The Eastern Mediterranean is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions on Earth. According to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel has more than a hundred archaeological sites, and Jerusalem alone boasts more than 15.
This series of three case studies examines different archaeological sites in Israel, and how historians and archaeologists are using GIS and other technologies to uncover the past.
Dr. Aren Maeir, professor at Bar-llan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and director of the Tell es-Safi/ Gath Archaeological Project
The Arabic name for the site is Tell es-Safi, while the ancient biblical name is Gath. Located halfway between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, it was a Philistine city thought to be the hometown of the biblical warrior Goliath.
“The site is a large, multi-period site,” Maeir says. “We call it in the Middle East a tel. That means a site comprised of many layers, each layer representing a different phase or phases in the history of the site.”
Tell es-Safi has a long history of settlement. “The site was first settled sometime in the late prehistoric period,” about 5000 B.C.E., Maeir says. “It was more or less continually settled until modern times. The last settlement there was an Arab village that was abandoned during the Israeli War of Independence [in 1948]. So basically for about 7,000 years or so, there was continuous settlement on the site.”
“I think I use technology in all different stages of the excavation or the research,” Maeir says.
“To a large extent, I would say that the incorporation of technology in our research has very much transformed the way we do archaeological research. Compared to what we did 15 to 20 years ago, it is almost as if we are dealing with the difference between 19th-century medicine and 21st-century medicine. There’s such a whole range of analytic tools and research tools that we have jumped ahead substantially.”
Discovering the Site
The site had been excavated as early as 1899, but little archaeological research had been done until Maeir and his team started a long-term project at Tell es-Safi in 1996.
One major discovery occurred soon after Maeir began working at the site. Looking at aerial imagery of the area, he noticed an artificial trench circling the site. The trench is thought to be a siege system created by an attacking army so the residents of Tell es-Safi would find it difficult to escape. It is the oldest siege system discovered in the world.
“Very often, simply going up in an airplane and taking photographs of the region, you can see things that you can’t see when you are walking on the ground,” Maeir says.
Documenting the Finds
At Tell es-Safi, archaeologists have used iPads, tablets, and laptops to record data in the field.
“In the past, this was all entered on a whole set of forms that you basically filled out in the field and then you went back to the office and recopied them,” Maeir says. “Then you used them for interpretation. More and more excavations are starting to fill up these forms on a computer or on a tablet or on some digital input platform in the field.”
This method is more convenient.
“Another nice advantage to this is that with mobile communication and satellite communication, you can enter the data in the field and immediately send it off either to another server or to the so-called clouds that back up your data on the site,” Maeir says.
Interpreting the Site
Maeir and his fellow archaeologists at Tell es-Safi are known for using cutting-edge technology to interpret the site. They employ an x-ray florescent spectrometer and a Fourier transform IR (infrared) spectrometer to quickly and accurately learn about microscopic matter found there.
Maeir says the x-ray florescent spectrometer is a handheld device that looks a bit like a supermarket pricing gun.
“You aim it at a material that you want to identify and it gives you an identification of many types of materials to the atomic level,” he says.
The Fourier transform IR spectrometer is the size of a small, inkjet printer. It is set up on a table near the excavation area.
“It’s basically a little machine which is set up in a lab in the field,” Maeir says. “You take a sample of the sediment or material that you find in the excavation, and through infrared spectrometry it will give you the identification of the various types of materials that you are excavating, usually at the molecular level. So you can tell if it’s calcite, is it burnt, is it silica-based, etc.”
The IR spectrometer gives results in around 10 minutes.
“It gives you an ability to understand a feature that you are excavating, and it turns out that it enables us to make on-the-spot decisions which change the method in which we are excavating to make it appropriate for the types of finds that you are finding,” he says.
Like other archaeologists working in Israel, Maeir uses a “total station,” which surveys the architectural features of the excavation along with the surrounding topography, to gather information to create maps of the site.
“A very, very important part of archaeology is measuring location,” he says. “You want to map out the site. You want to map out where you are excavating. You want to map out the finds. You have excavated the various architectural features. You have excavated where you found certain objects. These things were usually done in the past with traditional objects and hand-drawn maps. Nowadays we have a whole range of digital map aids for measuring.”
Disseminating New Information About the Site
Maeir believes the past belongs to all citizens of the world, so he strives to share new information about his finds as often as possible.
“I’m a big user of the web,” he says. “I’m very into disseminating knowledge on a regular basis. In addition to the various scientific publications that we put out, I run a blog, which both during the expedition and throughout the year I write about what is going on in the project. Sometimes serious things. Sometimes less-serious things.”
Maeir says technology also allows him to share his findings with other archaeologists more easily.
“Nowadays we have PDFs of just about everything we have published so that you can put them up on various sites and your colleagues can get to it,” Maeir says. “It enables archaeological data interpretation to reach a wider audience.”