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 briefly examines different archaeological sites in Israel, and how historians and archaeologists are using GIS and other technologies to uncover the past.
Dr. Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Huqoq Excavation Project
Huqoq, an archaeological site in the Galilee region of Israel, “is actually an ancient village, so it was never a major city or town or something like that,” says Magness. “It’s a Galilean village that was occupied for a long time because there is a spring next to it that attracted settlement. The name 'Huqoq' is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible—in the Old Testament—so it was occupied for a very long time, not necessarily continuously.
“Aside from the fact that there is a spring there, it is a beautiful area overlooking the Sea of Galilee with very fertile agricultural land around, so it was basically an agricultural village. The latest occupation there was right up into 1948, until the outbreak of Israel’s war of independence and the establishment of the state of Israel.”
Magness and her team’s primary focus is on a synagogue that dates back to the 5th century. One of the most notable finds of the excavation has been a colorful mosaic depicting the biblical figure Samson, found in the synagogue ruins.
“My dig is not actually an example of cutting-edge technology, in the sense that I’m not doing things that are not done by anyone else,” Magness says.
DISCOVERING THE SITE
At other sites across Israel, archaeologists are using ground-penetrating radar to understand what artifacts and features lie beneath the undisturbed earth. However, that technology was not used to identify the ancient site of Huqoq.
“In our case, it would not have worked because the synagogue is covered by the bulldozed ruins of the village of 1948,” Magness says.
“I was very fortunate in my first season of excavation  to come down on part of the wall of the synagogue, so we found it right at the beginning, but that was kind of luck!”
DOCUMENTING THE FINDS
Magness says archaeologists need to meticulously record everything they find and do.
“Once you have dug that dirt out of the ground or taken those stones out you can never put them back the way they were,” she says. “The goal is to record every single thing you are doing as completely as possible. In the end, we publish all of that information so that the information will be available to others who can then take the information and reconstruct in three dimensions something that no longer exists.”
Technology has proved to be essential in such recording efforts. Magness’ team documented the synagogue mosaic, for instance, by using high-tech photography and drawing tools.
In the past, archaeologists recorded their finds on paper forms, but technology has changed the way information is recorded at Huqoq.
“We actually started to record using iPads in the field this year,” Magness says. “Before that, we used hard copy and then the data were entered manually afterwards. But now we are using iPads in the field and all the data are being recorded by the area supervisors directly into iPads and it goes directly into the database.”
A computer database documenting what is found at the site is another technological advantage that allows an archaeologist to search for information and manipulate data. It is easier than going through a multitude of paper documents.
“We have a computerized database for all of the information and for all of the different kinds of artifacts that are retrieved in the excavation,” Magness says.
INTERPRETING THE SITE
Technology has also proved invaluable in helping to interpret archaeological sites such as Huqoq.
“Basically in archaeology, what you have got is something that is preserved in two dimensions, so it [technology] helps you visualize what it originally looked like in three dimensions, which is very helpful,” Magness says.
At Huqoq, archaeologists use a “total station.” A total station surveys the architectural features of the excavation along with the surrounding surface features and topography. The surveyed features are then drawn and plotted in AutoCAD, a computer drafting program.
Aerial photography is also used at Huqoq.
“We have aerial photographs taken on the last day, because they help in showing the relationship between the different excavated areas and squares, and are an invaluable complement to the top plans of the site,” Magness says.
DISSEMINATING NEW INFORMATION ABOUT THE SITE
While some directors of archaeological digs blog about their finds, Magness does not do this. She holds off on writing about her discoveries in part because she thinks raw data can be misleading before it is properly analyzed. However, she does have a personal website (www.jodimagness.org), and her staff is building a dig website.
Magness gets the word out about Huqoq by publishing reports in scholarly and archaeological publications, along with contacting the press with information.
“We have had some spectacular discoveries,” she says, “which we have released to the public through press releases.”
picture of part of the Earth's surface, usually taken from an airplane.
to study in detail.
place where evidence of the past is being studied by scientists.
person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
software program used by engineers, geographers, and other professionals to help design and model land areas and build infrastructure.
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
art and science of creating plans that visually communicate how something functions or is constructed. Also called technical drawing.
to form or officially organize.
area that has been dug up or exposed for study.
non-portable archaeological remains, such as pyramids or post-holes.
able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.
any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.
method of providing an image of an area beneath the surface of the earth, using sound waves.
holy writings of the Jewish faith that correspond with the Old Testament writings of the Christian faith. Also called the Hebrew Scriptures.
person who studies events and ideas of the past.
to explain or understand the meaning of something.
to manage a complex device or situation with great skill.
very detailed and precise.
picture or design made from many tiny pieces of colored glass.
sudden occurrence or rapid increase.
first or most important.
to bring back, restore, or recover.
small flow of water flowing naturally from an underground water source.
a study or analysis of characteristics of an area or a population.
place of worship for Jewish people.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
study of the shape of the surface features of an area.
instrument used in land surveying that combines electronic and optical equipment to evaluate an area's location, features, and topography.
small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.
to make visual.