Emory Report
October 1, 2007
Volume 60, Number 6

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October 1, 2007
Archaeologist digs up secrets of a forgotten place in time

By Carol Clark

History is full of famous people, great monuments and burning questions. But if Oded Borowski could visit any time and place, he would travel back 2,200 years to a now forgotten border town in the former kingdom of Judah. He’d like to meet a resident there and ask: What did you have for breakfast? What do you do for a living?

“I’m most interested in learning about the routine, daily life of ordinary people in the past,” says Borowski, professor of Hebrew and biblical archaeology in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies. “They are the ones who paid the taxes, did the work and made the great civilizations possible.”

While much of archaeology is focused on major landmarks, grand tombs and precious works of art, Borowski has dedicated three decades to sifting through a mound of dirt known as Tell Halif, tracing layers of modest human settlement that go back more than 5,500 years. “There is no glitter to be found there,” Borowski says, matter-of-factly.

The site lies about a 90-minute drive south of Tel Aviv, Israel and adjacent to Kibbutz Lahav, which Borowski joined when he was 18. During the 10 years he spent at the kibbutz, Borowski worked in agriculture, but spent his spare time picking up shards of pottery and other relics at Tell Halif.

“You’re always bumping into history in Israel,” says Borowski, who tagged along to archaeological digs even as a child growing up near Tel Aviv.

On his desk in Callaway, a baseball-sized orb of flint holds down a pile of scrap paper. “It’s a ballista stone, the same kind used in a sling by David to defeat Goliath,” Borowski explains as a visitor picks up the ancient artillery to weigh its heft.

Borowski was a founding member of the archeological team that started work on the Tell Halif site in 1976, and he now serves as director of the team. The project is one of the longest-running and most comprehensive excavations in Israel, involving Emory and a consortium of nearly 10 other universities and institutions.

In recent years, the team has focused on uncovering the story of a border outpost of an estimated 1,500 people that lived and prospered on the site during the Iron Age II. Numerous ballista stones, iron arrowheads and collapsed walls indicate that the town was destroyed by a military campaign, possibly the Assyrian attack on Judah in 701 B.C.

Battering rams were probably used to collapse the stone dwellings, the archeological evidence shows. Beneath the rubble of some of the buildings, the archeologists have unearthed large amounts of crushed storage jars — evidence that people knew the attack was imminent. “They were likely preparing for a siege,” Borowski says.

This past summer’s dig yielded proof that a fairly large-scale weaving and dying enterprise was operating in the town at the time of the attack. Borowski pulls out photos of a dirt pit, its floor littered with bone implements, spindle whorls and clay loom weights. The loom weights lie in rows on the ground — as they would have landed if the upright wooden looms had burned when the town was destroyed.

An elaborate system of cisterns and the sophisticated nature of the dwellings indicate that the town may have served as a regional center. Borowski dreams of finding the gate to the outer wall, since the materials and style of the entranceway would reveal important clues about the status and culture of the town.

“I think I know where the gate is,” Borowski says. It’s clear from the gleam in his eye that he would prefer to be back in the desert digging, instead of sitting behind his desk in Atlanta.

Each summer, a group of Emory students goes to Israel to work on the dig with Borowski, who has been teaching at Emory since 1977. “When I tell them they have to get up at 4:30 a.m., the group always gets smaller,” he says. “Archaeology is hard work. You have to move a lot of dirt in the hot sun, and you have to be willing to get dirty. It requires patience. You’re putting together a giant jig-saw puzzle, but you don’t have the box with the picture.”

Dylan Woodliff, a junior majoring in anthropology, was one of six Emory students who accompanied Borowski this summer. He recalls the three days he spent working on the floor of one pit as especially challenging. As temperatures climbed past 100, he used a paintbrush and dental pick to remove dust and dirt from artifacts. “The floor of the pit was littered with pottery and you couldn’t step on it or move it, so you had to be in incredibly awkward positions,” Woodliff says.

One day, he was asked to remove dirt from a wall in a pit, to make the wall more vertical. “I was shaving off material with my trowel and I came onto a stone that was carved,” he recalls. “I started hollering. It was really exhilarating to find something so cool.”

The carved stone was a simple altar for burning incense — one of two that were uncovered during the recent dig. “There’s a lot of evidence for similar altars in Mesopotamian archaeology, going back into the Bronze Age. The Israelites had adopted a lot of their culture from the Assyrians, and probably some of their religious practices,” Woodliff says, explaining one scenario suggested by the discovery of the altars.

“I went on the trip to see if archaeology is something I could really do and not just something I have a fantasy about,” he says. “I found out that I really do like it.”