Life on an Archaeological Dig: Interview with Luke Chandler

Life on an Archaeological Dig: Interview with Luke Chandler

What’s it like to participate in an archaeological dig? Exciting? Difficult? Do you have to be a certain age? These are just a few of the questions that Luke Chandler, volunteer archaeologist for the past 7 seasons, addresses in this post. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go on an archareological dig, then continue reading.

A picture of Luke participating in the archaeological dig at Tel Lachish
A picture of Luke participating in the archaeological dig at Tel Lachish

Luke is a minister at North Terrace Church or Christ in Temple Terrace, Florida. He holds an MA in Ancient and Classical History and has participated in archaeological digs at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Tel-Lachish. You can find his insightful posts about archaeology and other subjects, as well as information on tours that he leads at https://www.lukechandler.wordpress.com/

Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions regarding your archaeological experiences Luke.
What first kindled your interest in archaeology?
I grew up with the Bible and occasionally heard or read about artifacts from biblical times. My parents had a college friend who was involved in the excavations at Tel Lachish during the 70’s and 80’s. He visited once when I was 8 or 9 years old and let me hold an oil lamp from around the 10th century BC, the period of the early Israelite monarchy. This fascinated me and kindled an interest that eventually became my college major. When I decided to become a minister, archaeology became even more interesting, especially as it related to the Bible.
It must be said… Indiana Jones made archaeology look cool. Of course, he’s a terrible archaeologist. He does not record or preserve anything except the object of his obsession, and he destroys most ancient structures he enters. Still, he’s a lot of fun to watch and his character has introduced archaeology to new generations.

How many years have you been participating in digs in Israel and how has your “job description” evolved, if at all during those years?
This summer (2015) was my seventh year with a dig but the job hasn’t really changed. I still excavate soil and stones, sift dirt for small finds, identify and clean architecture, discover things that were last seen and touched thousands of years ago, and have a wonderful time doing it. The job also means getting to know like-minded people from around the world, which is as enjoyable as the dig itself.
Since I’m not staff (which requires additional time with the dig), I don’t manage the paperwork or take part in the off-season research and analysis. I’ve learned to do a couple of additional things in the field but it’s best to say that after several years I am a “more experienced” archaeological volunteer.

An archaeological dig is hard work, but also fun and rewarding.
An archaeological dig is hard work, but also fun and rewarding.

What advice would you give to someone who has never been on an archaeological dig and how can they best prepare themselves to join one?
If you’ve never been, don’t worry. It’s honest work but it’s not overbearing, and some jobs are fairly easy. In the end, the archaeologists know we are all volunteers and they want to make us happy.
How can you prepare for a dig? Some physical preparation certainly helps, even if it is light exercise a few times a week. It can be as simple as walking, some golf/tennis, jumping jacks, etc. – anything to get the muscles accustomed to activity. You can dig without this kind of preparation but being active makes it a little easier.
The best preparation is to learn something about your dig site before going. Find out its history, both biblical and extra-biblical. What took place there? Who lived there, and what happened to them? Have previous excavations found anything? This gives context to your experience. You know why you are digging as well as the potential impact of your work.

What is the most difficult part of an archaeological dig in your experience?
The schedule is probably the most difficult if not opting for a decent bedtime. We get up each morning around 4:15am, which comes quickly if you stay up late!
That being said, it’s not a bad schedule if managed properly. Work at the site begins before sunrise and concludes at 1pm sharp. The rest of the day is pretty easy with lunch, a restful siesta, pottery washing & reading (a good chance to sit and chat, and maybe discover something new about the day’s finds), followed by an archaeology lecture and dinner. Go to bed fairly soon after dinner and you’ll be fine. Stay up too late, too often, and the mornings get tougher. Not that this problem is without remedy – God has given us caffeine.

What is the most rewarding part of that experience?
This is hard to answer. I love the thrill of discovery, when you realize you have something no one has seen or touched since Bible times. On one occasion, a friend and I were the first people in nearly 3,000 years to pass through a city gate we had just unblocked. You can’t forget moments like that.
For me, the most rewarding part is what follows the dig. Simply put, the experience changes the way you read and study the Bible. I’ve used Bible commentaries and dictionaries, studied biblical languages, read Bible-based journals, subscribed to Biblical Archaeology Review, and even traveled to Israel on a tour, but none of these gave me the same insights and perspectives as a dig. A dig gives you an up-close, intimate view of the land and the people who lived there. You do not constantly move from place to place with only minutes to appreciate what you see. You get to soak in the Bible Lands and see more of what Bible people saw. It puts you inside their heads. This has deepened my own understanding beyond words.

This is the fertility goddess mentioned by Luke. This photo is taken from his website.
This is the fertility goddess mentioned by Luke. This photo is taken from his website.

What is the most exciting discovery that you, or the team you were with, ever found?
That is hard to narrow down. Finding my first sling stone stands out, as does a fertility goddess from this year, but my favorite discovery may be two jars full of burnt grain that I found in 2014. It was someone’s pantry some 3,200 years ago when Lachish was burned to the ground. Whoever the grain belonged to, they did not get to eat it before their home and city were destroyed. Were they killed in the process? Did they have to flee with no food? Those burned jars told a personal story. As a bonus, we were able to carbon date the burned grain and get an approximate date for the destruction of that city level. It is hard to select one favorite discovery, but this one is near the top.

Khirbet Qeiyafa, where Luke participated in his first archaeological dig.
Khirbet Qeiyafa, where Luke participated in his first archaeological dig.

There are some archaeologists, as well as Bible scholars, who believe that the kingdom of David and Solomon is largely fictional. If it existed, it certainly wasn’t as powerful and sophisticated as portrayed in the Bible. The discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa are thought by some to refute this viewpoint. What insights have you gained regarding this controversy, based on your experience of digging there?
Skeptics of the early Israelite kingdom have always based their conclusions on negative evidence. “We have no evidence that David was a king… No evidence of a central authority in that period… No evidence of literacy…” and so on. They rely primarily on what has not been found. The risk in this approach is that someone, someday, may find that missing something and collapse the paradigm. That seems to be exactly what has happened with my first dig site, Khirbet Qeiyafa.
At Khirbet Qeiyafa, we have uncovered a small planned city with massive fortifications. Tribal shepherds could never build something like that! It is on Judah’s border with the Philistines but from the material culture we know it was not a Philistine city. The builders were strong enough to hold off the Philistine army during the years of construction, which suggests a powerful military. The architecture and finds show strong links to other sites in ancient Judah and indications of central administration. We also found multiple inscriptions. It’s almost as if someone made a list of the “missing” evidences for an early monarchy and put all of them in one place. This site has changed the debate over the beginning of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms.
I believe the Qeiyafa discoveries validate accounts of an early Israelite monarchy. They do not prove that David killed Goliath or that Solomon built the first temple, but are evidence of a central government in that region and in that time. This is a big deal, especially in light of what we had to work with just ten years ago. Only some of the excavation results have been formally published at this point. It will be a few more years before everything is known and available to other scholars.

Tel Lachish was an important fortified city of Judah in biblical times
Tel Lachish was an important fortified city of Judah in biblical times

As I understand it, the discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa have inspired Dr. Yosef Garfinkel, who directed the excavation there, to move on to Lachish. Although Lachish has been excavated in the past with some exciting finds, the layer which contains 10th century BC remains (the time of David and Solomon) has not been excavated. Can you tell us what has been learned so far in the first couple of seasons (recognizing that there are things you may not be able to reveal until they are published)?
Previous excavations identified at least eight different habitation strata and it appears the fifth one is relevant to the early kings in Judah. The problem is that not enough has been found from Level V to provide a date for its habitation. Was it built in David’s time? In Rehoboam’s reign? We just don’t know at this point. The Bible says that Rehoboam fortified the city. Does this mean he actually built Level V or that he expanded an existing settlement? Our primary goal is to obtain enough physical evidence of Level V to date it. It would be especially useful to find something organic, such as olive pits, that can be carbon dated. C-14 dating is not accurate enough to pinpoint a year but it gives an approximate range. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to find an inscription that zeroes in the date.
What have we found at Lachish? Oddly enough, the top five levels (dating from the Persian period back to the Canaanite period) are missing entirely from portions of our current excavation area. On the first day of the first season, some people in my group uncovered Level VI just a couple of inches below the surface. We don’t know why this is. One possible explanation is that these layers were removed from our area in the 8th century BC to build stronger defenses elsewhere in the city during an attack. We may get a solid answer to this in the future. We may have found Level V in another area of the site, though we won’t know for sure until we resume digging next summer
We have been able to find wonderful things from the Canaanite civilizations that preceded the Judahites at Lachish. We have found a temple with multiple idols/figurines, imported pottery, an inscribed Egyptian scarab, and at least one inscription. We’ve also identified some new entrances to the city that are currently blocked. We plan to begin opening and dating them next year. It’s possible one of these gates is from the elusive Level V. The Bible does not tell us much about the early Divided Kingdoms, so our work over the next few years may impact on our understanding of that period. It is exciting stuff.

Is there anything else about an archaeological dig that you would like to add Luke?
Let me say one thing for anyone who has not yet experienced a dig… If you want a deeper understanding of the Bible and its world, find a way to get yourself on a dig, even if just for a couple of weeks. It will give you understanding and insights that no book can provide. You will benefit from it the rest of your life, along with others whom you teach or influence. I’ve excavated with people as young as 13, with others who are in their 70’s, and with every age in between. Most of the best digs are open for people just like you. The sooner you go, the longer – and greater – the benefit will be.
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Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Luke and may God continue to bless the work that you are involved in. I am hoping to join you at Tel-Lachish in the season after next, Lord willing. For any who might be interested in learning more about joining an archaeological dig you can contact Luke at his website (regarding Lachish), or you can go to biblicalarchaeolgy.org and click on the “digs” menu.

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