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I was fifteen the summer my folks took me to the airport and waved farewell, as their number one son set off on a journey halfway around the world. I had no traveling companions, there were no cell phones, but I had traveler’s checks, a suitcase packed to the packing list, and a clear set of written coordinating instructions from Tel Aviv to the hotel in the Arab sector of Jerusalem. I was the first of three siblings to take roughly the same journey on the same archaeological expedition over a bit more than a decade. Remarkably, my folks had no serious reservations about turning me loose on the world, in an era of hijackings and occasional Cold War flavor terrorism.
I was on the first wave of a biblical archaeology mission, in search of the city of Ai. This walled town had the misfortune of meeting the Israelites when they were still following the devastating divine plan for clearing and holding the land. Ai (Joshua 8:28) was burned to the ground, along with Jericho (Joshua 6:24) and Hazor (Joshua 11:11). Why search for Ai?
At issue was the trustworthiness of scripture, the accuracy of claims about historical events. Early twentieth-century archaeologists had asserted that their finds of what they believed to be Jericho, Ai, and the associated city of Bethel, showed no signs of an armed invasion around 1400 BC, so the whole biblical narrative was unreliable.
We were family friends with a pastor and archaeologist, Dr. David Livingston, whose ministry my parents helped support over the years. Dr. Livingston set out in the 1960s to challenge the reigning scholarly consensus on dating the Exodus and Conquest. A close reading of the biblical texts, together with close study of topographical maps, suggested that earlier scholars had stuck their spades in the wrong spots. Livingston argued that they did not find a heavy burn layer, with pottery shards and other indicia of the proper time period, precisely because they were actually excavating different cities.
As it happened, by the 1970s, the proposed revised location for Bethel was too close to a current Arab community. The proposed location of Ai, on the other hand, was only used to graze sheep. Put a pin in that fact; we’ll encounter the sheep and a shepherd’s work later. So, it was politically possible to get permission to dig, under an Israeli government archaeologist’s over-watch.
Getting ready to go
As we read Dave Livingston’s newsletter describing the planned first dig and appealing for volunteers to go in the summer of 1979, I expressed interest. My folks knew I was fit enough (I already ran every day) and trusted my maturity, explaining that this was going to be hard, serious spadework, not a vacation. A phone call between my father and Dave settled the matter, as I recall.
So, I needed to get a passport and to defray some of the expenses. This was before the airlines were deregulated and prices became competitive. I was going to need a hotel, food, and a little spending money. I recall seeking a small grant of some sort, with the support of my school science teachers. My obligation was to give a report on the trip. I did so, with notes and a slide show.
My father had a solid basic 35mm SLR camera, with which he entrusted me. I took a number of color slide film rolls. Back then, you had to be careful about the shots you chose, because there were only 24 or 32 shots per roll. When you transported the film, you had to have it in a separate clear plastic bag to pass around the x-ray machine for manual inspection. Run it through the x-ray machine a couple of times and you just might get fog on your clear sunny shots.
I took a couple of small spiral-bound pocket notebooks, pen, and pencil to jot down each roll number and what each shot or series captured. I still have some of these squirreled away, along with the slides. I have not gotten around to converting these to digital images. While it was my first time using a real camera, more than a Brownie Instamatic, the photographs were generally in focus and properly exposed.
The packing list, long lost to me, specified at least one pair of work gloves, sturdy footwear, a brimmed hat, sunscreen, band-aids, over-the-counter pain/fever medicine, a couple of rolls of antacid, and a box of anti-diarial tablets. We were expected to be largely self-sufficient, ready to take care of the minor inconveniences incident to travel and manual labor.
Leaving on a jet plane
The flight was in three legs: SeaTac to New York to Rome to Tel Aviv. I traveled in coach, but that was quite comfortable in size for a teen with a little growth left on me and a body lean from daily running. Somewhere a flight got delayed, so I ended up spending several unexpected hours in Rome waiting for an El Al flight. This made quite an impression on me. I have two strong visual memories.
My first impression was of the cavalier conduct of the uniformed Italian security service. They patrolled the concourse in pairs, with compact assault rifles, submachineguns if you will, slung over their shoulders. These young men were carefully eyeing every pretty girl they strolled by. Two teams met and the nearest worthy swung his barrel up to lightly poke his pal in the gut. Making this extra special, the fellow had his finger inside the trigger guard, curled lightly around the trigger. It was a sight to fill one with confidence.
Truly, I did feel quite confident in my security, as it was an open secret that some of the very fit and efficient young men and women around the El Al counter and gate area were true armed professionals. It was in the gate area that I saw an elderly gentleman in Hassidic garb bent over in his seat, being tended to by his family or traveling companions. Someone was transferring some heated red wine back and forth between two paper cups to cool it as a medicinal dose, hoping to make him fit for the flight to Israel.
I have no recollection beyond those two brief mental video clips, as I was a bit concerned and reviewing my coordinating instructions closely. In the world before cell phones, and before much of the deregulation that swept both air travel and telephone services, you needed to set times and places to meet, with fallback plans and phone numbers to be dialed from pay phones for brief communications at stiff prices. My contact was not going to be at Ben Gurion Airport, having picked up several of the gathering crew on schedule. So, I was going to have to turn traveler’s checks into local currency and catch an airport cab to Jerusalem.
You’re not in Kansas
The cab ride was an exciting journey in itself. My driver was Arab, identifying himself as Palestinian. He had a different color license plate, so stuck out to security services. The interaction at a checkpoint or so was a bit tense but professional. The taxi was a Mercedes diesel. I gathered that Israel mostly ran on diesel, simplifying fuel supply and turning every gas station into a potential military refueling point in war.
I arrived without incident in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. The hotel staff was friendly and professional. A manager, possibly with the hotel restaurant, made the point, when someone asked in my earshot, that he considered himself Palestinian, not Israeli. Yet, we were perfectly safe as a bunch of mostly evangelical Christian young people, with a few middle-aged members including our leader, Dr. Livingston.
Tell me about it
We all gathered for breakfast very early, to beat the heat. We got a basic orientation, including warnings about what not to eat or drink to avoid gastrointestinal distress. The breakfast was new to me, I remember cool yogurt and cucumber. We filled five-gallon jerry cans with potable water and loaded onto a bus for the short drive out of town to the target hill mass. The daily schedule would be to work from shortly after dawn until the mid-day heat. Then, back to the hotel, clean up, and out on internally directed tours of the roughly 3000 years of archaeological history in the old city.
We were accompanied by our Israeli antiquities observer/watchdog in his own vehicle. I believe there were another couple of professionals, whether local or part of the party from America. The first day was spent carefully marking off several excavation areas in standard grids. We would work our way down in cleanly defined squares, pealing the tell’s secrets back one careful layer at a time.
A “tell” is a hill, a mound, created by accumulated levels of settlement and dirt or sand covering the bedrock. If you are very fortunate, you get thousands of years, identifiable by pottery shards distinct to a given period and maybe some coins or other artifacts. If you are not so lucky, and if the bedrock is pretty close to the surface, you may find that successive groups of inhabitants shoved the old stuff down the hillside, starting clean and leaving history in a jumbled heap downhill.
We began carefully digging, loading sturdy rubber buckets, and then carrying each to a screen framework to sift out any artifacts. The buckets were constructed of used tires and called “goofas.” Each artifact had to be cataloged against the grid square and depth by the trained members. Most of us volunteers were just attentive hands and strong backs. We worked without any armed security, something that would change over the decade of my family’s participation. We shared the hill with a shepherd and his flock.
It was a grand adventure for me for several days. Then I woke up with a most unpleasant feeling. I spent the next day in my hotel room, chewing my way through the pink tablets. I was not alone in this discomfort. Several of us had fallen ill at the same time.
Remember the sheep? The shepherd had dipped one or more of our five-gallon water jugs in a well, to water his sheep. The well water was non-potable, thanks to the sheep. The water jugs had to be sanitized with bleach and then more closely watched.
We found a variety of pottery shards and a few Roman-era coins but knew that we were only the groundbreaking crew. This project would take years, as volunteers would only be able to come and work for two or three weeks each summer. Archaeology is, of necessity, slow, careful work, not rapid earth-moving.
The volunteers’ reward was a tour of Israel, a Holy Land tour with an archaeological and biblical scholar guide. Beyond the structures still bearing witness to historical events two millennia or more in the past, and the geography, two things stuck with me.
One was the interaction between our Arab bus driver and the Jewish Israeli police at occasional checkpoints. He would pretend not to understand Hebrew. They would pretend not to understand Arabic. They might have settled on English if I recall correctly. This was without any heat, that I could tell, just a background-level dispute.
The other was a truly ancient stone tower, constructed in the shape of a fez or upside-down flower pot. It had been unearthed from the tell formed by around 10,000 years of accumulated dirt and sand. This simple structure was a token of the truly ancient history still waiting to be unearthed in the region. It was also a reminder that human beings have been killing and stealing other people’s stuff since the beginning of our race. That is why you need to take time away from hunting, gathering, herding, and cultivating to build a strong tower into which your people can run when raiders approach.
I was the first of three siblings to make the trek to dig on that same tell. Over the decade, the hotel area became too dangerous for the group. A decade after my adventure with the first season dig, my youngest sister came back with pictures of the two young Israeli Jewish guards, with their Uzis, who provided security on the dig site. It may be that local security conditions changed significantly, or it may be that this little group of mostly evangelical Christians from America had come to the attention of malign local forces. This little project, advancing year after year, was a threat to the Arab Muslim myth that Jews were strangers and interlopers in the land. If a site could be shown to be Ai and to have a burn layer around 3400 years ago, then the facts on the ground would support the account in Joshua as history rather than myth.
The organization that Dave Livingston helped found, Associates for Biblical Research, claimed in 2019 to have made a strong case for Ai at Khirbet el-Maqatir. This was the other possible site Dr. Livingston outlined in a short paper, “Locating Biblical Ai Correctly,” where he also made the case for Khirbet Nisya. Khirbet Nisya was the first site excavated, the scene of our story. Khirbet el-Maqatir was excavated over two periods, from 1995 to 2000 and 2009 to 2011. Livingston ended up disagreeing that the latter site matched terrain described in the book of Joshua closely enough. At the same time, he acknowledged that Khirbet Nisya had been scraped, possibly repeatedly, by successive occupants, destroying or jumbling evidence downhill.Published in