Places to go: in to the dirt

When you talk to people who have been to Israel on any kind of organized trip, they will most likely tell you, “Oh, we had the most amazing tour guide! You must use him/her!” Becoming a tour guide in Israel requires an extensive education. Here’s one description:

“The courses usually cover geography, geology, geomorphology, from pre-history through the various bronze ages, iron age, early Israel period through to destruction of 1st Temple (with visits to sites), Judaism, Hellenistic and Roman period, destruction of 2nd Temple, Christianity, Byzantine and Persian period, Islam, Umayyad, Ayubid, Fatimid, Crusader, Mamluke, Ottoman periods, rise of Zionism, British mandate, State of Israel and its wars and current affairs.” Two languages – English and Hebrew – are the absolutely minimum required, of course.

Israeli tour guides need to know a lot about a lot and therefore tend to be pretty smart, knowledgable people, so when you go to Israel and you have someone with you who can tell you all this cool stuff about this cool country, you are usually very impressed.

So I want you to understand that I know what I am talking about when I tell you that my tour guide is actually the most amazing tour guide. His name is Karl.

On the second day of the tour when we first met him, we went on a walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. Those usually happen on Shabbat, and include walking to the Old City from your hotel. As we walked along the sidewalk of the road running outside the walls towards the Jaffa Gate, Karl stopped, and started poking into the dirt above the small retaining wall, around some plants. After a moment, he dug out a piece of pottery.

He then explained that the whole country is basically built on top of older cities and the ground is filled with broken pottery thousands of years old, Roman glass and even coins. Of course we all started poking in the dirt, unearthing pottery and tiny bits of glass. Karl showed how we could identify the Roman glass by how thin it was, and by its patina – oxidization that occurs over time.

Small pieces of Roman glass with patina

There are many places in Israel where there are no actual excavations and nothing of real value to professional archeologist, but to some tourists, this is incredible stuff. Karl taught us that, pretty much wherever you go, kicking around in the dirt will often reveal something of interest. At one place, while the park guide was giving us an introductory talk in the parking lot, many of us wandered slowly around the lot, scuffing at the dirt. At the edge, almost in the grass, I found a piece of pottery sticking up. Karl helped me dig it up, revealing not only a broken piece of pottery, but an ancient coin. The coin is very old and in very bad shape, so it is hard to identify and worth nothing – except to me!

Mystery coin

I’m pretty sure that the Israelis wouldn’t be happy if tourists started hauling away whole pots, or poking through active archeological digs and sneaking off with stuff, so I want to emphasize that is not what I’m talking about. But the country is literally filled with broken bits of ancient pottery that is no good to anyone, except a keener tourist.

If the idea of digging in the dirt for treasure really appeals to you, you can also visit one of the many archaeological digs in Israel. We did this the last time I was there, travelling to Tel Maresha in Beit Guvrin. An archeologist named Hilary brought us down into caves that were being excavated, taught us how they dig and then let us do a little of the work. Digging up against a wall, I found several large piece of pottery with soot on one side that the archeologist explained was likely a cooking vessel. It was so amazing, touching pots no one had touched for 2000 years, that I told my family I’d be staying right there and they could pick me up next time they came back to Israel. Here she is explaining what we might find:

We also got to crawl around in dark, unexcavated caves, which was only terrifying at first, and then awesome. The path had been mapped out by the archeologists and the way was lit by candles, so I knew there was nothing really to be afraid of – unless you dislike small, dark spaces. Later, Karl and my husband (who has gone caving with Karl previously) outfitted the kids in our group with flashlights attached to their hats and took them into a different cave not manned by the archeologists. The rest of us stood around waiting in the dark, wondering how many children they’d lose, but they all made it back, exhilarated by the adventure.

There are artists who make gorgeous jewellery from Roman glass and, of course, you can always buy coins, glass and pottery – of better quality and intact – in the many antiquities stores around the country. But for me, there’s nothing quite like the broken pot handles and shards of glass I found myself. It makes me feel the tiniest bit like Indiana Jones.

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