Tel Achzib —
A Mock Excavation That Really Works
by Megan Valentine
For my bachelor’s degree in history, I attended Harding University, a private Christian college in Searcy, Arkansas. In the fall of 2009 I took what was probably my favorite class at Harding University. This course was an Honors Bible course focused on Biblical Archaeology. Many schools offer courses like this, but something made my Biblical Archaeology course unique. Instead of simply sitting in a classroom, discussing archaeological theory and practice, this course provided a practical lab component.
This is the only completed square at this point in the dig site. According to the course structure and the size of the site, it will take more than 10 years to complete the entire site excavation.
In 2007, Dr. Dale Manor, an archaeologist and the professor of the Biblical Archaeology class, constructed an artificial tel (mound) in the country near a small town in Arkansas. Named “Tel Achzib,” or Mound of Deception, the 35 by 25 yard mound replicates, in a miniaturized form, four periods of settlement in Israelite history. The periods include the 12th/11th Century BC, the 8th Century BC, and the Middle Bronze IIB period. Each level of settlement contains the remains of a major structure such as a home, as well as everyday artifacts, animal and human remains. All of these details replicate actual archaeological evidence discovered in sites throughout ancient Canaan and Israel, as well as evidence which Dr. Manor discovered through his years of excavation in Israel.
This is a replica skeleton simulating the remains of a man killed by a falling column at the settlement.
Students in the course participated in an excavation lab once a week, using archaeological methods and tools utilized on actual excavations. Unlike many created dig sites, this was not a treasure hunt. There were days when we did not find anything and only excavated a few square feet. Following methods which Dr. Manor and other archaeologists use at the dig site where he excavates each summer, Tel Beth-Shemesh in Israel, we began each day at the site by measuring the elevation of each square. Students worked in groups of three our four on four different squares in various locations on the site.
During my course, the square which my group and I were assigned was the only one in which one full level had been excavated (corresponding to the 8th Century BC), so we were digging into the next level, which associated with the 12th or 11th Century BC. We used picks, trowels, buckets, and sifters to clear away the soil a little at a time, sifting through every three bucketfuls. It took a few weeks of digging for us to find anything. The first discovery in our square was a clay oil lamp. It was broken, but all of it was there. We cleaned around the lamp as thoroughly as possible without moving it, then took measurements of the lamp and its locations, as well as photographs of the lamp in situ before moving it. I was selected by my group to take the clay oil lamp, clean it, and glue it back together. I did this using the conservation techniques outlined in our course, cleaning the clay with water and a soft toothbrush, and gluing the pieces together with water-soluble Elmer’s glue. We also excavated part of a building wall during our course, following the same techniques of cleaning, measuring, and photographing the wall.
This photograph includes my group and our square during the excavation. It serves as a reference to the size of each square and the depth of each layer. The wall in the front is the one which we uncovered during our course.
This course was a valuable education in archaeological techniques in an area where this would not normally be possible. This was a good taste of what archaeological excavation is really like. Since I am now studying to be an Egyptologist, having some education in excavation methods is invaluable both in study and in practice if I ever participate in fieldwork. This course provides many students at Harding with a new prospect for future work, as well as a different perspective regarding Biblical settlements which many students have learned about in their studies. This course was a different way of learning Biblical information than most other courses, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
Megan Valentine is Curator and Registrar at The Alexandria Museum of Art (themuseum.org) in Alexandria, Louisiana. She received her B.A. in History with a minor in Ancient Languages from Harding University. She has an M.A. in Art History with a focus on Egyptian Art as well as a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Memphis.