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Old rocks

September 8, 2017

I have had a lifelong fascination with history and archeology. It began when I was about five years old and my mother took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I touched the side of the small pyramid that is on display there and said to my mother, “Just think. Some little boy just like me touched this 4,000 years ago!” It was the first of many “just thinks” in my life!

When I first visited Israel, back in 1965, my cousins asked me what I wanted to see. Because I didn’t know the Hebrew word for antiquities (“atikot”), I told them that I wanted to see “avanim z’kaynim” (“old rocks”). Thinking I was nuts — after all, all rocks are old rocks — my cousins burst into laughter. It took me a while before I was able to make myself clear, and this has remained a standing joke within my family.


Starting with that first visit in 1965, every one of my myriad trips to Israel has included numerous visits to “old rocks.” Most of my friends cannot fathom my deep fascination with antiquities and at gatherings when I begin to wax eloquent about the subject, people have a tendency to immediately drift away to join other conversation groups, leaving me to talk to … no one. These experiences, however, only serve to make me more passionate about antiquities (particularly those connected with Jewish history, which form the bedrock of Western civilization) — probably as much a result of my contrariness as anything else.


Israel is filled with “old rocks”:  There are “old rocks” in museums; there are “old rocks” being excavated; there are “old rocks” yet to be excavated. Every time someone puts a shovel in Israeli soil there is a significant chance that antiquities will be unearthed. For as long as I can remember, it has been my dream to be one of those who unearths those “old rocks” by participating in an archaeological dig in Israel.


I subscribe to a publication called Biblical Archaeology Review. I recommend it highly. Every January edition of the BAR contains lists of all of the archeological digs scheduled for that year and that (here’s the best part) anyone can join. One may peruse the descriptions of the various digs and pick one that coincides with his interests and schedule.


That is exactly what I did last January:  I decided that since I am not getting any younger, now was the time for me to fulfill one of the major items on my bucket list and go on a dig. I found a dig that sounded fascinating and that coincided with dates that worked for me. This particular dig was a joint project between Tel Aviv University and the University of Leipzig, Germany. I contacted Dr. Alexander Fantalkin, the archaeologist who was directing the dig and applied to join the 2017 season of the excavation of Ashdod Yam.

Ashdod Yam is an enormous site sitting atop a group of dunes by the sea just outside of the modern city of Ashdod, a thriving port city about 25 miles south of Tel Aviv. It has been controlled by a succession of civilizations over the ages — Philistine, Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian. Dr. Fantalkin’s primary interest at Ashdod Yam is in the Iron Age, which is approximately the ninth to the sixth centuries BCE, when our site was under the domination of the Assyrian empire. (Don’t worry:  That is as much history as I intend to feed you.)

When I first contacted Dr. Fantalkin to ask if he would accept me on the dig, I told him that I was 73 years old, in reasonable health but overweight. His response was positive, so I signed up. I also decided that since the temperature on summer days in Ashdod is between 90-to-100 degrees Fahrenheit, I had better start getting myself in shape and ready, so, I lost 45 pounds (the dig was a personal success before I even started!).


As the time for my departure grew closer, I received an email from Dr. Fantalkin, including a list of things that I would need to bring with me. It felt like I was preparing for summer camp. I went shopping for boots, sweat socks and shorts that would survive prolonged close encounters with dirt, sand and rocks (I am willing to bet that Duluth Fire Hose shorts can survive a direct nuclear strike.)

The day arrived for me to report for duty. A group of us rendezvoused at Tel Aviv University for the 40-minute ride to Ashdod. In the minibus with me were two young German women students and a young woman who is an Israeli Russian immigrant. The dig had begun four weeks earlier and we were joining it for the final two weeks of the season. One of the two German women told me that she is in a dual program at Leipzig, studying law and Akkadian, the language of the ancient Assyrians. (If you find yourself in Leipzig needing a will written in Akkadian, you now know to whom to go; she will have the monopoly on that kind of work.)


We arrived just in time for dinner, where I met my fellow diggers. They were a mélange of undergraduates, doctoral candidates, teachers, chocolate shop owners, Americans, Israelis, Germans, Swiss and Canadians, ranging from 20 years old to the oldest (me). We stayed in a dormitory of what is, during the school year, a high school for naval cadets.


It has been over 52 years since I have resided in a school dormitory. They have not changed. Enough said.


This was my schedule:  4:30 a.m., wake up; 5:15 a.m., on the bus; 5:30 a.m., on site; 6:00 a.m., digging; 9:00 a.m., breakfast on site (salami, pastrami or tuna sandwiches, with assorted “crudités”); 9:30 a.m., digging; 12:30 a.m., sweep up; 1:15 p.m., on the bus; 1:30 p.m., back at dorm; 2:00 p.m., lunch; 2:30 p.m., wash and sort potsherds; 4:00 p.m., nap; 7:00 p.m.,  dinner; 8:00 p.m., a beer and a pipe of tobacco; 9:30 p.m., (blessed) sleep.


This was not exactly the life that I had envisioned for Indiana Jones!


The dig itself was divided into sectors, which were then sub-divided into Area C and Area D. Area C was headed by Owen Chesnutt, a dashing American PhD candidate (yes, “dashing” is an appropriate description for this particular archaeologist; when I learned that he is somehow related to Mary Chesnutt, the famed diarist, it only added to Owen’s aura.) Area D was headed by Eli Itkin, an Israeli PhD candidate with so much charisma that I will bet anything that he will be world famous in a few years. Simply watching Eli is an exhausting experience and he reminded me of nothing as much as the Tasmanian Devil on speed.


I was assigned to Area C, and given responsibility for an approximately 8’x8’ space. It was my job to clear away the dirt and expose the floor of what had been a room of an edifice whose function has yet to be determined. The first day I reached a level of ash on the floor surface, indicating some sort of fire or destruction. It was my first touch with the past of Ashdod Yam and I had the same emotional response as I had had when I touched the pyramid at the Metropolitan Museum when I was five.


“Just think. I am encountering a surface that was created by a person over 2500 years ago!” During the next two weeks, I found pottery shards, animal bones and (yes) old rocks, and each discovery hit me with the same degree of awe. I was touching the past; it was as if the millennia had merged.

I am not free to reveal specifically what I (or any of the others) discovered, since that must await final publication of the results of the site excavation (I have been warned that the rules in academe are so strict that violation might entail punishments too fearsome even for the imagination of Torquemada in his prime.) However, I can reveal that with each day that went by, the word of what we were finding was spreading through the Israeli archaeological community, because more and more archaeologists were showing up at the site to have a look around.


It got to the point where I could gauge the importance of each visitor by watching Dr. Fantalkin’s gesticulations as he was explaining site details. One day, I noticed Dr. Fantalkin escorting an elderly gentleman around the site (slightly older than I) and his arm waving was off the charts. In response to my inquiry, Owen Chestnutt informed me that the gentleman was Dr. Amichai Mazar.

At this point, it is only fair to tell you that I follow archaeologists the way some people follow rock stars. Dr. Amichai Mazar is a rock (get it?) star archaeologist, the excavator of Beth She’an, a Roman city that has been extensively uncovered. It is amazing; when (not if) you are in Israel, you must visit Beth She’an. When I heard who he was, I leapt up, ran over and grabbed his hand while telling him of my admiration. Later on, I realized that I was fortunate that Alex Fantalkin didn’t toss me off the dig, since my behavior was not what is expected of those who dig for ancient artifacts. I can only assume that he allowed for my amateur status and forbore accordingly.


I learned an enormous amount just by rooting around in the dirt, breaking stones and exposing shards of ceramics. One thing that I learned immediately was that I should not expect to find any coins, since coins were not in use when the Assyrian Empire held sway; the use of coins began around the fifth century BCE. (Just learning that fact alone made reading this column worthwhile, don’t you think?)


The point of this column was multi-fold. First, I wanted to show you how simple it is to join a dig, and how rewarding it can be. Furthermore, if I, a 73 year-old dilettante, can survive two weeks rooting around uncovering 2500-year-old mud bricks and making a fool of myself around distinguished archaeologists, so can anyone. Second, and more important, I wanted to tell you that if there is something that you have dreamed of doing but have held back because of a thousand reasons why you can’t, you should get off your butt and make it happen. You’re not getting any younger. The “old rocks” (or whatever is in your particular vision) will always be there … but you won’t!


Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.


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