For two years, it was a hushed secret. She couldn’t tell a soul until all was revealed.
Ruby-Anne Birin, 21, a third-year archaeology student at Wits University, was part of the Leon Levy expedition team that led the way in discovering and excavating the first known ancient Philistine cemetery just outside the southern city of Ashkelon in Israel, last month.
Found at the site discovered in 2013 following 30 years of digging were clay artefacts, jewellery and skeletal remains that may shed light on a missing link in biblical history about a people whose lifestyle is scarcely known or understood, up until now.
“It was found in 2013 (after 30 years of digging in the area). Excavations began in 2014 and I joined the dig last year. I worked on it for the full dig season of this year and last year. Each season is six weeks long,” she said.
There were just five volunteers and two staff members working on the cemetery last year and Birin said she wasn’t allowed to speak about it outside this circle.
“It was approved by the Israel Antiques Authority but there were concerns about protests and grave robbers if word got out,” she said.
When asked how she joined the excavation, Birin joked that it was Google that “led the way”.
“I was interested in going to Cambodia, Peru or an Israeli excavation. I found the Leon Levy expedition in Ashkelon and I asked my lecturers about it in late 2014. They said it was a nice excavation to go on and that’s how it began,” she said.
It became apparent that the graves they were working on were primary, undisturbed burials.
“We often found two jars, a juglet and a bowl at the feet and head. We also noticed there were sequences and lines of the individuals in rows. I was lucky enough to be assigned to the osteoarchaeology (bone archaeology) which is what I wanted to do. I’d worked with human remains before but you can’t choose where you’re assigned, so it was really lucky,” Birin said with a smile.
Her love for archaeology and geography started as a childhood interest encouraged by her parents.
“I remember having mini excavation kits and there was always an interest in my family on Egyptology and fossils. I had a fascination with classic civilisations and archaeology for me was the closest thing I could get to the classics,” she said.
One of the happiest days for Birin was last year, when she discovered a scarab.
“A scarab is a bead or lump of clay shaped or engraved to look like a scarab beetle on the back. Sometimes they have a name engraved or a chariot, it’s exceptionally detailed,” she said.
“We had found some jewellery, bracelets and earrings but nothing this personal.
“The pottery also gave us an understanding geographically and an understanding of different trade routes (based on where it may have come from),” she said.
“Pottery was the plastic of the day, so it is often what was inside the pots that was being traded, not the pots themselves. That is why we found so many potsherds,” Birin said.
Another highlight for her was the ability to tell the story of people who were unable to tell their own story.
“It’s about telling the story of a civilisation ignored by history, a community that had a bad reputationâ€¦ But they had lives and children, customs and beliefs, their story is worth telling,” she said.
One of the more difficult parts of the digging, aside from the 4.30am wake-ups and the hard labour, was when she excavated the remains of a child found in the cemetery.
“It hit me a bit because the child had a loose tooth and for most children, that's such a milestone.
“The child wasn’t able to continue with life or continue the story of its people but through this, I could pay tribute to the child’s life,” she said, looking down as she traced the outline of her empty coffee cup.
During work on the dig last month, she said the secrecy shrouding the Philistine cemetery was eased as more volunteers joined to help with the final push for discovery.
“There were more than 20 volunteers and we knew we had to find as much as we could before the site was closed, so secrecy wasn’t as much of a concern right at the end,” she said.
Working 3m below surface level, Birin said there was a lot of hard labour in those last few weeks.
This included removing buckets of dirt weighing about 9kg each.
“It was really hard getting all the dirt out. We’d arrive at the site just after 5am and start off with the bucket chain removing as much dirt as possible before it got too hot.
“We would remove about 600 buckets full of dirt a day,” she said with a laugh.
“The one day we almost reached 2 000.”
Birin said she was proud to have been able to represent South Africa on the cemetery excavation.
“Just looking at what we did, anyone wanting to make claims about the Philistines has to look at our work.
“You meet the most incredible people; people who are so enthusiastic to learn, participate and teach. Dr Adam Aja who ran the excavation of the cemetery, Janling Fu and Dr Tracy Hoffman were all amazing archaeologists to learn from,” she said.
As she finishes off her undergraduate degree this year, Birin plans to study an honours and eventually a Master’s degree in archaeology.
She said she hoped to continue working in Middle-Eastern biblical archaeology and also do some lab work with dating artefacts and human remains.
“It gives you freedom to go to a lot of different places across the world,” she said.