September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

July 2, 1981. In the U.S. moviegoers were flocking to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the new thriller about a pair of adventurous Yanks racing to beat the Nazis to the lost Ark of the Covenant, the chest containing the original 10 Commandments. In Israel, meanwhile, life was rivaling art—sort of. Early that day two modern-day American archaeologists made a major find: the earliest piece of a sacred ark ever discovered.

The real-life raiders were Duke University faculty members Eric and Carol Meyers, who are among today’s leading biblical archaeologists. That morning they and their team—including 35 student workers—met at 5 a.m. as usual on the site they had been working for six weeks: the ruins of an ancient Upper Galilee town called Nabratein near the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights. The focus of their efforts was the remains of an ancient synagogue built before an earthquake rocked the area in 306 A.D. “At 7:30,” Eric recalls, “we turned over this magnificent stone in the synagogue’s prayer platform. That is when we found it.”

“It” is the carved top of a limestone ark dating between 250 A.D. and 306 A.D., which makes it 10 centuries older than any other found to date. “All the students started hugging and yelling,” says Eric. “It was a moment I’ll forever relish.” So will Carol, who first saw the find an hour later, after returning from an errand. As Eric describes her reaction, “First, there was two seconds of stunned silence. Then she let out this heartrending scream.”

The stone, now in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum, is nearly five feet long and weighs more than half a ton. It is sculpted in the shape of a gabled roof guarded by two rampant lions. Of course, it was not part of the fabled ark housing the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. That chest, which the Israelites carried into battle in the belief that it made them invincible, was placed in King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C. Hollywood notwithstanding, that ark was wooden and eventually turned to dust.

Today, all synagogues have a “holy ark” containing the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The Meyerses’ find confirmed that such arks were standard features of even the most ancient synagogues. As Eric puts it: “The discovery underscores the importance of the Bible very early in Judeo-Christian history.”

In the past 17 years the peripatetic Meyerses have worked on eight digs in Israel. They scoff at the Raiders image of archaeologists as scientific buccaneers on the prowl for precious items from the past. Laughs Eric, 41, a full professor of religion at Duke: “I’m not an Indiana Jones, and at Nabratein I certainly wasn’t on a treasure hunt.”

The Meyerses developed their passion for archaeology as students. Carol, 38, an assistant professor of religion, is the daughter of a Kingston, Pa. dentist. She got “bitten by the dig bug,” as she puts it, while majoring in biblical history at Wellesley. She went on her first excavation as a sophomore—an investigation of a prehistoric site in Wyoming. And though he had always been interested in archaeology and history, Eric caught the bug from Carol. Born in Norwich, Conn., he is the son of a now deceased refugee from Nazi Germany who worked as a singing waiter before opening his own textile import-export business. While studying Judaic history at Brandeis in 1964, Eric one day went to nearby Wellesley to earn extra money by serving as a cantor at a Jewish service. Carol, who is also Jewish, was working next door in a dormitory and overheard him. “It was so nice I went to see who it was,” she recalls. As Eric tells it, she strode into the service, “plopped herself right down next to me and stayed. I was impressed by her forwardness.” Eric was not exactly shy himself. They were married nine weeks later, and two weeks after that they were on their first dig together, in Israel’s Judean Desert.

On another dig in 1964, Eric met George Ernest Wright, the eminent curator of Harvard’s Semitic Museum. Shortly after, Eric moved from Brandeis to Cambridge to study under Wright and his colleagues. In 1969 he received both his Ph.D. and a job at Duke.

By then Eric was a strong advocate of Wright’s more specialized approach to archaeology. The new technique employed the talents of geologists, soil scientists and bone experts. Since Wright’s death in 1974, Eric and Carol have expanded the technique to include the use of a computer in the field to maintain a running record of all artifacts found.

The computer expert at Nabratein was James F. Strange, a religious scholar and Baptist minister. Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of South Florida, Strange, 43, has collaborated with the Meyerses on almost all their digs. Other regulars on the Meyerses’ expeditions include their two daughters, Julie, 12, and Dina, 9. Even when Carol was breastfeeding 6-week-old Dina in 1972, she brought her along to an excavation in Israel.

Over the years, the Meyerses have faced their share of on-site hazards—if not quite as dramatic as Indiana Jones’ room full of snakes in Raiders. At the Nabratein dig, whose $80,000 cost was borne by Duke and several private foundations, the perils included occasional encounters with scorpions, pit vipers and unexploded bombs from Israel’s 1948 war of independence. The digging itself brought noisy opposition from a group of Orthodox Jews who consider unearthing old synagogues a sacrilege. Last summer Eric had to post an armed guard to fend off the protesters. This time the team had less trouble—partly because they kept their big find secret until they left the dig on July 10.

The Meyerses’ reputation in their field has been enhanced by other important finds. Only last May Eric made headlines by leading a dig in the Italian town of Venosa that discovered a large catacomb used as a burial ground by Jews late in the Roman Empire. And the work is increasingly popular with students. As many as 700 vie for jobs on the Meyerses’ summer expeditions each year, though they usually take no more than about 30. Eric likes to limit the population at a dig, including professionals, to about 55. “That’s how many fit on a bus,” he says. The students, who pay their own air fares and expenses, soon begin to feel like part of an extended family. At one point during last year’s excavating at Nabratein, they put up an anniversary banner for the Meyerses: 16 YEARS, AND STILL DOING IT IN THE DIRT.

Back at Duke, the Meyerses are busy cataloging and otherwise digesting the results of this summer’s work. In archaeology, notes Eric, “Digging is just the tip of the iceberg.” That goes for their married life as well. On campus, the Meyerses take care never to be seen even holding hands. “They are highly regarded as teachers,” says Robert Osborn, the head of Duke’s department of religion. “Yet they aren’t thought of as a team.” Nonetheless, each day Carol tries to rush back to their eight-room house in Durham in time to make dinner. When Eric arrives, she says, she greets him with a kiss “as if I haven’t seen him all day.”

Next year the Meyerses are thinking of taking a sabbatical instead of leading another expedition. Their last real vacation, taken on the North Carolina coast, was in 1979. But the lure of the dig is still powerful. “Archaeology,” Eric says with a smile, “is the science of the unexpected.” Raiders, he feels, gave it an aura of romance and adventure it doesn’t need. “The real beauty of a dig,” he says, “is that you never know what you are going to find.”

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