Five local students and their archaeology professor went to Armageddon this summer, not to search for clues to a cosmic battle yet to come between Good and Evil, but to seek understanding of civilizations past.
One of the most important issues they addressed was whether a palace attributed to King Solomon in what is now northern Israel was in fact built by Solomon, the son of King David renowned for his wise leadership and for his illicit relationship with the queen of Sheba.
It's no small question, and it has great significance for Jews and Christians alike, said Eric Cline, associate professor of ancient history and anthropology at George Washington University, who co-directed a dig on a hill about 15 miles southeast of Haifa, Israel, known as Megiddo. (Armageddon is a Greek corruption of the Hebrew word har, meaning mount, and Megiddo.)
Little evidence has been uncovered to prove Solomon's ties to a particular building -- or to prove that he existed at all. Some European scholars who call themselves "biblical minimalists" maintain that Solomon is a mythological figure, a kind of Jewish King Arthur.
"These guys are nuts," Cline said in a terse assessment of their thinking.
Cline and other archaeologists believe that the so-called Solomon's Palace at Megiddo, which some consider a cornerstone in understanding Solomon's life and times, was constructed in the 9th century B.C., a century after Solomon's reign. This conclusion is based on recent excavations at the site, which is one of the world's richest archaeological fields and has yielded the layered remains of two dozen cities over a 6,000-year period.
Strategically located on the Via Maris, the region's primary highway connecting Egypt in the south with Syria and Mesopotamia to the north and east, Megiddo guarded the agriculturally rich Jezreel Valley 70 to 100 feet below. Generations of inhabitants in a city that was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times looked down on bloody conflicts involving armies of such groups as Assyrians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites, Philistines, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders and Germans.
Napoleon fought there in 1799, winning a battle against the Ottoman army but losing the campaign to control the region. In 1918, the British army defeated the Turks in a decisive battle that wrested control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire for the first time in 400 years.
Megiddo is important to biblical scholars because it was inhabited during every period of the Hebrew Bible. "It's simply the most important site of the biblical period in the country," said David Ussishkin, 68, one of three directors of the Megiddo Expedition, based at Tel Aviv University.
This summer's dig was the sixth installment of the expedition, which was launched in 1992 and brings excavators to the site every two years. Earlier digs were conducted by the German Society for Oriental Research, from 1903 to 1905; the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, from 1925 through 1939; and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s.
George Washington University is one of half a dozen colleges in partnership with Tel Aviv, supplying student volunteers who work three or more weeks on the site, in one or two sessions, and professors who teach classes and supervise portions of the excavation. Few if any American students participated in the 2002 excavation because of security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
The 20-acre site, managed by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, is laid out in a grid with such identifying labels as H, J, K, L and M. Mapping the site allows different generations of archaeologists to compare findings.
Cline's students, who registered through Tel Aviv University and joined their professor at the site, didn't find an inscription or other definitive evidence to connect the palace to Solomon, who the Bible says built Megiddo as part of a construction program that included a temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 9:15).
But the students, most of whom plan careers in archaeology, seemed to care little about the broad-reaching historical debates among their mentors, according to interviews after their return to the United States.
Senior anthropology major Courtney Prutzman, 22, was thrilled to unearth the skeleton of a 2-year-old child in a residential area on the mount. "To actually have human bone in my area and to excavate it the right way made me very happy," said Prutzman, a native of Bethlehem, Pa., whose specialty is osteoarchaeology, the study of bones.
She named the child Evan and spent a week gently brushing away the dirt from the tiny frame and from a pottery flask that had been buried alongside it. A co-worker had uncovered a portion of the skeleton under a threshold but was unaware of what it was before Prutzman analyzed it.
Prutzman said she identifies more with the artisans and laborers who built palaces and grand houses than with the kings and business people who occupied them. The discovery of numerous pieces of unworked ivory suggested that the area was also home to artisans who carved beautiful ivory objects discovered in the palace years ago.
"Artisans are normal people basically like me," she said. "They deserve just as much attention as the Solomon debate."
Jonathan Greenberg, a 20-year-old junior and archaeology major from Easton, Conn., also worked in the residential area and was fascinated by objects emerging from the ground "that were more mundane than exotic."
"Such things included bread ovens (tabuns), mortars and pestles, grinding stones, hammer stones, flint and bronze blades -- things that were needed to maintain an ancient household," he wrote in an e-mail.
Senior Max Wolk, 21, an archaeology major from Hopkins, Minn., and sophomore Michael Saltzman, 20, of St. Louis, worked a hundred feet away on a different part of the grid. Their task was to look for clues to identify the period of an impressive tomb uncovered a century ago and the person inside.
The joke -- or reality -- among archaeologists is that "on your first dig you won't find anything, but the person next to you will," said Wolk, who worked with a pickax for nearly three weeks excavating a hole that was five meters square and two meters deep. "Or you'll go all the way to the end [of your time there] and find something and the people after you will take it out."
Sure enough, toward the end of his session Wolk found what appeared to be a large vessel. He won't know what it is until he reads the final report on the summer's dig, which could be months from now, he said.
He found the work stimulating nonetheless. "One of the coolest things is to really see it, not just read it in a book," Wolk said of the multilayered excavation site. Saltzman didn't uncover anything but was impressed at how excited other people in the group got when they realized they "might have found a wall of the tomb, or basalt rock that may have been the base of a pillar for a statue."
In the palace area, where Cline and co-director Margaret Cohen of Penn State University supervised 14 people, including George Washington anthropology major Sarah Loyer, 19, of Chelmsford, Mass., two horse-head figurines were uncovered.
The horse images represent another Megiddo debate -- whether a stable area traditionally believed to have been Solomon's was actually built by him -- and whether it even was a stable. Some scholars argue that the structure, possibly constructed with stones from the palace after it was destroyed by humans or an earthquake, might have been a warehouse or an opium manufacturing facility.
"It would have been nice if we had found the horses' heads in the stables," said Cline, who had to leave after the first half of the summer dig to assume his new job as chair of George Washington's Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literature. "But we found the horse heads in the palace level, above the stables."
Do the heads represent a Solomonic connection? "Who knows?" Cline said, adding his conviction that the building was a stable for some ruler.
Cline, 43, has participated in Megiddo excavations five times but has researched the site's history throughout his career. Four years ago, in time for millennial celebrations, he published "Battles of Armageddon," a book on 34 major conflicts that have taken place in the 30-mile-wide Jezreel Valley, five of them recorded in the Old Testament.
Cline said many professional and student archaeologists are drawn to Megiddo by the Armageddon connection. Many biblical scholars believe that the Jezreel Valley will be the site of the penultimate battle between the forces of God and Satan, with the final conflict and return of the Messiah taking place in Jerusalem.
But dig participants have come from a wide spectrum of beliefs -- Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic -- and most come with open minds about the connection of archaeological finds and history as recorded in the Bible, Cline said.
Cline's students said they were drawn to the dig for a variety of reasons, mostly for its importance to the history of Israel and the site's extraordinary record of human accomplishment.
"Some people [in the United States] can't fathom having to get around in a horse and buggy," Saltzman said. "To think about how people lived 3,000 years ago boggles the mind."
Prutzman recalls her daily ritual of leaving the kibbutz where most students stayed at 4:45 a.m. for a 15-minute walk to the site for the 5 o'clock start. "I'd watch the sun rise and the cars moving in the valley. . . . And I'd see the lights of Nazareth and Mount Gilboa above the plain and think, 'This area is so beautiful!' "
The draw of the land, combined with the rush of finding "a person or even a pot that hasn't seen light in 1,000 years," will bring her and other students back to Megiddo.
"This will not be my last season," Prutzman said. "I have every intention of going back in 2006."
An extensive report on the Megiddo excavations, including maps and photographs, can be found at the Megiddo Expedition Web site: www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/bar.html