Andrew Overman dusts off the past with unique find

By April DeJarlais

In the first century C.E. King Herod of Judea built three temples, two of whose locations are known today. The third temple is thought to be at Omrit, Israel, and is being excavated under the direction of Classics professor Andrew Overman, whose work has received recent media attention, including an article in the Jerusalem Post.Overman has been taking students on archeological digs at Omrit for ten years, ever since a fire occurred at the area and exposed the site. The temple complex is comprised of three concentric temples, each built around an inside one from a previous time period. This characteristic-building around old structures instead of tearing them down-has contributed to some of the best-preserved frescoes and decorations in the Middle East.

Macalester applies for an annual license to dig at the site and is granted sole access to it. A disadvantage to this is that the site “lays fallow” for 11 months between digs, Overman said. The 40 students and faculty who go from May to June each year, however, are slowly but surely uncovering more of the temple complex. Plans are in development for making Omrit a national park. Omrit already has its own museum and a section dedicated to the area in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.

With Macalester as the only excavators at the site, Overman and his colleagues have made significant efforts to be involved in the community. Student participants in the dig meet at the Peace and Democracy Center, and this spring Macalester will offer a course entitled “Background to the Modern Middle East.” The class will be conducted in tandem with Tel Hai College near Omrit, and will hold discussions with the Tel Hai class via Skype video calls.

“We see the project we’re doing as archeological and historical, and because of that we have to be involved in contemporary issues,” Overman said.

Participants in the dig work from 4:30 a.m. until noon, avoiding the hottest parts of the day. Common digging instruments are trowels, hoes and picks, often used to dig. The site is divided into five square meter areas, which may take three to four years to uncover completely. Students spend afternoons drawing, compiling the day’s data into notebooks and attending lectures on the area’s conflicts.

Northern Israel, where Omrit is located, is a “peaceful, religiously and ethnically diverse” area, Overman said.

Overman is enthusiastic about the contributions that the temple complex, a potential New Testament site, will make to the area’s history. As more of the site is uncovered and more layers become visible “you’re looking at civilizations,” he said.

Informational meetings for the 2010 Omrit dig will be held in November. The cost for students is $3,000, with many scholarship opportunities available. Macalester has supported the program since its inception, and the program also receives funding from other organizations.