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Summer/Fall 1999
Volume 4 Number 2

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By Elizabeth Terrill

When Erin Roberts was a little girl, she roamed the woods around her family’s home in Harrison, Ohio, armed with a notebook and a keen sense of curiosity. Now Roberts tramps the stony hills of Galilee, searching for the outlines of long-buried walls, curiously picking up tesserae, the small, hand-cut, multicolored cubes used in mosaic flooring. Her interest has grown from a child’s innocent entertainment to an adult’s well-informed passion.

Roberts, a 1999 PTS graduate, longs for a new look at old things—items and structures lying dormant and unstudied for centuries, sometimes millennia. Last summer, the quest led her back to Khirbet Cana, the site many experts agreeErin sitting.jpg (31819 bytes) houses the remains of what most of us know as Cana of Galilee. Nestled in the western section of Lower Galilee, Khirbet Cana—roughly translated "ruins of the nest"—is a tel rising amid the Galilean foothills, located about eight miles north of Nazareth and twelve miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It is strong biblical territory, home to Jesus’ first miracle as described in the second chapter of John’s Gospel. It may also contain the ruins of a Byzantine monastery, a question Roberts has researched in pilgrim journals at the Rockefeller Museum Library in Jerusalem.

But Roberts hopes for a fuller, more vibrant understanding. She views archaeology as one tool to flesh out and enliven truncated concepts of ancient peoples and the lives they led. "The Bible is a narrative, telling the story of the people," she says. "The people were telling a story about God. I think there’s some value in just seeing where you come from, and who was before you—where they lived, what they saw, how hot it was when they were outdoors at one o’clock in the afternoon."

Last summer, a team of sixty-some fellow adventurers helped Roberts piece together the bits of information that begin a portrait composition of a civilization long past. Participants included archaeologists, graduate students, college students, and individual volunteers, all learning from what Roberts terms a preserved "record of human life." Clues are unearthed—pottery sherds, bone fragments, chips and pieces of glass, floors, walls, water supply systems, tools and weapons, coins, and organic materials. Even the texture and color of the encasing earth can provide some measure of fresh awareness about the folks who lived, worked, fought, played, conceived, and died in the area being excavated.

dig site sephorris.jpg (27014 bytes)Now in its second of five planned excavating seasons under the orchestration of the University of Puget Sound, Khirbet Cana gives up its secrets a little at a time. Some finds, such as certain coins, are dated or otherwise imprinted, making their identification generally easier. Others are assigned to a time period based on style of crafting; for example, pottery rims, bases, and handles are often linked to an era and a people by merit of their design and/or decoration. The construction of tools may indicate their having been made and used during a particular period, while a layer of chalky or ashy dirt may signify the destruction of a site by fire or sacking. As artifacts and information emerge, experts who specialize in each medium are on hand to interpret the data gathered. The Khirbet Cana project experts include a ceramics specialist, an archaeological geologist, a glass technologist, a scientific illustrator, an archaeozoologist, a photographer, and various technological gurus. Others administer the dig at various levels. Roberts herself was kept busy digging, but also learning about many of these disciplines. She is a student of many trades who is gaining exposure to a greater knowledge of what archaeology is about.

At last year’s dig, Roberts was a staff member. As a square supervisor, she had a team of four students; together they excavated around the walls of a hilltop building. Along with others they explored a cave at the site and some Byzantine inscriptions in Greek.

taking gps readings..jpg (21451 bytes)All that childhood experience with notebooks payed off, too. Roberts was at times responsible for logging finds into the system designed to record data that will be useful later. A single item may be entered in three different places, each having a specific purpose. Data must be kept careful track of, as the five-week digging season provides enough material to keep the main archaeologist(s) busy interpreting throughout the remainder of the year. Some of the data cannot be revisited, and must be logged with especially exacting accuracy; not all finds are readily recognizable. What seems like a layer of harder-packed earth may actually be a beaten dirt floor. An artifact can be tagged and stored, making it possible to go back and restudy the piece if a question arises. But once a bucketful of dirt is wheelbarrowed over the side of the dump site, it’s uniqueness is gone forever. Color, texture, and density are among the clues that must be documented before the source data is lost.

For the same reason, a top plan of each square is made at the end of every day’s digging. The placements of artifacts, rocks, structures—in essence, the entire contents of the square—are sketched as they appear at that moment. As relics are dug past and removed, other artifacts may or may not emerge. One occupation level is cleared, leading down to an earlier occupation level; walls and larger structures emerge incrementally; the face of the square changes. Said differently, good archaeology necessarily destroys part of its evidence. Photographs and top plans are essential in recording and interpreting exactly what the square was like on any given day.

Some of the data is inspected and categorized during the dig itself. The day’s cache of pottery goes into buckets of water to soak, then is scrubbed clean of its accumulated coatings later in the day. The most interesting pieces are spot-read by the archaeologists and other experts, who share pertinent information with those in attendance at the pottery reading session. Listeners might learn something of the item’s purpose, the people who made it, the century it belongs to, and other intriguing attributes. Thus a pooled source of knowledge begins to grow, hopefully sparking further interest in the dig, in the people who used the items, and in archaeology itself.

According to Roberts, Khirbet Cana is a "100 percent sift" dig, meaning every bucket of dirt taken from each square must be sifted through a sieve in order to catch any small pieces of interest, those that may have been missed by even a perceiving eye. During the 1998 season, eight of eleven surveyed squares were begun, each measuring five by five meters. Last summer's dig expanded that area, as will each of the next three seasons, opening fresh squares as time and resources allow. One of the main goals is to discover what was going on at Cana of Galilee during each time period encountered. That’s quite a challenge, as evidence has been found dating from a wide range of eras. The Khirbet Cana homepage (look for it under details finds from the Neolithic Period (about 5th millennium BCE) through portions of the 19th century CE. With such a broad representation of periods, dating is both difficult and important.

The geographic points of Khirbet Cana are mapped out using information gathered via the Trimble Global Positioning System (GPS). Roberts, who was involved in surveying areas of the site, explains the GPS as a transmitter that, once secured on a stable point, sends a signal to four or five satellites, which in turn transmit data back to a hand-held computer. Using this system, longitude and latitude of the location are measured within one centimeter’s accuracy. The coordinates are stored in the computer, which is later plugged into a larger system for data retrieval. Once connected with Geographic Information System (GIS) programs, maps of the site are produced. As new structures are discovered, their location is programmed in and added to the maps. In this way, up-to-date diagrams of the dig site are always available.bath uncovered.jpg (5993 bytes)

Khirbet Cana is not Roberts’s first dig. She was active with the excavations at Sepphoris, several miles south and a little west of Khirbet Cana, during the summer of 1995. The dig director was a patristics professor from her alma mater, Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, who taught courses on the history of Christian thought. Roberts says it was in college that she learned to think critically, to appreciate the mental processes that lead to broadening worldviews and systematic approaches to understanding. She describes it as a crucible effect, balanced between academic learning and "observing to learn." She found professors who had a "contagious enthusiasm," and role models who provided living examples for searching out her gifts and applying them in practice.

The experience instilled in Roberts a living passion for teaching, the desire to help college-age students find their own enthusiasms. She’d intended to study anthropology and psychology, but when it came time to declare a choice, found herself selecting anthropology and religion as a double major. As she talks about the ways she thinks of her role in the world, the two combine to provide an anthropological approach to religious systems and the people who use them.

"People are multidimensional," she explains. "I’d like to teach religion, but the way I do it has a lot of anthropological method, [looking at] all aspects of the person." Roberts longs to continue studying early Judaism and early Christianity from the viewpoint of the peoples who lived it, using such things as art, texts, archaeological evidence, and liturgies to explore the ways they were experienced by the people who created and used them.

Teaching, Erin Roberts-style, will be an eclectic prospect, aimed at imbuing academic eagerness in her students. "I think people learn better when they’re engaged in all different ways—seeing, hearing, mostly doing. I’ve envisioned setting up a small test square . . . taking students out and showing them what it’s like to dig. If I’m talking about the temple, give them the measurements and send them outside to see how big the thing was. Just have them do something. Reenact a liturgy, or write their own. People express themselves in so many ways. Hopefully the experience—and the excitement—will get them excited. I like to get things going, and then watch the people sort them out."

Roberts chose to pursue a Master of Divinity at Princeton partly to learn more about religion and religious systems, but also to expose herself to an atmosphere where students were living their faith. "I don’t think the study of religion should be separated from its practice," she says. "You can’t just study the Bible and not actually see what people do with it in their day-to-day lives." Roberts will continue that strategy at PTS during this academic year, as she works toward completion of a Master of Theology

in New Testament studies under the guidance of Dr. Donald Juel. She hopes to move into Ph.D. work after next year.

In the meantime, Roberts is letting no grass grow under her academic feet. In addition to setting up and working on the dig at Khirbet Cana last summer, she’s researched old maps of the dig area and searched for historical and artistic depictions of the miracle at Cana. She presented a conference paper on a sixth-century manuscript of Armenian illuminations, matching the illustrations with theological texts in an effort to explain them. If that doesn’t seem quite enough for one summer, Roberts also wrote two articles for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology.

A woman of many interests, Erin Roberts chooses to use them in pursuit of a fuller understanding of all peoples and the lives they live. Like the tesserae she’s so fond of studying, each little piece is an integral part of the whole.

Elizabeth Terrill is an alumna of PTS. Her home is in Porter, Indiana.

How to learn more...

There are many publications about Sepphoris. I recommend these two exhibition catalogues, which have nice pictures and give technical and understandable information about different aspects of the site.

Ze’ev Weiss and Ehud Netzer. Promise and Redemption: A Synagogue Mosaic from Sepphoris (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1996).

Edited by Rebecca Martin Nagy. Sepphoris in Galilee: Crosscurrents of Culture, (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Museum of Art; Winona Lake, Ind: distributed by Eisenbrauns, 1996).

The Cana Excavation maintains a webpage,   At this page, you will find bibliography, pictures, maps, preliminary reports, and daily journals of volunteers and staff members.

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