Oh, for Indiana the man, not the state.
That archetypal archeologist of adventure is nowhere to be found in the dust, sweat and heat that swirls, clings and chokes as I hack away at a stone wall many times older and stronger than I.
Above, a summer Israeli sun burns steadily, oblivious to the cruelty it is inflicting. Below me the world drops off into the steep rock terraces of an ancient city, the original Jerusalem. Once buried peacefully under the warm sandy soil of a steep hillside, now its remains are disinterred and displayed for scientists to study.
(Actually, Indiana the state wouldn't be so bad either: all that cool green Hoosier grass and fat trees sucking up water like straws.)
David, the field supervisor, comes by to see how we're doing, squinting up to the highest wall where a half-dozen of us cling with one hand and, with the other, brush away accumulated dust that billows back into our faces. I can feel the grit on my teeth when I attempt a halfhearted smile.
Time for some inspiration, obviously. David begins to talk about this wall, perhaps the oldest wall in this oldest of cities. He points out the traces of steps, wide and long, that lead to it. This wall was, perhaps, the citadel of King David, the repository of the ark of the covenant, the castle of the greatest kings.
I turn to wipe the sweat from my hair, to see the heat shimmering up from the flat rocks, to watch a woman rise from a terraced stone rooftop. (Perhaps it is Bathsheba stepping from her bath.) Then I escape to an arbor on top of the hill, where it is dark and cool as a cave with bunches of heavy grapes hanging overhead like green stalactites. At either end of the arbor are vicious dogs on short tethers.
This is the headquarters for the City of David archeological excavations in Jerusalem. Actually it is the rented garden of an Arab home overlooking the hillside site whose owners glide about in colorful robes and feed the dogs. Their garden is full of chattering birds and fruit.
My journey to this Israeli dig had started off like all my trips -- in the back row of a library, pouring over books and making notes. I'd been to Israel several years ago while backpacking with a friend and met a woman at a youth hostel who was working at an archeological dig. Every morning she would get up while it was still dark to be bused to some desert site. We would wake many hours later to go sightseeing and buy souvenirs. I decided I liked the idea of learning about a country by helping discover its ancient secrets.
So at the library I sought out archeology books and magazines that listed ongoing digs that accept volunteers. Most wanted their workers to sign up a year in advance, which didn't quite fit with my haphazard decision to leave in a month's time. But I sent off a letter anyway, offering my services to Ehud Netzer, director of the Tomb of Herod dig outside Jerusalem, then took off for Israel before he had time to reply. When I arrived he told me over the phone he was happy to have me aboard but his dig didn't start for another month.
Undaunted, I spent an afternoon at the exotic Institute of Archeology in Jerusalem and consulted with the staff, who directed me to the Yigal Shiloh and the City of David dig right in Jerusalem.
Shiloh, the director of the project, gave me a rather gruff response when I telephoned that evening to offer my manual labor, since most of his 70 volunteer workers were part of church and school groups who had signed up months in advance. But, as it turned out, he was willing to accept anyone truly interested in his dig. In the end, he told me to show up at 5 the next morning with a pen to sign an accident liability waiver.
Now, at a table under the cool arbor after my bout at the wall, I watch Shiloh eating stew and green vegetables. He is a 47-year-old man of infinite strength with a broad-brimmed hat, a tape measure around his waist and an electronic beeper on his belt. An awe-inspiring sort, his gruff manner gives way to scholarly brilliance and wit as dry as the Jerusalem air.
I had already spent hours pulling an endless, unsolvable jigsaw puzzle of pottery shards from the base of a wall and dumping them in a green bucket. It was an extremely disappointing assignment, since I had been hoping to immediately uncover statue heads or bracelets shaped like snakes.
Above me I hear the whistled, nameless tune that heralds the arrival of Shiloh, who leaps next to me with the sureness of a mountain goat, thrusts his arm into the wall up to the elbow and emerges with the most beautiful jug I have ever seen. (I once saw a country vet deliver a calf in almost the same fashion. Both had been studiously nonchalant, but neither could hide their awe of the miracle.)
Later I watch Shiloh attack a 2,500-year-old tower with a pickax until it is nothing but a pile of gray dust, after which he leans back and says with a grin, "Better than jogging, eh?"
Shiloh alone would make the dig worthwhile, but the site itself is equally fascinating -- a steep sand pit with a maze of ancient stone foundations, tumbling walls and carved steps.
It is on the hillside of Mount Ophel, outside the Dung Gate of the walled-in Old City of Jerusalem. At the bottom of the hillside dig site is the spring of Gihon. At the very top is the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest shrines of the Moslems, where the ark of the covenant is believed by some to be buried.
From the grape arbor I can see a steady line as the 50 or so volunteers zigzag up the hillside from the sites where they have been working -- carpenter ants on their way home from moving more mounds of dirt. It is only 1 p.m., but the workday is over; we bow to the heat of the sun. When it hits the gold dome of the Moslem temple, it is dazzling.
Someone has found a coin. The cry goes up and down the line of workers. "Who found it?"
We crowd around a field supervisor named Fritz and stare at the greenish speck on his thumb, less than a quarter-inch across and roundish in shape. I gasp in disbelief, not because it is inspiring but because, as I tell Fritz, I probably would have thrown it out with the trash.
Fritz is pale when he asks me if I know what a coin looks like.
"Oh sure, it's thick, round, brown and has Lincoln etched on one side."
The site we are digging has been undisturbed by modern man, meaning anything we find would date from ancient times. We have been told the best way to find artifacts is to look for things of color that stand out against the grayish sandy soil. Soon a worker next to me lets out another cry of discovery.
"An ancient M & M."
We gather around the bright yellow circle in the dust and chatter excitedly until the dig supervisor lifts the object and reveals that it is -- a tack. A quick check of a nearby surveying pole shows an empty pinhole along the top, and the yellow tack is restored to its proper place in history.
It is hot, brutally hot. We replenish sweat and more sweat by drinking lukewarm water from canteens.
Mary Ann is an older volunteer whose arms and legs are all bones and sinewy muscle under brown skin. My own arms look merely ornamental in comparison. I raise a pickax over my head, where it weaves in an unsteady dance before falling to the earth with a blow that glances off the rocks.
"Gayle, honey," she drawls sympathetically as I wrestle with a hoe. "Where I come from in Georgia they give you a striped shirt and a number to do work like this."
And I thought I would be out here with a toothbrush under a broad-brimmed hat. Instead they handed me an ax and directed me to help tear down a stone wall and throw boulders up a 12-foot rock pile. Shiloh grins. I get the boulder in a bear hug and, after a brief struggle, the boulder joins its comrades. Shiloh's rubber face pulls into a look of mock surprise.
Next they set me to work emptying goofas, the oddly named containers that are used to haul away loose dirt. They are made of a flexible fiber impregnated with metal wire and multiply like rabbits when no one is looking. I walk to the hillside and fling their contents down a slope, praying that my tired body will not go hurtling down with the rocks and dirt. Whenever Fritz empties a wheelbarrow over the same cliff, he lets out a protracted scream of terror and agony as if he too were tumbling into the abyss.
There on the cliff I pause, back straightened, straw hat tilted back, face searching out the slight breeze, gazing.
Across from the ancient city we are digging (called the City of David to distinguish it from modern Jerusalem) is the Arab city of Silwan. It is like gazing at a mirror image of what the City of David would have looked like 2,000 years ago -- a 10-acre village clinging to a steep hillside, its heels dug into the stream of Gihon. The white stone houses are built on top of each other so that the roof of the lower is the front porch of the higher.
The sounds of Silwan drift across the narrow valley. Mothers call to their children, children scream in play, goats bleat nervously as they clatter down the carved steps while figures robed in brown and red follow, wet clothes flap from the windows and an occasional camel lopes by.
Silwan is a living, breathing city. Behind me, the City of David is dead, scorched and stubby. But, to those digging it can come to life just as vividly as Silwan.
Up in the coolness of the headquarters the sick and infirm among the volunteers spend their days washing pottery shards that are hauled up from the dig in plastic buckets, carefully labeled as to grid location. It is repetitious work, dipping shards into buckets of water, scrubbing them clean and laying them out in rows to dry.
David and I inspect the pot that Shiloh earlier had delivered from the earth in his role as midwife. It is a beautiful pot, curved sweetly with big, oversized handles.
"Just think," says David. "The last person to see or touch this pot died 2,000 years ago and now you are the next person to see and touch it."
I hold the pot in my palms. He touched it, or she maybe. Someone who had no idea that I would ever live, who could not even imagine my existence in cool Connecticut colonial houses, on paved city sidewalks, in buildings of concrete and glass. But we have both touched this pretty clay pot. Our fingers link through time.
David, tall with a sunburned nose and hat pulled over his ears, takes me to the high section of the site and shows me a house that was uncovered two or three seasons ago. Here is the main entry hall, the steps leading to the upper story, a bathroom.
It was a sizable house in a good location -- prime real estate, really. David, an American in Israel, becomes impassioned, his voice betraying his excitement as he describes how the house was uncovered.
It was full of little round clay seals that once bound together rolls of paper documents that have long since returned to dust. These seals were stamped with names to identify the owner of the document, like a signature on a letter. And one of these seals, says David grandly, had on it the name of Germaryahu ben Shaphan.
I look blank.
Germaryahu ben Shaphan, he says in almost a whisper, is in the Bible, Jeremiah, Chap. 36, a scribe of the King of Judah. The seal is actual documentation of the existence of a Biblical personage.
Thoughts of Germaryahu keep me awake at night as I lie on a narrow, rickety lower bunk in a youth hostel. On previous nights, loss of sleep was caused by the newly arrived German youths with their awesome snores, or the bugs that crawled merrily up the concrete wall and leaped onto my sheets. Tonight it is the past brought to life.
Jerusalem was already old when Herod built his temple on the highest point of the City of David, the spot where the blue and gold Dome of the Rock mosque now towers. King David had conquered the city 1,000 years before, and its existence has been documented to 2,000 years before David. It was sacked, rebuilt, decimated, rebuilt, burned and rebuilt again. Eventually the city sprawled from the Temple Mount away from the original site, and the little hillside, King David's domain, was turned into a garbage dump -- until archeologists discovered its significance a century ago.
One Shabbat (Saturday), when everything is closed on order of the rabbis, I sat on the curved steps across from the Damascus Gate of the Old City with a friend from the hostel. We were drinking lukewarm sodas and watching the ebb and flow of humanity, sheep, goats, donkeys.
The middle-aged Israeli near us started talking with no introduction. At first I thought he was a little crazy; all I could see was beaded sweat on his forehead and wildly gesticulating hands. But he had fascinating stories about the four wars he had served in his lifetime. He told us he came to Jerusalem four times a year to simply look at the Old City because he had fought in the 1967 battle that captured it from Arab rule.
The fighting had extended beyond the city walls, he said in answer to my questions, to the hillside that is beyond the Dung Gate.
"You mean the City of David?"
"Oh yes," he said, nodding and waving his hands. "Always a battlefield."
Heat, sweat, dust and flies -- but I'm having loads of fun in my personal four-foot-square sandbox. It is a trench at the end of a 500 B.C. wall that I am excavating myself, dumping pottery shards into a bucket and straightening the trench walls for the photographer and draftsman who record every changing shape of the dig.
I've been at it for hours, thumping away with a small hand pick at layers of dirt and rock.
From the corner of my eye I see a flash of blue. Blueish green, bright and shimmering. My breath is on hold as I dig my fingers into the cascading dirt. As easily as a puppy coming when called, a chunk of bright blue-and-green glass tumbles into my hand.
"Roman glass! Fritz! I've found Roman glass!"
The ancient glass sparkles in my hand from the sun, a beautiful contrast to the pale ash-white dirt.
And I hear from down the line, "Someone has found Roman glass!"
"Who found it?"