Archaeology and Education – Tell es-Safi interview compilation

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With Middle School students, examining a Lamassu (winged bull) in the Assyrian Exhibit, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have had the privilege to visit the Tell es-Safi excavation for two days this summer (July 12&14, 2016). Even better than the visit itself was the opportunity to interview a few archaeologists, each responsible for either this or other sites.

As a Jewish Educator, it really interested me to learn about their perspectives on the importance of archaeology in general, and specifically towards Biblical studies. What we  learn from archaeology? For the teachers among us – not limited to classroom teachers, but a parent, spouse or friend, planning a museum visit – what can we do differently, with this knowledge in hand? Even if we can’t actually be on the site, ourselves?

Before I get on with the interviews, I’d like to share a personal thought. I am developing Jewish Programs in Museums. For the high school level, this includes lessons in class, which culminate in a museum visit, with a focus on archaeological artifacts which relate to a Jewish idea, be it a biblical story (Assyria, Babylon, etc) or a concept (Art, Wisdom, Destruction, etc.). For adults, it means visiting a museum with text in hand.

When I tell people that I’m going to visit, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they often respond in wonder “What is there to see in the Met, which has any Biblical significance?” Most of us just go straight to the overwhelming amount of art galleries, and perhaps walk through the Greek and Roman art, without contemplating the significance they might have to the encounter of Judaism with those cultures. Those statues are decorative, otherwise the hallway to the big pond with the coins would be boring. Perhaps if your kids are reading Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan’s five-part series, 2005-2009), there might be something closer to home about Greek art. It amazes me that people don’t realize the wealth the museum has to offer in terms of archaeology of the ancient world, that that there would be any Biblical significance there. I just found out, for example, that the Ancient Egyptian collection at the Met is the largest in the world, after Cairo (if what their plaque says is accurate). The few hours I’ve spent there were not enough to even scratch the surface, and I can’t wait to go again.

Temple of Dendur (ca. 15 BDC) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


It is here that I wonder: What can we as parents, teachers and friends, share with those who would hear us? How can we show – not just what has been found – but what has been found out, how it impacts our understanding, and how it connects us to a broader scheme of things? After all, if we are not part of this grand story of unfolding history, then what is the point? Please join me, as we hear from three different archaeologists. I’ve decided against grouping their answers based on the questions, and am giving the stage to each one separately, so you may enjoy the entire interview. These articles will be followed up with the edited video footage, but that will have to be no earlier than October 2016. However, I will be providing some pictures, and if you get to the end of the article – an exciting youtube link awaits you. Let’s begin.

(Disclaimer: Some of the information about the professors is taken from Wikipedia, even if slightly modified)


Interview with Dr. Aren Maeir

Professor at Bar Ilan University

Director, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project (

Director, Minerva Center for the Relations between Israel and Aram in Biblical Times (

Co-editor, Israel Exploration Journal

In addition to Tell es-Safi, Professor Maeir has participated in, and directed, numerous archaeological excavations in Israel, including at the following sites: Jerusalem, Hazor, Yoqneam, Tell Qasile, Beth-Shean.

What is the value of archaeological excavations in general, and specifically for Biblical studies?

Archaeology, in general, is a science in which we study the past. It is not just a study of the past, I think, all people are interested in their roots. Old cultures, old people – it is important to understand where you come from, your past, who your grandparents were, etc. And archaeology allows us to extend this generations behind. And it helps us sort of understand the basic roots of who we are, what we meant to do, where we came from, etc.

What is nice about archaeology is that, not only do we know about the past, but we know about the past in a tangible manner.

Taboons, or ancient ovens, in Tell es-Safi

You get a tangible way of seeing the past. You can actually touch the objects from the past. I can see buildings people lived in thousands of years ago. I can pull out a pottery vessel someone used 3,000 years ago. So I think it’s a very, very powerful tool to study the past.

Unearthing a shard

In the context of Jewish heritage and Jewish studies, it provides a way to not only study texts and speak about our heritage in abstract manner, but to be out in the field, or see it on a webcam the actual remains. And it turns something from being theoretical to something dusty – and real. And these things are dusty here, because they are just uncovered, but not because they are old and forgotten. And I think that the power and experiential processes that people go through when they are discovering things from the past – and you can pick up shard – and this shard is from the time of Yeshayahu, and this shard is from the time of David haMelech, this one is from the time of Ezra and Nechemia, or the Maccabees, this gives you an experience that you’ll never forget. And I think that that’s the power to connect between the archaeological remains and the heritage.





And I think that the power and experiential processes that people go through when they are discovering things from the past […] gives you an experience that you’ll never   forget.


What has Tell es-Safi contributed to our understanding of the Biblical narrative?

First of all, it is a site which is identified as Gath, one of the five cities of the Philistines known from the Bible (Introduced in Joshua 13:3, and then several times throughout Judges and Samuel), and we find here substantial remains of the Philistines and their culture. And more specifically, we can talk about various historical events that are mentioned in the biblical texts, such as the conquest of Gath by Hazael which is mentioned in II Kings 12:18, and we can find the remains of the destruction of the site at the time. We know of the importance of Gath to the Philistines in the stories relating to David, and after David, and we can find the remains of a very, very impressive city at the time.  We hear the story of David who is escaping from Saul, and meeting Achish king of Gath – faking mad – and we excavate the gate of Gath. Even though it is not necessarily the gate in which that happened (David writing on the doors of the city – I Samuel 21:11-16) – nevertheless it gives us a nice idea of what a gate at that time looked like. Again, to a certain extent, it is as if we are taking the biblical story, and putting flesh on the bones. Whereas the biblical story is a brief description covered in many, many meanings. And when you can actually put the physical remains and connect them to it, it makes it much more understandable and much more vivid.

Based on what is found here, what can a teacher do differently in their classroom?

I think, first of all, I think the fact that you can say “Let’s read this chapter in Sefer Shmuel (Samuel), and then I’m going to show you these find about the people that we talk about – the Philistines – what is more vivid than that? And for kids, you can show a picture of a house – that’s a little boring – but if you shore the picture of a jar, or a big collection of pottery found on the destruction level, that fires their imagination.

What is your message to a student or teacher who are thinking about coming to a dig?

First of all, they’ll have the experience of their lifetime. They’ll have an experience that they’ll tell their children and their grandchildren about when they’re older. Second of all, it will allow you to have a direct way of connecting between the text that you read – whether it is the Tanach or the Mishnah – whatever you are dealing with, any ancient Jewish text – and the actual lives of the people who were involved in it. It is turning something – not into a text that we read and feel in our time – but we can see the lives of the people who wrote the text in front of us. And it turns it into something more tangible and more alive.

This is an issue, particularly, I think, for educators; this is the problem today of attention span. With a 3.5 second attention span that most young kids have, if you don’t provide something that catches their imagination, it is not the regular thing that we see – of you can move them out of the regular classroom, the regular pedagogical tools that you have, and suddenly pull out an object, or through the web bring them to an excavation, or actually bring to an excavation, it changes the whole way that they’ll look at the text. It changes their attention. It moves them, it takes them away from screens in many cases. And this is a tool that I think can turn – you can stay within textual studies, but still do something different, you know, do something which is combining textual studies with the physical aspect, whether the actual work, or the feeling that the text has also a physical representation. Because very often the texts are looked at as dusty pages from 2,000 years ago. What is its relevance to me today? So besides trying to explaining the relevance from an ideological point of view, you can show that these texts represent people and things and objects. We can come here and live the context!


Interview with Dr. Jill (Citron) Katz

Clinical Assistant Professor of Archaeology, Yeshiva University

Academic Advisor, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University

Dr. Katz has excavated at several sites in Israel, including Ashkelon, Tel Haror/Gerar, and most recently Tell es-Safi/Gath where she currently serves as Area Supervisor for Area P. Her research interests focus on the nature of Israelite leadership during the time of the Judges (Iron I period) and on emergent urban life during the time of King David (Iron IIa).

What is the value of archaeological excavations in general, and specifically for Biblical studies.

I think that Archaeological studies are a good compliment to historical studies. In the sense that, it comes at you, the general approach is that this is reflecting the elite culture, maybe the male culture, but this is something that is written by the victors. And so, there’s whole swaps of people and of life that are not really reflected in history.

Historical studies […] this is reflecting the elite culture […] something that is written by the victors. And so, there’s whole swaps of people and of life that are not really reflected in history

So, you know, you can find out what the kings and queens were doing, and what the elite were doing, but you don’t necessarily know what the average person was doing.

So I think what the big advantage of archaeology is that, we have the opportunity to really reflect, and find the remains of almost everybody. Certainly we can excavate a palace, we can excavate a temple, but there is a lot of emphasis, particularly today, in excavating a farmstead, investigating just the daily life of regular people.

The number one find that we find in archaeological sites are ceramic remains, pots. Ceramics is something that everybody used, it was ubiquitous.

A king or queen – they would have fancy pots. But the average person still had to use pots for storing food, for preparing food, serving food, eating food. Everybody was using it.

So I think the best thing about archaeology is that it reflects sort of the general population as well as the elite population. And it reminds us that, you know, most of us are not necessarily in the elite. So you get a sense of what the majority of people were like.

And for biblical studies?

For Biblical studies, again, Tanach – it’s about the Jewish people. When you read Shmuel or Melachim (Kings), these are like the annals that were kept, recording the lives of the kings and of the important events in their reigns. I think that archaeology, again, provides a really nice compliment, in the sense that archaeology reminds us that the average people, they were farmers. They lives an agricultural lifestyle. When we excavate, we see that aspect of that. And we are reminded that it is not just wars, battles, palace intrigue and that type of thing. But, that we were able to really reconstruct daily life. We see the foods that they were eating, we see the houses that they were building, and get a great appreciation that for most of this early part of Jewish history, probably up until the middle ages, Jews were basically self-sufficient. The family was a self-sufficient unit. The family provided all of its clothing, all of its food. And this is what we can see on archaeological sites.

What has Tell es-Safi contributed to our understanding of the Biblical narrative?

Ok. So this site, is a wonderful site. I think the first thing that anybody coming to the site would notice, and I’m actually looking at the upper Tell right there, you have the lower tels spread below us, and Emek haElah (Elah valley) right to my left here, is you get the sense of the scale. This is a huge site in the ancient world, something on the order of 500 dunam (around 123 acres), which is probably around ten times the size of Jerusalem in the Iron Age I period (1150-1000 BCE, estimated time of King David and King Solomon). The philistines were formidable. Even though they were just in the southern coastal plain, they were a real power. They came and built large cities, cities that were fortified, cities that were, again, very self-sufficient, and would have dominated the region. So I think that working at Gat, and knowing that we are really at the beginning of the foothills, you get a sense of what the Israelites living in the hillside must have felt when they looks down from the hills to the foothills, and knew there was this huge city there, with a population that was well organized, and quite affluent, on a relative scale. You were dealing with a culture that was different, but in other ways it was similar.

It was different, because we know from here that they ate pork. They actually ate dog. We know from Tanach that they weren’t circumcised. But in other ways their lifestyles were very similar. They diet was very similar. They had a strong emphasis on wine. They were also producing olive oil to use for their light, you know, all the legumes they age, the wheat, the barley. These were things that were common to this whole area.

And the ceramic evidence, which at the beginning when the philistines first arrives was so strikingly different from what is being unearthed in the Israelite sites. Later on we see, one of the most interesting thing is that we are so used to the fact that wherever Jews are, they sort of assimilate to the local cultures. And here at Safi we have evidence that it is the Philistines, actually, who are assimilating into king of the larger Judahite culture, over time.

In what way?

They adopt the Judahite style of pottery. It becomes much less Philistine, much more Judahite. At the site, a number of years ago, we found some philistine writing, and we find that they are writing using the [Hebrew] aleph-bet. And, most likely, we assume that over time they even adopted circumcision. In Tanach, later on, they are not referred to as “the uncircumcised” in the same way that they are in earlier periods.

The horned altars that they use [symbol of Safi excavation] is something they are borrowing from Judah. Language, dress, all kinds of customs, are thing that become more Judahite.

There is mention in Shoftim (Judges) 1:18-19 that Judah gained control over Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron and their area, but not the dwellers of the valley, for they had iron chariots.

Is there any evidence of that?

Dr. Maeir examining remains of the ancient iron workshops

That is actually a really timely question, because right behind where I am working, they have what they consider what of the earliest iron workshops in the land. And it is Philistine, and I definitely recommend you go and take a look.


I don’t know about the chariots, we don’t have any evidence of that. The one thing about iron is that because it rusts it is very rare for you to find ancient iron. Over time it just disintegrates. Even today, you find bullets from ‘48 and they are already mostly rusted. So you can imagine that form 3,000 years ago – it’s not going to be very much.

But what we do find are the remnants, the detritus, the leftovers from the iron forging process. The slags. The crucibles in which it was forged. That is taking place right behind me. That is taking place, they are expanding this. It is the earliest attestation in the Land for iron use. It seems that the philistines did have a little advancement on technology. We don’t know if they are the ones who invented it, or they got knowledge from where they came from. But it does seem that they had this technology before it spread to other parts of the Land of Israel.


Based on what is found here, what can a teacher do differently in their classroom?

Close up of a fragment, from the iron making process

I think that what archaeology, sort of the essence of it, is the material remains. We have two types, there are the portable remains, like ceramics and any kinds of small find that we can take away. And then we have the architectural remains. And so, I think that being able, you know, that’s where you can advance the teaching, I think. It is through using the material items, either as replicas, or showing pictures. Give the sense to people that in so many ways, their lives weren’t so different…history is a foreign country. You’re right, they did live different lives than we did today. But in some ways there is essential humanity. They still had to achieve their daily needs, and that is much of what their lives revolved around, just like today. It is about making sure there is enough food to eat, that there is a home, a shelter above them, clothing. And then you get a little sense of the personality when you find some kind of exotic item or something they made that is unique to them. So you see there is also this human need of creative expression, as well as to hold onto something that maybe makes you a little bit different.


But I think that what archaeology forces you to confront is that, again, in Tanach, this is an agrarian society. That is, most of the people are living as simple farmers, and in fact, that is the life that is reflected in the Mishnah and in the Talmud, and we kind of tend to forget that. We think of Judaism as always being urban, living in these cities, merchants, traders and involved in commercial activities. And the truth is that it leaves 1,500 hundred years, which, depending on how far back you want to go, is about half of our society. We were farmers. And that is what is reflected at these kinds of sites.

What is your message to a student or teacher who are thinking about coming to a dig?

I would say definitely come. It is something that you know, at this site, we have all ages. Everybody can participate. And the amazing thing about it is that we really do not know what we are going to find. And the only way to find what’s here, is to dig!

It is the only way to find out.

I think that just being able to touch the material, to get a sense of the earth that the people were living in, and to touch the material culture, to touch the vessels that they were using, to find a lamp that you know that somebody used to light their room so they could, maybe read by, or work by; to touch a grinding stone and say “this is what women were spending so many hours of their day doing, grinding their wheat, so that she can make the bread for her family”. I think it really brings you close to the actual life, the daily life, of the characters of Tanach.


Interview with Professor Dan Warner

Dan Warner is the Director for The Michael and Sara Moskau Institute of Archaeology and the Center for Archaeological Research, professor of Old Testament and Archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a co-director of the Tel Gezer Water System excavation and preservation project. He has also served various roles on other excavations at Tel Kabri, Megiddo, Tel El Farah, Gerar, and Ashkelon.

What is the value of archaeological excavations in general, and specifically for Biblical studies?

In general, of course, archaeology is important to me. I’ve been doing it for the past thirty years, all over the State of Israel.

Basically, it is exploring the ancient world. It’s showing you the heritage, it’s giving you the culture, the settings, where you came from. So it offers a lot to the general public in relationship to understanding even where we are today. So it’s a very broad area, but at the same time it can be specific to one culture, one ethnic group. So it offers a lot of ideas of where we came from and even where we’re going. Very significant.

Specifically, since I’m in the area of Biblical studies, archaeology in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, it explains, illuminates, it helps us understand and comprehend the biblical text. So it puts a picture with the text. It draws an illustration…it fills in the gaps that the Bible sometimes doesn’t tell you. So you’re actually handling the physical remains, the material culture, you see the walls. For examples, like Joshua came into the Land of Israel, and they sent the spies in, and they came back saying there are giants in the land, and the cities were too well fortified. What does that word “fortified” mean?

Well, I’ve excavated two major fortifications: One at Ashkelon and one at Tel Gezer, and they are huge earthen ramparts. The one at Ashkelon was over 105 feet tall, the one in Gezer, over 100 feet tall, sloping, massive earthenworks. And they were all plastered white. So “fortification” – when you read that word you think of maybe a nice little wall–but these were massive structures in the time of Moses and Joshua.

That is just one illustration of what archaeology can do for you.

What has Tell es-Safi contributed to our understanding of the Biblical narrative?

Tel Gath has proven itself to be a gold mine of cultural elements that we’ve read about, and people have talked about. But now you actually get to pick them up and handle them in your hands. You get to see ceramics, you get to see the houses, you get to see the fortifications.

Tel Gath has proven itself to be a gold mine of cultural elements that we’ve read about, and people have talked about.

That just gives you a unique picture of who these Philistines were: What their expertise were, what their ideas were, their ideology. It’s a lot more than just reading the word ‘Philistine’. Now you’ve got a whole set of objects and material remains that you can associate with them.

Based on what is found here, what can a teacher do differently in their classroom?

What I always emphasize is a picture. If a picture is worth a thousand words, why aren’t teachers using more illustrations? So anything that you can illustrate with the biblical text, so they can get a visual image – they’ll never forget the visual image. They’ll forget the words, but the image will stay there. So if you can show them the wall, show them the pottery, show them the temples – wow.

But, the other key thing, something that I’m doing, is reconstructing them. If we can make a visual encyclopedia of the ancient world, we’re doing that with Tel Gezer, I’d like to do it with other sites and with Jerusalem, so that I student can walk inside, see the walls.

My company is called “The Virtual Bible Project”. I’ve already launched several different programs with a program called Logos – Bible Software. I’ve just finished Solomonic Temple, Gezer, and I’ve got a ton of projects coming up. A person can just go the the website and download a program.


What is your message to a student or teacher who are thinking about coming to a dig?

Cities are never located because it’s a nice place to live. In the bible, there are over 2,000 cities mentioned. All of them, when the people built the cities, they knew whythey were building them, where they were located, what the significance was. We just read “Gath”. But if you don’t see where it connects… it connects with the international trade route, which is right in front of their door. Same thing with Gezer, where I am. All these cities were located because they were near trade routes, they were obviously near water, but they had to have farming lands for farming, and defenses.

Cities are never located because it’s a nice place to live […] when the people built the cities, they knew  why they were building them,  where they were located,  what the significance was

Once you get the visual pictures – everybody thinks that Israel is nothing but a desert, nothing but a bunch of rocks. But then when you come here, and start looking at the sites, you say “Oh, now that makes sense!” Then you can go back to the Biblical texts and you can read about Gezer, Megiddo, all those places, and make a connection.

So the Land is what we call “The Fifth Gospel”. You can have the text, you can have the artifacts – but it’s the geography – that’s what makes it come alive.

So I’d encourage everybody. Get over here on one kind of trip. Specifically if you’re going to teach biblical studies – it’s a must! You’re losing one third of the context. Very important!

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