Macquarie University excavates in Israel

November 12, 2012 by  
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Macquarie University has joined Tel Aviv University, Heidelberg University and a consortium of other institutions in the joint scientific inquiry of Tel Azekah – one of the great archaeological sites of ancient Israel.

Andrew Pleffer – PhD candidate and Area Assistant Supervisor and Dr Gil Davis – Program Director have filed this report:

The project is designed to integrate archaeological fieldwork and historical knowledge derived from the Bible and inscriptions. It will shed light on this important fortress city in the Judahite Lowland Region (Shephelah) in the second and first millennia BCE.

Tel Azekah

In July-August, 2012, the team of students from Macquarie University travelled to Israel to participate in the opening season of excavations. They were led by Andrew Pleffer (doctoral candidate and Area Assistant Supervisor on the excavation staff team), doctoral candidate Gareth Wearne, masters candidate Catrina Henderson, honours student Lydia Gore-Jones, and undergraduate students Blake Wassell, Peter Dean, Naomi Bouskila, Rachael Downey, Anna Krautbauer, Natasha Langley, Naomi Simmons, Alexandra Starling, Alexandra Wrathall, and Matthew Williams. Volunteers Dr David and Jill Saffron also participated

The 2012 season was an amazing success with many rare and important finds. The Macquarie students were highly praised by the Directors of the excavation for their dedication, enthusiasm, and hard work. Cooperating with a diverse team of volunteers from a range of ages and backgrounds, they learnt cutting-edge excavation techniques and artifact preservation. While participating in the discovery of the past, they also learnt about the cultural heritage of Israel through academic lectures and tours to important cultural and archaeological sites.

Macquarie University will continue to play a key role as the excavation and its related projects develop in the seasons to come.

 The importance of the site and why we are participating:

Tel Azekah was a strategically and politically important city in the Shephelah region. It was situated on the cross-roads of international trade routes, and on the southern border of Judah. The Shephelah region was the ‘breadbasket’ of the Levantine coast and control of it was essential for power and economic growth throughout the ages. Azekah was primarily the border city which guarded the entrance to the Elah valley and the western Hill regions. Results from the excavation will contribute immensely to our understanding of the entire Shephelah region which has been hotly-disputed in recent scholarship.

Location map kindly provided by Prof Oded Lipschits

Preliminary surveys revealed that Azekah was occupied from the Early Bronze Age (3300-2100 BCE) through to the Ottoman period (1516-1917CE). The largest settlement periods were during the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE) when Canaan was frequently dominated by the Egyptian New Kingdom, and during the Iron Age II (1000-586 BCE) when it was an important regional centre for the Kingdom of Judah. During the latter period, Azekah was the border fortress between Philistine and Judean territories, guarding the entrance to the Elah valley.

Azekah features in many ancient literary sources, providing us with interesting historical data and cross references from different cultures. In the Bible, it is mentioned as: the fabled site of the battle between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17); a fortified city in the city list of King Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 11); the inheritance of Judah (Joshua 15); and as the last remaining fortified city of Judah as the King of Babylon assaulted Jerusalem (Jeremiah 34). In the ‘Azekah inscription’, it is mentioned as a politically and strategically important site for the Assyrian King Sennacherib in his control of the region. A collection of letters found at the nearby site of Lachish contains an anguished Judean report that the signal-fires of Azekah can no longer be seen, implying that the city has fallen (most likely to Sennacherib during his invasion of Judah in 701 BCE).

The Azekah excavations will contribute to our understanding of the region, its border zones and periphery settlements, trade and economy, strategic development, history and politics, as well as informing current debates about detecting ethnicity in material culture.

Macquarie University is dedicated to excellence in research, teaching and global citizenship; the Azekah project is important for developing and promoting this vision. Students learn excavation techniques and theory in the field, and are introduced to Israeli culture through organised tours and academic lectures by world experts. It is a launch-pad for future Macquarie University projects that will broaden students’ cultural and historical knowledge, and promote academically rigorous understanding of Israel’s history in its Near Eastern context.

The university has agreed to undertake collaborative research with Tel Aviv University, and the Excavation Director Professor Oded Lipschits is co-supervising Andrew Pleffer’s doctoral dissertation. Tel Aviv University has provisionally accepted one of the Macquarie excavation team into its world-renowned international Masters Program and offered him a study grant. We expect he will be the first of many.

What we did in 2012:

Over 120 participants from 16 institutions around the globe attended the excavation, making it one of Israel’s largest and most international excavation projects. With so many volunteers, the staff did extremely well to keep the excavations at the highest professional standard, with the season’s results providing proof of the hard work.

Six areas were opened across the Tel: two on the southern slope; one on the western slope; one on the eastern slope; and two on the top. This was done to gain an overall picture of the site, and to answer specific questions generated by earlier geophysical and trial surveys, and analysis of surface finds. Australian students participated in each area.

–       We opened the first area on the southern side of the Tel believing this to have been the most likely approach to the city in ancient times. We hoped to find evidence of a city gate or defences.

–       We opened the second southern section on the flat-terraced area below the slope to better understand the terrace feature at the bottom of the slope, which we thought was built to support a lower city. Ground Penetrating Radar Surveys had shown many architectural features below the surface and we suspected it would be well-preserved. (Andrew Pleffer assisted in the supervision of this trench).

–       We excavated on the steep western slope in order to gain a better understanding of the chronology of the site and its periods of habitation by cutting through the stratigraphical layers. The slope also had strategic importance because it faced away from the Elah valley towards the coast and, in the Judahite periods, the enemy territory of Philistia with its chief city of Gath (known as Tel Es-Safi in modern times) clearly visible below.

–       For similar reasons, we opened the eastern slope which faced towards the Elah valley and, during different periods, would have overlooked and guarded the road to Jerusalem. Surveys revealed architectural features here and, possibly a fortified tower at the base of the slope.

–       Finally, we opened two areas on the top of the Tel which had been partially excavated more than a hundred years ago in the only previous exploration of the site by Bliss and Macalister in 1898/9. This was the first excavation done in Israel and used very different techniques to modern projects. We suspected the top of the Tel would have been significantly degraded in the earlier excavation, but the field diaries of the two directors revealed that much might be untouched. The sections we opened were an attempt to isolate undisturbed areas for more careful analysis.

What we found:

The results of this season were astounding and moved Azekah into the league of great archaeological sites in Israel. Apart from the many amazing individual finds, we were also able at this early stage to provide preliminary answers to many of our questions (although some of this interpretation may change as area summaries and data collation are processed).

The top of the Tel had the most unexpected and impressive results as both areas revealed rooms full of complete jars, some with contents still in them. The rooms and their jars probably date to three different periods: Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Hellenistic-Persian. The extent of preservation was impressive, and the collection of jars provided us with a huge corpus of pottery to study and publish, contributing to our understanding of pottery types, dating and function. But, as if to bring the team down to earth after such impressive discoveries, they realised that in one section of the square they were excavating a soldiers’ latrine from 40 years ago.

A jar with contents still inside!

On the southern slope we uncovered a Middle Bronze II Age structure with charred wooden beams and posts. New excavation techniques and scientific analysis will allow us to test these samples and preserve them properly. We also found two, well-preserved donkey skeletons buried beneath a floor. There are many theories on why donkeys have been found underneath floors in Bronze Age sites, and our discovery will add to this research. Many lithic (stone) artifacts also came out of this area suggesting a domestic context. We also uncovered several stamp impressions, and two unique figurines. No secure evidence of a city gate was found, but reinterpretation of the landscape suggests it is further around the slope.

On the southern terrace below the slope, we uncovered a large paved area, which probably served as a public space. It led up to a large water cistern which has been partially excavated. It is likely that it does provide evidence of a lower city. If so, it will be very important for understanding the town plan and the plan of other sites throughout Israel from

One of the Donkey Skeleton’s being excavated (Courtesy of Gabriella Rodrigues [pictured])

this period. Based on comparative architecture, the paved area and cistern can be provisionally dated to the Middle Bronze Age. We also discovered a beautiful scarab seal and jar seals, some of which were inscribed. In the adjacent square we found a storage room with complete vessels and floors that had been burnt in ancient times. The room had suffered major damage but the cause is difficult to determine. We documented the vessels and took samples of their contents for laboratory analysis. These will be very important for understanding ancient economies and diet. The remains of a street were also found just above the pavement, connecting some of the architectural features of the southern slope with the terrace.

Macquarie University’s Team leader and Area Superviser Andrew Pleffer showing some visitors the remains of what is likely an ancient street.

The Western slope was steep and difficult to work on, but the team was very productive and discovered a well-preserved mud-brick wall and some impressive domestic features. A local scarab seal found in context provided a date for some of the area’s architectural features. This area also produced some early coins, which could be important for an ongoing research project at Macquarie University.

The eastern slope was by far the most difficult area in which to work. Despite the heat and the steep slope, they uncovered a very large tower at the base of the slope. This proved to have had multiple stages of construction and use. Further analysis is needed to determine these phases, but it may be of Roman construction, and will be important for understanding the strategic use of Azekah in this period.



Student participation:

Student celebrating her find – a lamp.

The Australian students were repeatedly praised by all staff members and the excavation Directors for their positive, hardworking, and friendly participation. They were spread across the areas and were exposed to different archaeological and social contexts. Each area team was made up of people from various backgrounds and nationalities, making the excavation a fantastic experience in getting to know and working with many different people. The students were patient and dedicated to absorbing as much knowledge and information as possible. Many also attended extra course work and lectures on archaeological method during the evenings. All want to return next year.

Ambassador’s visit:

The Australian Ambassador to Israel, Ms Andrea Faulkner, visited the site and commented that she was impressed with how the project was run, and the way in which volunteers from many different backgrounds and ages worked side by side. She congratulated Macquarie University on having such large student representation at the excavation, and complimented Program Director Gil Davis and the faculty for their organisation and the project’s future research prospects.

Scheduling and Accommodation:

The excavation schedule was physically and mentally demanding with 5am starts and long days. Macquarie University’s students are to be congratulated for their patience with each other and their fellow volunteers.

Clean, comfortable, and pleasant accommodation was provided during the week at a guest house in the Nes Harim National Park near Beth Shemesh. The facilities were good, with plenty of hot water and air conditioning.

The breakfasts at the site were wonderful after hours of solid work, and all the students commented on how much they looked forward to the food. The food back at Nes Harim was less enjoyable, but plans are underway to build a new kitchen, mess hall and hire new kitchen staff for next year’s excavation.

Lectures and Tours:

Throughout the excavation, visiting Professors and academic staff gave lectures on their latest research. Tours and lectures were led by Prof. Aren Maier (Excavation Director at Tel Es-Safi), Prof. Yosef Garfinkel (Excavation Director at Khirbet Qeiyafa), Shlomo Bunowitz (Excavation Director at Beth Shemesh) and Ido Koch (doctoral candidate and senior site supervisor investigating changes in the Shephelah). These helped volunteers understand what they were doing at Azekah in light of current research and nearby excavations. The Tel Aviv University team from the sister excavation project at Socoh also stayed with us at Nes Harim for half the season, and Prof. Yuval Goren, who was leading the excavations, gave a lecture on his latest research.

There were weekend tours of ancient and modern sites with professional tour guides, archaeologists, and academics with free time to explore. Some of the sites visited as part of these tours were Ramat Rachel, Jerusalem, the City of David, Herodium, En Gedi, the Dead Sea, Masada, Qumran, Megiddo, the Sea of Galilee, Tel Hazor, Tel Dan and Caesarea.

Many of the students also made their own arrangements with Israeli volunteers and their friends from the excavation to see Tel Aviv and other sites up north. We were very grateful for the time and energy that the Israeli team put into making the Australians feel welcome.

Now and in the future:

The 2012 excavations at Azekah are the beginning of a much larger project with multiple excavations in the Elah valley. Our aim is to understand the economies of the entire region through the excavation of several key sites and surveys. A study of this nature has long been needed for understanding the region’s administrative, economic and ethnic development. In the 2012 season, a second team from Tel Aviv University excavated the nearby industrial site and fortress of Socoh as the start of this regional project, which is expected to take several years.

The work at Azekah will provide many research opportunities for Macquarie University. We have full access to the database, and with the Memorandum of Understanding between Macquarie University and Tel Aviv University, we have the opportunity to collaborate further. Publication of the results from this season has already begun, and reports of the finds are underway. The initial discoveries and conclusions will be presented in November 2012 at the American School of Oriental Research Conference.

Picture: The Australian Ambassador Andrea Faulkner (centre with scarf), and Excavation Director Oded Lipschits (second from left) depicted with the Macquarie University team.

All of the students have expressed a desire to return to the excavations next year, and some are making plans to study at Tel Aviv University.  Some students are also following up their excavation experience by participating in a course that encourages them to think critically about the methodological issues associated with archaeological excavation.

Andrew Pleffer is continuing his research into temple economies in the region with Excavation Director Prof. Oded Lipschits as his supervisor, and plans to travel to Israel in 2013 to study under Prof. Lipschits.



From the Excavation Director – Professor Oded Lipschits:

“I am writing to tell you that the Australian team got many compliments for the good spirit, the hard work and the very important part that the students took in all the activities in and around the dig. This group became the most important part of the dig, and it was not the same after the Australian students left! The Australian team was a big part of the success of the dig, and it is important for me that you will know it, and we all will wait for the second Macquarie team in the next season”.

From the Ambassador – Ms Andrea Faulkner:

It was great to have the group of Australians from Macquarie University involved in the exciting, new project, together with Tel Aviv University at Tel Azekah. I was fascinated by the tour of the site and touched by the warmth of the hospitality I received. I look forward to keeping in touch and hearing about developments at the dig.”

From the students…

Andrew Pleffer: “This season of excavating at Tel Azekah was the most enjoyable experience I’ve had excavating. Not only was it the most organised, productive, and successful excavation I’ve been on, but it was also a fantastic experience culturally, educationally and socially. I look forward to next year and the discoveries and opportunities that await us. I want to thank everyone who supported me and the team from Macquarie University in travelling to the excavations. In particular I would like to thank Andrew Whitten and Whitten Lawyers for financing my trip and supporting me in my research. I’d like to thank the Pratt Foundation for sponsoring the students, and the Sir Asher Joel Foundation for its continued support throughout my studies, and for allowing much of this program to happen. I’d also like to thank Dr. Michael Joel, Dr. Gil Davis, Prof. Alanna Nobbs, and Prof. Andrew Gillett for bringing it all together and their ongoing support of the Program, the team and my research”.

Gareth Wearne: “Excavation allows for a tangible connection with the land and its history in a way that is inaccessible through any other channel. There is nothing that compares to the realisation that you are treading, more or less, the same ground as the ancients once trod. In this way one begins to realise the vital connection between landscape and events. This is borne out not only in time spent on-site, but also through the opportunity to travel to other parts of the country and to visit other excavations. Having excavated previously at the Philistine settlement at Tell es Safi-Gath, I found it particularly interesting to compare these two important Iron Age settlements, and the different geographical and political orientation afforded by their situation in relation to the coastal plane on one hand, and Jerusalem and the highlands of Judah on the other”.

Lydia Gore-Jones: “I’m writing to let you know that I had a most exciting and beneficial experience participating in the excavation at Tel Azekah in July. Working on an archaeological site helped me put history learned in the Bible and the classroom into tangible context. I gained knowledge not only about history of late-bronze/early-iron age Judean Lowland, but also the principles and methods of archaeology. I most enjoyed the excellent lectures and field trips which were part of the programme, and benefitted tremendously from communicating with leading Israeli archaeologists as well as academics and students from America and Europe who were also participants.  I am most grateful for the financial help provided by the generous people whom I haven’t met. I’d like to thank you as well for organising and coordinating the trip. Please let me know if you would like to hear more details about my experience at Azekah”.

Catrina Henderson:  “I loved the opportunity to be a part of the excavation. It was a fantastic learning experience, both the digging and the lectures. I loved the teams I was a part of, both from our uni and in our section of the dig. The schedule was challenging but rewarding, the digging was hard work but fun, the food was awesome, the accommodation was a little below par but we didn’t spend much time there anyway!! I really enjoyed being ‘on site’ unearthing what is thought to be a city with biblical context and I enjoyed learning some of the skills and context involved in excavating.

Peter Dean: “I enjoyed the experience of the excavation and thought it gave me a better understanding of how excavations occurred, and how various forms of material remains are approached by archaeologists. It was a great group of people to work with and provided me with the chance to be immersed in people who are all interested in ancient history. I felt my area was quite successful and was very pleased and proud of our discoveries.”

Matthew Williams: “My experience at Azekah was amazing. From the early starts to the late nights I don’t think I have enjoyed life like I did for those three weeks. It really was something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. In particular I loved getting to know so many amazing and wonderful people, and from so many countries, forming lifelong friendships. The actual excavating itself was amazing as well. The feeling you get when you first dig up an artefact is quite a buzz. I learnt many new skills in archaeology and found it to be a little different to what I had thought. I was expecting more of the paintbrush, tedious, slow, very precise work. But for the most part, and I guess it was because we were starting from beginning of the dig, we were pick-axing and digging our way down quite vigorously. At times we would sweep all day, which gave me the tedious work I was expecting, keeping everything clean when we and everyone else knew it was impossible, but overall an amazing experience. For me a word which would sum up my first excavation is ‘amazing’. Every time I think about the dig or tell someone about it, amazing seems to be the only word that comes into my mind. I have begun a deep love for archaeology, one that I am focused on pursuing as if it were my wife to be.”

Natasha Langley: “I loved my time in Israel and really enjoyed finding lots of artefacts. It was very exciting digging through dirt and suddenly seeing something different like an arrowhead, lamp or a decorated piece of pottery. It was also great travelling around Israel and experiencing the culture, as well as visiting Holy sites in Jerusalem and places of great historical significance, like Masada and Qumran.”

Blake Wassell: “Regarding the excavation, the site was immense and beautiful, and the people hard-working and enthusiastic. The staff from Tel Aviv and around the world were good leaders and teachers. I learnt much about archaeological praxis that will prove invaluable in my current and future research. Perhaps most importantly, I experienced the beauty of the Judean foothills, Jerusalem’s Old City, and other parts of Israel firsthand”.

Alexandra Wrathall: “The opportunity awarded to me through the Scholarship program completely revolutionised my academic career and reaffirmed my passion for Israel and its history. Without your donation, I would never have been able to achieve connections to Tel Aviv University and the Archaeological community of Israel, nor explore the land itself. Falling in love with the history of Israel in a land so very far away from it, being granted the opportunity to touch and embrace history is a gift I will never be able to repay”.

Naomi Simmons: “I found participating in the excavation a great experience, I really enjoyed it. I thought the tours were great – we saw a lot in short space of time. They were also informative”.

Alexandra Starling: “My 23 hour sleepless flight to Israel allowed me quite some time to build up an expectation of what would be waiting for me when our plane touched down. I had images in mind of rolling sand dunes, excruciating heat, confusing language barriers, exotic food and dirt swept streets, though none of these things were waiting for me on my first night in Israel. It was only when our taxi pulled away from Ben Gurion Airport that reality finally set in. I was preparing myself for a chaotic adventure where I would be swept away by culture and lost in translation, yet what actually awaited me on my first evening in Tel Aviv was a warm, pleasant night, friendly locals who almost all spoke English, beautiful sandstone buildings and delicious familiar food. Coming from a country like Australia, where a 6 hour drive won’t even get you out of the state you live in, it was a real surprise for me when we arrived at Nes Harim in less than an hour. What surprised me even more was the amount of luscious greenery which dotted the hillsides. Israel has one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Nes Harim, despite its lack of WiFi hotspots, was a very comfortable place to stay. Though I didn’t think I’d survive our first 3AM morning, my adrenalin kicked in and I managed to work very hard on my first day at Tel Azekah. I had the privilege of being assigned to area T2, which in my opinion was the greatest location at the Tel. Each morning we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise over the Judean hillside, and were kept cool by winds which skimmed the top of the hill. Each day I worked, I grew more and more fond of my area, and I’ll never forget the remorse I felt on my last day digging. I looked around at the area I stood in, with the level of the top soil at around my knee height, a constant reminder of just how hard we’d worked. My pottery bucket was full to the brim with jar handles, walls and bases, bones and grinding stones. I glanced up and looked over the horizon, remembering my trip to the Dead Sea which lay just beyond my field of vision. The bus ride there was breathtaking, as we drove past endless sand dunes and cliff faces dotted with caves. Though the heat of the desert was suffocating, and the sting of the Dead Sea was painful, it was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life. I will never forget our trip to Masada, Qumran and Herodion, nor will I forget the previous weekends visit to Jerusalem. I fell in love with the biblical city, its historic monuments, glorious churches and spiritual Wailing Wall. My time overall was incredible; a journey rich in culture, history, tradition, delicious food and amazing people, and as a somewhat sad reminder of my time, I sit here eating hommus whilst I write this, remembering the tastes of the land to which I cannot wait to return.

And finally, from two more mature volunteers – David and Jill Saffron: “We really had a fascinating time at the dig. Not for the weak-backed or those who won’t take direction, or who like to lie in. We enjoyed being part of a team, the physical labour, the tedium…you became almost trancelike. We enjoyed the company of young people from around the globe.  We learnt a lot from others, and from those in charge. We’ve told our children to do it, as it adds another dimension to those museum visits.  We also found Nes Harim to be a peaceful and quite beautiful place. To be honest, it was tough going, but we had to be sensible, and get a lot of sleep.  We’re pleased we only put our name down for a week.  Younger people could do it for longer. It was a wonderful, enriching experience, Gil, and we want to thank you for arranging it for us. We have lots of photos, so maybe we could get together soon and show you.”

Our thanks:

The Archaeology of Ancient Israel Program, the excavation, and the opportunity for the students to participate would not have been possible without the involvement of many people.

The donors:

–       The Pratt Foundation – which provided substantial seed money for the Program

–       The Sir Asher and Lady Joel Foundation, with particular mention to Dr Michael Joel for his support in getting the Program underway

–       The Whitten family – who sponsored an annual scholarship for one or two promising scholars to travel to Israel annually, and provided a donation to help with financing the excavation

–       The anonymous donors who fully funded the Director’s position, and

–       We are delighted to welcome the splendid donation by the Education Heritage Foundation to fund a lectureship in Ancient Israel Studies at Macquarie University from 2013 forward

Macquarie University:

–       The Dean of Arts, Professor John Simons

–       The Head of the Ancient History Department, A/Prof Andrew Gillett

–       The Head of the Program for Early Mediterranean Studies, Prof Alanna Nobbs

–       The Program Director, Dr Gil Davis

–       The long-term lecturer in ancient Israel whose selfless dedication has inspired the students, Dr Stephen Llewelyn

–       The former Senior Development Manager, Mr Joseph Lawrence

Program supporters:

–       The Program would not have been realised without the support of many others including: His Excellency, the Ambassador for the State of Israel, Mr Yuval Rotem; the Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Mr Peter Wertheim AM; the Chief Executive of the Pratt Foundation, Mr Sam Lipski AM; the Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Communal Appeal, Mr Ian Sandler;  the President of the Friends of Tel Aviv University, Mr. David Dinte; the Spokesperson and Director of Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of Israel, Ms Einat Weiss; and many, many others.

For further details and information check out:

Promotional Video: showing what the experience is like on the ‘dig’ and in Israel for the participants

The Excavation website

The Lautenschlager Azekah Expedition on Facebook:

The Excavation Blog:




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