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Archaeology school in Israel

Many mosaic stones and potsherds have been excavated, and a Byzantine synagogue is revealing its history layer by layer. The excavations at Horvat Kur are a field school for a young generation of researchers.

It is on a mountain close to the Sea of Gallilee, in the north of present-day Israel that the remains of Horvat Kur lie, a Byzantine village dating from the 4th to the 7th century. A German engineer had already described the location in the 19th century but it was not until 2007 that Leiden professor Jürgen Zangenberg started to make systematic excavations there.

Practical site

As well as being an interesting site archaeologically, it has also been chosen for practical reasons, Josine Heijnen, a master's student of Religious Studies and camp manager at the excavation site this year, explained. The site has to be accessible for ordinary cars and students have to be able to sleep there. The idea was always to make the excavation into a field school: a place where young people can learn.' 

Enthusiastic students

Dutch, Swiss and Finnish researchers have been carrying out excavations there almost every summer since 2007.  Universities like Estland, Romania and the US have now joined the group. Students pay their own travel and living costs; some can use their experience at Horvat Kur for study credits. Everyone's very enthusiastic  about taking part, Heijnen indicates. 'A lot of students come back for a second year, or even more than that.'

She herself is there for the second time, having taken part in the excavations as a bachelor's student. 'I had had lectures about hellenistic Judaism and early Christendom and I was very curious about how we know what we know about these subjects, besides from texts, of course. What can you still see of a culture?' The excavations are not only about buildings and works of art, attention is also paid to the food culture.  'We are looking for the remains of plants and seeds, and also for bones. If you find no pig bones anywhere, for example, you can conclude that the people who lived there probably didn't eat pork.' 

Learning while excavating

She had no experience with excavating, Heijnen explained, and she knew hardly anything about archaeology. 'But the same goes for a lot of the students here; we have a diverse mix of archaeologists, architects and people who have studied history. But there are also researchers with a lot of experience; there's always someone who's willing to teach you what you want to know.'

Working day starts at 5 a.m.

At the moment there are around 40 people working on the site, including about 25 students. A typical working day starts at 5 in the morning. 'Some people find that quite a challenge, expecially if we've had a few beers the night before, which we do sometimes.' Then there's coffee and cake, and later as camp manager Heijnen brings breakfast up to the group The students are generally busy doing the excavating, but there are also two people who spend all their time measuring the 3D coordinates of the finds. Then there's someone else who sits at a desk and records everything and an architect who makes drawings of the structures.

Pottery washing

At around 12 it gets too hot on the mountain and it's time for lunch and a siesta. Heijnen: ‘By then you've already done a day's work, but in the afternoon most students help with pottery washing, mainly small potsherds and mosaic stones.' In the afternoons analists also explain the finds from the previous day. 'You pick things up very quickly and you can put what you learn to direct use in the field.'

The excavations this summer will last for three weeks, by which time the work on the synagogue will be finished. Next year students will  again be welcome at the Sea of Gallilee: there is still a lot of excavation work to be done in the village around the synagogue.

The Leiden participants in the excavation. From l to r: Jonas Rouhof, Annelize Rheeder, Matthieu Cornelissen, Najade Bijl, Renske Janssen, Professor Jürgen Zangenberg, Sander Huls, Anne van Kalmthout, Tom de Bruin, Lucas van Oppen and Josine Heijnen.

The Kinneret Regional Project

The excavations at Horvat Kur are part of the Kinneret Regional Project, a partnership between the universities of Bern, Helsinki and Leiden, the American Wofford College and the Finnish Institute of the Middle East. Apart from the excavation at Horvat Kur, the project also includes an excavation at neighbouring Tel Kinrot.

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