Canadian money helps Israeli archeological dig of early cities

There are no high rises. Certainly no condos. But students from Manitoba are in Israel this month exploring some of the earliest cities on Earth.

Working on their hands and knees, they use picks, trowels and brooms to clear away the dirt at an archaeological site located at Tell es-Safi, south of the main highway connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“It’s amazing! It’s the best experience I’ve had so far,” says Lisa Burnett, who studies anthropology and archaeology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

A $2.7-million grant from the Canadian government is paying for the dig, which is focusing on Early Bronze Age remains dating back to somewhere between 3,000 and 2,500 BCE.

Eight students from the University of Manitoba are in Israel taking part in the project, with students from Israel, the United States, China and other countries also participating.

From dawn until the early afternoon, the students and some of their professors are at the site, carrying out a careful excavation of this early example of an urban settlement. They’ve uncovered the walls of several houses, as well as walkways and courtyards. Students have discovered all kinds of pottery, including serving trays and drinking vessels.

“Most Canadians today don’t live in towns and villages and the countryside,” said Prof. Haskel Greenfield of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Anthropology.

“They live in massive urban centres. This [idea] has its origins here in the Middle East. And getting at a site like Tell es-Safi gives us an opportunity to try to understand that kind of lifestyle.”

Greenfield says his students are learning about some of the earliest kitchens known to man. It appears that, as in modern times, the kitchen was the centre of the household. Hearths have been discovered in many of the rooms, some for cooking, others for keeping the house warm.

They have discovered that the inhabitants of these Early Bronze Age dwellings also had a Do It Yourself ethos. Dr. Greenfield says there is evidence that houses were renovated, perhaps with the addition of new children. Some structures were remodeled while others became meeting places for the community.

Dr. Greenfield says studying these ancient societies opens a window on how modern cultures evolved – and how we live today.

"It's really important to look at our behavior in Canada and see where it comes from, otherwise we can’t understand who we are, why we’re different, why the lifestyle we live is very special and why we need to protect it," said Dr. Greenfield.

It’s the “opportunity of a lifetime,” according to University of Manitoba grad student Jeremy Beller. But it’s hard work.

Up every day around 4 a.m., the students dig from dawn to just after noon. The blazing sun makes it nearly to impossible to carry out work in the afternoon. (The dig teams work under the protective cover of cloth, but it still gets very hot in the limited shade.)

In the afternoon, they study the artifacts they discovered in the morning. Often, there are guest lectures on archaeology and anthropology at night.

“You can see the development of human society,” said Beller. “It’s just really quite awe-inspiring, quite something to see.”

The grant from Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council will allow students such as Beller to have hands-on experience at the Tell es-Safi site for the next seven years. It has also paid for high-tech scanners and computer equipment to map the digitally for future study.

"The money from the federal government is essential,“ Dr. Greenfield said. “Without the money from the federal government, this could not happen."

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