By Anna Moseley Gissing

Archaeology and the Spiritual Life: Three Lessons Learned While Digging

This summer I worked on an archaeological excavation at Shikhin, an ancient village a few miles from Nazareth in Galilee. I am not an archaeologist but a student of the New Testament. Why, then, go on a dig?

My research concerns family life in the ancient world. And I’d like to know more than what we can learn from documentary evidence. Documents are invaluable in historical discovery, but they often give a distorted picture of the time, providing insight primarily into the lives of the wealthy, the elite, the powerful — primarily into the lives of men. I want to know about women and children and the ties that bind families together as well.

When we need to know more about a time period than we can learn from documents, we turn to material evidence. Hence, archaeology.

I learned much about methods of excavation, but as I reflect on my recent dig, I realize I’ve learned more than how to use a trowel. I leave with three lessons archaeology taught me about the spiritual life.

Learn from your Abuna

Dr. James F. Strange, also known as Abuna — Arabic for Father (as in priest) — serves as the architect of our dig. At 77, Abuna is a master at his craft. Not terribly familiar with the field myself, I had no idea what an archaeological celebrity he is until I saw his photos in the museum at Sepphoris. He was one of the first to dig in a place that has now become a national park, complete with boardwalks and a gift shop.

Dr. James F. Strange, AKA Abuna, in my square. Behind him is the intersection of four balks.

Abuna’s passion is clear. Even after all these years as a leading scholar, he delights to answer questions as mundane as the best way to take an elevation. Instead of hanging back until an important job emerges, he jumps in to adjust the shade coverings or to unload tools. The juxtaposition of his visible achievement in the park at Sepphoris and his down-to-earth, warm desire to assist and teach others is inspirational.

We all need people like Abuna in our lives — people who have gone before us and who give us an image of a “long obedience in the same direction.” In the spiritual life, we need people who delight to share the basics with us. We also need to see deep spiritual maturity in those who have walked with Jesus over a lifetime.

Sweep the Balks

The group left for the dig site at 4:30 a.m. each day and returned around 1:30 p.m. to avoid the heat. I felt a sense of urgency to get down to business each morning. After all, we weren’t there to just dig in the dirt — this wasn’t a faraway sand box. We were here to find things!

Yet each day began with the same routine. First, unload the tools. Then, install the sifters. Next, assemble the shade. After that, set up the pottery-washing station.

(Photo by Lena)

After this morning warm-up, we approached our assigned squares, the 5m x 5m divisions of the field, each one a bit bigger than my living room. Then came the sweeping of the balks, the one-meter-wide strips left unexcavated and serving as partitions and catwalks between squares. Out came the brushes and dustpans so we could sweep these borders around our square, collecting dirt and dumping it into our waste pile. We were sweeping dirt from dirt. My husband’s response to my description: “So, chores.”

Indeed, it was a chore. I flew halfway around the world to sweep dirt from dirt? Yet, the goal was to remove the loose dirt, pebbles, and pottery sherds from the balk so that they would not fall into the square and contaminate the evidence. If pottery from a higher level fell into the bottom of the square, the contents could not be dated and data would be lost.

Excavation is often tedious. Yet the meticulous method we used and the repetition of daily tasks provided a framework for data to be interpreted. If we didn’t have a method of pottery-washing that kept sherds (short for potsherds, fragments of pottery) found in the same spot together, we couldn’t interpret those pieces. If we allowed balks to cave into our squares, we couldn’t write about the area with accuracy. These routines were an important part of the work.

Likewise, in the spiritual life, there are times that seem tedious, meticulous, or routine. We might want to skip the “chores” of the spiritual disciplines, skip praying or scripture reading, skip intercession or service. These things can feel like sweeping balks. We yearn for the flashy spiritual connections with God, much like we yearn for the big finds: coins, lamps, or columns. Yet our ability to be faithful in quiet ways provides a framework for God to work and to speak into our lives. Our spiritual routines form us into people who can hear from God in both big and small ways.

Find God in the Sherds

I went to Israel to find out more about family life. But here’s the thing about excavation — you can’t choose what you find. Your job is not to search for a particular thing, à la Indiana Jones. Instead, you find what is there, bit by bit, as you uncover more of the layers of dirt. “Archaeology is not a treasure hunt,” says our director, but a journey toward understanding more about the people and institutions of the past.

Sifted pottery from my square, ready to be scrubbed.

It takes patience. In my square, just when progress was picking up, we ran into a problem. One area was unstable and threatened to collapse on us as we dug, potentially burying us. We needed to excavate this area before moving on to other, more interesting ones. The problem was its contents. The area was a pottery dump — a place where people tossed broken pottery and other waste to raise up the ground level in order to pour plaster and create a floor.

And pottery is cool. It’s beautiful and fascinating to compare the different shades, forms, and styles. But it’s not as cool when every bit of what you remove from your square has to be sifted and then scrubbed, piece by piece. It slows down the progress. I sensed that our mound of pottery waste wouldn’t offer much insight into family life.

It takes years of field research in order to gather enough data to draw any conclusion about family life. The process of data collection and interpretation is one that builds over time. There is no quick fix.

And that’s often true in the spiritual life as well. We may be seeking God about a particular issue, question, or desire. But we can’t choose how God works in us. Our relationship with God is not a treasure hunt. God speaks over time, and as we continue to dig deeper, to sift through what we find, we discover that God has been working all along, even when we thought it was just more sherds.

Now that I’m back in the states, I’m no longer rising at 4:00 a.m. nor am I sweeping dirt from dirt. I’m not scrubbing pottery or setting up shade. Instead, I’m sweeping my floors and scrubbing my kids. Yet God remains present in conversations with mentors and in everyday tasks. And God is asking me to be patient.

About the Author

Anna is a reader, writer, editor, and speaker. She’s an associate editor for InterVarsity Press and a previous editor of The Well. She is married to Jeff and together they are raising two young children. Find her on twitter at @amgissing.


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