Recently a parcel arrived from Israel which made me reflect on the difference between real archaeological research and the kind we have been seeing lately in the so-called Jesus Tomb. The parcel contained a copy of the recently published Rafid on the Golan, a profile of a late Roman and Byzantine village, by Dan Urman, edited by Shimon Dar, Moshe Hartal and Etan Ayalon. Opening it, I was thrilled to see drawings I had made 17 years ago for my friend and colleague Dan Urman, who had sadly passed away in 2004. I had gotten involved with Dan through my work with him on the survey of the Golan-Bashan region, back in 1973, just after the Yom Kippur War, when Israel for a time held a large tract of territory that had belonged to Syria.
I was just starting my career on the Temple Mount Excavations making reconstruction drawings and through my connections there was invited to join the Israel Army Archaeological Survey team which included, apart from Dan, Amihai Mazar, Amos Kloner, Zvi Ilan, Meir ben Dov and others, all of whom later became well-known archaeologists or professors. I measured, drew and photographed buildings from the late Roman period in this newly captured area.
The village of Rafid, which is located on the Golan Heights some 30 kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee, was destroyed in the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent military activities between Israel and Syria. However, it had contained numerous ancient buildings, standing from foundation to rafters and had been thoroughly surveyed after the Six Day War by Dan, Shmuel Bar-Lev and Moshe Hartal. Realising its potential as an example of a building style typical of the Roman and Byzantine periods, Dan decided to publish the results of the survey and asked me to draw the larger finds, plans and isometric reconstruction drawings. This I did following a move to the UK in 1990, while I was completing my MA in Conservation Studies in York and Dan was on sabbatical at Wolfson College at Oxford. My wife Kathleen translated a large part of the manuscript from Hebrew into English, so we saw a lot of Dan and Metty his wife then and also afterwards on summer seasons on Nitzana excavations in the Negev, also directed by Dan.
When Dan felt that the end was coming, he called his colleagues, Dar, Hartal and Ayalon and entrusted them with the completion of his unfinished manuscript. So, after many years of his intensive labour detailing the survey of the houses in the village, additional chapters were added on the geographical setting, the architectural decorations, the Hauran style architecture and the history of Rafid in the various periods (it is now located in a demilitarised zone, controlled by UN forces). The volume has been published in the BAR International Series 1555.
An interesting insight into life in Gospel times can be gleaned from these houses. Because of the scarcity of timber, the houses in Rafid were completely built of basalt, including the ceiling. Corbel stones projected from the walls and long basalt beams were laid across them with the resulting space covered by cross slabs. This was then covered with plaster to make it waterproof. See drawing:
In the story of the healing of the paralytic man we are told that he was let down through the “tiling” (Luke 5.19). It is possible that the top of this roof of the house in Capernaum, where the houses were also made of basalt, was paved with flat ceramic tiles. After removing these tiles and taking away the cross beams, a space would have been created large enough to let a man down through.
Insights such as these take rather longer to glean than the instant sensationalist discovery of the Talpiot tomb, which contained ossuaries bearing those “resonant” names. As Samuel Johnson, the brilliant 18th century literary figure observed: “Excellence in any department can be attained only by the labour of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price.” Or again in Johnson’s words, only more concisely, “What is easy is seldom excellent.”