Home / News / Amateur archaeologists can help conserve the crumbling Tel Gezer, one brick at a time

Amateur archaeologists can help conserve the crumbling Tel Gezer, one brick at a time

Aug 20, 2023Aug 20, 2023

The fortified city of Tel Gezer, mentioned in the Bible as an ancient royal Canaanite city, has stood for 3,500 years with its massive stone walls, shops, and homes buried under centuries of dirt.

Since it was uncovered by archaeologists more than 100 years ago, however, the walls are slowly crumbling due to erosion, damage done by animals, vandalism and a brush fire that tore through the area last year, burning hundreds of dunams and weakening some of the brittle mortar holding the walls together.

Now the public has a unique opportunity on Thursdays in July to help shore up the ancient fortifications by helping to create some 1,200 handmade bricks that will protect the site from further decay.

“I want to connect the public with these sites so they won’t come in the future and climb all over them and destroy them, but they’ll feel like these belong to them,” said Fouad Abutahá, a senior conservationist with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the manager of the Tel Gezer conservation work.

“These antiquities belong to history, to the people that lived on this land and worked this land,” said Abutahá, a 35-year IAA veteran who has managed conservation projects at archaeological sites across the country. “We’re learning their building techniques and we’re learning how they lived, and we’re learning our history.”

The bricks, which support areas that are cracked and in danger of collapse, mimic the type that were used for the original construction some 3,500 years ago. Every brick is handmade with a mixture of sand, stones, hay and lime packed tightly into square frames and left to dry overnight.

The lime is a recent addition that allows the bricks to set and harden in the sun without needing to be fired in a kiln. A cement mixer also allows for a bit of modern efficiency — but the rest of the process closely mirrors what happened during the original construction.

On the first Thursday of the initiative, a small but hardy group of diehard archaeology fans, including a contingent of retirees who are regular volunteers, helped make a few dozen bricks to be used in the conservation efforts.

“I love to excavate, I love the physical work after a whole career spent in an office,” said Albert Twizer, a retired computer programmer from Mazkeret Batya who has helped out at more than half a dozen digs in central Israel. “This time was really different because we weren’t just excavating but we were learning how they built things. It was hard work, but you can see these walls are 3,500 years old, and maybe our bricks will also stand for the same amount of time.”

“The moment I retired, I knew I would be doing this,” said Arye Maller of Rehovot, who had been to so many digs as a volunteer he was on a first-name basis with the IAA staff. “I always wanted to do archaeology, and this is my chance.”

The area that is today known as Tel Gezer was settled in the Chalcolithic period, around the 4th century BCE, and inhabited until Roman times in the first century CE. The city was one of the largest and most important settlements in the area, given its strategic location between the Ayalon and Sorek streams and on a coastal highway used heavily by traders, warriors, and travelers.

The site is mentioned multiple times in the Bible. The king of Gezer is listed with 30 other kings defeated by the Israelites (Joshua 12:7, 12), and after the city was ravaged by Egyptians it was given as part of the dowry to King Solomon upon his marriage to the daughter of the pharaoh (1 Kings 9:15‑17).

The site features monumental columns from one of the largest Canaanite temples in Israel and an imposing gate, called “Solomon’s Gate,” that is nearly identical to gates at the Hazor and Megiddo sites.

French adventurer and scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau first proposed the site, called locally Tel es Jazer, as the biblical Gezer in 1870. In 1874, he discovered the first two of 12 known boundary stones that say “Region of Gezer” in Hebrew and Greek. It was the first biblical site in Israel to be identified by a written inscription, which is still exceedingly rare. Beit She’an, Arad, and Hazor are the only other sites to be identified via writing found in situ.

R. A. Stewart Macalister excavated the site from 1903 to 1909 on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund, and the area was also excavated in 1914, 1924, and 1934. Harvard University and Hebrew Union College carried out the last major excavations in 1964-1974.

Last summer, a brush fire engulfed the area around Tel Gezer, turning the national park into a blackened hillside. The blaze mainly incinerated seasonal weeds — so there wasn’t much damage to the archaeological discoveries — but it did weaken some of the brittle mortar in some of the more exposed fortification walls. The biggest impact of the fire was that for the towns surrounding the park, the scorched black earth served as a wake-up call that the archaeological site was in need of attention, according to the IAA’s community education team.

“After the fire, the local community decided to adopt this site,” said Gili Shtern, the community coordinator for IAA’s central region. “This is a national park, but it’s not closed off, so it’s kind of neglected.”

Many national parks that have significant archaeological discoveries, such as Caesarea or Masada, have an admission fee, which creates a revenue stream to contribute to the upkeep and development of the site, Shtern explained.

Communities across Israel can adopt archaeological sites in their region, helping with maintaining trails, weeding, taking part in excavations, or hosting events and activities on the site that teach about its history and use.

“I don’t think most people know what archaeological sites are surrounding their home,” said Shtern. “When a community takes responsibility they can protect it and develop it. It also helps protect these areas from vandalism.”

Learning hyper-local history can make people feel more connected to their communities and proud of the discoveries on their doorstop, Shtern added.

There are about 35,000 known archaeological sites in Israel and the IAA can’t maintain them all, so it depends on local communities to help, said Shtern. That’s how residents of the central suburb of Shoham helped reclaim a 1,800-year-old floral mosaic from encroaching vegetation at a travelers’ rest stop in March during Good Deeds Day.

This past year, ninth graders in the Gezer Regional Council visited the tel to help with the conservation efforts, which included gathering sand and other local materials to make the mixture for the bricks and making a few bricks themselves.

“Schools are really the best way to get these initiatives started, because they incorporate it into their curriculum,” said Shtern.

But, he added, he’s also hoping more people join the Thursday brick-making days at Gezer during the summer.

Abutahá and his team of professional conservationists have a lot of experience making these bricks. For conservation work in the biblical city of Lachish, his team made some 12,000 bricks by hand. This project is smaller due to budget constraints, and will concentrate on the Canaanite gate — one of the major entrances to the ancient city.

“This work helps the site survive and it also helps people imagine what was here. We’re leaving some of the original parts and some of the new bricks will help people understand what it looked like when it was built,” said Abutahá.

Abutahá said he’s counting on the public to make only a small portion of the 1,200 bricks they need. But he added that it’s less about the overall amount of work volunteers complete and more about the connections they form with the site when they know they are part of the work to protect it for future generations.

“They can write their name on the bricks, and then in the future they can come and maybe even find their brick and see how it is helping,” he said.

“Every time a person touches these sites or does physical work here, it connects them to the place,” Shtern said. “They’re learning historical knowledge themselves, and by asking questions of the researchers they’re adding different layers to what’s known… Every time someone encounters an archaeological site in the field, it has an impact.”

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