Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliot joins Mark to discuss her role as a field archeologist. Dr. Shafer-Elliot has been digging in Israel for over a decade and is currently part of the archaeological excavation team at Tell Halif, Israel. She just might be Mark’s hero.
Welcome to Jessup think I’m your host Mark Moore. And I’m privileged today to sit down with Dr. Cynthia Schafer-Ellot, our resident Old Testament professor and Professor of archaeology. And today we’re going to talk about her role in archaeology and the digs that she’s on and the exciting and fun and maybe boring to some people, but not others, things that she’s finding and the work that she’s doing. So I hope you enjoy this episode as we kind of dive into archaeology of ancient Israel.
Alright, Cynthia, I’m excited to have you on the show. This is second time, second time the show. So you’re now officially a friend of the show. Yay. Oh, he’s been a friend. But now a friend of the show actual friend of the show. Because the show is like this impersonal you know, third party thing. Yeah, that, that I just get to be a part of and then now your friend of the show. So once we start, you know, getting merchandise, then we’ll be able to send you as a friend of the show. You’ll get merchandise, but we don’t have any merchandise yet. When you do. Let’s get to work on that. Yeah, I’ve got some ideas. I got some ideas that I think could go work. They may involve a T Rex. That would be great. And a coffee cup and a coffee cup. Or or a gray blazer? Yes. There we go. I think maybe a T rex integrate. blazer
There you go. Being with his tiny arm with the tiny arms a little coffee silver coffee
mug? Yes. That’s what’s happening now. I wouldn’t be you exist. I would be the first to jump on that bandwagon. Right? We’ll make it happen. Okay, whoever if you’re listening, and you can make this happen, contact me. And we will we’ll do it together. We’ll make that a faculty of theology. Yeah, like, first thing to do? Yeah. We’re getting on merchandise for just think we got some good ideas. I love it. But no, I’m excited to have you on and kind of talk about all the exciting things, exciting things that you’ve been doing in the field of archaeology, and been doing every summer you’ve been going on digs? How long have you been doing that?
Well, um, I started as a master’s student. Okay. I won’t tell you how far long ago that was. We’re not doing math. Now. Now. So I’ve been I mean, part of what I do is I, you know, I teach Hebrew Bible and I teach archaeology. And I’m interested in the historical and cultural and social context of ancient Israel, right, as is reflected both in the Hebrew Bible and in the actual Earth. Right. So not just the text, but the artifact and everything else. So in order to do that, it’s very important that you do what you teach. Right. So but I love excavating. So yeah, I’ve been excavating since. Gosh, I think my first full season on a dig was in 2001. And I’ve been doing most summers. So I’ve been on staff on several digs. am on staff on a couple of digs? And yeah, it’s, it’s great. I can handle being getting up at four in the morning for like, four weeks. Yeah. And that’s, that’s about it. For weeks, that’s all I got. And then I turned back into a pumpkin. So
hey, I hear you. I I like getting up early. And then in the afternoon, I turned to a pumpkin. Early morning and a late night person. Afternoon. Well, then you would do well on a day. Yeah, I see. I think right. Well, you are like living my childhood dream. Really funny. I grant was one of my three things that I wanted to be showing up. One was third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. There you go. And, you know, pursued that as long as I could. And then the second one, strangely enough, was a botanist, which a botanist deals with plants. Yeah. And I think I read it in the, you know, Encyclopedia Britannica that we had in our house that was basically our reading material.
Are you still really into plants? Not really. Were you ever you just read about it was
for a little like a short season. And then I did my one claim to fame as I saved my mom’s one of her plants from a fun guy that had like, started to wilt and that and she’s like, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. And so I did some research and and saved it. Wow. And that was my one stint as a botanist. I do not have a green thumb. Yeah, I did not good with plants. California is hard. Like, you have water to have a great water when you don’t water. There’s there’s not going to have That’s true. And the third one was archaeologists. I mean, now obviously greatly influenced by Indiana Jones. Right? Usually is what was. And maybe that even kind of led me into the teaching profession to like, even though you just see him briefly in class.
Yeah. And he is, of course, sporting the very, you know, academic male, uniform, the the tweed blazer and the bow tie and everything, which nobody, except when you go to conferences actually wears.
So we’ve put a costume on. Yes, do that. But yeah, that was what I was intrigued by, but, and I think like, obviously the exciting part of that, and the, and we’ll maybe talk about that. But that’s kind of like this glamorous vision of archaeology, and maybe what real archaeology looks like. But I think one thing to like, was that idea of finding these artifacts, like it’s not just something in a text, but then it is, Hey, this is something that is really holding our hand. Yeah. And we draw that information from so you’ve been doing digs since 2001. Women mind childhood dreams and just keep keep dreams through you.
Anytime I know, well, that we need to we need to get my family there you go on board with this. But that would be great. And so you’ve been doing digs, and you’re currently on staff at a dig? Yeah, what is what does that mean? So
when you’re on staff on it, so you have people who volunteer on digs, and we accept any kind of volunteers, you don’t have to have any background, any degrees, any knowledge, you really just have to have a good attitude. Yeah, really, that’s how it is, it’s very helpful. And just have a, you know, a willing heart willing spirit, you know, that you’re going there to learn. The conditions are hard, it’s hard work. So if you say someone’s on staff, because you have kind of this hierarchy. On a day, you have the at the top of the pyramid, let’s say, a very appropriate I’m here all day is are the directors, okay. And so the dig directors have oversee everything. They’re the ones who get the permits, they’re the ones who are, you know, they’re usually professors at different universities. They find the funding, they’re the ones who have, you know, expertise in the area and the type of archaeology because there are lots of different types of archaeologies. And, of course, where you are digging, and the time periods you’re digging greatly affect how you conduct your actual field archaeology. Because where we are in Israel, if you’re in Israel, or Palestine, or Jordan or turkey anywhere, kind of that Southern levant area, that which would also include southern parts of Syria, you have what we call tels. anatel is an artificial mound, that is basically layers of a buried city. And so there’s it’s really hard work and you have dig directors that are we’re all experts in, you know, different time periods. So you have some people who are experts in the late bronze and maybe iron two or Persian period, but you have these big directors on, they’re the ones that oversee everything. They’re the ones that find the funding, do the permits, they’re the ones that basically run the dig, and who tell you based on the strategy of the site, what the goals are. And they’re the ones that basically what they do all day is they go around to the different areas that are digging, because when we’re digging, you don’t dig the entire thing. We have areas that we open, depending on the survey and the aerial photography, we say, Oh look, it looks like over here, there might be a city wall, we’re going to open up Yeah, center and do some digging over there. And over here, we might think we might have an Acropolis, which is where usually, you know, official buildings would be like a palace or temple or something like that. So they kind of go around all morning, all during the dig day to see what’s going on. And then below them are the supervisors of those areas. So that area supervisor is just in charge of everything the big picture that’s going on in that area, and then below them so at Holly for I normally dig. I’m an area supervisor at leaf I’m not a dig director, nor do I want to be but then underneath those people you have, square supervise lasers, because the area is made up of lots of squares that you dig in, you’re trying to squares certain size.
Yeah, they are. So usually they end up being about five by five meters, but then we rope in about 50 centimeters in from that work, we rope it up as to five by five meters, and then we rope in another 50 centimeters. And we leave that 50 centimeters as kind of like a we call a bulk. And that ends up being the fake dirt wall that we leave up between one square and another square. And that serves as one as a catwalk between the areas. But more importantly, it serves as the as the record of what we’re digging through. Because when you dig, you’re actually destroying even though you’re uncovering, you’re destroying the situation in life. It’s leaving from from where it’s been sitting for 1000s upon 1000s of years. Yeah, so the square supervisors supervise one or numerous squares. And then you have in your area, you’ll have maybe someone who is a dedicated registrar. And it depends on the digs. Each dig does things a little bit differently. But summit’s digs, have a dedicated person in each area, who is in charge of documenting and keeping track of things and drawing things on the top plan. And then you have your volunteers. And your volunteers could be the first timers they could be returning volunteers. A lot of times they’re students. And so in Israel, at least what we do is our digs are usually as field schools. So we purposely are there to train students who are interested in ancient history, archaeology, Biblical Studies, theology, anything kind of related to what we’re doing there. Because it’s really important for students to not just study it in the classroom, but actually do it, right. Because you have students who say, Oh, I want to go into archaeology. And then they actually go on a dig right? Get up before Yeah, and get up at 4am. And it’s, if you’re in Israel and the southern lawan, or, you know, it’s it’s really hard work, because those tells that I was telling you about, they’re made up of a lot of dirt. And you have to move that dirt. And so there’s a lot of
down Do you have to dig to before you start seeing some action? It depends.
It depends on the site, it depends on how many layers of occupation that that site has. So yeah, so if it’s us, if it and how long those layers of occupation, how long that occupation lasted. So some sites, you can just dig below topsoil and start to find things and then other sites. And it depends also on what your your purpose is, because you don’t just start digging. Right, you have a purpose. You have a research question. Yeah, you have time periods that you’re interested in. So for us, we’re interested in Israel during the Iron Age. So that’s the main time period reflected in the Hebrew Bible. And our listeners the parameters. Yes. So I mean, each time period can be further subdivided into smaller time periods. But let’s just keep it easy and say, the whole Iron Age is roughly from about 1200 BCE, or BC to about 586 BCE. So 586 is when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and kind of fun times. Yeah, bad times. Definitely. So that’s what we’re interested in. But you know, your your town, your city that you’re digging or tell. It didn’t, most of them didn’t cease to exist. Cities on top of cities, right cities on top of cities, and it’s basically goes backwards. So if you’re standing on top of the towel, and you’re start digging, you’re going back in time, from the most recent to the latest. Yeah. And so it really depends on Did someone come back to this site? How long were they there? So a site could have really modern period like, you know, the Ottoman period.
It could have,
it could go have Roman it could have Greek, it could have Persian, it could have, you just keep going, but what you’re interested in is what you’re interested in, right? However, you still have to treat those other time periods that you dig through to get to the period you’re interested in. You still have to treat them as if you’re super interested. Because someone else will be right and someone else will come back and say hey, we want to study what you You excavated from this site. We want to study the different time period of material that you have. And so you have to document everything just like you would if it was the time period you’re interested in.
So your area supervisor at belief, right, and whereas belief,
so belief is is a tell. So tell belief, it’s down south in Israel. So it’s in a, it’s kind of in between, if you’re familiar with the topography of Israel at all. It’s kind of in between what we call the Shayla and the Negev. Okay, so it’s way down south. It’s about it’s not far north from bear Sheva, which is a major city in southern Israel. And it’s a small site, it’s really compared to other towns, it’s only about 10 to 12 acres. And so it’s small. Yeah, there are smaller, but there were, a lot of them are quite large. So belief is an Iron Age site. That’s what we’re interested in. But we have been in steady season mode for the last few years. And what that means is, you have to stop digging. Right? You have to stop digging and actually analyze the material when you excavate, right? Otherwise, it doesn’t do anybody any good. It just sits in a storage room. And we’ve said, oh, look what we did. Yeah, that’s it. And so we analyze it, we write about it, we publish it. And so that’s what we’re in right now. So this last summer, though, I needed to take Jessup students to dig and had invitations from other friends who were leading digs. And we chose a bell Bates maka, which is way up north. So he went from way down south to Way up north. And it is basically it’s right next to the Lebanese border. Okay. And it’s also Iron Age site. And it’s much larger. I can’t recall how many acres it is, but it’s much larger.
No, I believe being in study season. What what are the types of things that you found?
Oh, holy, yeah. So belief, what we’re, we have a pretty specific, pretty narrow focus at belief. We’re interested in daily life in ancient Israel during a specific point of the Iron Age, primarily the eighth century. So the eighth century is, is basically when if you’re familiar with your biblical kings, and prophets at all, of course, it’s the time period of King has a caya of Judah and the prophet Isaiah. Okay, great. Yeah. So we are interested in daily life, and her belief has some great houses. So we’re doing what we call household archaeology. We’re very much focused on the houses and the domestic architecture, the domestic artifacts, how these people lived their lives, because these houses how leave, like about 45 other towns and villages and Judah, was destroyed by the Neo Assyrian campaign, led, at least in the southern part of Judah, led by King synack rib of Assyria. And we read about that in the biblical texts in the Book of Kings. We also hear about it in Isaiah, and where, you know, synack crib after the Neo Syrians destroy the northern kingdom of Israel and 721 there’s a changing of who’s in charge and Sacra becomes in charge. And then Judah also rebels against the Assyrian Empire. And so they turn their attention to Judah. Yeah, and has a khaya decides, oh, I changed my mind. But it’s too late. They’re already on their way. And snacker up destroys even in his prison, he talks about how he he shuts King has a kind of like a bird in a cage. He doesn’t destroy Jerusalem. But he does destroy many about 46 other towns and villages in Judah and halifa is one of those towns Yeah, so we have those houses from the eighth century were destroyed which means we have a nice sealed Yeah, destruct what we call destruction that seals the the level the eighth century level the houses, so it’s pretty cool. So it’s kind of sad their destruction is, is what we’re happy about. It sounds a little morbid, but Yeah, I know. It’s sad, but sorry for you. Yeah, so halifa has a great little site.
Nice. Yeah. And with that kind of daily life, are you are you finding just even maybe how the house They’re laid out like, yeah, room wise, or
so, household studies within Biblical Studies in ancient Israel has been a thing since probably about the 80s, but really has started taking off. Within the last, you know, 1015 years or so maybe 20. And people who are interested in daily life, you have to shift your attention from the monumental things like the palaces and the temples, you know, all the things that are monumental, it’s all great things. But that doesn’t reflect daily life, right? If you want to learn about how your average ancient Israelite and judahite lived, we have to shift our attention to the home. Yeah, so houses have a very typical outline. We, they’re often called the pillared house, or the four room house. And then and they have a very similar kind of layout with some differences, but very similar during this Iron Age, and then of course, the features that go along with the house. So features would be permanent things like ovens, you know, a cistern you know, anything that’s permanently Yes. And then the artifacts to serve a lot of domestic artifacts, you know, cooking pots, storage jars, you know, none of the we’re not going to find the Ark of the Covenant there. This is if we really want to learn how people lived, this is what we do.
Yeah. No, and barring, like, ark of the covenant and all the things. What what’s like the most interesting thing that you have found or that you’ve been on a dig that has been found?
Yeah, we I get that question a lot. personally. I do like the because daily life is one of the areas that I work in a lot. That of course is really interesting to me when we found a really pretty grinding stone, an installation and like a permanent installation. I was really excited about that. Yeah. But you know, finding figurines, female figurines in particular. Little seals are also really cool. One year, I was in an offseason, I was digging at a site called oxy Eve. And it was a Phoenician tomb on the coast of Israel, and it hadn’t been looted. Yeah. And it was full of really fascinating things. And that was just that was really special. Yeah, tomb intact will ruin you for working on a towel ever again. Yeah, that was that was really special. But one of my very first season digging as a master student, this the last week of the dig, which they’re usually four weeks now, we found this really interesting. They call a model shrine. And it was a something that people would use in their houses for worship. Yeah. For incense offerings, libation, offerings, things like that. And at the top of it was really weirdly shaped it looked like it looked like a like a breadbox or like a kitty litter box. You know, that was the lids I have that are kind around the cats, all the cat lovers, right, they all know what I’m talking about. And kind of around top, over like a tray like bottom. But on the top of the lid was carved into or molded into the clay was a lion with an N much better than I could ever do. So I’m not going to pick on their artistic ability, not the best artistic ability line you’ve ever say, but much better than I could do. So this face of a lion with its paws out in front of it, and underneath each paw was a molded into the clay of a human face. Whoa, that looks scared like they were in trouble. Like that line was hurting them. Whoa, it was freaky. And I’m really proud to say though it’s in the Israel museum. Oh, that’s so I go visit it. Yeah, every summer and say, that’s my My name is not on it, but it’s mine. Yeah, you can claim it. Yeah. My friend Mandy and I found it when we were excavating that area. And that was that was really cool. That is very cool. Yeah.
What does it feel like? Well, I feel like within the field of archaeology, that finding these artifacts would seem like it makes the biblical text be more real, right? Yeah, that it’s not just these stories were reading about, you’re like, hey, yeah, these were real people who lived in a real time, right? Who were really trying to understand how they interacted with God, how they interacted with their neighbor who kept coming and trying to kill them. And they had cooking stones and all I mean, they did all the things that we have to do today.
Right and a lot more difficult. Yeah, it is there. And I think that was one of the things that drew me to, because this unlike you, this was not something I planned on doing. Yeah, as a kid. I was just wanted to make it through school. That was not a good student. But I had always loved history. And I’d always loved reading my Bible, and but I liked reading my Bible for more historical reasons. I mean, if you if I could find my kid Bible, the things that were underlined and still are underlined are very odd. Not not, yeah, definitely abnormal. So when I first went to Israel, as an undergraduate, I went on a historical geography class. And we did a dig for the day. And we didn’t find anything. There was nothing special was just the caves of Moravia, we found a lot of pigeon bones. I remember, there was nothing special about it that made me go, wow. Yeah, but something made me go. Wow. Yeah. And I think it was exactly that. I think it was my love for history. This was physical history. This was history, I could put my, my hands on, right that I could, that I could see that I could touch. And I found that very exciting. And when you’re excavating it, you are the first person to see it, and touch it, right for 1000s of years. And there’s something very profound about that, that this person’s, whether it’s a broken cooking pot, or a complete cooking pot, you know, it doesn’t matter that broken piece, or that full pieces that belonged to somebody, somebody made that somebody used it. And if we keep with the cooking pot, you know, somebody used that to make food for themselves, for their family, for their household for strangers, right, for who, when, what did they cook, and how did they cook and why did they cook and what kind of stories Did they tell as they were eating that meal? Right? So for me to be part of an excavation and be you have people who are interested in the more scientific side, and yet people who if you’re breaking it down very generally, people who are interested in the social and historical side, I’m definitely more the social historical side. But there was something about seeing it and touching it and saying, I’m the first person to uncover this. And when you put your hands on it, and you can feel sometimes so let’s say you have a handle, and you can feel where the potter’s hands were that molded that handle onto that pot. Yeah, and sometimes, sometimes you can even see a finger or thumbprint. Yeah. And that just blows my mind every time it still does, right. I’ve just I just get really excited. I go Look, look, look and go Wow, I didn’t realize that that it makes it become more real. Yeah, more that physicality of it makes it makes it seem more it’s not so abstract.
Yeah, that’s very well now I’m definitely gonna have to go share it with you because you’ve sold okay. Anybody can say I’ll be sold listeners. I hope so. Yeah, I can take a whole trip over Yeah, we do. We do every year so I will. You know, I can’t my allowed to wear a leather jacket. Yeah, you could. You’d probably be really hot. You got to go with the stick with it. It’s dumping a whip just don’t bring away Yeah, I would say probably. Yeah, that’s true. Yeah. What about a motorcycle with a sidecar? Could I do that might have trouble getting up the towel? Maybe just from the hotel there that would? Yeah. Okay. Okay. My dream right. That’d
be awesome. Well, thank
you so much for having that really is it’s so interesting to me. I love it. And and I think it is so important for our understanding of the Bible. It is more we understand about what was actually happening. I understand what’s going on behind the stories and by what we read, right? You know, because the what we read don’t always doesn’t always fill in the blanks,
right? Because the Bible is not interested in in everything. Right? Right. It’s not interested
not to use this type of pot to crave There’s no recipes in it.
There’s no, there’s a lot of things that aren’t in it. And so we have to use other things to help us understand and archaeology is one of those things important. Well,
thank you. You’re very welcome. Thank you for listening to Jessup. Think Be sure to follow us on Twitter at Jessup think we would love to hear your thoughts on the episode and engage with any questions you have. Our aim is to provide a framework for further reflection and deeper exploration of these important topics. You can also help the show by leaving a review on iTunes these reviews help the podcast reach new listeners. Until next time, I’m Mark Moore and this is Jessica.
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