah, I could dig here...

After the educational part we took a dip in the wet `n salty. The Mediterranean is a whimsical mistress, but that day she loved us and we loved her back. Add a 2000 year old aqueduct running the length of the beach to that picture and it`s easy to see why we had such a great time.

The final act of the day was Ioanna`s birthday party in the garden. Considering that the next day was a Sunday and that you have a large amount of students packed together in one place with access to alcohol...well, you get the idea. The long haulers stopped partying at around 3 am. It had been a long final day in a long week, but it was a good day and a good week. On to the other three and any
curious finds they may bring us.

...and now it`s time for a cold maccabee at the shore of the lake!

Signing off

dinsdag 19 juni 2012

A sort of homecoming...

We`re finally here! The next four weeks I will be reporting to you from the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Despite the scorching temperatures and the pressing humidity, it still is great to be back in this place. Coming to the Karei Deshe guesthouse has the distinct feel of arriving back home: it has a comforting familiarity to it, which only veterans of the KRP will understand. The arches, the swallows, the wind...even the scorpions in the field seem to be exactly the same, but that doesn`t mean that nothing has changed.

The lake has grown a bit since last year. Due to a wet winter with some snowfall – of all things – the water level has risen again. The distance to the water`s edge is now a bit shorter; very handy for those of us who enjoy swimming under the stars. The heat is (for the moment) also a bit different. The air is usually dry, making the heat more bearable. This year however, the 40-plus temperatures are evaporating the waters of the lake a lot faster. All the heat and dust remains in the valley, making it more difficult to breathe. It was already noticeable on the first few days at the site and many of the volunteers took extra breaks to deal with the heat as a result.
These guys didn`t mind the high temperatures...

The most significant change is the putting up of a large fence across the garden. Because it was decided that there should be free access to the lake and that the compound should be fully enclosed for “security reasons”, there now is a fence between the guest house and the lake. The thing about having a fence thick enough to stop a raging bull is that it makes you feel ”caged in.” There used to be this feeling of moving towards a wide open space when walking to the beach, but unless we ”accidentally” mess around with some explosives, that thing isn`t going anywhere. No one (not even the staff at Karei Deshe) really like having this metal monstrosity obstructing the wide vista over the beautiful Kinneret, but the thing has to be there to comply with all the rules. At any rate it has been arranged so that we can go out and swim whenever we want.

Things on the dig site seemed to have remained the same. On our first day of working we collected all the tools and started with a bit of ”gardening”: the entire site had overgrown with weeds and thistles, so in order to actually be able to work, all these had to be cleared by hand. It was the first day of hard physical labour and with temperatures at extraordinary high levels (even by Israeli standards) the volunteers were literally feeling the heat. Since we needed to clear the vegetation first, there were no tents yet so every bit of shade became a valuable commodity.
Day one mainly consists of waiting - quite a long time - for equipment.

We did get the tents up the next day, but given the amazing (ahem) talent of the people here at setting up tents, it took quite some time. With the help of Elina, Jasmin and our new American friend Byron, we got some decent looking shade tents up, but we all agreed that ‘tentology’ was a course that should be taught academically from here on out.
Many hands (and proper motivation) make for light work.

That covers most of the preparations. Because we were done relatively quickly, we could get on with the digging. The main objective now is to get as much information from the currently excavated building as possible and that means tying up a few loose ends from last year (clearing bulks and finishing off last year`s squares) before we move to the mysterious North East corner.

On a side note, it has been mentioned by several locals that snakes are more active now because of the higher temperatures. Sure enough, when the staff first arrived at the site to assess how bad things were, they found a hole in the fabric covering the cistern and sure enough, there was a piece of snakeskin close by. As it turned out a snake had made its way through the fabric and fallen into the cistern. So we ended up with our very own snake pit. Fortunately our cistern specialist, Yinon ”The Caveman” Shivtiel, went down the first day to take some measurements and brought the poor thing back up. It was a harmless black snake, so no harm no foul.

So that`s all for now. We`re underway and making good progress so far. Adjusting to the heat will take a bit of time, but it`s not an insurmountable hurdle. More from the field will follow in due course.

Signing off.

zaterdag 16 juni 2012

Into the wide blue yonder…

At the moment it`s becoming very hard to concentrate on anything other than my imminent departure. H-hour of D-day is approaching fast. As I am writing this I cannot help but think that in 48 hours, I`ll be scraping the soil on a new excavation season. The waiting has a habit of stressing me out: have I got everything packed and ready for the off? I keep anxiously weighing my suitcase in order to dive the 23kg maximum set by Swiss. As for the 8kg max on hand luggage…well, let`s not even go there.

Saying goodbye is not easy on this one. I`m leaving just before Father`s Day, will not be home for my brother`s birthday (again) and to top it off we`ve just had a litter of kittens born this past week. On the other side there`s the fun times and important works in Israel. I keep getting that feeling of mild homesickness mixed with a double measure of anticipation and excitement. In the end, the latter will prevail, but for now I`m stuck halfway up the fence. So there`s nothing to do but double-checking and triple-checking everything I`ve already checked. This is dangerous because you`re bound to miss the things you haven`t checked yet and I can`t really afford to miss those for such a long time.

I`m ready to go there. Out into the wide blue yonder to get me some sun, a cold beer on a balmy night, some new friends, some answers and – most important of all – some great memories to last me a lifetime. This is where we write our very own little epic: one that only we will read in detail, of which only we see the signal importance. It will be of our good times, our hardships, our brotherhood and our burning desire to uncover the answers to our questions that will drive us – with a little help from Sirpa and whatever van she gets to race around with this season.

For now there is little more to be said. The luggage is packed and ready in the hallway, my gear packed nice and tight to the weight limit. All I need to do is get my impatient backside to the airport so I can go annoy the customs agents and the night shift workers at Starbucks. It may not be true coffee in the purist`s sense, but it is caffeine and boy am I going to need that stuff to get through the night and following day without sleep.

Just some final checks to be made and goodbyes to be said. The next time you`ll read something new on this  blog is when I am settled in at Karei Deshe. Enjoy yourselves in the mild weather while I go for slow-roast in 40-plus`. Oh, and eh... don`t do anything I wouldn`t do.

Signing off

donderdag 7 juni 2012

We happy few...

Most of what I`ve written so far concerns the material aspects of archaeological fieldwork. These aspects are more tangible and easy-to-write-about by their nature. The one post that hasn’t dealt with objects or locations, talks about how much crazy it requires to do fieldwork. But a vast amount of crazy is not sufficient to explain why people experience doing it as being something absolutely wonderful.
The crazy is an important part, but not the whole story...

What makes archaeological fieldwork so very special is the fact that it creates a profound sense of brotherhood. Despite being a somewhat charged and possibly even discriminatory term, few words better describe the feeling. It`s quite the miracle to experience: people will start out as complete strangers, but after four weeks of digging together they`ll part as friends and say goodbye crying. The logical assumption must therefore be that for some reason, it is a bonding experience.
This should not really be surprising: the crew are all engaged in heavy, intensive physical labour. They volunteer to suffer the same hardships, which betrays a similar mind-set. The crew ultimately works towards the same goal, but they go there via different paths. The site is divided up in squares of 5 x 5 meters, with up to six volunteers per square. Therefore, in order to get some idea of the bigger picture, you`ll have to talk to your fellow volunteers. This means that you have a guaranteed always-good conversation subject. This usually creates enough substance for a conversation and you take it from there. You eventually develop a similar sense of humour and you can accept things like sarcasm, cynicism and misogynist jokes better, because in the end it is a specific sort of caricature that becomes a joke in itself.
What else can one do in a classical theatre?

Something that also factors in the creation of this bond of friendship is the sense of a shared experience. Because you are part of a closely knit group, the feelings of compassion towards each other are more strong. If you lose your bank card or fall ill, there will always be someone to back you up, comfort you or help you out. Perhaps the best example of this comes from the 2011 season. One of the volunteers sprained her knee. Immediately people were scrambling to help and she was carried off-site to return to Karei Deshe. Afterwards, there were always people asking how she was doing and whether or not she needed help with anything. Most of the time though, she preferred to tough it out, which characterises another trait that you find among the volunteers: perseverance.
Despite being stuck with an injury to her knee, she kept trying to get back to the field when she was able. The time that she could not do so, was spent by bringing some sense of order into the project`s storage facility: a challenge of epic proportions to which she rose with gusto. Others also displayed a similar determination. We have had people that were literally ordered to take a day off by the directors, because otherwise they would certainly have collapsed from sleep deprivation. Despite being in a sorry state they still felt compelled to keep going to work, toughing it out purely on curiosity and determination.
This is what makes KRP great

These anecdotes exemplify the sort of attitude that prevails among the volunteers of the Kinneret Regional Project. Everyone always stands ready to help out when it really matters and it`s not generally accepted to roll over and just give up. Perseverance, dedication, compassion and a good sense of humour are the key elements that bind the crew. Some have said that it feels like being part of a family.
In a sense, the KRP can indeed be likened to a traditional family model. There is a `father` and `uncles` and a `worried mother` - sometimes strict but always just. Then there are the `older brothers and sisters` who work in the lab and therefore have a better idea of the bigger picture beyond the excavation season, and finally there are the `younger kids` who are either smart enough to enjoy what free time is given to them, or dedicated enough to want to help out the `older ones` in their work. It may seem a bit platonic to put it like this, but in terms of task division and the sense of dedication towards one another, it certainly rings true.

Why I find this important enough to write about is that this is one of the most valued things about archaeological fieldwork. The sense of cohesion is one of the core pillars on which the ability to do this kind of work rests. Without it, everyone would feel a lot more lonely and a lot farther from home. It is this bond of camaraderie that makes it so easy to reminisce together about all those crazy, wonderful experiences you had together. Just as a little craziness makes archaeology more fun, a little brotherhood makes archaeology so wonderful. With only nine days to go before we actually `go`, it`s this feeling that gives one confidence for the journey ahead. It`s among the key ingredients for this tingling sensation one gets thinking about all  that has yet to be unearthed.

Signing off