Indiana Jones battled snakes, boulders and heathens during his archaeological quests, which sounds like great adventure to me. But I don't recall the scene where he wakes before dawn to kneel in the dirt scraping with a dental pick for three hours. My hands are paralyzed in a claw. My knees are numb. My backside points up into the 21st century while my nose inhales the 5,000-year-old dust of Israel's ancient past as I etch a bone from soil that last saw daylight during the early Bronze Age. That's before the Bible. Before the great pyramids. Before most written language.
I'm in the temple precinct of Tel Megiddo, one of Israel's most important and cryptic archaeological sites, digging gently in a 4-foot-deep pit shadowed by a Canaanite altar. By now I'm questioning my sanity for volunteering for three weeks on the Megiddo Expedition, a dig administered by Tel Aviv and Pennsylvania State universities.
I unearth a porous brown bone and accidentally knock a sliver off it. "Be careful," admonishes my pony-tailed pit supervisor, Andy Creekmore, a Penn State graduate. The trick is to match speed with diligence. "In other words, hurry up and go slow," he says. At this pace, I'll never discover the Ark of the Covenant, even if it had ever been here.
Dates and facts are endlessly disputed in biblical archaeology, but the legends never change at Megiddo, which is listed in the Bible as one of King Solomon's three fortified cities. Christians know it as Armageddon, where good and evil will clash in the Last Battle. "I personally hope I'm not here to see it," one fellow volunteer, Nicole Brown, a born-again Christian from Colorado, says as we wield our pickaxes side by side.
Days at Megiddo begin the same way. The alarm clock rings at 4:20 a.m. in the 8- by 12-foot dorm room I share with four other women. We tumble from our bunk beds, fumble into our work clothes, fill our water bottles, and stagger out into the dark to join the 100 or so other volunteers. Under the morning stars we hike in silence from the spartan kibbutz dorms through the grasses of the Jezreel Valley's western edge. We are all ages, from a 70-plus retired businessman to one archaeologist's 9-year-old daughter. We are teachers, a lawyer, two TV producers, artists and a housewife who divorced her husband and headed for the Holy Land, plus many history, archaeology and divinity students digging for credit.
We walk across land where powerful armies -- Egyptian, Hebrew, Persian, Assyrian -- battled to gain control of the walled city that guarded this strategic crossroads of the ancient world. Though Megiddo was abandoned more than 2,500 years ago, the memory of the carnage lives in the city's legendary name.
The sky is graying as Israel Finkelstein, the 50-year-old head of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and one of the excavation's co-directors, bounds up stairs cut in the side of the 100-foot mound. For clues to ancient Near East history, no other excavation competes, he says. Megiddo contains more than 22 layers of civilization, more than 5,000 years of construction and destruction. The elusive hot spot is the 10th-century b.c.e. layer, where Finkelstein is looking for clues to King Solomon's rule.
By the end of our first week at Megiddo, volunteers report like old hands to their assigned squares grouped in grids throughout the excavation's 15 acres. From my pit in the thin light before sunrise, I can see the sunflower fields and farmland of one of the few panoramas in Israel that looks as it might have in biblical times. Mount Carmel lies to north. Nazareth is to the east.
Our 8:30 a.m. breakfast in a grove below the city's fortified gates signals the start of the tourist trickle. Preachers and tour guides expound. One Bible-gripping evangelist thunders: "Soon the forces of Gog and Magog will battle on the plains of Armageddon." He points toward us. "These archaeologists. They know."
Down in the pits, we laugh because we know how little archaeologists really know about Megiddo, despite four excavations since 1902. Every building, every stratum, every shard, ever date is disputed, Finkelstein says. Finds can take years to analyze, so on-site interpretations are few. Just after noon we trudge back to the kibbutz in searing heat as cicadas buzz at a high-tension-wire pitch. Lunch. Siesta. Then the 4 p.m. pottery washing to clean and catalog the day's finds.
By my third week, I am writing postcards home: Dust. Heat. Scorpions. Like summer camp for convicts.
So why do people volunteer for this kind of hard labor year after year? "Archaeology is a sickness," explains Robert Deutsch, 48, a Tel Aviv archaeology Ph.D. student. "We pay to work in the heat and mud. It's not normal, but I'm crazy about it."
The sickness takes hold when the earth yields up exotic artifacts and long-buried walls. It is contagious. One day I overhear Liam Gray, a Vanderbilt University grad student, on the dorm hall phone bragging with the joy of a Vegas winner. "Hey dad. I hit the jackpot," he crows long-distance. "Yeah. I found a Middle Bronze figurine." Meanwhile, Sam Jones, an ex-roofer who sold his Ford pick-up truck to pay for his trip, is ecstatic after finding a gold scarab.
But back in our square, scraping and whisking with dental tools and paintbrushes at last reveals nothing except a trove of cow, sheep and goat bones, the likely refuse of animal sacrifice. Dig leaders are thrilled: So many bones in the layer about 600 years below the Canaanite altar help prove the theory that once holy, a site remains holy, despite changes in religion and populations over millennia. Not quite the Ark, but we have been digging in search of the holy; our findings may help explain the origins of ancient Hebrew sacrifice.
I ask for transfer to an Iron Age square, where I get to help dig up 10-gallon storage pots smashed in an invasion or earthquake. While bones mystify me, the pots emerging from the ground tell a story: Mud bricks smashed on top of shards indicate the moment that a house collapsed. No book or tour guide's fantastic tales, and there are plenty, can describe how the past feels when you are the first in millennia to touch it with your hands.
Later, I visit the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Wandering through the exhibits, I realize how the excavation has changed me. Once I loved museums. Now the windowless glass-and-marble structure feels like an orphanage. The restored pots, displayed in glass cases, look like lost children plucked from their crib in the earth. The display labels sound knowledgeable but dead. "Bronze Age. Possibly of Hebrew Origin. From Hazor." In the dirt, broken, the pots were alive.