To learn about the past, most students dig into ancient texts.

Others dig in ancient lands.

At two sites in Israel, Notre Dame students uncovered materials that may enhance common theological and historical understanding.


Unearthing the Past

Students join archaeologists to discover clues from history

This story is part of a series covering Notre Dame’s presence in Jerusalem.

“What was here before?”

Depending on your location, it can be a fairly innocuous question. In the American context, most often the question is answered with a description of what existed a generation ago, or a century or two in extreme cases. Asking the question in Europe or Asia could mean a considerably longer explanation.

In this story

  • Headshot of Abraham WinitzerAbraham (Avi) Winitzer Jordan H. Kapson Associate Professor of Jewish Studies
  • Headshot of Oded LipschitsOded Lipschits Leader of the Azekah excavation and director of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology
  • Headshot of Kacie KlammKacie Klamm MA '20 Theology graduate student

But asking in Israel? Well, have a seat. You may be there for a while. You see, in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, asking what preceded our current frame of reference is best done with a qualifier, a narrowing down of the spectrum spanning from before the dawn of recorded human history to the present day. Otherwise the question, “What was here before?” might be answered with, “Well, how far do you want to go back?”

Over the summer, Notre Dame theology students joined professional archaeologists to look for clues buried in the ancient soil of the Holy Land. What the students found could make valuable contributions to our understanding of life at the border of biblical Judah and Philistia, as well as the history of the land purchased in the 1960s for what became the University's campus here.

A graduate student wears gloves and is dumping a bucket of dirt and sand into a large tote. The sun behind the student creates a starburst between his head and shoulder.

Notre Dame theology master’s students spend the summer in the Holy Land, joining professional archaeologists to dig at key sites including Tel Azekah, referenced in the Bible as the place where David fought Goliath.

The University of Notre Dame at Tantur operates on 36 acres between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The land figures to have historical and spiritual significance, due to its proximity to key holy sites.

Yet prior to July 2019, no formal archaeological survey had been conducted on the site.

The list of sites located within several kilometers of Tantur read like a partial pilgrimage points of interest pamphlet.


  • Location Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem
  • Period of Interest Iron Age to Byzantine Empire
  • Key Findings
    • Pottery
    • Byzantine mosaic

To the southeast is the Herodion, built by King Herod as his fortress-palace and final resting place. Its massive manmade mound still dominates the landscape some 10 kilometers from Tantur. If you draw a straight line between the two sites, it would bisect the Shepherds’ Field, venerated as the place angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Christ.

Closer still is Rachel’s tomb, tucked just inside the security wall around Bethlehem. According to the Old Testament, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, who fathered the 12th tribe of Israel. At least one scholar believes that may have taken place at Tantur, and mourners carried her body to its final resting place on Bethlehem’s outskirts.

To the north is Mar Elias Monastery, revered as a site where the prophet Elijah rested while fleeing from Jezebel. Between it and Tantur are the ruins of the Church of the Seat of Mary, where tradition says a heavily pregnant Mary rested on her way into Bethlehem. The remains of the Byzantine church were uncovered in the 1990s during construction of a modern six-lane highway that connects Jerusalem and Bethlehem. That road forms one border of the Tantur property, and in this case, the question of what was there before has an important answer.

A birds eye view shot of Ruins of the Church of the Seat of Mary next to a busy highway.
Ruins of the Church of the Seat of Mary, or Kathisma, a fifth-century Byzantine church built on the supposed resting place of Mary on the road to Bethlehem.
Palm trees in the foreground, the city of Bethlehem in the background.
A view into Bethlehem from the University of Notre Dame at Tantur.

“The road is called The Way of Hebron,” said Abraham (Avi) Winitzer, the Jordan H. Kapson Associate Professor of Jewish Studies. “It is built on the ancient thoroughfare that connected the two cities from the pre-biblical period until after the biblical period, into the Christian period.”

Which means, per the biblical account, Mary and Joseph would have traveled this road en route to Bethlehem, passing by the modern site of the University of Notre Dame at Tantur.

“In the Christian period this was a road that was traversed by pilgrims walking from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or the other way around,” Winitzer said. “We have evidence of settlement and of churches and administrative buildings that suggest this was a busy highway for the early Christian community.”

Sacred Geography

The University of Notre Dame at Tantur is located in East Jerusalem, abutting the ancient road connecting Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Today the site is in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods and Jewish settlements, but its proximity to significant historical and sacred sites makes it a leading candidate for archaeological exploration.
A 3D map that shows the proximity of Old City, Jerusalem, Church of the Seat of Mary, Mar Elias Monastery, Tantur, Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem, Shepherds Field, Herodion, and the Way of Hebron. Editor’s note: We recognize any map of this region is open to interpretation based on differing perspectives. The maps in this series are meant to be representational, not an endorsement of any of those perspectives.

Winitzer took a group of students to the Holy Land to embark on the first formal archaeological survey of the grounds of the University of Notre Dame at Tantur. Working in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University, the group is hoping to fill in gaps of Tantur’s history as a prominently located swath of geography for the past several millennia. The program was made possible in part by a Schlindwein Family Tel Aviv University - Notre Dame Research Grant. The grant program was established by Tim Schlindwein '69, who has worked to develop collaboration between TAU and Notre Dame.

A group of students walk towards the camera, through a stone arch. A blurred out tree branch is in the foreground.
Graduate students walk through the gate at Tantur on their way to an archeological dig on the property.

Tantur’s more recent history is relatively well documented. The Knights of Malta came into the property after being gifted the land by crusader King Baldwin I in 1110. The knights maintained a presence of varying size for the next 700-plus years, using the property mostly for a hospital for sick pilgrims. In 1869, an Austrian diplomat and knight named Count Bernhard Caboga-Creva took possession of the land, re-invigorating the property while hoping to do the same with the knights’ collective perception as little more than a dormant political entity in the region. The features of the property there during Caboga’s time are described in a book called “Travels in the East,” a travel log published in 1884 by Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who stayed at Tantur during a trip to the Holy Land:

“After going downhill for a quarter of an hour we came to the garden wall of the small Maltese fortress of Tantur. The castle built in the Middle Ages stands on the mountain slope and reminds us of the days of the Crusaders. The white cross flag of Malta waves on the battlements and the adjoining buildings fitted up as a hospice bear witness to the beneficence of the old order of knights. We passed through the garden to the second wall and into the paved courtyard in the middle of which a deep well stands. Count Caboga founded this castle and the little hospice for sick pilgrims and countrymen.”

The turret entrance to the property is the only piece of Caboga’s Tantur that survives today. It is a defining feature of Notre Dame’s facilities there, frequently making its way onto websites and brochures. Caboga himself is buried in this structure.

Winitzer’s students were focused on the time well before Caboga, and afield from his final resting place. They looked below the famous castle-battlement entrance, down the eastern slope of the hill and closer to the road, the Way of Hebron. Armed with pickaxes, buckets and surveying equipment, they literally scratched the surface of what is under the soil at Tantur. Even in this early effort, the results were quite intriguing.

A group of students dig on top of a stone hill, their professor is below them on a lower level of the hill. There's rocks scattered everywhere and green trees in the foreground and background. A professor, wearing black, rubber gloves works with three other students at a dig site. They are picking up dirt and putting it in buckets. A close up shot ofsomeone using a trowel to transfer dirt to a bucket.
Archaeological dig on the grounds of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. The site, located on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, has produced evidence of settlement and activity from antiquity to the Middle Ages and thereafter.

“The findings suggest that there are remains from every period from the early Iron Age, Later Iron Age, to the periods that we go by historical, not archaeological names for. So you’re talking about the Persian period, the Hellenistic period, the Roman period and even eras that are later,” Winitzer said.

“This was a hilltop that was administered by the Judean kings in the First Temple period. No doubt about it. And then we have mosaics from the Byzantine era that show Christian pilgrims walked around [here].”

Winitzer cites a couple of examples to establish the bookends of that timeline: first, remains of pottery that he said are well-attested to date to the eighth century B.C., during the reign of Judean king Hezekiah. And much later, the remnants of what appear to be a mosaic, common in Byzantine churches. What kind of church (if it indeed is from a church) is unknown, but one suggestion is that the Kathisma is not just a single church, but a series of churches along the road Mary is believed to have traveled into Bethlehem, with one church in that series built at Tantur.

Dirt and sand has been brushed away to reveal Mosaic tiles beneath it.
Mosaic tiles in the ruins of the Church of the Seat of Mary, or Kathisma, a fifth-century Byzantine church built on the supposed resting place of Mary on the road to Bethlehem. Similarly styled tiles have been discovered on the grounds of Tantur.

The findings were catalogued by the Israel Antiquities Authority. As for the next step, it’s clear for Winitzer.

“It is my strong hope that interest will generate and promote excavation, with students coming and unearthing what is there and hopefully working toward an understanding of what, among other things, I’m referring to as the ‘sacred geography’ of the land,” he said.

The biblical story of David vs. Goliath captures the imagination of the religious and non-religious alike.

But its place in the cultural lexicon sometimes obscures the fact the story cites real places.

The most important of these sites is Tel Azekah.

Tel Azekah is referenced in the Bible most famously in 1 Samuel 17 as anchoring one end of the theater of the battle of David and Goliath. Azekah sits atop a 400-foot hill, overlooking the Valley of Elah. It was the farthest western reach of the kingdom of Judah, a fortified city at the border with Philistine territory in the Iron Age (c. 1200-600 B.C.).

Tel Azekah

  • Location Between Philistine Lowlands and Judean Hills, Israel
  • Period of Interest Early Bronze Age to Iron Age
  • Key Findings
    • Intact human skeletons (recovered in 2017)
    • Baal, fertility goddess figurines
    • Numerous pottery pieces

But its history extends back much further, and archaeologists believe it was first settled in the Early Bronze Age III (c. 2900-2500 B.C.). Evidence suggests it was destroyed and re-built in nearly every successive period. The Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians — all sought Azekah for its strategic importance and location. Extra-biblical texts attest to its strategic value: The Assyrian king Sennacherib described the city as “an eagle’s nest with towers that point up to the sky like swords” when he wrote about his campaign to conquer Israel and Judah. Elsewhere, an astonishing find of a piece of pottery dating back to 586 B.C. contained a foreboding message for the Judean military commander in Jerusalem, as the Babylonians snuffed out hilltop strongholds one by one in their successful campaign to conquer the land. The message reads, “We can no longer see the fire-signals of Azekah!” meaning Azekah had fallen.

“The stories — you can read them, but they’re just not possible to understand in three dimensions, as it were, like one can do here.” –Abraham (Avi) Winitzer

Despite its rich and layered history, Azekah remained largely untouched by archaeologists until 2012. That’s when teams from Tel Aviv University and Heidelberg University in Germany began an expedition to explore what clues the site could yield about its arc of history and various settlement periods. Their work has yielded stunning results, including the unearthing of four human skeletons from the Canaanite era (c. 2500 B.C.). The remains were discovered in a cowering position, suggesting that they met an untimely end, perhaps during one of the invasions of Azekah’s past. Other less sensational finds have helped increase overall understanding of ancient daily life here.

“Many of the Judahite traditions started here,” said Oded Lipschits, leader of the Azekah excavation and director of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology. “So you can see how Judah and the Philistines lived together and interacted with each other, and this is the place to put a head on it.”

Valley of Elah, the hills disappear in the distance because of the fog.
Valley of Elah, Israel. Site of the biblical battle between David and Goliath.

Winitzer’s Notre Dame students joined the expedition in the summer of 2019, along with students and scholars from all over the world, to chisel away at Azekah’s massive archaeological footprint.

“But when you’re here, digging in the dirt, you can imagine the real people who the events that we read about occurred to, and I don’t think you can get it just by looking at the topsoil and looking at the pictures.” –Kacie Klamm

“The students are learning about the land and the historical reality, the geographical reality, the economic realities, the political realities,” Winitzer said. “The stories — you can read them, but they’re just not possible to understand in three dimensions, as it were, like one can do here.”

And with the benefit of the added dimension, Winitzer said the picture sometimes gets cloudier, not clearer. The prospect of the Philistines and Judah interacting at all outside the battlefield may be one example. Another example is the overall story arc of the Israelites as shown in the Old Testament: a people group that came out of Egypt, conquered the land (after a 40-year delay), and installed monotheism. Little regard is given in the Bible to what was there before, or how the events of the overall narrative play out in the day-to-day, or even whether our understanding is accurate. Archaeology helps fill in some of that detail.

Three people work on excavations under a shelter made of fabric, one person wears a scarf around their face to protect them from the dust and dirt.
Notre Dame students and faculty worked with students and faculty from Tel Aviv University on the excavations at Tel Azekah.
A woman surrounded by buckets uses a pickaxe to break up dirt.
Graduate student Kacie Klamm works at an archaeological dig site at Tel Azekah in Israel.

“Anyone who comes to Israel and sees the sites can understand why this place inspired the literature that’s been so important to our traditions,” said Kacie Klamm, MA ’20. “But when you’re here, digging in the dirt, you can imagine the real people who the events that we read about occurred to, and I don’t think you can get it just by looking at the topsoil and looking at the pictures.

“We’ve had great leaders who’ve been very patient with us, showing us the basics,” Klamm continued. “Anyone can fill a bucket with dirt, so not everything requires a ton of technical skill. But we have been able to get down in there, and deal with things that could be the subject of books and give us a ton of information, so even as beginners we’ve gotten to do some really cool things.”

Life at the Border

Tel Azekah's significance as an archaeological site is due in part to its location between two nation-states. It was on the border between Philistine territory and the Kingdom of Judah (Israel), meaning it could hold valuable clues to how these cultures engaged with one another.
A 3D map the shows the poximity of the Philistine Lowlands, Tel Azekah, Valley of Elah, and the Judaean Mountains. Editor’s note: We recognize any map of this region is open to interpretation based on differing perspectives. The maps in this series are meant to be representational, not an endorsement of any of those perspectives.

“In Azekah, archaeology is very important. But the most important thing is the people. I mean it. It’s about learning, of course, but more about people, being together.” –Oded Lipschits

Days during the dig season often start well before dawn, so workers can maximize the time before the sun bears down in full force. They are assigned to a dig zone and systematically go about the sometimes hard, sometimes delicate, always dirty work of revealing Azekah’s past. The work is rigorous, but the camaraderie is undeniable. There is much laughter around water breaks and common meals of shakshuka (an impossibly delicious dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce with a blend of herbs). While the work produced at the site is of the highest value for historians, archaeologists and theologians, the feel of the site is less classroom lab and more family gathering. That’s not an accident.

“In Azekah, archaeology is very important,” Lipschits said. “But the most important thing is the people. I mean it. It’s about learning, of course, but more about people, being together.” Lipschits pointed to a woman who was busy brushing dirt from an exposed piece of pottery deep in one of the layers of the dig site. The woman had traced her lineage back to a very significant place relative to Azekah. “She could trace her line back to the Assyrians,” said Lipschits. “So I said to her, ‘Your forefathers were destroying my forefathers’ place!’ But we are going to find it together, excavate together.”

A half eaten skillet of cooked breakfast made with eggs, tomatoes, onion, peppers, and spices.
Shakshuka, made for breakfast at an archaeological dig site at Tel Azekah in Israel.
One person brushes dirt off some of their findings as another writes in a notepad.
Graduate students Raleigh Heth, left, and Wen (Xuan) Yuan work at the Tel Azekah archaeological dig.

Tel Aviv University, while not a faith-based institution in the American sense of the term, has a population that is largely Jewish, as one might expect. Heidelberg University sent Protestant faculty to the site. Winitzer noted the benefit of this cross-section of Catholics, Protestants and Jews working together with others to search the past. It was just as educational for Notre Dame’s students to mingle with people from these varying traditions as it was to learn the facts of what Azekah can show.

As for this season’s finds, Winitzer said a couple of interesting figurines were unearthed, including one that likely represents a fertility deity, such as the local Canaanite god Baal. The find exemplifies the very thing the Old Testament prophets railed against, but also suggests a greater deal of complexity than the widely accepted view that monotheism was the rule during the Judahite period, and worship of other deities was the exception.

A bucket floats in the air as one person tosses a bucket to another.
Graduate student Raleigh Heth empties buckets at the Tel Azekah archaeological dig.

The experience served to broaden the portfolios of the students by adding first-hand experience with material culture to their CV. Two Notre Dame students were offered appointments as site leaders at Azekah’s next dig season. But it also introduces them to other academic disciplines not normally associated with theological studies. The materials recovered from sites like Azekah undergo a process of advanced scientific evaluation employing processes like spectroscopy and chemistry, to name a couple. The cross-disciplinary dynamic helps to deepen understanding. Lipschits said these kinds of techniques were used in conjunction with the discovery of sealed jars at another site. His team worked with scientists to identify the contents: olive oil, animal fats and various kinds of alcohol: wine, beer, honey liqueur. The researchers were able to isolate the yeasts from antiquity and re-grow them, and make modern versions of the libations in a first-of-its kind experiment. The results? Mixed, according to Lipschits. “The beer was awful,” he said. “But the honey liqueur was amazing, and the wine was great.”

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Elsewhere, at a site just a couple of kilometers from Tantur, Lipschits’ team discovered trace pollen residue from a jar dating back to the sixth century B.C. Scientists were able to identify the pollen as being from a walnut, which were not believed to be in this region before the Roman period. The discovery is of more than just passing interest, said Winitzer. “There’s an attestation in the Song of Songs that mentions the word walnut, except that it has always been translated differently because we thought when it was written there were no walnuts here,” he said. “So these guys find evidence that we have walnuts in the sixth century B.C., and the biblical text now changes. There are dozens of examples like this, where science can become an enhanced way of understanding theology.

“That was actually a point that was made clear by the archaeologists themselves, who repeatedly said archaeology is a technique to get toward history. I would say archaeology is a technique to get toward better theology.”