KU students get to help in ‘digging up a scene from the Bible’

William Hershkowitz, who graduated this year, was among three University of Kansas student volunteers who excavated in Gath, Israel, this summer.
William Hershkowitz, who graduated this year, was among three University of Kansas student volunteers who excavated in Gath, Israel, this summer. Courtesy photo

Stapled to a bulletin board and competing with others was a flier that read: “Are you interested in archeology?”

Darra Stuart, then a freshman at the University of Kansas, was an environmental studies major with no excavation experience. Yet for one month in the summer of 2014, she found herself digging in Gath, Israel, with KU’s Eric Welch, a visiting assistant professor of Jewish studies.

Stuart signed up again for this summer’s trip, which ran from late June to the end of July. Two other KU students, William Hershkowitz and Tyler Engler, joined her.

Their volunteer efforts assisted in the discovery of an ancient city wall.

“The truth is, archaeology is far less exciting than the movies make it,” Welch said. “Every once in a while, we get something like this summer. We’re actually digging up a scene from the Bible.”

Located in central Israel, the site is thought to be where David sought refuge from King Saul and where Goliath’s hometown was.

Known today by its Arabic name, Tell es-Safi, the city was first settled in the Early Bronze Age in about 3500 B.C. Philistines occupied the land from the 12th through ninth centuries B.C. Little is known about this group of people, who were often cast as villains in the Old Testament.

Welch said he hopes the discovery of the city walls will lead to more insight about the Philistines’ culture.

“We thought this project was going to end in three years,” Welch said. “And then a week into this season, well, it looks like we’re going to be here for another decade.”

The potential impact of the discovery – the gap in the wall indicates a possible gate that would be one of the largest ever found in Israel – might cause some to think only experienced archaeologists are allowed at the site. That’s not the case, especially when the task at hand is excavating a wall 78 inches thick.

“What we’re doing isn’t rocket science,” Welch said. “We’re just cutting into dirt. The stuff we’re digging, it’s been here for 4,500 years, so you’re not going to poke a hole in it with a trowel.”

Next summer, Welch said, he hopes to get more people – students and others from the state – involved on a new section near the gate entrance.

“What we do for four weeks keeps them busy in the lab all year long,” Welch said.

Excavated artifacts are sent to Bar-Ilan University, which heads the Gath expedition and invites research teams from universities around the world.

Welch brought students on some of his past trips, but this year’s was the first coordinated in conjunction with KU’s Office of Study Abroad.

While Stuart’s, Hershkowitz’s and Engler’s work is not directly applicable to any of their coursework, they found ways to connect it to their future careers.

Stuart, who is interested in botany and water conservation, tested soil samples in pottery bowls with an archaeobotanist to determine what was in the pot.

Because she already had one summer of experience, Stuart was assigned to be in charge of documenting the team’s work – a group of at least 100 people – and keeping track of the artifacts in a systematic classification.

Her summer wasn’t just paperwork and test samples. She got her hands dirty when she unearthed a bowl in an excavation that took almost a week. She finally held the artifact in her hands, knowing that the last time someone held it was around 2500 B.C.

Still, Stuart admits that sometimes she watched researchers geek out over a discovery – and all she saw was a pile of dirt. That’s what happened when the group first found the wall.

“I’m just staring at a bunch of stone,” she said. “They said, ‘We’re staring at a wall.’

“And then they explained, and I saw it. That was the moment where I was like, ‘Wow! I am a part of this history and this moment.’”

Reach Kelly Meyerhofer at 316-268-6357 or kmeyerhofer@wichitaeagle.com.