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Hooked on digging: Doctor joins Holy Land excavation

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Published:   |   Updated: November 24, 2013 at 08:23 AM

TAMPA — As a specialist in spinal cord injuries, Dr. John Merritt has seen men and women overcome the despair of crippling injuries to live full and meaningful lives.

Few undertakings can compare with this for Merritt, former director of the spinal injuries unit at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital. But he found one, halfway across the world, this past summer when he was working on an archaeological site in Israel.

Along with 30 or 40 students and volunteers, Merritt was part of a team excavating a mansion atop Mount Zion, the highest mountain in Jerusalem. According to the lead archaeologists on the dig, the mansion may have housed a family of priests that included Caiaphas, who condemned Jesus, or his father-in-law, Anna.

“In the days between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., rich and famous people built on this hill,” Merritt said in an interview. “Herod built his palace on this mountain. The high priests were right next to him.”

Merritt's decision to undertake such a strenuous task at age 68 stems from his longtime interest in the intersection between religion and science. He and his wife, Marcie, practice Messianic Judaism — a belief in most tenets of Judaism but the deity of Jesus, as well. Since 1975, Merritt said, he has been a regular reader of Biblical Archeology Review. He has visited Israel at least 10 times on tours for medical meetings.

“In my whole career, I've been a physician and scientist, but I've also been a person of faith,” he said, “and archeology is one of those areas where science and faith come together. It's really sort of where science and faith come together.”

He finds his avocation, like his work with injury victims, to be life-affirming.

Merritt's son, Scott, was the first in the family to take up archeology, while in high school during the 1990s. Later he was one of many U.S. college students recruited to work on the massive excavation in the ancient Canaanite city of Hazor, which the Bible says was conquered and destroyed by the Israelite leader, Joshua.

Speaking once with the American professor who coordinated the students' trips to Hazor, Merritt mentioned he would love to go if he were younger.

“He said, 'We can make it happen,'” Merritt recalled.

He spent three weeks working at the Hazor dig and was hooked.

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Merritt learned about the Mount Zion dig after hearing a cruise ship lecture by James Tabor, a renowned biblical scholar. Tabor, who heads the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told Merritt the university was in charge of the Mount Zion excavation.

“It was open to older folks who wanted to do hard work and labor,” Merritt said. “I signed up for five weeks in June and July.”

Experts consider the site important because the mansion discovered there is well-preserved and reveals new information about the lives of upper-class Israelites in the first century.

The site remains largely intact because of a number of historical factors.

The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. after a months-long siege. The city remained deserted for 65 years afterward, according to information from UNC-Charlotte.

In 135 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem on the ruins, but left nearby Mount Zion untouched.

Nearly two centuries later, after a split in the Roman empire, the Byzantines built houses on top of the original structures of the Israelites. Then in the sixth century, when Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a cathedral, excavation fill was dumped on top of the mountain, further preserving the priests' houses below.

Among the important findings at the dig were a stone bathtub and a ritual cleaning pool called a mikvah. The bathtub is only the fourth discovered by archaeologists from that period. Two of the others were unearthed in King Herod's palaces at Jericho and Masada, and the third was in a priestly home in modern-day Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter.

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Most homes in ancient Palestine did not have bathtubs or mikvahs, Merritt said. Observant Jews would use communal mikvahs before entering the temple.

“When we found the private mikvah, it shows we were in a very lavish place,” he said.

Common folk in that period usually lived in homes with four rooms: two for sleeping, a kitchen and a room for the animals. The contrast between the common homes and mansions like the one unearthed on Mount Zion shows why Jesus was critical of the upper classes, Merritt said, and why they retaliated by agitating for his execution.

“You had these poor people down here, and these guys, in the name of religion, were taking the cream off the top of the milk,” he said.

The diggers also discovered a cistern 30 feet deep. After removing tons of silt and mud, they discovered ovens and cooking pots in the water-storing cistern. Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archaeologist and co-leader of the project with Tabor, said it's possible the inhabitants hid in the cistern during the Roman siege in 70 A.D.

“We still need to look at this material very carefully and be absolutely certain of our conclusions, but it might be that these are remnants of a kitchen in use by Jews hiding from the Romans,” Gibson said in a UNC-Charlotte news release.

During his 4 weeks at the site, Merritt hauled mud and stone in buckets and sifted the diggings for artifacts, including pottery and coins from various historic eras. The amateur diggers were tightly chaperoned by professionals, including the excavation's leaders, Tabor and Gibson.

The digging started at 6 a.m. and concluded at 1 p.m. because of the heat. In the afternoons, the team could attend classes or explore the city.

“You get a chance to live in the city area and interact with the people,” Merritt said, noting the contrast with the many tours he took in earlier years. “You have time to roam around on your own to places you've seen or heard of.”

He estimates the four-week trip cost him $5,000 to $6,000. He urged others who are interested in archeology, especially biblical archeology, to try it.

“It's fun to see firsthand that the names you see in the Bible really existed,” he said. “My message is: You can do this.”

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

Editor's note: The previous version of this story had a different first name for Dr. Merritt.

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