Gently probing muddy clay with my pick and trowel while on an archeological dig for a day, I find a shard of ancient history in Israel's Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park. Sitting on the ground in a cave because there's no room to stand up, I'm seeking clues about the residents who lived here during the destruction of the Second Temple and the Maccabees era. I can almost feel the history around me.
I wonder what life must have been like 2,000 years ago as I dig out broken pieces of pottery, perhaps part of a bowl someone used during a daily meal. The cave I am digging in is one of the thousands in and around this national park in Israel, which encompasses the remnants of the ancient cities of Maresha and Beit-Guvrin. The Dig for a Day program I'm experiencing is put on by Archeological Seminars, which has been excavating among the labyrinth of caves in Tel Maresha for decades.
Going Underground on an Archeological Dig
The adventure starts with a lively discussion about the history of Tel Marisha. As a solo traveler, I've joined an extended American family visiting Israel for Jacob's bar mitzvah. The tone of the discussion is aimed at the teen and younger children in the group. Watching them react to the guide's explanation, and seeing how they enjoy digging in the dirt, enhances my own experience.
Our personal introduction to the underground cave labyrinth comes as we enter the Earth via a rocky path. We follow our guide through a series of caves sparsely lit by light bulbs strung along wires attached ot the walls, until we approach a small opening. Crawling through, we enter Linus 89. (The caves have formal numbers, but the guides have nicknamed them with easy-to-remember titles.) So little has been excavated out of this cave that we can't stand up, only crawl along on our knees.
The dwellings in Maresha and Bet Guvrin were built out of soft limestone called "kirton," a bedrock material tucked under a weathered mantle of harder limestone called "nari." Centuries ago locals dug out building blocks of limestone to create dwellings, leaving hollow spaces - man-made caves - in the earth to be used for storerooms, water reservoirs, industrial installations, burial caves and even to keep cattle and beasts of burden. We're now in one of these caves.
Our guide explains that when the locals refused to pay excessive taxes they were told their homes would be destroyed. The residents chose to tear down the houses themselves, and the pieces fell into the caves underneath. We start digging with our trowels, setting aside any pottery shards we find and putting the dirt in a bucket. It's quiet for a bit, until a small girl squeals with joy as her grandmother pulls up a large piece of a pot. When it's time to stop digging, we walk back through the caves into daylight. Then we sift the dirt from the buckets we brought up from the cave, to make sure we'd gleaned all of the shards.
Next, we're given a chance to crawl (literally at times) through Linus 84, which is sparsely lit by candles stuck in rocks.
Excavations have barely started in this cave. It's not for people with creaky knees or who are claustrophobic. Those of us who went in came out even muddier but with big smiles on our faces. At one point, we had to drop through a small hole in the cave just to reach a lower level.
The last stop is a shed where our guide explains how significant finds are cleaned, showing us some examples. My last memory of the experience is watching youngsters pick through barrels of small pottery shards to choose a few they were allowed to take home as a memento of their time digging for ancient history at Tel Maresha.
History of Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park
Maresha, which is mentioned in the bible four times, was the highest city in the Judean Lowlands. It was named in the bible as one of the Judean cities King Rehoboam fortified against the Babylonian incursion.
The Edomites settled here after the destruction of the First Temple. It became a Hellenistic city in the fourth century B.C.E.. Historical sources and excavations indicate that in 113/112 B.C.E., John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean, conquered Maresha and converted its residents to Judaism. While sections of the city were in ruins, the area was repopulated until, according to Josephus Flavius, Maresha was finally demolished by the Parthian Army in 40 B.C. E. After Maresha was abandoned, Bet-Guvrin was built and became the region's most important settlement. It thrived for several centuries and at various times was an important center for Judaism and Christianity. During the Crusader era it also rose in prominence for Muslims too. In modern times, an Arab village was located on the site until Israel's War of Independence.
Visiting Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park
You don't have to go on a dig to explore some of the caves in Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park. Several caves and dwellings have been cleared and are now open to the public. (The caves I visited during the dig have not been cleared and are only accessible to participants working with Archeological Seminars.)
Some of the most interesting places in the park to visit and explore are:
- Dwelling Houses and Underground System. You can go underground and walk through an extensive cave system that has been excavated. There's an ancient olive oil plant under one of the houses.
- Sidonian Burial Caves. Wealthy families must have created these gabled burial caves, which still have colorful paintings on the walls.
- The Bell Caves. Shaped just as the word "bell" suggests, these caves were quarries. The workers started with a small hole in the ground and expanded the excavations in a bell shape as they dug to pull out the limestone.
Going on an Archeological Dig in Israel's Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park
While you are required to spend weeks or longer at most digs, Archeological Seminars runs this Dig for a Day program that gives participants a mini-sample of what it's like to join a dig. "Dig for a Dig" is designed to be entertaining and to introduce participants to an archeological experience, is an immersive history lesson into civilizations and cultures long gone. Group sizes are small, usually no more than eight-to-ten people. (If a larger group wants to go on a Dig for a Day excursion they may be split into smaller groups when entering the caves.) Guides are deft at gearing the explanations and discussions according to the type of group, whether it's families, adult vacationers or scholars. The experience lasts about three hours.
If you go, expect to get dirty. Wear clothes that are tough enough so they won't be ruined crawling around in mud, and wear sturdy shoes.
The fee for Dig for a Day is $30 for adults and $25 for children (ages 5-14). You must also pay the park entrance fee of 25 shekels for adults, 13 shekels for children.
Archeological Seminars offers a variety of programs and digs, in addition to Dig for a Day. One group of Australians come annually to spend a week at Tel Maresha. For more information visit Archeological Seminars.
To learn more about this national park visit Bet Guvrin-Maresha.
Explore Other Archeological Sites in Israel
The Rampart Walk on the 16th-century wall encompassing Jerusalem's Old City reveals life where three great religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam -mingle.
Archeological Seminars also offers excursions to other sites in Israel.
For more places to explore, visit my fellow About.com guide Anthony Grant's Web site Go Israel.