SEARCY, Ark. — For more than a decade, Dale Manor, professor of archaeology and Bible at Harding University, has taken history buffs and aspiring archaeologists on summer excavation trips to Tel Beth-Shemesh, Israel.
The groups that Manor usually takes on the four-week digs consist mostly of archaeology students and faculty from secular universities.
“I had never been on a project where the majority of the people were even religious,” Manor said.
But that changed this past summer.
All 14 participants in Manor’s most recent trip were members of Churches of Christ.
“Through the years, a number of folks had indicated interest in coming to excavate, and I pressed them into making a decision,” Manor said of his fellow Christians.
Beth-Shemesh, about 12 miles southwest of Jerusalem, is where the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant to Israel, as recorded in I Samuel 6. It’s also the site of some of Samson’s activities during the time of the Judges.
Manor said excavations at Beth-Shemesh since 1990 have uncovered an underground water reservoir and the largest iron workshop found in the Middle East, both dating around the 10th Century B.C.
For the last few years, groups including the team led by Manor have been excavating a destruction level that preserves what archaeologists believe to be a queen’s palace from the 14th Century B.C., according to the Harding professor.
Michele Sperle and her husband, Kolin, members of the 151st Street Church of Christ in Olathe, Kan., traveled to Beth-Shemesh with Manor for the first time in 2007, the year the group discovered the destruction layer of the believed palace.
The Sperles were also part of the latest trip.
“This year we found mud ovens in living quarters,” said Michele Sperle, who works in sales management for a computer software company. “We found a cosmetic tray — a granite rock with an indention that was used to grind minerals that women would use for makeup. I found a thread creator made out of Philistine pottery. It’s exciting because the artifacts you get to touch haven’t been touched by human hands in thousands of years.”
Edward Short, senior Chinese producer for Franklin, Tenn.-based World Christian Broadcasting, echoed Michele Sperle’s excitement about uncovering artifacts that pre-date Christ.
Short, who went with Manor for the first time this past summer, said he saved frequent-flyer miles for several years so he could participate in the Beth-Shemesh excavation.
The trip costs about $3,500, including airfare and housing for four weeks, according to Manor.
“The days I dug up something were a thrill beyond words,” said Short, whose findings included flint knives and pounding stones.
The team of archaeologists divided into five groups of three that each excavated a small square section of the site. Short said his group uncovered the least amount of artifacts but some of the most exciting ones. His digging partner Sarah Yeager, a sophomore at Harding, excavated a small jug.
“I was straightening the square edge, and a piece of pottery pops out,” Yeager said. “I felt like it was my child. It was perfect. The base of it fit in the palm of my hand. I loved that thing like a child.”
Manor said the artifacts that are uncovered are sent to Tel Aviv University for further analysis.
For Short, the excitement of uncovering artifacts like the jug that are thousands of years old overshadowed the intense daily schedule the group endured.
On a typical day, team members were awake at 4 a.m. and on a bus headed to the excavation site by 5 a.m. They ate breakfast at 8 a.m. and kept digging, often under a canopy to protect them from the sun, until about 12:45 p.m. At about 1 p.m., they washed the artifacts they uncovered that morning, and then they ate lunch at about 2 p.m.
At 5 p.m., Tel Aviv University archaeology professors Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman, who direct the excavations at Beth-Shemesh, educated the group about the artifacts uncovered earlier in the day. Following a 6 p.m. lecture, the group ate dinner at 7 p.m.
Short said some of the team members were in bed by 9 p.m.
“I was the oldest person on the dig,” said Short, 65. “Other than a few sore muscles, I held my own pretty well.”
The group members were able to enjoy downtime on Fridays and Saturdays — the Israeli weekend. Frank Wheeler, professor of biblical studies at York University in Nebraska, has participated with Manor in the Beth-Shemesh excavations for seven years. He said members of this year’s group traveled on weekends to other notable biblical sites including places in Galilee, Jerusalem and areas near the Dead Sea.
Although groups in previous years have included Christians, Michele Sperle said this year’s trip was special because of the common faith that bonded every member. For example, she said, the entire group, not just a few members, came together for weekly worship and connected the sites they visited with Scripture.
“Several of us stayed after the dig and went down to Mount Nebo, where God showed Moses the Promise Land,” she said. “Just to stand there and read the Bible was phenomenal.”
Yeager agreed. She said the opportunity to work alongside Christians made the trip an uplifting experience.
“The whole experience was life-changing. It gave me a new view of my faith. It made my faith more real,” she said.
Manor said the group members’ strong work ethic was reflective of their commitment to Christ.
In fact, he said Bunimovitz and Lederman, who are not Christians, also noticed that something was different about the team this summer. Manor recalled that Lederman was especially impressed with group member Liz Thompson of Searcy, Ark., who worked diligently despite suffering from Parkinsons’ Disease.
“Sister Thompson’s ability to deal with the stress of Parkinson’s because of her faith set her attitude significantly apart from Dr. Lederman’s sister who wrestles with the disease,” Manor said. “Zvi noticed the difference, and it impressed him.”
At the end of the trip, Bunimovitz spoke to the group for a final time. Jerry Culbertson, who preaches in Albertville, Ala., recorded the director’s closing comments:
“We had certain goals, and we are very thrilled…about the work that has been done. This is the time to say to all of you … we love you very much, and the work here has been tremendous. We didn’t expect so much work would be done in three weeks, and we are so satisfied with what we see here…and it has been fun to be with you.”
Manor, who has built a strong friendship with Bunimovitz and Lederman during the last decade, said he believes this year’s group planted a seed in the hearts of the Israeli directors.
“Repeatedly, Bunimovitz and Lederman commented on the season as the ‘best ever.’ They were not referring to the finds. While these were exciting — they always are — we’ve had more exciting finds in the past. The comment had to be about the work ethic and diligence of our group,” Manor said.
“No one was ever absent because of hangovers or laziness. The people were always there and cooperative. The summary speech by Shlomo really took me back when he said, ‘We love you very much.’ I had never heard him say that to any other group.”