Dance of the Desert: Masada and the Amazing Archaeological Expedition of 2020

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Dance of the Desert – the theme I chose for this blog post – is a celebration of life; it’s not a dirge for the dead or a lament for barren, long-lost lives.

At least that’s my take from spending two weeks digging on top of a mountain in Israel during February with a happy group of young and “more senior” archaeologists, students, and international volunteers – all members of Masada Expedition 2020 (see the links to my videos and photos below).

Led by Dr. Guy Stiebel (Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University), this season’s dig at Masada at first glance seemed less concerned than one might expect about discovering new evidence regarding what happened to the 967 men, women, and children, who Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (a contemporary living during the events) claimed were awaiting their fate at the hands of the Tenth Legion, as the Romans breached the citadel’s walls in the year 73 or 74 of the Common Era ((CE); (AD for Christians)).

(Spoiler alert:  Josephus reported that all but a few of the rebels committed suicide rather than submit to the Romans.)

Given the symbolic importance of the mountain to the modern state of Israel – “Masada shall not fall again!” – the fate of nearly 1,000 Jews who sought an elusive state of independence from an outside power on top of that remote promontory nearly two-thousand years ago serves as the subtext for just about any scholarly or scientific investigation there.  Moreover, because the so-called “Masada Myth” (a story disputed by some scholars) remains so indelibly intertwined with the creation narrative of the modern nation of Israel in 1948, the mountain’s popularity has grown to the point that it is now the most visited archaeological site in the entire country.  Nearly 7,000 tourists from around the world make the pilgrimage to the top of this spectacular shrine to “freedom” every day.

With this in mind, expedition director Guy Stiebel’s mission for this round of Tel Aviv University-sponsored investigations (first initiated in 2017) is properly focused not so much on how the rebels and refugees died, but on who they were, and perhaps more importantly, how they lived and survived during those harrowing times of the Great Revolt (66-74 CE).  By using a combination of the latest in scientific methods and old-fashioned physical labor (provided by archaeology students and history buffs like me), Guy’s teams have made a number of fascinating discoveries – not only about the diversity of those living on Masada during the revolt and the nature of their refugee-camp living conditions – but also about later inhabitants, such as Christian monks, who led monastic lives in long-forgotten caves serving as silent cells of devotion.

It was great fun to be working outdoors in a such a stunning setting with an enthusiastic group of professional scholars, students, and retired folks.  A real international “geek-fest,” the participants (about 30 my first week and two dozen my second) represented the nations of Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Israel.

I have to admit that it was the most physically demanding, sustained activity that I have participated in during the last 20 years.  However, the extra time spent at the gym in the months leading up to my departure for Israel was well worth the investment and helped prepare me to accomplish my tasks without injury – and left me asking for more.  The result is that the rigorous work, intellectual discourse, and fun on top of the mountain and below in the classroom were nothing short of exhilarating.  In addition, I accomplished my personal goal of walking up both the “snake path” on the eastern side of the mountain (about 1,000 vertical feet) and the less challenging Roman siege ramp on the western side.

The days were long.  Pottery washing (of the previous day’s finds) at 6:15 AM, followed by breakfast at 7 AM.  After collecting personal gear and expedition equipment from the office at the base of the mountain, catch the first gondola at 7:50 AM.  Back down off the mountain, with the equipment and the day’s pottery finds secured in the office, around 3:30 PM.  Shower, rest; then coffee and chocolate at 5:45 PM, and a lecture by a visiting scholar at 6 PM.  Dinner at 7 PM (every meal 100 percent Kosher).  Archaeology class (mandatory for Tel Aviv University students) at 8 PM.  Guy then conducts his nightly “pottery readings,” categorizing, and recording of “finds” from 8:30 PM until sometime before midnight (a bit blurry-eyed by then, I would attend only two of these late-night sessions).

I thoroughly enjoyed each of the evening lectures and the personal one-on-one conversations with Guy Stiebel, who is clearly the world’s leading scholar-archaeologist not only regarding Masada, but also with respect to the Roman military system and Judea during the Herodian and Roman periods.  The personal interest he took during his busy schedule was a real treat – showing me for instance how to employ “sensory” archaeological techniques, such as “tasting” pottery to distinguish between rock and man-made items (hint:  the real stuff is salty), ascertaining whether you’ve dug down to a dirt-packed floor or bedrock by listening while you tap on the surface with your trowel (although quite hard, dirt floors make a thud, whereas bedrock rings with a “ting”), and identifying imported terra sigillata by lightly grazing the pottery across your lips (e.g., the broken edge of the imported item is rather smooth and doesn’t cut your skin like a Judean-made object might).

These were learning experiences that I will never forget (although I expect that I will have little opportunity to put such skills to use back here in Northern Virginia).

Unfortunately, I failed miserably at Guy’s efforts to teach me how to identify pottery by period and culture (at least within any reasonable margin of error).  It took me a couple of days just to get the hang of distinguishing between a rock and something other than a rock (no duh. . . that’s pretty important, Bruce!); and a few more days to recognize the difference between basic Byzantine pottery and stuff that wasn’t (which might have had something to do with the fact I was combing around in the Byzantine stratum at the time).

Then, I learned from my area supervisor that ancient Judean pottery-making techniques, while adequate for creating functional items, left an imperfect tell-tale black membrane between the outer and inner layers when the clay was fired in the kiln.  During the second week, I got around to recognizing the difference between basic storage pottery and that used for cooking (the items used for cooking looked a bit chard . . . now you’re thinking I’m a bit slow on the uptake. . . and you would be right). 

Finally, I came around to accepting the fact that a handle or a rim of a jar, because of their unique designs, were more useful in identifying items than a mere chunk from the side of some pot.

To be honest, watching Guy and the other experts quickly identify freshly dug-up “finds” during the day — or witnessing them sorting and recording mounds of pottery during the late-night “readings” — was akin to watching an alchemist turning lead into gold.  At the time, I recalled the old farm-yard adage about the pig looking at a wristwatch:  he knows something’s going on inside there; he just can’t figure out what.  Now I know how the pig felt.

On a more serious note, I particularly valued the leadership, organizational skills, and mentoring provided by Angela Hodson, who, as both my area supervisor and the Expedition’s administrative officer, was privy to very little sleep during her month at Masada.  Although I was a newcomer to archaeological field work and an unknown quantity as far as Tel Aviv University was concerned, “Angie” and her colleagues treated me with extraordinary kindness and generosity of spirit throughout.  In addition, I learned a great deal from the young archaeology students, who tirelessly worked on their hands and knees alongside me.

In short, I had a blast during my time with Masada Expedition 2020!

* * * *

VIDEOS and PHOTO ALBUM

A Note on the Photos and Explanatory Comments 

While the photos, captions, and videos will provide you with a sense of what it’s like to work on an archaeological site in Israel, I need to be circumspect about providing any cogent summary regarding the major “finds” and the functions of the individual areas.  First of all, I’m obviously not an expert.  More importantly, for reasons related to intellectual property rights and administrative restrictions vis-à-vis the governing Israeli authorities, the publishing of archaeological finds and making judgments about the function of specific areas on Masada fall under the purview of Dr. Guy Stiebel and Tel Aviv University.  Guy will be publishing his reports in the months ahead; and he will be coming out with a new book on Masada later this year.

Due to these sensitivities, as you review my photos, I ask that you not download them or post them on social media.  However, please feel free share a link to this blog post with friends and interested colleagues.

Clearly, I take full responsibility for the information, videos, photos, and comments in connection with this blog entry; and they do not necessarily reflect those views, perspectives, or conclusions of Dr. Stiebel, his staff, or Tel Aviv University.

When you are ready to experience Masada Expedition 2020, just click on the links that follow:

Dance of the Desert:  Masada (introductory YouTube video)

Dance of the Desert:  Masada and the Amazing Archaeological Expedition of 2020 (picture album on Google Photos with commentary)

NOTE:  In order the read the entire caption for each photo, I suggest that you click on the little “i” in the circle (“Info”), which is located on the top right-hand corner of your screen.  In fact, it’s probably useful to keep that “Info” panel open as you advance through the photos.

The Snake Path, Masada (YouTube video of the last four minutes of the scenic hike)

Bucket Brigade (YouTube video demonstrating how the Area B team moved a lot of earth and rock.  Watch out for those buckets!)

Top of the Mountain:  Roman Ramp, Observation Tower, and Western Palace (YouTube video “finale” for this presentation on Masada Expedition 2020)

I hope that you will enjoy the photos, videos, and music!

* * * *

One last observation about my experience in Israel:

Despite continued trials in the region, life goes on with gusto in the modern state of Israel – particularly on the part of the more youthful segments of its population.  A nation of unexpected diversity, it’s amazing how the seemingly chaotic Israeli democracy continues to flourish in perhaps the most turbulent corner of the planet.  I believe that this can be attributed in part to the thirst by its younger generation to live life to its fullest, despite whatever tomorrow may bring.  However, the principal reason for the continued success of the Israeli nation remains the commitment held by a majority of its citizens to the central concept of “freedom” symbolized by Masada.

During my nearly three-week stay in Israel, I dodged the beginning stages of the Corona virus (some Korean tourists on Masada were later quarantined. . . but we had avoided them at the time); students conducted a mass rally near the Roman fortifications at the western foot of Masada, demonstrating for the return of Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian terrorists; the nation held its most divisive but inconclusive election in years; and Hamas-supported militants fired several salvos of missiles from Gaza at targets in Israel located to the west of us (happily, all out of range).

At times, while working, I would look up and catch glimpses of Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers, having just taken off from airfields located in the nearby Negev Desert, flying on low-level routes through the Judean mountains to the west, or over the Dead Sea to the east.  Several, no doubt, were en route to targets in Gaza and Syria.

One day, I noticed several of the pilots rocking their wings with typical Israeli military swagger, as they roared past the tourists and archaeologists a short distance away.  As a retired USAF pilot, I watched with some envy as these Israeli combat aviators were obviously violating fairly common flight safety norms, I sensed, in order to provide a brief salute.

By performing their own Dance of the Desert in the brilliant blue sky, it’s as if these pilots were signaling to those of us standing atop this historic and sacred monument, “Don’t worry. . . we’ve got this.  As far as we’re concerned, Masada shall NEVER fall again!”

I watched one such flight of fighters suddenly drop out of sight over the sun-drenched horizon, and I thought to myself:  “Clearly, the Spirit of Masada lives on today.”

* * * *

Warmest regards and shalom!

– Bruce

* * * *

P.S.:  You are always welcome to visit other blog entries on this site — BruceSlawter.com.  They are usually listed to the right of your screen; but depending upon your device, you may have to scroll down to the bottom of the page before they appear.  Cheers!   

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