Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 26: A Return to the Cistern

When I arrived at the site this morning at 5 a.m., I expected to spend a day measuring and drawing features of the two squares in our area.  Thirty minutes later, I was face first in a dirt filled tunnel, wriggling to get my body through the narrow opening of a system of cistern far underground.

Shortly after our arrival at the site, an area supervisor requested our area to help his area move a small pile of stones.  Many hands make light work, so after about 10 minutes of work the pile had been moved.  We were begrudgingly resolved to return to our square to begin the tedious (but necessary) task of drawing the minutiae of our squares.  Dr. Matt Grey, the area supervisor who we had helped, invited us first to tour his squares and look at what likely is a wall of an ancient synagogue.  As we watched, a Jewish man named Enon approached us and became very excited to see the exposed stones of a wall of a possible ancient synagogue.  After the excitement died down, our two areas were made aware that Enon was at the site for the day in order to explore and document the ancient cisterns and tunnels running below the site.  Dr. Jodi Magness asked to two volunteers to aid Enon and every hand in the area shot up.  In a somewhat lame vie to be selected, I spoke up that I was not at the dig for credit and therefore would not want others to go down who needed to submit square drawings as part of their final grade.  With a look of disgust from many hopeful volunteers and a slight look of approval from Jodi, Jodi selected me along with Jessica, a girl with whom I had explored the cisterns once before.
Toward the end of our time in the cistern.
My clothes were clean when I went in.

Once we were able to contain our excitement we spoke with Enon and learned that we would spend the entire morning clearing tunnels just wide enough so we could squeeze through an see what was on the other side.  The prospect of what would be a claustrophobic's nightmare only excited us more as we donned hard hats and head lamps in preparation for our decent.

I cannot remember exactly, but I believe Enon went first down the ladder, which stretched approximately five meters (only a guess), Jessica went second, and I went third.  Once in the bottom, we surveyed the situation as Enon developed a plan of attack to clear selected tunnels--tunnels that no one may have entered in nearly 2,000 years.

At the bottom, in what I will call the main cistern, we could see three tunnels from our perch upon a vast pile of dirt.  The tunnel on the left was cleared enough for people to slide through.  This was the tunnel that Jessica and I had explored upon our first journey under Huqoq.  This tunnel and open room were not our focus this morning, however, for a second tunnel existed directly in front of us and a third on our right.  Our first task would be to lie on our stomachs and venture through the narrow opening of the tunnel on our right to allow us to explore the enclosed room that we could just make out on the other side.

In order to get through this tunnel, I filled a few buckets of dirt to make my way easier.  After passing the buckets back to be emptied, I shimmied through the narrow opening into what would be a large room if it was not nearly filled to the top with dirt and mud.  I had just enough space to turn around if needed, but not enough space to rise to my knees.  I stayed on my stomach as I crawled around and explored.  On two of the walls, I spied (after Enon had told me to look for them) indentions that had once held ancient candles or oil lamps.  This room had been large and had once housed people.  Where the people were there for digging or for hiding during the First Jewish Revolt (as Josephus attests to) will be a question to be pursued in the future once we are able to bring pottery out of the cistern.  For now though, our goal was to explore and to map what we saw.

Once in this dirt-filled room, I spied two tunnels.  One directly to my left and one on my right.  I could barely squeeze into the tunnel on my right, but the dirt fill quickly prevented any further exploration.  Jessica then crawled into the room with bucket in tow, and I again filled buckets until enough space existed that I could fit my body through the narrow tunnel.  This tunnel went up toward my right for about a meter before turning sharply to the left.  I continued to dig, both with my hands and with my trowel that I had brought with me, as I inched my way forward.  I eventually cleared enough to dirt to crawl my way into a third small room.  In this small room, I could squat on my legs, but I could not do much else for it was extremely small.  On three sides, I was surrounded by limestone walls, but on the wall across from me, stones appeared to be stacked on one another with a type of mortar between them.  At this point, I yelled back at Enon and reported what I was seeing.  He yelled with excitement and told me that I could come back whenever ready.  After five minutes of wiggling, shimmying, and any other verb that involves crawling on your stomach with progress measuring by the centimeter, Jessica and I maid it back to the main cistern and to Enon.

Enon went in after us and after a few minutes, he too had reached the room in which I had just been.  Yells of excitement commenced immediately.  Upon Enon's return to the main cistern, he told us that where we had been was likely a chimney of sorts in which individuals in antiquity were able to climb in and out of the cistern and its vast array of tunnels.  Enon then said that he believed we were in a network of tunnels likely used during the First Jewish Revolt during the first century CE.  (This is only a hypothesis for now.  We must find evidence of this early dating and even more evidence for this use.)

After the excitement of discovering this "chimney room" began to subside, we began work on clearing a second tunnel--the one that sat across from us upon our arrival from the surface.  We spent at least 30 minutes with trowels and hoes clearing dirt to make the tunnel wide enough for a person to get through.  Enon volunteered to go first, because no one had yet been through this tunnel and what could be on the side was a matter of imagination.

The middle, skinny tunnel.
So happy not to be stuck!
After his first attempt, the tunnel proved too narrow so we again began digging.  Several attempts later, Enon disappeared as his head lamp grew dimmer and dimmer in the tunnel ahead.  A few minutes later, we heard a shout of acclimation, "Wah Wah We Wah!" as Enon found something that he had hoped to find--plaster floors.  Enon reappeared and invited us to go in.  I volunteered to go first and shortly regretted that decision.  The walls of this tunnel were as wide as my shoulders.  In fact, I had to place my arms fully in front of my body for my shoulders to fit.  Just enough space existed above my to fit my head if I dragged my nose in the dirt below.  I raised my knees and inch, moved my body forward an inch with my hips, and repeated the process countless times.  At one point, I was sure I was stuck and that I would need Enon and Jessica to pull me out by my legs.  I continued to try to technique however, and after about five minutes of being cramped on all sides, the tunnel opened up.  I could not believe what I saw.  The two meters of narrowness opened up to about ten meters of a fully plastered tunnel.  This palster was very different from the plaster in the other rooms (it was a whitish red, while the others were gray), and pottery stuck out from within it at certain junctures.  This second section of the tunnel was wide enough for me to squat, which I was more than happy to do.  I moved forward slowly, trying my best not to damage the damp plaster below me as I attempted to take in all that I was seeing.  I followed the tunnel to its end only to come to a fork in which both divergences were filled with dirt, mud and rocks.  I turned around and took the same time and care exiting the narrow tunnel as I had getting in.  Jessica then went and returned as we began to develop a game plan hopefully to remove some of the dirt from one of the tunnels of the collapsed fork.

Right after we had gotten out!
Unfortunately, 8:45 a.m. had rolled around which meant breakfast was being served.  We began our climb back to the surface after spending two and a half hours exploring underground.  When I had entered the cistern, my clothes had been clean (and in fact, recently washed).  Coming out, however, I was covered in slick mud from head to foot (not to mention the many slugs that had adhered themselves to my shirt, shorts and skin).  We emerged from the depths of Huqoq just as a group of 40 students and professors from another ongoing excavation in the Galilee were touring our site.  They looked at us somewhat in amazement and somewhat in surprise.  A few fellow volunteers from Huqoq applauded our reemergence and quickly grabbed cameras to take pictures of our filth.  We wore our dirt and filth as a read badge of courage--a testament to the work we put into exploring the site below the site.  After many pictures and much laughter, I realized that I could not eat breakfast with how filthy I had become.  I walked down to a spring at the base of our site and submerged myself, washing both my shirt and my shorts.

Taking a dip in the natural spring.
After breakfast, we decided to take a break and two other students went down to begin drawing a map of the tunnels and open areas that we had uncovered.  These two students came back to the surface shortly before the day ended, and the four of us decided to take another dip in the spring to clean all of our clothes.  We also realized that with soaking clothes, we would probably not be able to ride back on the bus, so we decided to walk back to the kibbutz which was only a mile across some fields from the site.  We spent a good twenty minutes playing in the fresh water before we began our journey back.

An intersting side story.  Two Jewish men came to the spring as we began to pack our things to leave.  I spoke with them briefly and they said that the were submerging themselves in the natural water for the sake of purity.  One of the men told me that this spring was the traditional spring from which the prophet Habakuk had drank.  I spoke with them for a few more minutes until they began their ritual bath and we began our trek back to the kibbutz.

Archaeology is a lot of tedious, meticulous (but rewarding) hard work.  It is not often that an opportunity arrises that invites archaeologists to explore such well preserved and long abandoned channels and tunnels.  Enon was very firm on how fortunate we were to be able to do what we were doing while were underground.  The time and effort it took to clear tunnels wide enough for us to squeeze through was well worth what waited on the other side.  We only explored a small portion of what might exist below Huqoq.  With only two days left on the dig site, I am unsure if we will be able to return underground to explore the dark and mysterious depths of Huqoq again.  If we are in fact unable to return underground this season, our imaginations will serve the role of exploration until we (or others if I do not return to this site) are able to venture back below next season.  Thanks for reading.