Dig for a Day in Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park, Israel
By Doreen Kerby
The National Park is huge and within its boundaries are located the ancient cities of Maresha and Bet-Guvrin along with over 5,000 caves. Visitors are warned to stay on the paths or risk falling into an unmarked cave. The entire area on the western slopes of the Judean mountains is beautiful during winter and spring when the hills are green and wild flowers are abundant.
It is a place that cannot be truly explained but once experienced, will never be forgotten. It isn’t that hard to get to. Situated between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, take route 38 south past Beit Shemesh until the road ends. Turn right on route 35 and follow the signs to the National Park.
A friend invited me to travel with her to “Dig for a Day”. Since I had never done any archaeological digging I jumped at the chance and have been thanking her ever since because it was an opportunity of a lifetime. On arrival, I wondered why we had come. There didn’t seem to be anything there. But that was the amazing thing about this site. Everything of interest is underground. Tents cover the entrances to caves that are being worked presently.
Archaeologists have found caves and water cisterns that date back to the 3rd Century B.C.E. They have found oil presses, burial caves, columbariums (places to raise pigeons for food and fertilizer) and caves for storage.
The whole area has a thin layer of hard limestone about two metres thick called nari, with a thick layer of soft limestone underneath. The thin layer makes an ideal roof for a cave and the soft layer is easy to cut and remove. This is why there are huge caves underground. Thousands of caves were dug creating subterranean networks of great complexity.
The main sites in the Park are:
The Bell Caves – a chain of 80 large caves connected by hewn passageways.
The Sidonian Burial Caves – a series of impressive burial caves from the Hellenistic Era decorated with drawings of wild animals and mythological figures.
A sophisticated system of wells – These enormous wells served the inhabitants of Maresha during the Hellenistic Era.
The oil press cave – a cave containing a large fully restored oil press.
The Columbarium Cave – a cave with niches used to breed pigeons.
The Bell Caves were actually quarries, which supplied the building materials to the cities of the Coastal Plain and Bet Guvrin itself. In the 10th century an Arab historian wrote of Bet-Guvrin: “It is a land of richness and plenty, and in it are marble quarries…” The stone blocks cut out by the quarrymen were raised and removed from the cave by means of ropes. The pit broadened during the operation and most of them are 40-50 feet deep. Most of this work was done from the 7th to the 10th centuries.
The Sedonian Burial Caves date back to the 3rd -2nd centuries B.C.E. They were discovered in 1900 by archaeologists working for the British Palestine Exploration Fund. Research activities have been continuous, now taken over by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Those interred are Edomite, Sidonian or Greek. All the inscriptions and paintings have been restored to their original beauty.
When we were there, school children had come to “Dig for a Day”. There are many caves that still need the dirt to be removed so families come and help in this process. Our leader was interesting and enthusiastic. She has been digging in Bet Guvrin-Maresha for 25 years. In our group there was a family from Boston with grandparents, parents, an aunt, an uncle, and little girls three and six. The children loved digging in the dirt.
When pails are full they are taken outside and screened. The children were fascinated and watched intently for hidden treasures though any findings become the property of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
When we were leaving we were invited to take a piece of broken pottery as a memento of our dig. I proudly display my shard with the date and place printed on it, as a reminder of an unforgettable experience.
If You Go ......
Israel Ministry of Tourism: www.goisrael.com
El Al Israel Airlines: flies nonstop from Toronto to Ben Gurion International Airport six days a week. www.elal.com