Without volunteers, archaeological excavations throughout the Biblical world would come to a screeching halt. Volunteers donate not only their time and energy, but also their enthusiasm, tenacity and critical-thinking skills. Their participation is vital to a successful excavation. Volunteers come from all around the world and from various walks of life—students and teachers, amateurs and professionals, juveniles and retirees—to help uncover the past.
Every year the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) provides scholarships to individuals who would not otherwise be able to participate in an archaeological excavation. This year  BAS awarded 20 qualified individuals scholarships of $1,500 each. This diverse group chose to excavate throughout the Biblical world at sites in Israel and Jordan.
If you visit Jerusalem during the months of June and July, you’ll find a bustling archaeological dig just outside of the bullet-riddled Zion Gate. It’s an exciting place on several different levels. Along with the horns and revving engines on the busy Jerusalem street beside the site, you’ll hear the sound of dirt and stones being moved and the conversation and laughter of around fifty global volunteers and staff drawn to Israel by a common interest. You’ll also find the site itself exciting. Levels from the Ottoman, Crusader, Islamic, Byzantine, and Roman periods are all present on this site that was located in the center of the city during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
Thanks to BAS, I had the tremendous privilege of experiencing this excitement first-hand during the summer of 2017. The experience was the realization of two dreams: going to Israel and being involved in an archaeological dig. Not only was I able to walk on ancient streets and enter timeworn ruins, but I was able to handle coins and pottery that have not been touched for over 1,700 years.
Beyond the benefits of digging for two weeks, the Mt. Zion Excavation allowed me to live in one of the most interesting places in the world for three weeks. My knowledge and understanding of this all-important city changed in multifaceted ways. Additionally, the staff of the dig led a one-week excursion in which we visited multiple archaeologically rich sites, from Masada to Magdala. I was able to learn from renowned scholars like Shimon Gibson, Raffi Lewis, James Tabor, and Robert McEachnie at the actual dig site and at significant sites all over Israel. During my days off, I had the opportunity to further my understanding of ancient and modern history by visiting other places in Jerusalem, like the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem.
The experience had a profound effect on me intellectually and spiritually, the results of which have already been felt in my preaching. As I begin teaching in the fall again, I have no doubt that my experience at the dig at Mt. Zion will reverberate in my classroom as well. I sincerely thank you, BAS, for investing in me and in my students by providing the means to go on this trip. I continue to be very thankful to BAS for this opportunity of a lifetime.
Anna Marie Vagnozzi
To say that archaeology wasn’t a way that I planned to spend my summer would be a massive understatement. In fact, archaeology was never even on my radar. So when I found out through happenstance about a study abroad program at the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig offered through UNC Charlotte, where I was taking a post-baccalaureate calculus class at the time, I was intrigued. As a mathematician, religious studies and history were never primary areas of focus for me, but the opportunity to travel to Israel, a place I’d wanted to visit since I was 10, was too tempting to ignore. I wanted to challenge myself to try something new and figured there’d be no better way to step out of my comfort zone than by joining an archaeological dig halfway across the world. In the end, I had to ask myself…why not?
The Mount Zion excavation, located just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, is one of a kind, as it is the only dig in Jerusalem conducted by an American university. Our project is focused on learning more about Jerusalem’s long and complex history by continuing the excavations that Israeli archaeologist Magen Broshi conducted in the 1970s, and our team of volunteers comprises a mix of students and amateur to professional archaeologists working under the guidance of co-directors Dr. Shimon Gibson and Dr. James Tabor. However, the uniqueness of the site is not limited only to the presence that the U.S. has in Israel through this excavation; from an archaeological standpoint, the location of the dig could not be more ideal. Though outside the current city walls, the Mount Zion area would have been located directly within the walls of first-century Jerusalem and contains well-preserved remains of a Jewish home, thus providing an inside look at the then-thriving Jewish city. A century later, the site would be situated at the end of the Roman cardo that ran through Jerusalem, and various artifacts that were a part of the ancient marketplace provide information about what daily life might have looked like for those who lived there. But the history contained in the layers of the excavation cover far more than the first and second centuries; finds have been unearthed spanning over 2,000 years, from ancient Israelite periods all the way up to the last 100 years. I was amazed by the richness of our site, and I particularly loved the fact that on the Mount Zion dig, we treated every single artifact—from the tiniest potsherd to the most intricate piece of glasswork—as precious and something that could teach us about the ancient past of this remarkable city.
Though a complete “newbie” to the world of archaeology, I was eager to jump right into the field school at the Mount Zion excavation and learn as much as I possibly could, and I am incredibly grateful for this season’s dig team for making the project such an enjoyable experience. I loved it. Archaeology isn’t exactly a glamorous hobby—you spend the majority of the day covered in dust, hauling buckets of dirt and rocks back and forth in the heat or bent over in odd positions as you pick at the ground or poke away with your trowel. But every single moment is so worth it. Nothing beats the excitement of finding something special lying beneath the dirt, or the weird attachment you start to feel toward your personal trowel, or the sound of the shouts and cheers that erupt across the dig site when someone announces that it’s time for our daily popsicle break. It’s also a bit surreal when tourists walk past the excavation each day, admiring the work at the site, and one day you hear a dad explaining to his curious child, “See those people down there? They’re archaeologists. They’re digging up history.” And you suddenly realize, “Oh, wow. They’re talking about me!”
I must admit, though the archaeological experience itself was incredible, my favorite aspect of being a part of this excavation was without a doubt the people. Archaeology brings people together in such a unique way, and you develop this camaraderie with the people on your dig team that makes it feel like you’ve been digging in the dirt together for ages. There was such a beautiful diversity of individuals working together at our site, from teachers to students, young teens to seasoned archaeologists, authors to physicists…and yes, historians to mathematicians. I’ve never felt so at home with a bunch of complete strangers as I did in Jerusalem with this group of people that was linked together by, if nothing else, the common bond of love and appreciation for history, learning, and adventure.
I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Biblical Archaeology Society for awarding me with one of the annual summer dig scholarships, because without it, this experience would never have been possible. My involvement on the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig not only challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and learn something new, but it also made history come alive in a way that I could never have seen elsewhere. I could not have asked for a better experience at my first archaeological dig…and I certainly hope this will not be my last!
Learn more about the Biblical Archaeological Society (BAS) here: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/
Learn about future scholarships through BAS here: http://digs.bib-arch.org/scholarships/