Abraham-era water tunnel is target of dig
Gary D. Myers
Patience and persistence are important for any archaeological dig, but one expedition in Israel is demanding an extra measure of long-suffering endurance.
The challenge is excavating a large, rock-hewn water tunnel at Tel Gezer that is believed to have been carved out by Canaanites between 1800 and 1500 B.C. -- around the time of Abraham. Tons of debris must be removed from the ancient tunnel before the real work can even begin.
"The significance for this project is to help us answer several key questions," said Dan Warner, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. "Questions like how did the ancient Canaanites know where to sink their tunnel to gain access to the water below? How did they know the tunnel would lead to a cavern containing the water? Where does the water come from and exactly how did the system function, just to name a few."
Many rock-hewn water systems have been discovered in Israel. These tunnels were built to provide water for the inhabitants of a city during a siege. The water system in Gezer, however, is unique.
"At Hazor, there is a system that is very similar to this. The great difference is the size," said Jim Parker, New Orleans associate professor of biblical interpretation. "The one at Hazor was probably dug in the Iron Age. [The Gezer water system] is from almost a thousand years earlier."
The Gezer system also is unusually large, measuring 12 feet wide by 24 feet tall, Parker noted. It is believed that the ancient people used donkeys to ferry water from the source to the surface. The width allowed two animals, loaded with jugs, to pass side by side. The height of the tunnel perplexes the expedition team, and they hope to find an explanation as they pursue the dig.
The water system expedition is part of a larger endeavor at Gezer being conducted by a consortium, said Warner, who directs the seminary's Center for Archaeological Research. The larger Gezer Project was launched by Steven Ortiz, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who was a member of the New Orleans faculty at the time. Warner and Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist for the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, are directing the water tunnel excavation.
The cave was indentified and explored during two expeditions in the early 1900s but reports from those expeditions offer conflicting descriptions and measurement for it. The researchers hope to resolve those conflicts and provide new measurements, descriptions, drawings and photographs of the cave's interior.
Last summer the team began the arduous tasks of removing tons of rubble from the tunnel. During a three-week dig, they cleared 72 tons of dirt and rocks. Team members dug out the tunnel and put debris in large sacks which were hoisted out with a crane. Due to the 38-degree slope, Parker compared it to working on a steeply pitched roof.
This year the team made it to within about 20 to 30 feet from the water source and the cave entrance and believe they will reach the water source this summer, if they can assemble a large enough crew. Warner hopes to recruit 10 to 15 people to help with the dig, which will take place May 21 through June 11. The trip is open to students and alumni, and graduate students can earn six hours of academic credit for participating.
The NOBTS-led dig has caught the attention of the archaeological community. Seminary professor Dennis Cole is featured prominently on the cover of the January/February 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). BAR's website features detailed information about the Gezer water system expedition (http://bit.ly/ie8XHh).