I spent two summers working on a kibbutz in Israel, specifically Kibbutz Massada which is located just south of the Sea of Galilee on the Yarmuk River bordering Jordan. In the mid-1970s when I was working there, the kibbutz had about three hundred residents; it was a communal farm. They held all their property in common, ate their meals together in a cafeteria, and raised their children collectively.
Today, the kibbutz movement—as a communist system—is over. Those that still exist—like Massada—are no longer communal. They have privatized and turned capitalistic. Many are no longer even farms. Today, Massada offers tourists a nice hotel with reasonable rates.
But in the seventies, Massada was mostly about farming: milk, chickens, citrus fruits, alfalfa, dates, olives and bananas. I frequently worked in fields along the Jordanian border, which was marked by barbed wire and minefields. Many of the mines were clearly visible: over the years, the dirt had been washed away by rain. Wild boars roamed the area. Occasionally they would find their way into the minefield. A loud thump would indicate a boar had discovered a land mine—and if you looked quick, you could actually see a pig fly.
One week our task was to clear ten acres of rocks so that it could be turned into a banana field. A ditch perhaps three feet deep ran along one edge of the area and we were instructed to dump the rocks into it. The mountains surrounding us in that part of Israel were mostly volcanic, and so the stones were black basalt. There were lots of boulders the size of a man’s head, a multitude like overgrown potatoes, and a handful that required two or sometimes even three of us to lift. But some of the rocks were something more than just shapeless black stones. Some had clearly been worked by human hands.
We found millstones that had been used for grinding grain: they were roughly saddle-shaped and perhaps three feet long by a foot thick; it took two of us to lift them. We found grinding stones—cigar-like cylinders perhaps a foot and a half long and maybe five inches at the thickest point in the middle. These all went into the ditch as well.
The most common artifact was much smaller, however. They looked like donuts, about five inches in diameter and three thick, with a two inch diameter hole in the middle. We found dozens of them—and we chucked them all into the ditch.
I knew that these tools were ancient things, the sort of objects one might expect to see in a museum, rather than just rocks to be dumped in a ditch in order to make way for another banana grove. But the Israelis seemed completely uninterested in them, even after we showed them what they were. “Into the ditch,” they insisted.
The reason for their cavalier attitude became obvious to me as time went on. Just about any place you went in that country you stumbled over the sort of objects that archaeologists normally hunt. For instance, along the beaches of Caesarea, rolling in the surf, were bits of marble from the long demolished Roman harbor constructed more than two thousand years before. Standing and looking out at the horizon in any desert, one would inevitably notice large, flat-topped mounds. Called tells, they were the destroyed remains of ancient cities. There were dozens, more than anyone had time for excavating. Walking across any open area in Israel, one could find pottery shards just lying on the surface of the ground like pebbles.
Since the basalt donuts in that future banana field were not so large, I took one of them away with me at the end of the week and tucked it into my suitcase. I would have liked to have brought back one of the millstones, but they were simply too big and heavy.
In the final days of my stay in Israel I visited the museum in Jerusalem. Among its many exhibits, I found one that contained ancient artifacts gathered from the kibbutz next door to the one I had worked on. Inside that glass case were a dozen or more of the basalt donuts like the one I had in my suitcase.
It turned out that these objects that we had unceremoniously dumped in a ditch by the dozens had been manufactured by ancient Canaanites six thousand years previously. They dated from about 4000 BC, making them already old when the Egyptians had first started building their great pyramids.
So what were these basalt donuts? The label on the exhibit described them as “weighting stones for digging sticks.” Canaanite farmers had slipped them over the curved sticks that they used as hoes to prepare their fields for planting. That field we were clearing for banana trees had once been cultivated by Canaanites. The discarded basalt donuts are such common objects around Israel that I suppose one could fill warehouses with them.
So I brought one of them back to California with me. And today, that ancient Canaanite artifact sits on my desk. I use it as a pencil holder.