Digging Bethsaida

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Bethsaida sunrise.jpg

It’s 5.30 in the morning and still dark as the small bus leaves Kibbutz Ginosar on the northwestern edge of the Sea of Galilee. As the bus speeds past Tabgha (traditional site of the multiplication of the loaves) and Capernaum (where Jesus was such a familiar figure all those years ago), the sun rises above the eastern horizon. A few minutes later we turn into the national park that has been created around the site of ancient Bethsaida.

Our group of volunteers numbers just 8, including 4 who are about to have our first taste of being archaeologists. The previous group of volunteers numbered more than 70 people, and the group coming after us will be around 30 people. We have clearly gone for quality rather than numbers. In fact the smaller numbers will allow us to get more experience of different aspects of a modern archaeological dig than would otherwise be the case.

We work for three hours until breakfast at 9.00am. Few meals have tasted better than those goodies collected from the kibbutz kitchen prior to departure, and the coffee brewed by lead archaeologist, Dr Rami Arav, is worth the wait. Following breakfast most are back to the designated areas to pick and brush their way carefully through the deposits of the centuries, while others will begin washing the finds from the previous day so they can be inspected at the “pottery reading” session back at the kibbutz in the late afternoon. Others will be getting hands-on training in surveying, technical sketches or maintaining the site diary with its meticulous notes about levels, loci and finds.

The highlight of the morning is “popsicle break” at 11.00am. So much pleasure from one simple block of flavoured ice! By 12.15pm the tools are being stored as we prepare to catch the 12.30 bus back to the kibbutz. Covered in dust from a morning’s efforts in 40+ degrees on the basalt structures of ancient Bethsaida, we troop into the kibbutz dining room for a hearty meal and animated conversation. Around 4.00pm we convene under the expert eye of Rami Arav for our pottery reading class when the finds are counted and classified, the special items photographed and catalogued, and details of every item found are recorded in the project database.

We are volunteers on the site of Et-Tell, widely-accepted now as the ancient village of Bethsaida from the time of Jesus and home to several of the first apostles. Our little group has come from Australia, New Zealand and various parts of the USA. For many of us this is our first experience on a dig, but one couple is making their 15th visit to Bethsaida! The dust gets into every pore of the skin, but the site gets into the soul.

Most of my peers were there for a three week season, but I left after just one week as I had to be in Rome for the international meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. The purpose of my visit was to become familiar with the site and the processes as a new season begins, so that I could plan to bring a group of people from Brisbane for a three week season in June/July 2010. I plan to be back there for the 2010 season and you are welcome to come with me if you would like to share the adventure. For more information, visit the Bethsaida Experience web page.

Greg Jenks


See also: Bethsaida Then and Now