Oded Borowski in the summer of 1987 was with a team of the Lahav Research Project (LRP) conducting its seventh field season at the site of Tell Halif in southern Israel. At that time, they were conducting some experiments with ground penetrating radar (GPR), a new technology that had not yet been used for archaeological study in Israel. The equipment included a control unit, a graphic recorder, a digital tape recorder, a program control unit, and two antennas. The idea behind GPR is to detect subsurface anomalies and disturbances.
As happens more with excavations was that the team could not immediately determine a sealed a deep stone-lined shaft.
Archaeologist Oded Borowski secured a long ladder from the neighbouring kibbutz and placed it down the shaft that was hardly wide enough to fit both the ladder and a person. He says:
Being the one in charge, I took a flashlight and headed down, squeezing myself along the shaft. I did not know what to expect when I reached the bottom. A few feet below the surface, the shaft broadened into a much larger opening. I went further down to the point where I could use the flashlight to shine all around. As I reached the bottom, I realized I was in a very large open space. The bottom was covered with silt (how thick I did not know) that was pocked with dozens of small, deep holes, to my mind, just big enough for something to hide inside. Remembering Indiana Jones and his encounter with snakes, I was very apprehensive to set my feet down. I could not imagine what had created these holes. If it were animals, they would be many, and I was not ready to tackle them.
Further investigation determined that the space was a huge, stone-carved, plastered cistern, measuring more than 30 feet deep and nearly 20 feet wide. Water stains on the walls showed that the cistern had long been used to capture rainwater, though the water level had clearly never reached the ceiling. But what about the deep holes in the silt?
Well, the ceiling was the only part of the cistern that was left unplastered. As time went by, with every rain, silt seeped in through the shaft, eventually settling at the bottom. Then water would drip through the rocky ceiling and hit the thin layers of silt one drop at a time, always in the same spot. As the silt accumulated, the holes got deeper and deeper.
From pottery and other clues, it was determined that the cistern was part of a water system dated to the ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E. It appears to have gone out of use following the site’s destruction, most likely in 701 B.C.E. when Halif, like much of Judah, was attacked by King Sennacherib of Assyria.
The cistern remained open and was used as a dump until the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries C.E.). Animal bones found at the bottom of the shaft suggest that it was finally sealed when it became a hazard to grazing livestock. Over time, soil continued to erode in the direction of the cistern, gradually covering the opening and the stone pile, until it was ultimately buried and only discovered again using our GPR equipment.
All photographs by Patricia O’Connor Seger, Lahav Research Project.
For details concerning the experiment, see Oded Borowski and James Doolittle, “A Penetrating Look: An Experiment in Remote Sensing at Tell Halif,” in J.D. Seger, ed., Retrieving the Past: Essays on Archaeological Research and Methodology in Honor of Gus W. Van Beek (Eisenbrauns, 1996), pp. 25–34.
Oded Borowski is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Archaeology and Hebrew at Emory University. He is the director of the Lahav Research Project, Phase IV, in southern Israel.