Thursday, November 4, 2010

NOBTS team hopes to uncover mysteries of Gezer water system

Photo by Art Beaulieu
By Gary D. Myers

NEW ORLEANS --Patience and persistence are important for any archaeological dig, but the water system expedition at Gezer in Israel demands an extra measure of long-suffering endurance.
Hundreds of tons of debris must be removed to get to the water source and that’s when the real work begins.

Dan Warner, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist for the Israel Nature and parks Authority, are directing the excavation of the large, rock-hewn water tunnel. It is believed that the Canaanites cut the tunnel between 1800 and 1500 B.C. – around the time of Abraham.

“The Gezer Water System Expedition bore out of the major expedition of which we are a consortium member,” said Warner, director of the Center for Archaeological Research at NOBTS. “It is a secondary project in connection with the Gezer Project. Steven Ortiz offered this project to NOBTS in 2007.”
The Gezer Project, a major excavation of ancient Tel Gezer, was launched by Ortiz while he served on the NOBTS faculty. When Ortiz moved to Southwestern Seminary, the dig license went with him. However, NOBTS has remained in the Gezer dig consortium and has been active in the dig.

Joining Warner on the dig last summer were several other NOBTS professors: Dennis Cole, professor of Old Testament and archaeology and chairman of the Division of Biblical Studies; Harold Mosley, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew; and Jim Parker, associate professor of biblical interpretation and associate vice president of facilities.

 “The significance for this project is to help us answer several key questions,” Warner said. “Questions like how did the ancient Canaanites know where to sink their tunnel to gain access to the water below? How did they know the tunnel would lead to a cavern containing the water? Where does the water come from and exactly how did the system function, just to name a few.”

Many rock-hewn water systems have been discovered in Israel. The water system in Gezer shares characteristics with the other water systems in the Holy Land. These tunnels were built to provide water for the inhabitants of a city during a siege. Even with the similarities, the Gezer system is unique.

“At Hazor, there is a system that is very similar to this. The great difference is the size,” Parker said. “The one at Hazor was probably dug in the Iron Age. [The Gezer water system] is from almost a thousand years earlier.”

Measuring 12 feet wide by 24 feet tall, the Gezer system is massive. It is believed that the ancient people used donkeys to ferry water from the source to the surface. The width allowed two animals, loaded with jugs, to pass side by side. It is the height of the tunnel that perplexes the expedition team.

“The 12-foot width is expected. What is unusual is the 24-foot height of the tunnel and its exceptionally crafted arch,” Parker said. “Hopefully, going forward this too will be explained.”

Some speculate that the upper part portion of the tunnel was also used for some type of worship center. The team hopes to determine if there was any cultic activity attached to this system. According to Warner and Parker, numerous finely cut niches carved into the tunnel wall lend credence to this idea. The men believe these niches were intended for a greater purpose than holding lamps.

The NOBTS team is also anxious to learn more about the water source and the cave located behind the source. The cave was indentified during two expeditions in the early 1900s. However, reports from expeditions by R.A.S. Macalister in 1908 and Pére L. H. Vincent shortly thereafter offer conflicting descriptions and measurement for the cave.

In his drawings and descriptions, Vincent notes an exit at the end of the cave. Vincent’s exit would have been outside of the city. Macalister’s drawings do not show this opening.
According to Parker, the NOBTS researchers hope to settle the matter of the possible exit. The team will also provide new measurements, descriptions, drawings and photographs of the cave’s interior.

Last summer the team began the arduous tasks of removing tons of rubble from the tunnel. During the three-week dig, they cleared 72 tons of dirt and rocks. Team members dug out the tunnel and put debris in large sacks which were hoisted out with a crane. Due to the 38-degree slope, Parker compared it to working on a steeply pitched roof.

This year the team made it within about 20 to 30 feet from the water source and the cave entrance. Warner and Parker believe they will reach the water source next summer, if they can assemble a sizable team. Once inside the cave, the men hope to find the trenches dug by Macalister in 1908.

The rubble they have encountered thus far is not from the ancient times, but from some time after Macalister’s excavation. Once they reach the cave the team will carefully analyze every inch of dirt they remove.

Next summer’s dig will take place May 21 through June 11. In order to reach the water source, Warner hopes to recruit 10 to 15 people to help with the project. The trip is open to students and alumni. The cost is $1,500 for three weeks of room, board and weekend travel in Israel. Air travel to Israel is extra and each participant is responsible for arranging his or her flight.

Graduate students can also earn six hours of academic credit for participating in the expedition. Additional tuition charges will apply.


The Gezer Water System project is co-sponsored by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary under the direction of Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist at INPA, and Dan Warner, co-director of the Center for Archaeological Research at NOBTS.

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