Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 15: Omrit and Exploring the Cistern

Yesterday we went on a field trip to a fellow Galilean archaeological excavation to a site known as Omrit.  The partnered universities (I cannot remember their names) have continually excavated the site since 2000. So far, a majority of their work has focused on excavating a large temple that went through three phases of building.  The phases span from before the time of Herod the Great to the Byzantine period.  As to whose honor the temple was built remains a mystery, but one that the excavating team hopes to uncover as soon as possible.  One interesting idea (but one that cannot yet be soundly academically supported) is that the second phase of the temple may have served as a a building project of Herod the Great in honor or Augustus.

Today Mickey, one of the Israelis working on the site and main go-to-guy for anything that needs to be built or fashioned on the site, allowed Jessica (a fellow student working in our square) and I to explore a cistern that was uncovered the first day of excavations.  Each day this past week, Mickey has led two students down the cistern to explore below the site.

During our breakfast break (at 8:30 a.m.), Mickey grabbed Jessica and I and equipped us with head lamps and hard hats.  We pulled back a protective covering that blocked the entry to the cistern.  At first glance, I did not think that I would be able to make it.  A ladder extended into the darkness below in a hole about the width of my shoulders.  Mickey assured me that it would be an extremely tight squeeze but that I would be able to fit.  Mickey went first and after a yell from the bottom of the cistern, I began mine.  As I slowly climbed into the depths below, masoned rocks quickly turned to limestone walls that maintained the hint of plaster from ages past.  My shoulders and back squeezed against the stone with each step as I pressed my stomach and chest against the rungs of the ladder.  After some work and a few minutes, I broke into the first chamber of the cistern.  The walls widened tremendously as I was able to kneel upon a pile of dirt that has amassed over the centuries.  After a few more minutes, Jessica made it down and Mickey began pointing out some interesting features of the main chamber of the cistern.

Preparing to crawl back to the main cistern
After a minute, mickey directed his head lantern toward what appeared to be another pile of dirt.  Mickey told us that a tunnel existed at its based to another cistern located a few meters away.  After Jessica and I made it over to the side of the main cistern we saw the incredibly small tunnel, about one meter in diameter.  As per Mickey's instructions, I laid flat on my back, feet first, and began to shimmy and slide my way down the tunnel.  After about a minut of work (and begin covered in mud, dirt, and slime), I the tunnel opened into an immense cistern, much larger than the first.  I was able to stand up completely take 6-8 large steps before I reached the other sides.  Jessica was behind me shortly as we began to explore our new environemnt.  It only took us a second to look up and see the numerous families of slugs adorning the limestone walls of the this cistern.  We decided to avoid them, needless to say.  We snagged a few pictures, poked around a bit more, and then prepared to leave.  Jessica went first back through the narrow tunnel, and I was soon behind her.  As we were able to slide down on our backs the first time, we were forced to crawl on our stomachs with our faces pressed into the dirt and mud mixture on our way back.  After quite a bit of struggling on my part, I returned to the main cistern where Mickey was waiting.  Mickey pointed to another cistern whose tunnel was completely filled with dirt and mud, suggesting future adventures for future archaeologists after it is cleared.
A view of the entrance to the cistern.  For scale, count the
number of rungs on the ladder above.

Josephus writes of cisterns such as ours being used during the First Jewish Revolt as hiding areas for rebels.  Who knows if our cistern was ever used for such a purpose, but regardless of the cistern's use, our journey today was an incredible adventure and one of the most exciting experiences of my time in Israel this far.

Tomorrow we leave for southern Israel to the town of Eilat, where we will take a long weekend to explore the Red Sea, Masada, and Qumran.  I do not believe that I will be taking my computer with me, so expect a post detailing our adventures on Sunday.  Thanks for reading.