AZUSA, Calif. Bob Mullins digs dirt.
At a time when graduating seniors like to plan celebratory trips to Hawaii, Europe or the Caribbean, a diploma-clad Mullins was headed to the Middle East for a two-week study trip at an excavation site in Israel.
"I've had an interest in archeology since I was quite young," said Mullins, associate professor of biblical studies at Azusa Pacific University.
His interest was morphed into a career path while visiting a Philistine temple site.
"That got me excited that these people weren't figures of our imagination but were people with real lives, in real time and real space," the professor said.
In the years since, Mullins has participated in numerous digs across Israel and into Turkey and Palestine.
In May a group of his students will embark on their own journey into the past as part of a survey team preparing work on a potential new excavation site in northern Israel. They will do shallow excavations and collect pottery remnants in preparation for a full dig in 2013. The dig is a joint expedition with Hebrew University of Israel, Mullins' alma mater, and will concentrate on a mound site that was located in the biblical city of Abel Beth Maacah.
"The site we are proposing to excavate is a site that has long intrigued biblical archaeologists," Mullins said.
Located near the city of Metula, along the border of Lebanon, the area was once a major thoroughfare linking Egypt and the ancient region of Mesopotamia. It was located on the north end of the Huleh Valley about four miles west of Dan. It is also the town where Sheba was beheaded after rebelling against King David.
Because of its proximity to Lebanon and the previous unrest there, archaeologists shied away from conducting excavations in the area. Even with the existing calm, Mullins said the Israeli Army had to sign off on the dig.
Because of its location on a major trade route, Mullins said archaeologists are fascinated about what they may uncover at the site.
"On the northern end there is a rise in the mound that could have been a citadel that guarded the northern end of the city," he said. "It's one of those things you think about, you wonder about, but you never know."
Mullins said the site has connections with the period of David and later kings of Israel. Its artifacts could reveal hints into Israel's ties with neighboring Phoenicia and Syria. The region may also reveal details into Aramean and Assyrian military action recorded in the Bible and other ancient documents.
Aerial photographs taken in 1945 and reviewed extensively by Mullins show a possible ramp into the city. If it is discovered to be a ramp, the professor said it is likely the city was captured by the Syrians who quietly constructed ramps as part of their strategy for surprise attacks.
"If the Syrians besieged the city using this method, it means the chances are pretty good that the residents didn't have a chance to flee with all of their possessions," the professor said, adding that there is likely a wealth of buried artifacts to study.
A traditional dig season lasts four to six weeks with the remainder of the year devoted to studying the artifacts.
"News of our excavation is spreading through Israel like wildfire in the archaeology community," he said. "Our project is very well received."
With all of the permits secure, Mullins said the team is focusing on the remaining obstacle: funding. In addition to the excavation costs, Mullins and his team also need to pay for lab testing, analysis, database entry and publishing of findings. He estimates the annual cost for the dig to be between $150,000 and $200,000.
"It costs money to support a dig," he said. "It's not just digging for four weeks and that's it."
Having an active excavation program is a coup for the university, Mullins said, because it adds another dimension to study for students. It's also quite rare for Christian campuses, he said, adding that just a fewmost notably Wheaton Collegehave them.
It's extremely gratifying that APU has the foresight to not do biblical studies on the biblical text alone," the archaeologist said.
"We need both sides of the picture. It's not just the text, but understanding the biblical world, understanding it through their eyes, their history and their cultural setting. It makes us a very well-rounded department."
It also makes for well-rounded students, Mullins said.
"They can go into graduate school and already have good experience to further their studies," he said.
Even before work began on securing the excavation project, Mullins said he's tried to breathe life into the study of the ancient Near East by using PowerPoint presentations, maps, film clips and virtual trips to augment textbooks.
"It's not a conventional blackboard," he said.
Each year he also tries to arrange a two-week study tour to the region as a way to personalize the Scriptures. The trips have included visits to other excavation sites.
"Reading the Bible is something that resonates with me," he said. "This isn't just a fairy tale. For me, that helps the Bible come alive."