When Gillian Asquith, a New Testament and Greek lecturer at MST, signed up for an adventure holiday at an archaeological dig in Israel in 2014, she had no idea that it would lead, just a few years later, to being part of a ground-breaking discovery.
Gillian had such a good experience on the first dig that she returned to Melbourne hatching a plan. Why not start a new unit for MST students and give them the opportunity to be part of the important work done by archaeologists?
“To see where our Christian faith all began, and to feel a connection with that ancient historical aspect is really important,” she explained, adding that it can be hard for Australians to grasp the reality of the Old Testament stories.
“They’re too far away—almost in the realm of fairy tale. To have people getting their hands dirty, uncovering material remains that date to the period of the Bible, helps situate their faith even further in reality.”
In 2015, Gillian took three students back to Israel to be part of a dig, and numbers grew steadily until in 2019 they had a group of 16.
Archaeological digs in Israel take place over several weeks or months. Anyone with an interest is welcome to join the excavations, which generally take place in the heat of summer. The team is on the bus by 4.30 in the morning, ready to start at the site at 5am so they can dig while it’s cool. Much of the excavation is heavy work using shovels and moving dirt.
“It’s only when you uncover something precious that the finer tools come out,” Gillian explained.
A piece of pottery bigger than the size of a fingernail is a ‘find’ which goes in a bucket to be washed later. Because it’s covered with centuries of dust and dirt, there’s no way of knowing if it’s important or not until it’s been carefully scrubbed with a nail brush and dried in the sun.
On the very last day of the excavation in 2019, it was one of Gillian’s team who washed a piece of pottery—which would turn out to be incredibly important.
The small piece of pottery, which had five letters painted on it turned out to be an extremely rare inscription dating back to the time of the Judges. The letters could be read as ‘Jerubbaal’, which was the nickname of the biblical judge Gideon, and could be the first hard evidence of a name from the stories of the Judges. Most importantly, it’s a rare clue to understanding writing systems in the region.
The 2019 team was sworn to secrecy about what had been found, and it wasn’t until two years later, in 2021, when all the work and research had been done, and the papers had been written and published, that they were finally allowed to talk about the shard and its importance.
“Finding an inscription is like finding gold,” Gillian said. “It’s the Holy Grail for archaeologists. Amongst other things, it gives you information about literacy levels, about the language that people were speaking in that area and the writing system that they were using. These are all huge pieces of
While archaeologists may enjoy the occasional groundbreaking discovery, plenty of their research is based on far more ordinary objects. The size and design of a wall might be evidence of centralised planning and government, and a pot handle with a seal on it can indicate that its contents were destined for the king as a form of tax payment.
“People don’t realise that a lot of what they read in textbooks about the Old Testament is based on archaeological evidence—found through countless hours of work done by volunteers like our MST students,” Gillian explains.
She is delighted to have had the MST team be part of the discovery. “Getting an archaeological programme up and running at MST has paid off in ways that I could never have imagined.”
Digs are open in Israel this year but because of pandemic travel restrictions, an MST group has not been able to go. Gillian hopes it won’t be too long before the unit can be opened to a new group of interested people.
“It’s not just MST students who can enrol,” she explained. “I open the dig up to anybody who wants to come who has the physical fitness. Be prepared to spend hours doing backbreaking work and don’t be afraid of dirt!”
It’s also important to be flexible. “Some days you might be in a really exciting pit where there’s loads of pottery. Other days, you might just be pushing a wheelbarrow up and down a slope.”
While going on a dig sounds hard, Gillian says that it has been transformative for some of the participants. One student said the experience was life changing.
“It brought an element to her faith that she’d never contemplated before,” explained Gillian. “When you pull a pot handle out of the ground, put your hand around it, and then think that the last person who had touched it lived 3,000 years ago, and may have known the places or the people we read about in the Bible, it gives you a sense of connectedness to the historical reality of our faith.”