Galilee Diary: Pots and Roots
One may make a barrier [on Shabbat, to prevent a fire from spreading] of full or empty pots that are not likely to break; and which pots are unlikely to break? Metal pots, or [clay] pots made in Kfar Chananiah or Kfar Shichin.
– Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 120b
Recently the Hebrew-Arabic website Dugrinet sponsored a Friday morning excursion to the excavation of Kfar Shichin. There was a big crowd, because Dr. Motti Aviam, who heads the Israeli delegation to the dig, is both a respected archaeologist and a charismatic teacher, so it is always fun and fascinating to visit a site with him. Moreover, the dig is relatively new and not on any tour itineraries, so there was the attraction of going behind the scenes, to get "inside information." Motti either has good luck or a good eye; once I was visiting the dig at Yodfat with him – a site where I had spent many hours running educational programs – and he bent over casually and picked up a Roman coin. On our tour of Shichin he mentioned that the previous day he had been showing a group around, and he picked up a fragment of plaster to which were attached three mosaic tiles – the first and only evidence so far that there were mosaic floors at the site.
Shichin was a Jewish village in the Roman and Byzantine periods, mentioned a number of times in the sources as being part of the Zippori metropolitan area. This particular hilltop, about a mile from Zippori, had been noted in archaeological surveys as the probable site of an ancient settlement (lots of potsherds), but no one had been motivated to seek a budget to excavate until a few years ago, when the abovementioned Motti Aviam, visiting the area in late summer when all the vegetation was dried up, noticed that some of the rocks whose edges were above ground seemed to be very large – and showed signs of having been shaped by chisels, not erosion. Large carved rocks in a small Galilean village generally signify a synagogue, for such villages did not have other public buildings, and large rocks were not used for private structures. After two seasons (with many more ahead), indeed, the foundation of a large building, including massive column-bases and parts of an entrance made of non-local stone, have been uncovered.
The Talmud mentions that Shichin was known for the high quality of its pottery. Thus the identification of this hilltop as Shichin is strengthened by the fact that the archaeologists found there a huge scrap heap of manufacturer's rejects, fragments of pots that were obviously discarded before sale, due to air pockets, cracks, and other defects.
The likelihood of the large stones being the remains of a synagogue - and the likelihood that this pile of rocks represents Talmudic Shichin (Asochis according to Josephus) is exciting. Yet as Motti Aviam pointed out with his characteristic humor, archaeologists (and the rest of us) have to be careful not to get carried away by the temptation to see "likelihoods" as proven historical facts. Finding an explanation attractive doesn't make it true.
Israel is not the only place where archaeology has taken on nationalistic significance. For a hundred years, we have been digging to prove to ourselves – and especially to the rest of the world – that our claim to a long and glorious history here is based on solid scientific evidence. This can lead to distortions and sloppy research, and we have to be careful to keep science, politics, and religion separate. However, I can testify from my morning at Shichin that that is really hard to do. There is something moving and satisfying about letting my imagination connect text and rocks and shards into a coherent story that places me in a historical continuum that is rooted right here.