Unearthing the secrets of antiquity
Imagine yourself delicately probing the soil on the site of an ancient biblical city, a trowel in hand. The top layers have already been removed with mattocks, spades and buckets, leaving you and your trench-mates with the task of carefully sifting and brushing away the dirt to potentially unearth an artefact of great historical significance.
The thrill of uncovering an object that was last used thousands of years ago is simply indescribable, says ACU’s Associate Professor Gil Davis, an ancient historian and archaeologist.
“It brings so much joy to the individual and everybody else on the excavation team,” he says. “Everyone gathers around and marvels at whatever it might be – and sometimes, our finds are quite extraordinary.”
As the long-time director of the Ancient Israel Program – Australia’s only academic program dedicated to the archaeology, history and languages of Israel and the Near East – Gil Davis has participated in many exploratory digs associated with major archaeological findings.
Among the most notable was in 2019, when he and a team of students collaborated with archaeologists from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority to uncover Ziklag, a long-lost city connected to the reign of King David.
Artefacts discovered on the site included a 3000-year-old figurine depicting the Canaanite god Baal poised to smite his enemies, a bronze calf statue that brings to mind the biblical ‘golden calf’, and many other rich finds including inscriptions and a museum-quality spearhead.
Archaeological excavations often begin with high hopes but low expectations, says Associate Professor Davis, with participants dreaming of a discovery that will change our understanding of the past. And while swashbuckling movie characters like Lara Croft and Indiana Jones are obviously the stuff of fantasy, the sense of adventure on a real-life dig is nonetheless palpable.
Gil and students at dig site.
“The Hollywood version of archaeology simply overlooks the gritty reality, because the work is incredibly hard on a dig and the living conditions are basic,” says Gil Davis, who recently wrote about archaeological excavations for The Conversation.
“I would argue that the reality is just as adventurous, but much more absorbing. It’s so hard to describe the incredible spirit that infuses a dig – it is literally a sense of discovery every day, made more special by the intense bonding with like-minded people who often become best friends.”
Archaeology is, of course, a lot more than digging for treasures. As those in the field will tell you, “it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out”.
Since its inception eight years ago at Macquarie University, the Ancient Israel Program has been a phenomenal success, with significant research outcomes and vibrant academic links with many international institutions.
The program was introduced at ACU in 2022 funded by generous philanthropic donations from the Education Heritage Foundation, the Roth families and the Sir Asher and Lady Joel Foundation.
Studied as part of the Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Arts (Western Civilisation), the archaeology major has a focus on the landscapes, architecture, artefacts and people of Ancient Israel, including its interaction with Egypt, Greece, Rome and other ancient civilisations.
The ambition, says Associate Professor Davis, is to produce a world-leading centre for the study of the Ancient Near East, with practical and theoretical archaeological research, an annual dig for artifacts and material culture in Israel, a field trip to the Eternal City and ACU’s Rome Campus, and a program of eminent visiting scholars.
“Joining the new Ancient Israel Program with existing strengths in the study of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, we have the opportunity to achieve a lot,” he says.
“We’re bringing together techniques and methods that are not widely used elsewhere, combining the expertise of specialist archaeologists with people who are skilled in epigraphy, numismatics and science, which is incredibly important in the analysis of archaeological materials and sites. This will allow us to create new ways of studying and teaching Ancient Israel in its wider, Near Eastern context.”
The study of Ancient Israel is important, Associate Professor Davis says, because of its unique role in Western civilisation.
“From our Western perspective, the two strongest influencers of our Western culture, particularly in the pivotal 6th century BC, are Ancient Greece and the Near East,” he says.
“The East provided incredibly deep knowledge accumulated over millennia and the Greeks brought new ways of looking at the world and using that knowledge. Israel added an ethical dimension and was situated at a geographical nexus – the crossroads of empires. Studying the contextualised history of Israel therefore helps us to understand who we are, and how we operate.”
A dream role
It’s these pivotal moments in ancient history that have inspired Gil Davis in his own academic career.
As a kid growing up in Melbourne, he spent hours with his head buried in books about our distant past, following the exploits of adventurer archaeologists as they uncovered the secrets of antiquity.
“It was always my passion, for as long as I can remember,” he says. “Ancient history and archaeology was all I ever wanted to do.”
After graduating from high school, the young Gil shrugged off strenuous objections from his parents and moved north to study at the University of Sydney.
When he completed his degree in the late-1970s, however, the prospects of pursuing a career in archaeology were slim. So he went out and got a “real job” in real estate, and became a successful agent in Sydney’s Lower North Shore.
Despite this foray into the world of business, his interest in ancient history never wavered. Some three decades after obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Gil decided to give up his lucrative career and pursue a PhD in Ancient History at Macquarie University, focusing on economy and trade in Athens, especially in the 6th – 5th centuries BC.
Recording at Israel dig site.
In the past decade, Associate Professor Davis’ archaeological research has been focused mainly on the Near East, Ancient Greece and numismatics – the study of coinage – especially archaeometallurgy.
“I’ve always been fascinated by coins and their metal sources,” he says. “They provide fantastic tangible evidence.”
He has also served as Managing Editor of the Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, taught Greek history at Macquarie University, and served as Director of the Program for Ancient Mediterranean Studies.
His proudest achievement, however, is setting up and running the Ancient Israel Program, which has garnered significant community support and progressed the field of archaeology in Australia.
One of the things he enjoys most about his role as director of the program is witnessing the enthusiasm of archaeology students. It takes him back to his time as a youngster, when he voraciously consumed the mythologies of antiquity, and got caught up in the romanticism of the great civilisations.
“If you’ve got a passion for history and archaeology, it’s a very important part of your life, and I’ve never stopped reading, learning and investigating,” Gil Davis says.
“When you see students with that same passion, and they’re out there on a dig with a brush or a trowel, actually practicing archaeology and making history come alive, it’s amazing to witness. And for them, it’s such a meaningful experience to fulfill that dream … you’ll never get them to stop talking about it.”
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