A summer playing in the dirt: A day in the life as an excavation volunteer at Tel Shimron, Israel

This me recording spatial point data using a total station.

Life at the field school I lived at for the summer began to stir well before the daylight hours in the Jezreel Valley. Each morning, I rolled out of bed at 4am, donned my mud-stained clothes, and stumbled down the stairs in a sleepy stupor for first breakfast, which consisted of a sad cup of instant coffee and a Nature Valley granola bar doctored up with a little peanut butter. For six weeks my friend Gordy and I would exchange a brief “good morning” and enjoy the few quiet moments before we were shuttled off to the site, to begin the day’s digging. At 4:45am car engines shuttered to life in the tiny moshav of Nahalal, when farmers had just begun to rise for the day’s work. Soon we were whisked out of town, through a busy intersection, and up the across the bumpy dirt road to the excavation’s field headquarters before grabbing our gear and departing for our respective grids.

This familiar routine was how almost every day at Tel Shimron began, with the lingering aftertaste of so-so instant coffee and an aching body. It wasn’t how my 10-year-old self envisioned my first excavation while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was even better. As a kid who grew up in the vault of the Dickinson College fine arts museum where my dad worked, I dreamt of being an archaeologist, and digging in Israel this summer in many ways felt like the realization of my boyhood imaginings during my summers at the gallery.

Off to the site just as the sun rises!

After we arrived at our grids, we received our initial instructions, and began digging. Within a week the trowel, pickaxe, patiche (my personal favorite), and turia began to feel like familiar friends in the hand as we churned through layers of dirt. Though I could wield each tool with confidence the feint, but crucial mudbrick lines and layer horizons remained elusive to my eye for several weeks. Many of the walls from the buildings we were excavating had also been robbed and the stone reused in other structures, which left only the negative imprints of the walls visible in the archaeological record. The melted mudbrick and lack of large stone architectural features made conceptualizing and reconstructing the site quite challenging for me, but soon enough second breakfast would be called at 9am and we could go away, rub our eyes, and return to see if that line in the dirt was in fact a line or just the heat playing tricks on our minds.

…still looking for those lines!

The food at the program was amazing. Second only to my goal of becoming a better archaeologist was liking raw cucumbers and tomatoes by the end of the summer, and I certainly got lots of practice. All of our meals were kosher and featured a delicious selection of fresh produce from the Jezreel valley, including lots and lots of cucumber and tomato salad. My favorite day of the week was Wednesday, firstly because we had reached the halfway point the week, but more importantly because a man named Mordecai would come to the local corner store and make fresh falafel pitas stuffed with humus, tahini, and of course cucumbers and tomatoes, but back to the excavation!

Following second breakfast, we returned to the field to continue digging and I would work to map the day’s progress using geographic information systems (GIS) software. Learning the basics of surveying and how to operate a total station were some of the most interesting aspects of the summer for me, especially contributing to drawings that would eventually be published. As a member of the GIS team, I also created 2.5D digital models of architectural features using photogrammetry software, which I then projected and drew on the computer in GIS.

Grid 94 featuring some delicious local watermelon

By the summer’s end, reflecting on the flight home, my six weeks at Tel Shimron was more than I bargained for, but in all the right ways. This summer, I felt that I took a huge step toward achieving my childhood dream of becoming a swashbuckling archaeologist of the silver screen. I can now see melted mudbrick lines, trace surfaces, properly sweep dirt off of dirt, and, perhaps most surprisingly, I now like cucumbers and tomatoes – mission accomplished.

Be seeing you,

Nick Bowman, Class of 2023