Atlit, Israel — Staying at a sleek high-rise hotel, seeing the capital city from a sightseeing bus, and meeting local people only in souvenir shops isn't necessarily the most meaningful way to travel. I've found it more fun to venture out into a country, stay for a while, and get involved. One sure way to do this is to become a volunteer on an archaeological excavation.
The greatest concentration of ``digs,'' as they are called, is in Israel. The crescent-shaped shore along the eastern Mediterranean Sea has been inhabited for thousands of years. When you dig here, you find layer upon layer of remains from different periods, ranging from Napoleon's Egyptian campaign near the surface, down through Turkish, crusader, Islamic, Roman, Greek, Persian, Phoenician, and earlier periods - all the way back to the Stone Age.
I first worked on a dig at Tel Anafa in Galilee, up north, where it isn't as hot as on southern digs in the Negev Desert. A truck took us to the site in the early morning. We dug in assigned small areas, with small tools, and only down to designated levels. No random digging was allowed. If an object appeared, we called the supervisor. In the afternoons, we settled down to sort, wash, and even draw pictures of our finds.
Perhaps the most exciting finds of that dig were some pieces of an ancient wall covered with gold leaf. This discovery confirmed a biblical passage about ``golden houses,'' which had not been taken literally until then.
The American-run project housed its volunteers in tiny gazebos in a park full of flowering bushes, with a little pond nearby for a swim after work. Breakfast and lunch were served from a chuck wagon. Dinner was served in the dining room of Kibbutz Hagoshrim, on elegant Scandinavian tableware, no less.
My next dig was also in Galilee, at Akko - known to medievalists as St. Jean d'Acre during the crusades. Volunteers worked in pairs in trenches. My French companion and I had so much to talk about that the supervisor wanted to separate us, lest we neglect our work. At that time, the dig had come down to material from the Hellenistic period (Greek settlements), and I was allowed to take home some large potsherds more than 2,000 years old, which were considered surplus.
A third excursion took me into Holy Land history on an underwater sightseeing tour (with scuba diving gear) of the sunken harbor of Caesarea, south of Akko. Here Canadian and American volunteer divers had been exploring Herod's Harbor, built in the 1st century BC, now sunken below sea level. My underwater guide on this occasion was Ehud Galili of the Center for Maritime Studies of the University of Haifa.
Mr. Galili began diving at age 11 and found artifacts underwater at 14. Later he earned degrees in geography and archaeology and made spectacular finds, such as the largest hoard of coins ever salvaged from the sea, the Mameluk Treasure. Since then, Galili has become the right-hand man of Dr. Avner Raban, head of the Center for Maritime Studies, and is now running his own project, which I hope to join in early September.
In the course of a survey of the sea floor off the coast at Atlit in Galilee near Caesarea, Galili and his team discovered five submerged prehistoric villages, under mud and sand.
Last year, Galili received help from volunteer divers from the Archaeological Museum of Antibes, France, and from the Israel Underwater Society. This year he hopes to have as many volunteers as the other explorations in Galilee. Other digs there have attracted as many as 40 volunteers each, from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Professors and students have come from the University of Maryland, the University of Chicago, Texas A&M, the University of Colorado, and the University of Massachusetts, among others.
Researchers, however, have not been limited to the college crowd. Older business and professional people have come to dive and dig, some bringing along relatives.
Galili's team is very pleased with its finds from the neolithic period (7000-4000 BC) off Atlit. Prehistoric settlements and artifacts have been found in other places, but there's much more material here. Galili has found arrowheads and axes, burned bricks, charcoal, grains and lentils, parts of a human skeleton, and bones from fish, goats, and cattle. These don't sound much like treasures. But you will understand the excitement such objects generate, once you learn what they tell us about ancient ways of life.
Before volunteers leave home, they work through a reading list provided by the Center for Maritime Studies, and before divers don a wet suit, as well as after they come out of the water, they attend archaeology sessions at the handsome University of Haifa campus - about 30 miles away.
Since volunteer divers work close to shore in shallow water, don't need to swim any distance, and are constantly monitored from a raft with sophisticated equipment, they need not be experts - only certified divers with some experience.
Volunteers at Atlit are housed and fed in a nearby kibbutz. On weekends and after the session ends they can tour the country. A modest fee is charged for room and board and courses. College credit for volunteer work and study can be arranged. But not many volunteers come for credit. Most come for the joy of discovery, of helping, of really getting to know the country.
For information about the digs, write the Center for Maritime Studies, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Israel, 31999. Address letters to supervisors for specific digs: For land and water digging at Caesarea this month, Dr. Avner Raban; for submerged neolithic village digs in early September, Ehud Galili; and for excavating a Phoenician wreck in late September, Dr. Elisha Linder.
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