Reflections on a Day at the Dig

By Monday, September 25, 2017

PLI 2015 alumna Kari Miller is a recipient of Philos Project scholarship, and participated in an archaeological excavation at Tel Shimron in Israel over the summer. Here, she reflects on her work. Applications for winter scholarship awards are open until October 31. 

Archaeology is hard work. It is certainly not a pleasure cruise, and definitely not a vacation activity I would recommend for the faint of heart. Each day begins in the darkness of early morning, and even though it becomes habit after a few days, that does not mean I wake to the chirping of the alarm at 4:30 A.M. without resentment. After trying to shake the sleepiness enough to get ready for the day, eat a granola bar, and trudge to the bus to sit down next to someone still in the same half-asleep stupor I am in, it crosses my mind that I chose an interesting activity for my summer break. And this is before the real work of the day has even begun.

After being dropped off at the dig site, You have to make it down the hill to collect supplies without tripping in the pre-dawn darkness. The last few minutes before sunrise are spent peering into the square from above, listening to the instructions for the day. As the sun begins rising over the tel, bathing everything in a soft, pinkish glow, work has already begun in the square, tools in hand.

By 7:00 A.M., I realize two things – it is not normal for a person to be this sweaty and this dirty this early in the day. Also, there are muscles in my hand that I didn’t know could ache so much. Apparently, I wield my trowel (the best friend and constant companion of an archaeologist) with a death-like grip, and therefore my right hand is getting the beating of its life.

Each hour on a dig is long, yet the day is short. Digging is broken up by water breaks, breakfast, and every time an item of interest is uncovered. After 8 hours of digging, there is still work to be done after lunch. The hundreds of pieces of pottery collected during the day at each of the squares around the site have to be scrubbed clean of hundreds (or even thousands) of years of dirt in order for the time period to which they belong to be recognizable. Every once in a while, a distinguishing characteristic (a rim, a handle, or an elegant design) will make a pot sherd stick out from the rest. But mostly, it becomes a rush to finish washing all the pieces before the bus comes back around to pick up all of us dirty, sweaty, and tired archaeologists.

I am realizing that my description of a day in the life of an archaeologist would probably make any sane person ask, “Why bother?” But the truth is that doing archaeology is like starting a conversation with lives that are long gone. Digging through layers of dirt every day brings us down to remains of Byzantine wall, then a Roman one and finally Hellenistic remains. Beneath that appears layer after layer of inhabited Middle Bronze Age surfaces.

As a student of history, the stories of the past fascinate me. But so often, they are about the big names that have been passed through the years in historical records and eventually textbooks. Even studies of cultures paint peoples in broad brush strokes, and the student can get lost in the generalities, forgetting the individuals who made up each past culture.

Digging through history breaks down those generalities. As I dig through a surface of a Middle Bronze Age dwelling, I potentially am the first human to come into contact with these floors since their owners thousands of years ago. Each potsherd belonged to a vessel that was used every day for practical purposes by a person made in God’s image. I am in the home of a person just like me, separated by a few thousand years and some technological advancements. I am reminded that the people who lived here had hopes, fears, and dreams just like me. Each day only makes this more apparent as I grow in my knowledge of the Middle Bronze Age culture and learn that it was the custom to bury the dead underneath the dirt floor of the family home. Each home represents lives lived, but also lives lost. Parents who lost infant children. Children who lost parents. I begin to feel like I am merely a visitor in this space belonging to people no different than me.

It is a privilege to participate in learning bits and pieces of these stories. It takes me literally digging in the dirt and encountering real, tangible pieces of history – a potsherd, a bead, a bone – to really engage and remember the humanity of these people from the past. By participating in this dig, I am bringing new life to stories long covered in the dust of time. I am making connections and breaking down the generalities that haunt the study of history.

Unfortunately, people seem to be pretty bad at avoiding generalities, past or present. They are written into history, and I know I am guilty of generalizing myself. The only thing that breaks down generalities is relationship. For me this summer, it was learning about and building a relationship of sorts with the people of the past who made and dwelled in a Middle Bronze house. But in the course of my (brief) travels in the Middle East over the last several years, I have learned that relationship is one of many essential pieces to any hope for lasting peace in the region, and especially in Israel.

Conflict is plagued with generalities – Israelis vs. Palestinians, Muslim vs. Jews, good vs. bad, us vs. them. This makes it seem like if you are Israeli, you are obliged to be against Palestine, and vice versa. But this is not the case. I’ve met Israeli tour guides on both ends of the spectrum – those who wanted to whitewash Israel’s history with Palestine, and those who were brokenhearted over the trials of Palestinians and wants to see Israel do even more to help. Clearly, there are Palestinians who act in violence, but this does not make all Palestinians violent. These generalities can only be broken down by meeting and understanding real people.

I will not pretend this is easy. Spending hours of hard labor in the hot sun for tiny glimpses into the life of a long-gone individual is not easy either, but it is worth it and it has grown my understanding of history as well as humanity. The only solution for Americans who truly seek to understand the complications of the Middle East is to invest in building relationship with people on both sides of the fence. And maybe I am preaching to the choir here, because Americans, as well as Israelis and Palestinians, who are serious about seeking peace and solutions are already the ones who are engaged in conversation with both those who agree and those who disagree with them. But I know the conversations and the relationship building cannot stop because it is the only way forward.

History is written from a compilation of information about individuals, which we then understand as a big story in a greater context. The same is true of conflict resolution. It begins with individuals knowing and caring about one another and grows to a larger solution. It is the only way forward.

Kari Miller

2015 Philos Leadership Institute participant Kari Miller is a May 2015 of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark. She holds BA degrees in history and biblical studies/theology. Although biblical history is her favorite period to study, she also enjoys learning about modern history. Kari was raised in Colorado Springs, Colo. and loves most outdoor activities, including running, hiking and camping. She even spent one summer working as a whitewater raft guide on the Arkansas River. Kari spent the summer of 2014 doing archaeology and refugee relief work in Jordan and she hopes to continue to do these things in the future.