Not Long Now

Lectures are written, databases are downloaded and the bags are packed.  The start of the 2012 field season is just around the corner.  My favorite response when I tell people I'm off to dig?  "Oh, you are going to dig up dinosaurs!"  If only it were true!

I'm sharing here an interview with Daniel Master, one of the excavation's co-directors.  In it he talks a bit about how he got into archaeology and the lure of Ashkelon.


The BAR Dig Issue started it all. I had visited Israel before, but I had little idea how archaeological excavations worked. So I picked up a Dig Issue and looked at the options. Several excavations appealed to me; I applied to three. I later learned that dig applications were not particularly competitive, but what did I know? I set off for the first dig that accepted me: the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

Ashkelon had a field school run by Harvard University, but aside from academics, the volunteers were housed in a lovely hotel near one of the nicest beaches in Israel. Who could ask for more?

When I got there, I found that things were even better than I had anticipated. My first morning in Ashkelon, the professor I had read about in BAR, Lawrence E. Stager of Harvard University, introduced himself: “Hi, I’m Larry. Welcome to Ashkelon.” In BAR, I saw the archaeologists as titans, but in Ashkelon the “luminaries” of the field simply treated us as part of the team.

Looking back, I can see that early in that first summer I was already hooked. The fresh air, the outdoors, the physical exertion and the touch of the past kept me first to the field in the morning and last to the hotel in the afternoon. I remember the area supervisor wielding his trowel like a scalpel, scraping a little grey dirt from a little brown dirt, or making vertical sections of sand that were straighter than any soil I had ever seen. The process of archaeology was an art, not a quick and easy subject you could just learn about from a book, but a craft requiring years as an apprentice. I resolved to absorb all that I could, to make my sections straighter, my excava tion cleaner and my eye sharper. Even sweeping a dirt floor (again) or taking another pass with a pick was part of the larger process of becoming an archaeologist.

As soon as I returned home after that season, I already wanted to return. Fortunately for me, my parents indulged and the excavation accommodated.

Over the next few years, as I became the supervisor of a square, I saw that excavation was not just about the craft of digging. Now I was meeting the new volunteers and building them into a team; I was trying to piece together an intricate 50-square-meter three-dimen- sional puzzle with half the pieces missing. Now I was asking: How did this wall corner? Why does this floor stop here? Should we use a big pick or a brush for the next five centimeters? And, most impor- tant, how can I make sure that I write down enough that the next excavator will be able to reconstruct what I have uncovered?

Whether we were excavating a Roman bathhouse or the destruction of Nebuchadnezzar, all of us—staff and volunteers—were uncov- ering stories that had been hidden for millennia. Slowly, carefully, the history of the site was coming into focus. It was during these years that I decided that archaeology might be more than an avocation for me, so I began a graduate program in the subject. During my Ph.D. studies, I was challenged to use the clues from the field to uncover mysteries of the past and contribute to our common humanity.

Before I knew it, the years had passed, a few graduate papers had been written, and I was excavating not 50 square meters, but 400, and not as a student but as a teacher with my own students. I had finished my degree and moved to Wheaton College, a small school with a long history of archaeology. Once there, I saw the artifacts from Tell Dothan, a rich site in the West Bank that Wheaton had excavated but never published. Fortunately, a publication grant from the Shelby White-Leon Levy fund allowed us to put together a final report team, coincidentally made up entirely of people I met during my first season at Ashkelon. The publication process opened my eyes to another vista in archaeology. The objects yielded more and more with deeper study, and the digging, the records and the artifacts gained new life in the book, contributing even more to our under- standing of the past.

After Dothan, it was time to return to Ashkelon. With the help of a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, we restarted the excavations at Ashkelon in 2007. It was another opportunity to be on an expedition with Larry, but now I would direct the new excava- tions while he would spearhead the publications. When I was a volunteer, I practiced the craft; as a square supervisor, I focused on the record keeping and teamwork; as a grid supervisor, I investigated the big puzzle; now, as a director, I set out to design a research program for the site of Ashkelon and build a team to carry it out.

As I stepped back and asked larger questions, I appreciated the uniqueness of Ashkelon: a Mediterranean seaport, one of the largest cities in the southern Levant, a city of merchants and gardens, and home to Canaanites, Philistines, Romans and Crusaders. I also gained a fuller appreciation for the work that happens before and after the season. Operating a dig is almost like running a small company dedicated to exploring the wonders of history, or, as my wife calls it, a second full-time job.

The final chapter has not been written. Larry and I have just finished our third season together as codirectors; the first two volumes of the Ashkelon final report appeared in 2008; and we look to the future with the continued partnership of the Leon Levy Foundation. Already our renewed excavations are rewriting the early history of the Philistines. More final report volumes are soon to appear, and more excavation seasons are planned. And this summer, the story will continue as many of you jump from the pages of BAR into an adventure of your own at Ashkelon.

Daniel M. Master is associate professor of archaeology at Wheaton Col- lege in Wheaton, Illinois. He began working at the site of Ashkelon as a volunteer in 1991 and now heads the project’s field operation.


Some will love it, some will not.  Everyone will be dirtier than they have ever been before.  Can't wait!  The plane leaves in 5 days!