Campus Life

Archaeological field school helps U of L students learn to dig up the past

Secrets of ancient times are gradually being revealed as Dr. Shawn Bubel, a University of Lethbridge archaeology professor, and her students painstakingly remove the layers of time at Israel’s Tel Beth-Shemesh during the annual summer field school.

“The field school is an international project, so not only are the students doing great archaeology and learning the skills and the foundation behind the discipline, they’re also making friends from all over the world and learning together,” says Bubel.

U of L students work carefully to uncover pottery at Tel Beth Shemesh.

Each summer’s work adds another chapter to the story, yielding some answers but also posing new questions.

“It’s been over a decade now of research at the site and we’ve been finding some really interesting archaeological remains and levels,” says Bubel. “This site keeps yielding more and more interesting things that I would never have imagined would come to light.”

Tel Beth-Shemesh, situated southwest of Jerusalem, is important in a biblical context because it is the last-mentioned location of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Beth-Shemesh boasts a long history of occupation, from about 1800 BCE to 635 BCE in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and is a rich source of information about culture, trade and agriculture for archaeologists. Tel Beth-Shemesh also served as a converging point for the Philistines, Canaanites and the Israelites.

First excavated by archaeologists in 1911, large portions of the site were burrowed down to bedrock between 1928 and 1933 in another excavation. Many archaeologists had written Tel Beth-Shemesh off but Zvi Lederman and Shlomo Bunimovitz from Tel Aviv University began reinvestigating the site in 1990. Bubel worked with them in the summer of 2003 and then offered the first field school to U of L students in 2004.

Every summer since, students have unearthed all kinds of artifacts that have helped build a picture of who lived at Tel Beth-Shemesh and what happened there. Starting in 2006, Bubel and her students worked at excavating the northern edge of the site. They uncovered deposits dating back to the early Iron Age, roughly 1200 BCE.

“As we excavated lower and lower, we started to uncover this massive destruction layer with all these burnt bricks everywhere and walls toppled down. But underneath all that was pristine,” says Bubel.

They found ceramic vessels full of lentils, chickpeas, wheat and barley, all preserved through carbonization. Such items are hardly ever found because they usually decompose naturally.

“As we exposed more and more artifacts we started realizing we’ve got something incredible,” she says.

The architecture is detailed and inside one of the rooms, a sort of shelf or altar was found containing several chalices, beautifully painted bowls and fragments of two cups. Analysis of the designs on the cups showed they belonged to the Aegean world, likely Crete.

“Our colleagues determined that these cups were originally made and from the palace of Knossos. What gets even more amazing is that these two cups are the best preserved cups of their kind in the world,” she says.

At that time during the late Bronze Age, Egyptians controlled the lands. This ancient world was dotted with kingdoms and the Amarna texts, clay tablets that served largely as diplomatic letters between the kings and the pharaoh, reveal the geopolitical climate of that time. In their letters, the kings ask the pharaoh to send soldiers to help to fight off marauding bandits known as the Apiru. Archaeologists know a woman wrote two of the Amarna letters, since the writer referred to herself as handmaiden of the pharaoh, but where she lived remains a mystery.

Bubel and her students uncovered a clue among the plaque figurines they found with the Aegean cups. It shows the typical stance of a male ruler but with a female arm pose.

“Now all these things are starting to come together,” says Bubel. “Maybe we have one of the only cities of this time in this part of the world being ruled by a female. It’s extremely rare.”

Before the site could be further excavated, the areas immediately surrounding it had to be brought down to the same level to ensure safety. That work started in 2009 and reached the destruction layer last summer.

While the archaeologists thought lowering the adjacent areas wouldn’t take long, the work was slowed considerably because they uncovered an early Iron Age temple in the process. These deposits proved to be just as exciting as the ones below. Students participating in this year’s field school will finish off the Iron Age level and go on to reveal more of the destruction layer and the Late Bronze Age city below.

The field school provides students with an intense experience. They live in a kibbutz, rise at 4 a.m. and are at the work site by dawn to avoid the hottest part of the day. Work at the site continues until about 1 p.m. After lunch back at the kibbutz, students wash the pottery and other artifacts. The pottery is analyzed the same day to ensure an accurate context for the excavation. That’s followed by a lecture, dinner and an early bedtime. The students take field trips on the weekends to get a broader context of the area both geographically and chronologically.

“We want to make sure that the students learn how to excavate,” she says. “There are so many things the students get to experience that you can’t teach in the classroom. There’s no substitute for standing on top of Masada, Herod’s fortified complex, and realizing that people survived up there.”

So far, 14 students have signed up for the field school but there are still vacancies. More information is available on Bubel’s website. Anyone interested in participating can contact Bubel at