York in the World: Join an archeological dig this summer in Israel

York students have a chance this summer to join an archeological dig of an ancient village in Israel’s Negev Desert.

Horvat Tsalit flourished during the turbulent years from King Herod to the violent Bar Kochba War (circa 30 BCE to 135 CE). According to ancient historian Flavius Josephus, it provided sanctuary to Judean militias fleeing inland after attacking coastal Ascalon (now Ashkelon) and being repulsed by the Roman garrison there in the winter of 66 to 67 CE. That is the only reference in Josephus’s writing to the village.

When you’re digging up shards strewn around stone foundations scoured by desert sands for almost two millennia, this kind of information can bring a site to life. That’s why two archeologists at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva invited York Professor Steve Mason to be the excavation historian.

Right: Steve Mason at Masada

Mason holds the Canada Research Chair in Greco-Roman Cultural Interaction at York. He is an expert on Flavius Josephus, chronicler of turbulent first-century Jewish history, including the Judean-Roman War that featured the guerrilla attack on Ascalon and led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

“I will try to construct the big picture” for Israeli and York students participating in the dig, says Mason, one of whose current projects neatly dovetails with the dig. He is nearing completion of a book about the Judean-Roman War of 66 to 74 CE for Cambridge University Press.

Archeologists Haim Goldfus and Peter Fabian, experts in the Roman-Byzantine era, will lead daily excavations and offer lectures and workshops on field methods. Mason will lecture on the ancient context of the site.

Horvat Tsalit was an unwalled settlement of perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 inhabitants situated in the hills of ancient Judea. In the 1980s, archeologists excavated the watchtower that stood sentinel over the village through three Judean-Roman wars. “The site has the potential of turning up valuable evidence of these wars,” says Mason, who will do a little digging himself. “You never know what will turn up. It’s fascinating.”

Above: The site of Horvat Tsalit, the ancient village where excavations begin this summer

The excavation at Horvat Tsalit will run for three seasons, beginning this summer from July 10 to Aug. 6. As many as 20 Israeli and up to 20 Canadian students could be wielding trowels on daily digs. Daytime temperatures typically spike at 33 degrees C at this time of year but canopies will shade the diggers from the intense sun.

York is co-sponsoring the dig with Ben-Gurion University. Funding for Mason’s Canada Research Chair and from York’s Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies are supporting the project.

York undergraduates seeking credit and graduate students seeking adventure are welcome to apply. Ben-Gurion University will offer transferable half-course credits for a fee to York students who complete the four-week season. Non-credit volunteers who cannot stay for the entire four weeks must commit to the first or last half of the dig.

For US$1,600, Canadian students receive accommodation in Beer Sheva, two meals (breakfast and lunch) and transportation to and from the Horvat Tsalit site daily for the entire four weeks. The fee does not include airfare.

Application forms are available by e-mailing tsalitexped@gmail.com. General queries can be e-mailed to Steve Mason at smason@yorku.ca.