Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Tale of Tell Halif

Anthropology is the holistic study of humans from a variety of angles. One aspect that is common to many anthropological approaches, and which was particularly instrumental in its early phases, was the study of the “other”, people who seem foreign to us. They may live on islands far away or just down the road. How can we get to know them? How can we understand them? Yes, today there are also indigenous ethnographies and we may seek to explain the known people in anthropological terms. Many anthropologists have abandoned a fascination with the “other” for a rationalistic explanation of human phenomena. For some, archaeology may seem somewhat more certain and not directly involve the uncertainties of dealing with humans. After all, we’re mainly concerned with artifacts. And yet, we can also approach archaeology as an involvement with the “other”, trying to understand people not only separated from us culturally, but also removed from us through time.

In archaeology, it is never enough to describe how societies may have worked. It is not enough to posit possible subsistence strategies, political organization, social stratification and even ideology. For in archaeology we are invariably confronted with the flow of time and have to explain how things came to be and how they changed. That is, we have to write history. Not that archaeology is history; but it contributes to it, and at times may be the main source for historical reconstruction. It does so from a standpoint that is particularly its own—the study of cultural remains.

History explains the past and the flow of events through narrative, through relating events and happenings in a framework that makes sense to contemporary listeners of its own culture. As such it is not necessarily universal, and not final. Historical narrative will require revision in new circumstances.

As a discipline related to anthropology, archaeology not only has the evidence drawn from material remains to offer, but also an approach that is sensitive toward the “other.” Not that we can achieve much through the dogmatic “scientificism” that has pervaded so much of anthropology; not that restrictive theories and exact calorie measurements can tell us about the past. But if we allow ourselves to be immersed in another culture, allow ourselves the view into a differently-viewed world even through tiny windows, then we can begin to understand what life might have been like at times and places different from our own. We may even give voice to people who have no voice, at least not in our world. Our staid views of the past and the present may become unsettled; we may be forced not only to re-imagine the past, but also the present. For if we go to another place, we will never be the same when we return to the familiar.

Many of us who have participated in archaeological excavations would have come across stories jokingly imagining what could have happened long ago to leave the things we now find. Many of these are fanciful, never to be taken seriously. But in all this there is a curiosity, an urge to know about the lives of people who left their mark on the earth. Sometimes, to enter their world, we have to tell stories to make sense of their lives, to try to understand the artifacts within their wider setting. Indeed, without those stories, the artifacts become sterile, just curious objects, not remains that tell us about the past. Without the stories, the fascination and romance of archaeology quickly wears off, and we quickly fall into a routine or a race for recognition. It is the stories that drive us to search for further clues that frame the mysteries we’re keen to investigate. And hopefully they lead us to careful investigation, to the consideration of alternatives, and the openness to revise the stories themselves.

I have worked several seasons at Tell Halif, Israel, as part of Phase IV of the Lahav Research Project. Situated at the intersection of the Coastal Plain, the Negev Desert, the Judean Hills, and the rolling hills of the Shephelah, the tell was occupied from Chalcolithic times and used intermittently right up to modern times. Now a kibbutz sits on its flanks.

At the end of the 2009 season, I was reflecting on what we had found during the weeks of excavation in the area I was supervising. I wanted to make sense of what it meant, for the people back home and for me. I wanted to relate the finds to events in history. That’s when a narrative formed.

But before I get onto that, I briefly want to mention what we uncovered. The top layers of the area contained many potsherds, as is normal on tells in the Middle East. Notable was the significant amount of Roman-Byzantine pottery. We also found a nice iron tool not far from the surface. Soon we came upon a well-laid wall. A semi-circular installation was built against the wall. The installation was laid on top of a cobble surface. Once we removed that floor we soon hit another surface level, this time a beaten earth floor. It also seemed to have been in use with the wall. Through an examination of pottery found in the wall and under the two floors, we concluded that they were all constructed, and were probably in use, during Roman times. Mixed among the debris, and also occurring under the floor levels we found several figurine fragments, usually associated with Persian times. Very little evidence of occupation during Hellenistic times was uncovered. The most significant finds relate to the Iron Age. We found a floor covered with dozens of vessels. We found a bread oven, flanked by stones. All this appears to have been covered by a sudden destruction, as houses collapsed on rooms and fire ravaged the town.

I wonder who last used that bread oven we've excavated. She would have had no problems lighting a fire in the oven. I can see her now on that last morning, bending over the bread oven and slapping the flat loaves she just formed against the walls in one swift movement. Outside, the enemy was waiting. Nobody knew how long the city could hold out. But life had to go on. People needed bread. And so she had risen early as she did every morning, had ground the wheat, mixed in the sour dough, formed the loaves. She had taken the dry dung from the outside and started the fire. The little ones were still sleeping, her husband on duty at the city wall. Maybe they shared a last meal in the morning. The bread oven was getting cold as she prepared for her other tasks. And then it happened: the attack of the Assyrians. That morning they were successful, breached the wall, plundered the city and drove out its inhabitants. They set it to the torch. Houses collapsed covering the living spaces with a layer of ash and burnt mudbrick. That's what happened to the bread oven, too.

And the woman? Maybe she was deported to the furthest reaches of the Assyrian empire. She might have never seen her husband again after that fateful morning. Her children went with her into exile, but not all of them survived the hard journey. Their descendants may still live in a small Iranian town, celebrating anti-Israel day each year, ignorant of the twists and turns of history that have cast them to that land.

The bread oven was covered, but life returned to the tell. Making use of the old walls, people built on the rubble, maybe a foot above the old floor. They did not live here for many years before the city was again abandoned. We do not know why, but caught in the rivalry of empires, the kingdom of Judah had to change. And then came the end for this little nation. Just over a century after the Assyrian invasion, the new Babylonian empire devastated the land and razed its capital to the ground. All hope seemed to be lost, the land a waste, only jackals and owls now inhabiting the ruins.

But it was not the end: Babylon was overrun by warriors from the East. The Persians destroyed the rapacious empire. And they sent the exiles back to their home country. So life returned once more to the tell. The settlement was not as big as before, people did not fortify the city again. While the prophets would have rejoiced to again hear the shouts and laughter, the quiet word and reverent prayer, the sounds of life, they would have been incensed at the idolatry, the little gods and goddesses that now flaunted themselves on this tell. For now people came to this place to make their offerings before statues, to bless the rider of the clouds and the mother goddess.

At a time when Jewish nationalism fought with the dominant Hellenistic culture, the city of Rimmon was moved to another hill, maybe two miles to the south of the tell. As the Romans took control of the land, that new city started to flourish. But the site of the old city was not forgotten. A few families moved here again, now calling it Tilla—the tell. We don't know why, but they built one of their houses above the kitchen, still covered by the destroyed remains of earlier centuries. They even dug a trench to place the foundations of their sturdy wall. Nobody even looked at the crude pottery that came up. The floor of compacted clay and earth sealed the traces of a former time. The years passed and season followed season. There was peace at last and no war destroyed the walls.

As the father of the house returned from a visit at a villa in the plains, he looked at his house, the drab mud floor, the sparse furniture. And he decided that night that things would change. It may have taken him a month, but later that year the house had a cobbled floor and an ample platform to work on. Now he only needed the new furniture. The ceiling was a bit closer of course, for fill had been placed upon the mud floor and the cobbles laid on top of it. But it did look a lot more dignified. It would have been at this time that news of a healer and preacher would have come from Galilee. Of course, a new prophet arose every other year at that time, but he was different. His stories showed their God and their writings in a new light. Even though he died a criminal's death in Jerusalem, his message continued, the community he formed grew.

There was no city on the tell when Christianity became the state religion, when churches sprang up in the towns and cities. That was the time in which the settlement to the south, Abu Hof, flourished. People still came to the tell. They took the stones from old walls to use in their houses and started to farm on the hill. The wall of the Roman house suffered, too, and many of its stones were removed. The hole was filled with rubble.

Centuries passed. People still came to the tell. They farmed its flat surface; they lived in the caves around its perimeter; they built defenses to survey the plains and gullies. And though people may still have wondered about former times, its history was forgotten—until archaeologists began to excavate and to find traces of lives lived long ago, until they began to relate these traces to the shreds of information about the history of this land.

Tim Frank
Lahav Research Project (staff member)
Mississippi State University (MA student)

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