How Archaeological Excavations Are Conducted | Biblcal Archaeology

Archaeological excavations must begin somewhere. Most often, they begin in the minds of archaeological scholars who have been researching about a given city, area, or unknown issue. Sometimes, excavations are part of larger community improvements. For instance, several excavations in Israel have been the result of urban development. As workers move dirt and rocks to build modern buildings or roads, they uncover remains of what looks like ancient buildings. At that point, the development stops, and archaeologists are sent in to investigate. These are often known as “rescue digs or salvage excavations.” Sometimes, the findings are minimal. Other times the salvage excavations find remarkable things. 

The popular Jerusalem attraction called “the Broad Wall” is one such find. During the urban renewal of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, Professor Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University said: “an 80foot stretch of wall some 23 feet thick had been found on bedrock 300 yards west of the Temple Mount. The height of the ruin varied from 3 to 10 feet,” — he said, adding that “the wall had been built of boulders and roughly cut stone.” The wall is mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah and is called the “broad wall.” 

Another and more recent excavation that was the result of urban expansion is Tel Hadid. The nation of Israel was building a large north-south highway in the area just East of Tel Aviv. The initial surveys of the road indicated there may be some ancient remains in its path. So, to protect those remains, salvage excavations were conducted. The official website of the Tel Hadid excavations explains the results of the salvage excavations conducted prior to 2018.

 Exploration of the site has primarily included salvage excavations conducted during the late 1990s. A fascinating aspect of the history of Tel Hadid was revealed during these very [salvage] excavations. Within the remains of an Iron Age II settlement, two cuneiform tablets were found, and were accurately dated to the first half of the 7th century BCE. These two legal documents refer to individuals who bear non-local (mainly Akkadian) names, and were interpreted as members of deportee communities, brought to the country by the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Those salvage excavations led the government to build a road tunnel underneath Tel Hadid to preserve those ruins for proper excavation. Official Tel Hadid  excavations began in 2018 under the joint excavations of Tel Aviv University and the Baptist Theological Seminary of New Orleans.

Other excavations are chosen based upon the fame of a particular ancient city. Examples are cities like Jericho, Megiddo, and Jerusalem. Others would be chosen because of scholarly interests, geographical interests, and a number of other reasons.

When choosing where to excavate, one of the most obvious things to look for is location. Ancient cities leave tell-tale signs. At smaller cities and towns there might be visible ruins that only contain one or two civilization layers. These ruins are usually known as a “khirbet.” 

Other ancient cities have been built and rebuilt, one city on top of the ruins of previous ones. This constant building and rebuilding create a mound. These mounds are called “tels.” These mounds of successive cities are mostly covered with centuries of dirt buildup. And the mounds are obvious and visible. Tel Lachish is a typical archaeological tel.

Tel Lachish

Once the excavation begins, the various levels of occupation can be seen. As the teams dig downward, each occupation level must be determined and identified. Each of these levels is individually called a “stratum” or “strata” for the plural. Each stratum belongs to a certain time and can include walls, debris, floors, pottery, and many such things that pertain to that particular time. 

The study of these levels or strata is called “stratigraphy.” A common comparative example used to describe strata is a layer cake. If a person cuts a layer cake, each individual layer can be seen. At a tel, a similar thing happens. As the team digs downward, details of the various layers can be seen, examined, drawn, and photographed.

Once a location has been chosen, but prior to digging, the leaders of an excavation must complete several tasks. First, they must get proper permission. Each nation has a set of laws and regulations concerning official excavations. The most basic permissions include permits and restrictions. Dig directors must know and follow those. Second, after permission is granted, a formal excavation staff must be chosen. The staff usually includes architects, artists, supervisors, pottery specialists, photographer/videographers, social media specialists, botanists, geologists, and others. Some staff may not include all of these, while some staff will include many more. Third, funding must be secured. In Israel’s past, various foundations and families have been a great resource for funding digs. The Rockefellers at Megiddo and the Rothschilds at Hazor are two examples. Other funding sources are universities and colleges, grants, fees from volunteers, and donations from benevolent organizations. Fourth, mapping details must be considered. Surveyors must survey and draw the site in a detailed map with square grids, like the layout of city streets. These squares become very important in the record-keeping of the excavators. Fifth, equipment must be purchased, rented, or borrowed. Picks, hoes, buckets, trowels, wheelbarrows, record-keeping items, along many more items must be secured. Sixth, the workforce must be gathered. The workforce might include archaeologists and specialists, but also include untrained volunteers. Excavations in Israel attract volunteers from all over the world. Last, food, lodging, and transportation must be established for the dig team. So, as you might have concluded, the excavations require a lot of pre-dig effort.

When the actual digging begins, the workers dig along the grid squares set up by the architects. Each of the pre-determined 5-meter by 5-meter grid squares will be separated by what is known as a “balk.” According to the Archaeological Institute of America, a balk is a “sidewall of an excavated . . . partition of earth left standing between adjoining excavation units.” The balk itself is a one-meter perimeter around each square that remains in place as the digging descends. The balks first serve as a walkway for workers to remove dirt and transport tools. Second, the balks remain to reveal the strata of occupation, aiding in the stratigraphic study of stratigraphy.

Most archaeologists today use a blended method. They begin with balks and when the strata are drawn, studied, and photographed, then the balks are taken down to allow an overview of the architecture and horizontal layers.  In this photo, the balks can be seen around the perimeter and in the left top portion of the square. But the balks have been taken down in the center of the square to show the buildings and walls. This is a blended method.

In Biblical Archaeology, dig seasons last about a month during the summer. Digging during Israel’s summer provides an almost rain-free opportunity to dig. Also, summers allow student volunteers to participate, since schools usually are not in session during the summer months.

Once the excavations are concluded for the year, the archaeologists and specialists spend the remainder of the year examining, evaluating, organizing, and writing reports about the finds. All this is done while the planning and preparation for the next dig season are occurring. Technically, an archaeological dig season doesn’t end until the digging stops, and everything is analyzed and written.

The very last step of an archaeological excavation is the official publication. Archaeologists have an academic and community responsibility to report about the things they have unearthed. In Israel, those obligations are explained and agreed upon when the original permits are given. Annual reports must be filed with the authorities, and many of those are published in journals. Upon the completion of the permitted excavation, a full write-up of all the finds and conclusions is expected. These publications can be found on the internet, in libraries, and from book distributors. Several publications from popular excavation sites have been made available for a mainstream reading audience as well.

  1. Also see, “Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem: The finds from areas A, W and X-2 : final report.” Volume 2 of Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem: Conducted by Nahman Avigad, 1969–1982, Nahman Avigad, Hillel Geva, Israel Exploration Society, 2000;;
  2.  Neh 3:8; 12:38.
  5. David Ussishkin, Biblical Lachish: A Tale of Construction, Destruction, Excavation, and Restoration. Jerusalem: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2014.