Southwesterners help with major archaeological dig at Tel Gezer

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s collaboration with four Southern Baptist seminaries in one archaeological dig is “historic,” according to Eric Mitchell, assistant professor of biblical backgrounds and archaeology at Southwestern Seminary.

Mitchell served as a field supervisor in excavations at Tel Gezer from June 4 to July 7 in conjunction with the seminary’s Bible Lands Study Program. This summer, the program emphasized archaeological field work at Tel Gezer, along with evening lectures from experts in the field of archaeology and weekend study-tours throughout the Bible Lands.

"We have never had four Southern Baptist Seminaries working together on a dig,” Mitchell said. “It was just an excellent experience, an excellent team.”

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary co-sponsored the site with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Southwestern, Golden Gate and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminaries are among the eight consortium schools involved with the Tel Gezer project.

Steve Ortiz of New Orleans Seminary, who co-directed the expedition with Sam Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority, agreed that it is “unusual” to have four of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries involved in one expedition.

“This just means that I have supportive colleagues in other seminaries who see the value of the Tel Gezer Excavation Project for students,” Ortiz said. However, Ortiz noted that “denominational affiliations” are not emphasized at Tel Gezer.

“The emphasis is … on the desire to participate in a field school that is excavating a major ancient biblical site,” he said.

Southwestern Seminary will co-sponsor the work at Tel Gezer in 2007, a shift that comes in conjunction with Ortiz’ move to Southwestern Seminary this fall. In August, Ortiz will begin his dual role as Southwestern Seminary’s associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds and director of its Charles C. Tandy Archaeology Museum. He will also continue to co-direct the expedition at Tel Gezer.

According to Mitchell, Southwestern’s sponsorship of Tel Gezer will give the seminary the ability to lead in the study of biblical backgrounds and archaeology.

“Tel Gezer will give (the seminary) a site recognized by the Israel Antiquities Authority and most Israeli archaeologists as one of the top five archaeological sites in Israel,” he said. “The last major American dig at the site trained some 40 archaeologists who have led digs in the last 35-40 years. So there is a great tradition at the site.”

According to Mitchell, Gezer was inhabited as early as the Early Bronze Age, around 3,000 B.C. The ancient city was situated in the Aijalon Valley, which runs east to west from the hills west of Jerusalem to the Mediterranean coast.

“Joshua stood on the descent of Beth Horon – just northwest of Jerusalem – overlooking this valley when the Israelites conquered the Amorite kings,” Mitchell said, referring to Joshua 10:12-13. “Joshua said, ‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon … And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.’”

Under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites attacked Gezer, but could not drive the people out of the city. According to Mitchell, the city was overrun several times during the period of the Judges, but it was not inhabited by the Israelites until the time of Solomon.

According to a July 18 Baptist Press report, this summer’s excavations uncovered “a massive fortification system associated with the six-chambered gate common in the building projects of King Solomon.”

It also revealed two layers of destruction in the ancient city, “tentatively dated” to the time of the pharaohs Merneptah and Siamun. The Merneptah Stela from the 13th century B.C. contains the earliest reference to Israel outside of scripture, along with a description of a “major campaign” in Palestine. Tel Gezer, the report notes, was destroyed during this campaign.

The BP report adds that many scholars identify Siamun as the pharoah who defeated the people of Gezer and gave the city as a dowry to his daughter when she married Solomon. According to 1 Kings 9, Solomon then fortified Gezer.

“I thought the site was very impressive,” said Joseph Cathey, archivist at Southwestern Seminary’s A.Webb Roberts Library and assistant square supervisor at Gezer. “I think that excavations opened a particular window on Solomonic Gezer, and I’m looking forward to next year seeing, I think, a better picture than what we even uncovered this year.”

Students who are interested in volunteering on the dig in 2007 can get more information at the project’s Web site, www.gezerproject.org.

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