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Archeology project at the School

Sunday 19 November 2006, by Bob Mark

We have known about the mosaic floor in the forest since it was discovered by hikers in 1980. I remember working in my garden when they came by to ask for tools. I followed them to the site, took the three trees that they uprooted and replanted them in the village. Uncovering the floor without a license was an irresponsible and illegal thing to do (so was uprooting the trees). Though the temptation is hard to resist. It is a beautiful work of art sitting in the forest and waiting to be uncovered like a buried treasure. About two years ago someone else came along and, out of concern for the floor, covered it up with the surrounding dirt and rocks. Though well – intentioned it was just as irresponsible and damaging to cover the floor as it was to uncover it. Digging and taking care of sites is a profession.

It happens that the archeologist responsible for digs in our region of the country, Gidon Sulimani, is also a resident of NS/WAS. So 25 years after its initial discovery I asked Gidon what it is that the Israeli Antiquities Authority does with sites like these. Gidon explained that they have so much work to do and so little funding that they are not likely in our lifetime to allocate funds for work on the mosaic floor. However he went on to explain that anyone can initiate a dig. All you need is an archeologist, which we have, and a license, which costs some money. And it turns out that the Antiquities Authority has a department of education through which they conduct programs and digs with children. The perfect primary school project.

I’ve been teaching history in the NS/WAS Primary School for the past 20 years and I couldn’t dream of a better way to bring history to life than to dig it up ourselves with the children. The American Friends of NS/WAS quickly came through with funding for the first year of digging, the Karev Foundation provided funding for a weekly educational program in archeology, and we took out a license to dig. The program has been the most exciting history lesson that I remember.

Last year the Antiquities Authority sent Nuha Aga Sa’id to the school to work with children from 4th to 6th grades in a weekly program teaching about the science, techniques and detective work involved in archeology. Then in the Spring, when the ground was dry, we received small hand picks, brushes and dustpans and learned how to dig. Nuha and Gidon supervised the work together. The dig has also been an opportunity to bring the children’s families together. We held a few Friday morning digs in which the children brought their parents along. On Friday November 3rd this year we had a family dig to start the project on its second school year.

The dig attracted local and international attention with press coverage by Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, the B.C. Catholic (a paper out of Vancouver), local radio news, and a Russian TV crew.

The mosaic floor belongs to the Byzantine period (4th to 7th century AD). The maroon crosses on the gray floor lead us to assume that it was a church. It was not the mosaic floor, but the ridges on the pieces of ceramic pottery scattered all around that identified the site as Byzantine. Otherwise a mosaic floor in the Crusader period apparently could have looked pretty much the same.

Since beginning work we have also found and brought to the attention of the Antiquities Authority a number of Byzantine tombs in the forest, and Gidon has pointed out the remains of a road, a lime kiln, and indications of additional mosaic floors. Remains of ancient olive and wine presses are easily found in the region. It appears that we are in the process of discovering a Byzantine village as yet undocumented by the Authority.

It is no great surprise that our region is so rich in archeological finds. Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam is situated on a hill five minutes off the main Jerusalem – Tel-Aviv highway. The village commands a magnificent view of the Ayalon Valley. Historically, the strategic location of this hill, and of those around it, has made it essential to control this point in order to secure the main route between Jerusalem and the sea. So today’s residents and guests of the village are not the only people who have enjoyed this view. In the nearby fields there are signs of settlement from the Bronze age, Iron age and Hellenistic period. There is an ancient olive oil press and columbarium above the NS/WAS sports hall. There are remains of an early Roman village between the NS/WAS swimming pool and basketball court. And most prominently of all, the remains of a crusaders fortress seems to be keeping an eye on NS/WAS from the top of an adjacent hill. Behind that crusaders fortress are remains of three Palestinian villages destroyed by the Israelis as late as 1967. Those same fields were the site of the battle of Latrun in 1948 as well as a decisive battle between the Maccabees and the Greeks in the second century BC. Bruno Hussar, the village’s founder, often commented on how appropriate it is that an oasis of peace be built near the sites of so many battlefields.

Gidon Sulimani is an advocate of what he calls “community archeology.” He points out that too much of the archeological work done in the country is the result of financial investment by someone who wants to make a point or make a case for the dominant historical narrative. Community archeology starts with residents asking the simple question of who and what was here, in the neighborhood where we live, before we arrived. It is sometimes a charged political question that people would prefer to leave unasked. In our case if funding continues and the project becomes a regular part of the school program, we will eventually create a small archeological park with sites studied and explained by the children themselves.

(Click for larger picture!)

Update

On a four - day dig (November 20 - 23, 2006) the children renewed work on the floor and discovered the entrance to a new room! Photographed above is the threshold, a segment of paved floor and a bit of plastered wall. The children have also begun to find small pieces of ancient glass. The children will conduct another dig during a school - week in the spring. Perhaps until then Gidon will do some more work on the site with the NS/WAS village residents.

Portfolio

Uncovering the mosaic Brushing away soil After pouring water Continuing the work, November 2006 Tray with shards, small objects Tray up close

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