What's it like to go on an archeological dig?
At one point in my life, I said "yes" to my business partner to spending two weeks on an archeological dig at Bethsaida (Bet-sigh'-da in Hebrew) on the Sea of Galilee. "Beth" means "house of" and "saida" means "fisherman." In the Bible, it was the hometown of the brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, and a third disciple, Philip. The goal of the archeologist was to prove that his dig is really the location of Bethsaida. I didn't particularly want to go. It was March. It was dirty work, and it was cold and rainy; but I can't count how many things I learned and can now share with others.
We stayed at a farm kibbutz on the western shore of the lake. (Galilee was misnamed a "sea;" it is really a fresh water lake.) This kibbutz used to be a farm where many families lived and worked. Today, it's a hotel and museum. The rooms were plain, but the grounds were tropical and beautiful. The archeologist picked us up at 7 am; we bagged up breakfast in the kitchen; and we drove to the tell – the dig site. A "tell" is a mound or hill made up of layers of different cities of ancient times, one on top of the other. Cities were built on high places for safety.
We climbed over rocks and boulders to the top of the tell and worked with picks, trowels, brushes, buckets, and knee-pads. The archeologist had divided up the area with stakes and string and numbered them. We each would have our own work area. We would brush away the dirt from rocks and walls. Whatever dirt was loose, we put in buckets. A special bucket was designated for "finds," which included shards (shard is broken pottery), animal bones, and pieces of brick.
At 9, we'd stop and have our typical Israeli breakfast of bread, freshly picked tomatoes and cucumbers, cheese, lunchmeat, hard-boiled eggs, jam, chocolate spread, fresh sweet oranges, and Middle-eastern coffee, all at a plastic table with a jar of wildflowers in the center. Discussions at mealtime would vary. We might have talked about the blind man Jesus healed at Bethsaida. Or we may have discussed why Jesus cursed Bethsaida.
Later, we would dump the shards in an outdoor sink and wash and brush them clean. We would pour the buckets of dirt into a huge sifter and shake it, looking for smaller "finds," such as earrings or coins. Later, we'd take the pieces to a museum and sit on the grass beside the lake to categorize them. One of us would hold a shard, and the archeologist would categorize it. He might say it was a handle from the Iron Age, etc. Then one of us would record it on his laptop computer. We nicknamed this activity, "pottery reading." One day, we lay on the grass beside the lake. In the sky were dozens of storks soaring in circles. When the sun went down, we strolled along the lakeshore listening to the frogs.
In the museum, there was a special room where we could try to put pottery shards back together again to make a whole pot. We spread a box of shards out onto a table and began piecing them together. If a match was found, we would stick them together with white glue and tape and stand them in a small sand box to dry. Remarkably, my friend was able to find enough pieces to complete a beautiful round pot.
The environment was amazing. Many believe that Bethsaida is where Jesus fed the 5000. At this time of year, we saw it covered with beautiful multicolored flowers. It reminded me of Mark 6:40, where Jesus made them sit in "ranks," which, in Greek, is a garden plot.
The lake is close. It's only 8 miles wide and 13 miles long. It's 700 feet below sea level and surrounded by hills, so it resembles a large bowl. Sometimes it's very quiet, and then sometimes you'll see wind coming over the water from Arbel, coming through a channel as it has always done. We saw Galilee in all her different attitudes, rough and smooth.
In the mornings on our way to the site, we'd stop the car and try to spy a coney, sometimes called a rock rabbit. If we were very still, we could see them peeking out between rocks beside the road or acting as sentinels on top of a rock wall. That's how the Bible describes them: "The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies" (Ps 104:18).
So there we were, digging in Bethsaida, with no signs of civilization around us -- no buildings or roads. The only sounds were the sounds of our trowels, birds in the trees, the "moo" of a cow or the "hee-haw" of a donkey below us. It was lovely. This is what it was like and how it has always been.
It's been 14 years since our dig experience. Did we prove that this tell was really Bethsaida? Well, the sign at the entrance says "Bethsaida." It's open to the public with paths and markings and restrooms, unlike when we were there. Was it the home of Peter or Andrew or Philip? It could have been. They've identified a fisherman's house by the fishhooks that they found. At least we now know where we were digging: It was the top of a wall of a city gate. Later diggers continued to dig five more feet down to reveal the street of an ancient Old Testament city, called Geshur. That city gate is now one of the most impressive in Israel. We go back to Bethsaida every year to see their progress and to show off our work. Sometimes our travelers roll back their sleeves and dig for an hour. It's a one-of a kind experience.