Father Louis Hartman At The Dig Father Louis Hartman at the ruins near Teileilât Ghassûl, 1959.

Letter 5: The Dig

American School of Oriental Research
Jerusalem, Jordan
February 23, 1960

Dear Folks:

It is now almost two months since I sent you my last circular letter which was largely devoted to a description of my Christmas celebration in the Holy Land. I also told something in that letter about the archaeological excavation at Ghassûl in the Jordan Valley, where I had been working since the beginning of December. I ended by saying that I doubted if I would have the stamina to continue on this work till its scheduled conclusion on Feb. 20. Actually, this "dig" ended on Feb. 13, but I had already given up my job there on Jan. 22. Various reasons contributed to my decision to quit before the end of the "campaign." (Archaeologists use that term, as if their field work were a sort of military undertaking.) But the main reason was a matter of health. I was catching one cold after another in the changeable climate of winter near the Dead Sea, so that my intermittent absence of a few days here and few days there from the work made my presence rather useless. One must really stay put on such a job to be of any genuine service.

The weather, I must admit, was very good on the whole. The region where we were working, with its tremendous depth of 1200 feet below sea level, has a climate not unlike that of southern Florida. And what Yankee would not like to be in Florida during January? Most days were calm and sunny, with the thermometer going well up in the eighties around noontime and the nights just comfortably cool. I used to love to go out at night, when the full moon would plate the whole desert with unearthly silver or when on moonless nights the countless army of the stars would march across the sky in most brilliant array. But about once a week a fierce storm would hit us, that might last only a few hours or might continue for two or three days--not a storm of rain, for we never got more than a slight sprinkle, but one of wild wind and blinding sand. A sandstorm in the desert is a most frightening experience, and I lived through a half dozen of them at Ghassûl. The big clouds that start such a storm rolling are not just dark gray; they are positively black. No wonder Hebrew had a special word for them. Then when the first strong winds come, they don't merely howl; they roar. And the air is filled with driven dust and sand, just as it is with snow in a blizzard. This fine dry dirt piles up in drifts and puts a layer of dust on everything in the house. No window or door is tight enough to keep it out. You eat it and drink it and sleep in it. After my first sandstorm down there, which lasted from sunset to midnight, I learned to have more respect for the tents of the beduins. Though our own strongly built adobe house of four small rooms stood like a fortress against the attack of the gale, I expected to find in the morning that half of the beduin tents had been blown away. Actually, I saw at the dawn's late light that they were all still there, every one of these sprawling structures, mere low awnings and side-flaps made of black goat-hair cloth. Much sand had drifted against them, but their long strong ropes and deeply driven pegs had held fast against the fury of the wind.

For me, the most interesting thing about Ghassûl were its beduins. Almost all of our fifty to sixty workers were recruited from among them. The nearest town was too far away. There were two different tribes or clans of beduins here, one camped to the northeast of the dig, the other to the southwest. (Our own house was directly east of the dig, about a ten-minute walk in between, and behind this house, further to the east, the desert had been irrigated into a verdant garden of tomatoes and bananas by water pumped from not too deep below the valley floor.) Though these two beduin tribes had both been driven out of the Beersheba region of southern Palestine by the invaders from "the other side," they hardly lived on very friendly terms with each other. Occasionally an inter-tribal fight would flare up among our workers, who would thereupon pull out their daggers and wave their clubs. But these quarrels seldom got beyond the use of loud language. Only once did anyone get hurt, when one of our best foreman got hit in the back by a pickax that had been aimed at his head. The culprit, who belonged to tribe A, while the foreman belonged to tribe B (I forget the real names of the tribes), was promptly fired. That evening his sheikh, who had all the noble bearing of an American Indian chief, came to our house and pleaded for the rehiring of his tribesman. His excuse was that his men at times get "nervous." After much palavering, an indemnity was agreed on, peace was patched up, and a bloodfeud avoided. Only then did the sheikh accept our proffered demitasse of black coffee.

I myself got along almost too well with the beduin workers in my section. They became embarrassingly friendly and occasionally would use more of their time in trying to teach me Arabic or in mere horseplay than in working. In fact, this was one of the contributing reasons for my decision to quit before the end: I was gradually losing all control of my men. They were great moochers of cigarettes. Though they rolled their own smokes with some kind of vile-smelling weed, they much preferred my cheap "store" cigarettes. Their regular approach was: "Abúna, énte kuwáiyes; eddíni sigára--Father, you're a swell guy; give me a cigarette." Sometimes when I refused, as I usually did, the beggar would grab me and hold his sharp dagger to my throat, while the rest laughed in great glee. All in good clean fun, of course, and I joined in the spirit. I knew no one would ever harm me. In fact, they would have stabbed to death anyone who really hurt me. I was too valuable a source of free cigarettes.

I became quite an expert in telling time in Arabic. About every ten minutes one of the workers would ask me: "Gaddésh es-sá'ah--How much the hour?" So I knew how to answer: "It's nine less a quarter," or "three plus five-and-twenty," and so forth. Not that it mattered much to them what time it was. This was merely a way to pass the time. It was no use for me to show them my wristwatch; very few of them could tell time from it.

The little children of the beduins were especially lovable. Some of the pre-school-agers used to play "excavations," making a small "dig" of their own and carrying off the dirt in all seriousness. Or they would use the hill of soft dirt at our "dump" for a slide, having great fun in skidding down this on their bare bottoms. They looked so comical because in dress they were tiny copies of their papas and mamas. About a dozen boys (no girls!) of seven or eight years old had their "school" near our dig, right out on the open floor of the desert. The kindly young man who was their teacher always carried a switch, merely as the traditional symbol of his office, I think. The little fellows sat around in a perfect circle, each one swaying back and forth as he sung the Arabic alphabet out loud, while keeping his finger on one letter after another in his book: "Ah, ah, ah; bah, bah, bah; tah, tah, tah;" and so forth. Every boy, of course, was singing something different in a great bedlam of noise. One boy must have been in the second grade; the teacher proudly showed me how he could read whole sentences in his primer. The Government wants its future citizens to be literate and not like our workers, very few of whom could read or write. These men signed the receipt for their bi-weekly pay by putting an inky fingerprint after the amount of wages they received.

The real thing that all the children, girls as well as boys, were learning was the beduin way of life. Even the youngest of them, a few years after they could walk, became expert camel-riders. I once saw a girl, who could not have been more than ten years old, scramble up on the back of a camel, after she had made the proud beast kneel down at her command, and then use it to round up some other camels that were grazing a little way off from the encampment. Merely by tapping her mount in the right way with her stick, she made him nudge the other animals back to the camp. Whole families would start out in the morning with their donkeys and camels for some far-off region in the Jordan Valley, and then come trudging back in the evening with their beasts almost hidden under mountains of dry thornbushes--the only fuel these beduins used.

When our dig was half over and while I was still there, the director, Father North, threw a big party for all the workers. This was a mensif, held at the end of that days work. A mensif (I'm not sure of the spelling, but it sounds like that) is a special kind of beduin banquet. For our affair we used two whole sheep and some thirty pounds of rice. I don't know how Abu Sa'id, our cook, did it on his three "primus" burners, but the mutton was delicious and the boiled rice, soaked in hot leben (something like cottage cheese, but semi-liquid), melted in your mouth. Our "guests" sat on the ground in circles of about a dozen men or boys apiece, with an immense platter of rice and mutton in the middle. I squatted in the circle with the dignitaries, including a couple of sheiks and their sons. There is a special etiquette to be observed at a mensif. There are no knives, forks or spoons. You eat with your hand. Only the right hand! You tear off a piece of mutton and throw it into your mouth. Or you make a small ball of the steaming-hot rice and throw it into your mouth. That's right: you "throw" it. The hand should not come in contact with the mouth. Needless to say, I had no skill at all in this way of eating. The rice was too hot for me to squeeze into a neat ball, and my aim was not very good. My face and lap were soon well sprinkled with the sticky rice. However, a large sheet of very thin Arab bread is used as a napkin, and with this you wipe your face and retrieve and consume the stray rice. After the sheiks had given the customary belches to show their gratitude for having had more than enough to eat, bowls of water were passed around for washing face and hands, and then the usual muddy black coffee was served with cigarettes. The pleasantries that were now passed and the stories that were now told as the evening twilight settled down were almost completely lost on me, though Father North could hold his own quite well in Arabic.

There was a shepherd in the neighborhood who had a flock of about fifty sheep. All day long he had them grazing on the scanty growth that can be found here and there in the Jordan Valley. At evening he would lead (not drive) them back to the pump house near our rented house, where he watered his flock. Shortly before this, his fellow shepherd would bring about two dozen little lambs here, to wait for the return of the sheep. As the sheep came near our house, the lambs were let loose from the fold where they had been penned up, and it was a delight to see how each lamb ran towards its own mother. How a lamb can tell one sheep from another or how a ewe can tell her own lamb from the others, only lambs and ewes know. The meeting was accompanied with much bleating and gamboling about, and while the big sheep drank their full of water, the lambs worked away for dear life on their private milk fountains. Whatever flocks the beduins had were made up mostly of goats. These black goats somehow can find something to nibble on in even the driest-looking desert. Their kids do not have to stay home, but go all over with their mother goats. These long-haired black kids may not be quite as cute as the white woolly lambs, but they are more comical as they frisk about in crazy leaps.

Wild animals roam this region only at night. Several times in the evening we saw Foxes sneaking down the wady (gorge) in front of our house, and sometimes the howl of a jackal would get the vicious dogs of the beduins barking and so break the dead stillness of the desert night. I was told that there were also hyenas in the neighborhood, but to my disappointment I never saw one of these odd looking animals. One morning the workmen tried to sell me a hedgehog they had caught near the dig. They said it made good eating. I said, "No thanks." All I could see was a ball of short prickly spines, as the little beastie played possum. The workmen also caught several scorpions at the dig. These men, who generally went barefoot or at most wore only sandals on their feet, always kept their eyes open for a scorpion, which can give a painful, though not fatal sting with its flailing tail.

The main scientific purpose of our dig was to find whether there had been any change in the type of pottery at the various occupational levels of the site. Now that the dig is finished it's up to Father North to study the records and draw his conclusions in this matter. There was plenty of broken pottery at every level, though seldom a whole niece intact. Most of the pottery was very coarse stuff, none of it made on a wheel. It was an exasperating job trying to unravel the maze of different occupational levels. Since this town had been hit by frequent earthquakes, fallen walls of sun-dried bricks and layers of black ashes from the accompanying fires lay at all kinds of confusing angles. It was more interesting when we came upon the skeleton of a little baby buried in a jar beneath the floor of a house (as an infant sacrifice?), or upon a house wall with some fantastic design painted on its plaster. Those primitive people of about 3500 B.C. were rather remarkable artists. Father Mallon, who conducted the first campaigns here in the early 1930s, thought that this was the site of Sodom or Gomorra. Perhaps it is. The Bible is rather hazy about the location of these wicked cities of the lower Jordan Valley. The only trouble is that Abraham and Lot, who witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, lived about two thousand years after the final destruction of our excavated city. Does the Bible do a little telescoping of a couple of millennia here? Whatever the ancient name of the place now called Ghassûl may have been, it was no insignificant village. This ancient unwalled city sprawled out to a much wider extent than the average walled city did in later Chanaan and ancient Israel.

We first marked off a few rectangles on certain still unexcavated parts of the site, and then gradually dug down into these spaces in such a way that their sides were left as straight walls from which the stratification could be read. It may surprise you to hear that, though such an operation is commonly known as a "dig," not a single shovel is used in the process. Besides pickaxes for breaking the harder ground, such as fallen brick walls, the ordinary tool is a sort of heavy triangular hoe. With the pointed end of this instrument the dirt is loosened, and with its side the dirt is pulled into "baskets" laid on their side. The "basket" is a sort of two-handled bucket made out of one ply of an old auto tire. The "pick men" are grown men who use the pickax (in Arabic, fass) and the pointed hoe (Arabic, kazma), and they generally acquire much skill in discerning stamped-clay floors and mud-brick walls, which must first be kept intact. The basket (Arabic, guffa) is handled by the "basket boys," teen-ages, who carry away the excavated dirt to the "dump" outside the area of the ancient inhabited site. The pick-men get 30 piastres (84 cents) a day, the basket-boys 20 piastres (56 cents) a day as their wages. (American labor unions, please do not note.) All I had to do as supervisor was to see that the men cleared the floors and walls correctly, to lend a hand myself with a trowel or small hand-broom when more delicate objects showed up, and to put in a separate basket, with the proper note marking the place and level, all the "artifacts"--pieces of broken pottery and various kinds of worked flints. No metal of any kind was found on the site while I was there. We worked on the tell (the ancient site) for three periods each day: 6:30-9:00 a.m.; 9:30-12 n,; 1-4 p.m. The evenings were spent in "recording" our finds at the house. As far as I care, Ghassûl can now be covered over forever with the sand of the desert of sunk eternally beneath the water of the Dead Sea.

Since the time that I quit the dig for good I have been on a week's visit to Egypt and on several one-day trips to various parts of Jordan. We had some interesting experiences on these one-day trips, but I an afraid it would take me too long to tell about them, at least in this letter, which is getting too long already. Suffice it to say a few words about my trip to Egypt. A visit to the land of the Pharaos was considered part of my "study" here in the Near East. But I preferred not to make the journey all by myself. Most of the people at this School had visited Egypt on their way to Jerusalem last summer or fall. So when John Marks of Princeton, N.J., but now living here, invited me to go along with him and his wife and two small children (a boy of five, and a girl of three and a half), I was happy to go in their company to Egypt. These children were real troopers and never complained of any long walks or delayed meals. All the long legs of the journey between Jerusalem, Cairo and Luxor we made by air, on the two-engine planes of Misr-air, the Egyptian Air Line.

Cairo, with its three million inhabitants, is on the whole quite a modern city, the largest city in Africa and the largest Arabic-speaking city in the world. Its main attraction for us was its large Museum, stuffed to overflowing with all kinds of antiquities from the time of the Pharaos. But we also visited a few of its famous mosques, as well as its medieval citadel, that overlooks the whole city. The old souk or section of medieval shopping streets here is not nearly as interesting as the souks of Jerusalem, Damascus or Aleppo. We stayed overnight and had our meals at the Hotel Semiramis, a big establishment that has kept everything in the same plush style it had when it was erected at the beginning of the century. It faces on the avenue that runs along the eastern bank of the Nile, just as the brandnew, super-deluxe Hotel Hilton does a couple of blocks away. One whole day we spent going with a hired auto and guide out of Cairo to visit the well-known pyramids at Giza, as well as the tombs and other monuments at Saqara, ancient Memphis. It's quite a long drive to Saqara, about a dozen miles, I think, south of Cairo. We passed one farmer village after another as we drove along the canals that parallel the Nile and bring its water to irrigate the black soil of the Nile Valley and fill it with luxuriant crops all year round. Life here is still practically the same as it was during the three-thousand years of Egyptian history before the time of Christ. These dark-skinned fellahin or farmers look the same and work the same as they always did. The only difference is that once they spoke Egyptian and worshipped many queer-looking gods, then later they spoke Coptic (a development of old Egyptian) and worshipped Christ, and now they speak Arabic and worship Mohammed's Allah--except for a small Christian minority of Arabic-speaking Copts.

The three-hour plane ride "up south" from Cairo to Luxor, with a short stop half way at Assiut, gave us a good view of the Egyptian landscape, where all the country is barren rock and sand except for the green ribbon, from one to a dozen miles wide, of the Nile Valley. It may seem odd to you to be speaking of "up south" and "down north," but that's the way things are in Egypt. The Nile, you see, rises in the high mountains of Ethiopia, with their heavy winter rainfall, far in the south, and runs through the desert to the Delta of the Nile at the Mediterranean in the north. "Upper Egypt," therefore, is in the south, and "Lower Egypt" is in the north. Cairo is in Lower Egypt, Luxor in Upper Egypt. Luxor is a relatively small town, though surprisingly quite Christian. There is a very large Catholic Coptic church, a much smaller Schismatic Coptic church, a Latin Catholic church (in charge of the Franciscans, where I said Mass), and even a Coptic Presbyterian church. Luxor's only claim to fame is that, together with its neighboring village of Karnak, it occupies the site of No, which the Greeks called Thebes, the capital of Egypt from the l6th to the 12th century B.C., when the Pharaos ruled over a far-flung empire. Like all tourists, we duly gaped and gasped at the immense temples at Karnak, where the largest of their many halls is bigger than St. Peter's in Rome. The Pharaos were the spiritual ancestors of the movie-producers of Hollywood: they did everything in a truly colossal way. We also crossed the Nile here in a large launch (filled with natives carrying chicken coops and farm produce) to visit the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings with its many underground sepulchers, including that of King Tut, and all the other famous sights on this side of the Nile.

In Cairo it had been warm, but in Luxor it was really hot. The flies here were as pesty as the men who everywhere tried to sell us fake antiquities. At the old-fashioned but comfortable "Hotel Luxor" I needed the canopy of mosquito netting that was over my bed, for the screenless windows let in too many of these bloodthirsty insects. Sitting in the warm shade under the palm trees and watching the white ibises stalk through the green fields while the buzzards circled overhead, I found it hard to believe that just at that time, the end of January, you might have been having a snowstorm in America.

On the flight out, from Jerusalem to Cairo, we had had clouds between our plane and the land below almost all the way, but on the return journey we were blessed with a cloudless day. Since our plane had to avoid Israeli territory, our two-and-a-half-hour flight from Cairo to Jerusalem went on almost the same course that the ancient Israelites followed on their Exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land, when they too had to skirt the Land of Chanaan. The Cairo airport is northeast of the city, near ancient Heliopolis, the traditional place where the Holy Family went on their Flight into Egypt. From there we flew straight east to the swampy lake where the ancient Israelites had probably made their crossing. To the north of us was the continuation of the Suez Canal, to the south of us the port of Suez. The many ships that were waiting there at the head of the Dead Sea looked like little toy boats from the air. Then as we flew over the Sinai Peninsula we could see to the south of us the rugged peaks of the Sinai Range, where the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Below us lay "the vast and terrible desert" where the children of Israel roamed for forty years. Before long we reached the Gulf of Aqabah, the eastern arm of the Red Sea. The dark-eyed Egyptian stewardess pointed out the four countries below us: Egypt with its Sinai peninsula to the southwest, Saudi Arabia to the southeast, Jordan to the northeast, and Israel to the northwest--all meeting at a common point at the head of this gulf. The Jordanese port of Aqabah and the Israeli port of Elath--both only little towns--looked dangerously near each other from the air. Then we turned and flew up north over the high granite mountains of Edom with the desolate valley of the Araba (south of the Dead Sea) to the west of us. Flying at a low altitude over the plateau of ancient Moab with the deep pit of the Dead Sea now to the west, we got some wonderful views of the little farming towns on this high fertile plain, especially a magnificent view of Kerak with the ruins of its great Crusader castle perched on the brink of the cliff that towers over the Dead Sea abyss. After circling over the city of Amman, the capital of Jordan, we turned west over the Jordan Valley and passed high above Jericho. Good old Ghassûl was too far to the south to be visible. We did not have to lose much altitude to land. Only a couple of minutes after the plane reached the highlands on the western side of the Jordan Valley it rolled down along the rolly-coaster runway at the Jerusalem airport, a dozen miles north of the Holy City.

This would hardly be a real letter unless it had something to say about the weather before coming to its end. According to all the old-timers here, this has been one of the driest winters so far on record. During December and the first half of January we had many bleak, cloudy days with some slight drizzles, but with no good downpours. And ever since then--for a whole month now in the middle of the "rainy season" ! --we have had nothing but dry, sunny weather. Unless the "latter rains" of March are good and heavy, Jerusalem is in for a fearful drought this year. Though the fields are now green with winter wheat, it is not as high as it should be at this time of the year. A good month ago, earlier than usual, the almond trees began to bloom. On the hillsides around here there are a surprisingly large number of these trees, which for weeks were completely covered with their lovely white or light-pink blossoms. The charming anemones are now blooming on the fields. With their brilliant crimson petals these are most likely the flowers that Christ referred to when He pointed out the "lilies of the field" and said that Solomon in all the glory of his robes of royal crimson was not arrayed like one of these.

All my days at Jerusalem, are not just outings and picnics. I am also trying to get a little serious work done in between the excursions. I am likewise trying to remember that this Holy City should be a place of prayer. During the coming holy season of Lent and especially during Holy Week and at Easter, when this City of the Great King becomes the spiritual center of the world, I will not forget you in my prayers. Please say a little prayer now and then too for

Your devoted
Louis F. Hartman, C.SS.R.

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