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Stone Soup colleague Jane Levi timing Israeli archeologist David Eitam as he grinds grain in a mortar cut into bedrock 12,500 years ago by people known as the Natufian.
March 10th 2018, at at Hruk Musa in the Jordan River valley. Photo by William Rubel.


A note from William Rubel

My apologies for skipping last week's Newsletter. My Stone Soup colleague Jane and I were in Israel completely immersed in preparing and carrying out the experimental archeology project we had come for--milling wild barley using mortars and cups cut into bedrock by a people who lived 12,500 years ago (long before agriculture), and then baking bread.

There are 70 mortars cut into the rock at the site known to archeologists as Hruk Musa, located in what is now the Occupied Territories controlled by Israel in the Jordan River Valley. The Israeli archeologist we are working with, David Eitam, has used his knowledge and his imagination to answer the question, what are these rock cuts for? He thinks they were for processing wild barley from grain into bread. If he is right, then Hruk Musa is one of the largest and earliest grain processing facilities that has so far been found.

As Jane and I were beginning to work with these stone tools, we both started thinking about how the same skills used by story tellers are often employed by archeologists. As there are few written records from this period, and few artifacts, figuring out what objects like these might have been used for, and then how they were actually used, requires some speculation, but the speculation has to be grounded in what makes sense based on all we have been able to learn about the people we are studying. It occurred to us, as we sat pounding and writing notes on that beautiful hill above what used to be a lake, wild flowers everywhere, birds of prey circling on the lookout for small creatures, that to do the best work we had to try as hard as we could to get into the minds of the Natufian people were were studying: as much as possible, to become Natufians.

In other words, to be effective archeologists we had to think like novelists. Whether you end up being a writer, a doctor, an archeologist, a scientist, or a host of other professions, the skills you develop imagining characters and setting them alive on the page are skills that you will find useful.

I would like you to write a short story in which place and time are important. The Natufian people that we were studying in Israel had tools made of rock, bone, and wood. They made string and knew how to weave fine baskets and also fine cloth, but they didn't have pottery. They could walk places, and traveled distances so they could trade for goods. They left behind combs, and needles, and small sculptures, like those of little birds. But what they ate was mostly a mystery, and it is what they ate that we are studying.

Last week, sitting on rocks surrounded by mortars feeling the gentle spring wind on our faces we tried to imagine ourselves as them--and that is what I would like you to do with a scenario of your own. Create a space for your characters, then place them in that space, and set them free with your imagination.

I am in London this morning. I'll be back in California tomorrow night. The wind is howling outside the window and it is snowing.

Until next week,



Where My Family Is comforting a sibling
“Hush,” I said, “hush, everything will be all right”

From Stone Soup
January/February 2009


Where my Family Is


Written and illustrated by Jessye Holmgren-Sidell, 13



I sat alone in the dark, feeling the boat rock from side to side. The hollow sounds the boat made as the waves hit it told me how deep the water was beneath us.

“Creaak, Creaak.”

What was that noise?

“It’s nothing,” I told myself. “It’s nothing.”

But it is something: the sound of a woman, starving in the hills, begging by the road for a coffin for her dead child. The sound of a man pulling blackened potatoes from the ground.

No, that was in Ireland. We weren’t in Ireland anymore. We were thousands of miles away, in the middle of the ocean. Ireland was where Ma, Da, and Nealy were. They were definitely not here.

“Creaak, Creaak.” Ireland was where there was no food, where people were starving. I shifted slightly. Where my family is, I thought.

I got up on my knees. “Good God, help me, I’m so hungry.” I grabbed my empty dinner plate and threw up into it. The boat swayed violently back and forth and I leaned back against the hull, feeling my stomach twist like a blade of grass in the wind. “Oh,” I moaned.

I threw up again, this time on the floor. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.

I remembered when I ate grass once. It was on the way to the boat when I had been so hungry. I had taken a handful of grass and shoved it into my mouth, trying to push it down my throat. As I chewed, I was crying. If I had been home I would have eaten potatoes around the fire with my family. We would never have eaten grass.

But that was gone now. The potatoes had died and Ma, Da, and Nealy were buried in the empty harvest field outside the house. My brothers were gone, too. They had left for America before me and I didn’t know exactly where they were.

“I miss them,” I whispered. “I wish they were here.”

I left Ma, Da, and Nealy behind when I closed the door to the house. I walked along the path, past fields of dead potatoes, past families taking refuge in the shadow of stones and dirt dugouts.

I began to cry. I remembered how this had all started the night the potatoes had died, how the wind moaned softly through the fields as we all got down on our knees to start an early harvest. .../more

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