Group members gather in an underground cave at Maresha for digging instructions from the staff.

Every other year, Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences co-sponsor a study tour of Israel and parts of the West Bank. And every year, one of the most memorable outings occurs at a place many participants had never heard of: Maresha.

Mareshah (a biblical spelling) was a city in the kingdom of Judah, going back at least to the Iron Age. It is cited in Joshua 15:44 as part of Judah’s inheritance, and in 2 Chronicles 11:5-10, which claims it was built up as a fortified city by Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Rehoboam ruled Judah after the northern tribes, led by Jeroboam I, split off and formed the northern kingdom that came to be known as Israel.

After digging, dirt is hauled to the surface in a bucket brigade. Up top, the dirt is sifted for small finds.

Most Bible readers who remember the place know it as the hometown of the prophet Micah, a fiery prophet who championed the cause of social justice and predicted that Jerusalem would one day become like a plowed field. The city’s name is spelled Moresheth in Micah 1:1 and Jeremiah 26:18 — the only time in the Old Testament when one prophet quotes another and names him.

But I digress — the reason we take our groups to Mareshah is to participate in a “Dig for a Day” experience led by the staff of Archaeological Seminars. In the post exilic period, Maresha expanded off of the tell and onto lower slopes where a hard layer of nari covers a deep deposit of soft limestone. Residents there — mostly Edomites (called Idumeans in Greek) — dug through the nari to the soft bedrock, where they carved out massive underground complexes used for producing olive oil, weaving, raising pigeons, and a variety of other activities in a dry and comfortable environment.

Finds are often broken, but sometimes whole, like this clay lamp.

After the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus conquered the city in 110 BCE, it was reported that he forced residents to either convert to Judaism or dump their houses into the underground caves and leave.

Archaeologists are currently excavating the underground rooms — often filled with debris nearly to the arched ceilings — and because the dumped material is not stratified, even the rankest amateurs can be helpful in excavating the soil and finding ancient artifacts.

We always find loads of pottery, along with occasional bones, pieces of metal, and rarer finds, such as inscriptions.

I mention this today because in one of the underground rooms, excavators recently uncovered a small compartment dug to the side and apparently used as a repository for some ancient estate owner’s trove of parchment documents. The documents are long gone, having deteriorated in the damp environment — but more than 1,000 clay seal impressions (called bullae) remained.

A seal impression recently uncovered at Maresha. Photo credit Assaf Stern, Haaretz

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “The impressions feature portraits of both humans and deities: Castor and Pollux, Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite, symbols such as cornucopia, animals — and erotica, as can be seen in two of the 300 impressions studied so far. A few also sport names or letters in Greek.”

That’s quite a find. Most of the impressions would date to the second century, BCE, when the area was largely Hellenized following the expansions of Alexander the Great.

An ungulate’s jawbone sees the light for the first time in more than 2100 years.

Would you like to get your hands in the dirt at Maresha? Here’s your chance: our next study tour will take place May 11-22, 2019, and space is still available. Join us and visit many of the amazing places you’ve only read about and dreamed of seeing one day. Our tours take in many archaeological sites and go places — like Maresha — that most groups never visit. The total cost is just $4,050, and that’s everything: airfare, meals, and tips included. The only money you’ll need to bring is for souvenirs, and most places take credit cards.

You can get more information, download a brochure, and register online at this link, where we’ll soon have a secure pay site available. Until then (and even afterward), you can register online and send your deposit by mail.

Most people only get to the Holy Land once in their lifetimes, if at all. Why not make this your once-in-a-lifetime experience? Christmas is coming: what a gift that would be!

 

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