Archaeology Heads to Israel, Ya Dig?
In the field of archaeology, no amount of research can replace the value of hands-in-the-dirt experience. That is why Tyler Jo Smith, professor of Classical Art/Archaeology and the director of the Interdisciplinary Archaeology Program at UVA, has for the past two summers brought a group of her students to northern Israel, near the Haifa district, to be part of a five-year, multi-university collaborative project that is yielding both fascinating finds and invaluable experiences.
The groups have traveled to what was once known as Caesarea, a city founded under Herod the Great in the late 1st century BC. The site is a never-ending trove of discovery for archaeologists, as well as one of the region’s premier seaside tourist destinations. Smith and her group are part of the Caesarea Coastal Archaeological Project (CCAP), a field school that just completed its second of what is designed as a five-year research project that brings them together with students and faculty from UNC Greensboro, the University of Haifa, and other institutions. The project also gives its participants a chance to explore public archaeology by allowing them to work with members of the community who provide invaluable knowledge about local history and more.
Caesarea was a major port for some 1,500 years dating back to antiquity and after. “One of the most fascinating things about this place is that it was a true melting pot,” Smith said. “You have Jewish and Christian communities, Muslim communities, and of course the Crusaders. There is also a 19th Century Bosnian settlement since, under the Ottoman Empire, a group of Bosnian refugees were relocated there.”
It is this diversity of discoveries that makes the area so fertile for exploration, according to Smith. “There is so much focus on the Roman period there, and if you were to go today you would see a very Roman, urban environment. Yet there are also significant Byzantine and Islamic remains there too. Some are visible, some underground, and some lie in overgrown land in areas off limits to the public.”
This means that Smith, her students, and their collaborators have the rare chance to tell an untold story by focusing on these later periods that are partially unexplored but just as compelling as anything else found in the area.
The highlights of the project, Smith said, have come as much from the dedication and enthusiasm of the students as from tangible discoveries. She spends much of her time in the lab in her role as lab director, a big job that entails overseeing the processing, cleaning, and storing of the finds for future study. But she savors every opportunity she has had to head out to the field and observe or lend a hand. “Having the chance to be a fly on the wall and watch our students working from a distance, hearing their laughter, and feeling their excitement…I almost have chills just talking about it. It’s everything I’ve wanted as an archaeology professor since I came to UVA, and I am so grateful to the Office of the Provost for the Arts for supporting our UVA students with funds to offset the cost of their participation these past two years.”
The camaraderie was built, Smith added, by the fact that the group have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together as well as working side-by-side in the often-sizzling Mediterranean sun, taking breaks on the stunning beach below the bluff where they toiled, attending lectures, or working in the lab to process their finds. “We were basically,” she said, “one big happy family.”
The lab work, according to Smith, is instrumental to the students’ learning process. “I explain to them on day one that without it,” she said, “all you’ve done is dig holes in the ground. These artifacts are going to help tell us the dates and the occupation levels. All those aspects we can learn from very simple pieces of broken pottery.”
While pottery pieces like these constitute many of the finds, Smith shared that during the first season, one UVA student, Annika Reynolds (Classics and Art History, '22) unearthed one of the few complete pieces of the summer. “She was digging around, and you can imagine how careful we must be. Some of the tools are very sharp and heavy so you are trying to do things in a delicate way. She discovered a tiny Crusader period lamp in perfect condition and completely intact. You could basically hold this perfect object in the palm of your hand. Later that day, Annika came into the lab and asked if she could see it. I was drowning in pottery shards and had no idea what she was even talking about. There, she showed me, in this little shoebox wrapped in tissue, was this beautiful fragile little thing. She said, ‘Can I hold it, please?’ and I said, ‘Sorry, but no, you can’t. That ship has sailed!’”
The thrill of that moment for Smith came not from the rarity of the find – similar lamps line shelves at museums throughout the area – but from the student’s excitement. The excitement was shared by the whole group, especially since they were having the unique chance to come to a site with untouched soil. Smith had plenty of excitement and pride herself at the way her students and all their cohorts performed in the field. “After a week, or maybe two, they are coming into the lab and identifying the kind of piece they’ve found and the period it came from. I was like, ‘Whoa, who are you people? What have we done?’’ When they start owning things in this way, they are no longer playing at archaeology. They are starting to understand what crafted objects and built structures may have been used for, and why they are so important”.
When asked about the experience of working at Caesarea, Archaeology and Art History major Brenna Gomez (College '23) said, “You meet some of the most interesting, inspiring, and motivated people while with CCAP; from the students, supervisors, specialists, and directors; everyone is so involved and passionate about the project. My time in the lab has allowed me to work closely with such people and has given me a deeper appreciation of the work being done within CCAP and archaeology as a field.”
While Anthropology and Archaeology major Henry Hesford ( College '25) explained that “working at CCAP during the summer of 2023 was an experience that I will undoubtedly never forget. The excitement that comes from playing an active role in uncovering our ancient material past cannot be understated. I especially enjoyed learning to interpret and recover metallic artifacts such as nails and coins.”
Another thing that was important to the student experience, according to Smith, was the chance to engage not only with the materials they found but with the local people who can offer important perspectives they may not be able to learn anywhere else.
“We are working in an area that belongs to the Sdot Yom Kibbutz, perhaps the oldest in Israel,” Smith said. “Toward the end of the first summer, we were there, we started to get volunteers from the kibbutz to come work with us. It was so enlightening and exciting because while we are there digging on-site, and washing artifacts together in the lab, we are hearing stories about the history of the area and different archaeologists, including some very famous ones who have worked there over the past few decades. It gave us details I’m sure we might not have found anywhere else. These people were just so full of information in addition to being lovely to work with.”
The appeal of this aspect of the experience spread beyond Smith herself. One of her UVA students, Noelle Wobig (Archaeology and Anthropology '23), developed a keen interest in public archaeology during her time in Israel in the summer of 2022. She completed her Distinguished Major Program thesis during her 4th year on the topic, including incorporating museum and site research and discussions she had with community members and volunteers she met there, which Smith calls a “nifty outcome” of the project.