When Daniel Master, professor of archaeology, goes to Israel to excavate, he’s used to starting his day at 4 a.m. He spends the first hours of the morning talking to students and visiting scholars as they wake up and prepare for another day of uncovering ancient cities.
Fourteen Wheaton students and 30 researchers from around the world joined Master this summer in Shimron, Israel. They were working on an ongoing excavation co-directed by Master and Mario Martin, professor at the University of Innsbruck, uncovering ancient neighborhoods buried under a mound. As they dug, the team came upon a large ancient monument, preserved perfectly, that garnered international attention.
As the team began to dig into the monument, they found mudbrick passageways under it, including a vaulted one with stairs leading downward. Usually, Master said, finding foundations of such structures is common, but finding entire corridors like these is “really, really unusual.”
“I’m going to have to convince my students that this isn’t what archaeology is like,” said Master. “Because normally, you’re just finding the little remains of these bits and pieces of the foundations of houses.”
Master said the monument wasn’t what they were expecting. Typically, ancient cities were built on top of each other, so when excavating the top of the site, Master expected to find that same pattern. Instead, they found an “acropolis” with nothing else built on top. It could likely have been seen from the entire northern part of the country, Master said.
The end of the vaulted passageway is blocked by unsteady rocks and soil that will require the team to spend the next several years of excavation digging down to uncover whatever it is that the passage leads to. Master told the Israeli press in August that the building and passageway the team found seem to have been purposely sealed soon after their construction.
Master and an international team of archaeologists were the first to excavate it when they moved there in 2017 after finishing up a 25-year project at Ashkelon, also in Israel. He chose to move his team to Tel Shimron, a small northern village that was isolated from the Roman civilization they found at the large, Philistine-founded city of Ashkelon.
Master’s team includes researchers who hold doctorates in botany, animal bones, and soil chemistry. Others are working on engineering projects or performing spatial analysis. Jordan Ryan, professor of New Testament, went along as the head researcher for the Roman period and Stephen Moshier, emeritus professor of geology, is the team’s geologist. Together with the students, the scholars spent the humid Galilean mornings uncovering ancient superstructures, arches, and passageways under the ground.
As dawn breaks around 5 a.m., the archeologists chatted over cookies and instant coffee, get out their pickaxes, and began to dig. They stopped for breakfast around 9, worked, then stopped for lunch at 1. After lunch, some researchers washed uncovered pottery from the day, while others analyzed and processed artifacts, seeds, and animal bones.
The Wheaton students who went on the trip attended classes some evenings, after the digging day was done. Every night, professors on the excavation team and visiting Israeli professors gave lectures on their specialty subjects.
Civilization in Tel Shimron, which is located on the northwestern edge of the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel, dates back to the Bronze Age. It was once the largest site on the main ancient trade route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.
Hannah Stralow, a senior studying biblical archaeology, joined the department trips to Tel Shimron for the past two summers. This year, she went as an assistant supervisor, helping other students learn how to dig. She also worked on a Mamluk cemetery from the fifteenth century and a middle Bronze Age palace construction underneath.
“There’s nothing in between,” said Stralow. “It went right from Mamluk Cemetery, immediately underneath is 3,000 years earlier.”
Since leaving the site, archaeologists and scholars are continuing the work of deciphering the meaning behind the monument. On campus, the students work on recording and analyzing the summer’s finds in the archeology lab.
Ryan, who worked on the site and provides guidance to senior students as they perform post-dig analysis, said the work at Tel Shimron extends beyond what they find onsite. He said he sees excavation of the Levantine region, which refers to the geographic region along the eastern Mediterranean shore, as crucial to understanding ancient history alongside texts.
“Yes, the things we find from the first century are interesting for New Testament interpretation,” said Ryan. “But we’re also interested in the past beyond that, in what those who went before us can teach us about what it is to be human, about how we form our identities, about what it was like to experience poverty to experience being under empires in the past.”
Master said students from any major, and from colleges across the country, are welcome on the summer trips to Tel Shimron. This level of research project, he said, is rare for a small school with limited resources.
“What we’re doing here is advanced research,” he said. “As advanced as you’d find anywhere in the world. So the archaeology that we’re doing at Wheaton College is second to none.”