Sheffield Students Invade Archaeological Excavation

By Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, Ph.D. Candidate

The biblical studies department at the University of Sheffield is unique in many ways. While I would love nothing more than to expound upon the virtues of such a stellar department, I will restrain myself; however, I would like to inform the reader of one distinctive element, one that can be summed up in one word – archaeology.   One of the many things the Sheffield biblical studies department is known for is its research into the history, historiography, and archaeology of the Hebrew Bible.  Faculty, such as Philip Davies and Diana Edelman, have placed the biblical studies department on the map, per se, of ancient Israel and Judah. The department offers various courses on the bible and archaeology, including affording undergraduate students the opportunity to take a module on the bible and field archaeology where they are taught how to excavate, not in a classroom but by getting their hands dirty; by this I mean the archaeological excavation site is the classroom. For 3 weeks students are taught on the field methodologies of an archaeological excavation and how it applies to their study of the Hebrew Bible.  For the past two years I have had the opportunity to teach this module.  This year not only did the number for undergraduates almost double from last year but a master’s level module was also added, this brought the total to 16 students.  In fact, we were the second largest group on the dig this year, coming second only to the Australians who numbered 23 students.

Tel es-Safi is one of the largest pres-classical sites in the southern Levant and has been identified as the biblical site of Gath, a Canaanite and Philistine settlement continuously inhabited from the late prehistoric through modern times.  You may recognize the biblical name of the settlement, Gath, as the home of the Philistine giant/warrior Goliath in the David vs. Goliath narrative in 1 Samuel 17.  Aren Maier, professor of biblical and ancient Near Eastern archaeology at Bar Ilan University in Israel, has been conducting the Tel es-Safi/Gath excavations since it began in 1996. The Sheffield department has been part of the Tel es-Safi archaeological excavation for 5 seasons.

Like previous seasons, the Sheffield group excavated in Area A and was given the goal to clarify the architecture in our sub area (A4).  In the past, the building we excavated yielded features and artifacts that were suspiciously cultic (i.e., used in religious functions).  It was speculated that this building was a temple used as early as the Iron IIA period (10th-9th century BCE) but this theory needed to be substantiated.  As a direct result of the Sheffield student’s work in this area, the temple theory has been verified.  In one of his latest blog entries, A. Maeir clarifies why this building is a temple: 1) its architecture (most significantly the two column bases) clearly indicates that it was designated for specific functions. Both its architecture and features are dissimilar to other buildings at Safi in the same time period or neighboring periods; 2) It bares striking resemblance to other cultic buildings found in the area (Tel Qasile, for example); 3) Evidence of cultic use was found in later phases or versions of this same building; 4) Within and immediately surrounding the building were various features that indicated ritual practices (i.e., plaster floors including finds, benches, pits, a platform with drainage channel, and metal production); and 5) Symbolic artifacts commonly thought to have been used in religious contexts (i.e., cult stands) were found.

One of the features immediately surrounding the building was a room that, when excavated, evidence of metal production was found.  A crucible, which is a container that can endure high temperatures in order to melt various materials, such as metal, glass, and pigment, was found.  Upon further excavation and sampling from the Weizmann science team, other remains of metal production were found, such as more pieces of crucibles, tuyeres (a pipe through which air is blown into a furnace or hearth), and slag material whose analysis indicates iron and bronze production.  Other interesting finds from the season include an amulet of the Egyptian god Bastet, numerous olive pit clusters, a carved bone handle, an interesting woven handle, a bowl, a painted lamp, part of a cultic stand with a profile of a human face, and numerous decorated pottery sherds.  All in all, it was a productive season and the students now have experience as field archaeologists.

On a more personable note, I think I can honestly say that a good time was had by all.   We flew to Israel before the excavation began so I could play tour guide for the students in Jerusalem.  Among the sites we visited were: the various quarters of the old city, the western wall, Hezekiah’s tunnel, the city of David, the Mt. of Olives, the Rockefeller museum, Yad Va Shem (the Holocaust museum), the church of the Holy Sepulcher, the garden tomb, and Ben Yehuda street, just to name a few.  The other weekends were spent at Ein Gedi where we explored Masada, Nahal David, and ‘floating’ in the Dear Sea; and either Tel Aviv or back to Jerusalem.

I strongly believe that a firm foundation in the geography and archaeology of ancient Israel and Judah can only enhance one’s grasp of the biblical text.   If you have the slightest inkling to explore and develop your understanding of the Hebrew Bible through archaeology, please do sign up for next year!

Cynthia Shafer-Elliott

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One response to “Sheffield Students Invade Archaeological Excavation

  1. Pingback: Cynthia blogs about the Sheffields at Safi « The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog

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