Lutherans in the Twin Cities

The fine art of the fine arts in the study of archeology in Israel

Where moths and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal

College art student Jessica Tewes found out last year, her second spent as an archeological site illustrator in Israel, what it is like to make drawings so precise that they replace photographs. Documentation of the historically and biblically significant finds is done each summer with scores of sketches, not photographs, which can skew small bits of perspective, Tewes explains.

“Perhaps most telling is that Jessica has proven capable and ready to become the lone site illustrator, so proficient, in fact, that an additional Israeli site illustrator will not be retained,” a project document states.

Tewes studied art while a student at Concordia University in St. Paul, from which she recently graduated. A resident of Chanhassen, Minnesota, Tewes has used her artistic skills while working summers with the Northeast Church Project at the Hippos excavation site in Israel.

As part of the excavation effort, follow-up work and books of documentation are produced during the school year, and Tewes has been a primary participant in an ongoing blog about the project, virtualdig.org.

Tewes followed in the tradition of another Concordia student and illustrator, Andrea Chandler, a couple years Tewes’ senior. Because Tewes has opted to broaden her volunteerism through a mission trip to Jamaica, Chandler is returning to the dig site this summer to wrap up the project. It is in its tenth and final year and its permit is expiring, said the Rev. Dr. Mark Schuler of Concordia University, who directs the project.

In the digging at the Hippos site, crews have found many biblical artifacts, as well as nine bodies buried near a church. Bone tests are being conducted to gauge the date and significance of these finds. Tewes believes the individuals might be quite significant, given their proximity to the church building.

Pottery shards typical of the ancient Byzantine period have also been located, Tewes said. “This helps prove and set the place’s time in history.”

Project officials believe the mountaintop they are excavating is the one where the Bible describes Jesus cleansing a man, she mentioned.

Describing her work, Tewes said, “It’s not as much drawing fast as it is drawing accurately. … It is very tedious. You have to get in the mindset in the heat, to put on headphones and go with the flow.”

But this isn’t a typical college student’s schedule. Crews wake at 4 a.m., and 45 minutes later board a bus that drives halfway up the mountain in an effort to “beat the heat.” They walk the rest of the way to the site because the bus can’t negotiate the terrain. Since it is still dark, the crews brush dirt off items and talk about what will be done that day.

“Then I would start drawing once it gets light out,” Tewes explained. After a 9 a.m. breakfast, there are two more hours of work, and then it is quitting time since the midday heat is extreme.”

When asked if doing this work makes her feel she has a special talent, Tewes’ eyes light up and she describes the benefits of traveling to Israel, where her parents, who include a Twin Cities Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod pastor, have visited many times.

“The ongoing task is to identify form, function, and date of the Northeast Church and to clarify the spatial relationship of the church compound to the rest of the public buildings in the center of Byzantine Hippos,” documents state.

The work uses a method of digging five-meter squares within a grid. Critical is the documentation of very small layers, along with careful collection of small finds from the debris. Remains of the completely unearthed unit are then hand-measured and drawn.

“Why drawings and not photos? The convex nature of a camera lens makes it impossible to produce a completely flat photographic image on a large scale. Hand-drawn technical illustration remains the academic and industry standard,” according to public documents concerning the dig.

The work centers on measuring and scale drawing of objects on a grid, then transferring the images to smaller scales on graphed vellum paper. The scale drawings are later scanned by computer and reduced to fit with the overall site plan. They are layer images that through archives will depict stages, date, and depths of excavation.

“Graphs and charts cannot measure Jessica’s development as a highly capable site illustrator. She excelled in her mentored studies and she possesses a remarkable artist’s skill set,” said trainer Mark Fields.

Joe Winter is a freelance writer living in Hudson, Wisconsin.