TIFTON -- Jim Lever and John Camp both grew up digging around in the dirt to satisfy their curiosity. Many years later, the two continue to feed their passion for what lies hidden beneath the soil. But the most cherished product of their excavations is a strong friendship.

Lever grew up in Tift County with a passion for archaeology and studied it during his time at the University of Georgia. After retiring from Merrill Lynch in 1994, he wanted to continue digging and joined a group working on the largest unexcavated sight in Israel, the Tel Rehov project.

Camp grew up in Iowa, digging up arrowheads and wondering about their background before he joined the U.S. Army. He later entered journalism school and began working at the Miami Herald, later moving on to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1986, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories focusing on the American farm family written during the midwest farm crisis. He left the newspaper in 1989 to concentrate on writing novels and has found much success with a series of detective novels. He writes under the pen name John Sandford and his books are consistent bestsellers, including his latest "Hidden Prey" which is number four on the national bestseller list this week. (His "Naked Prey" is second on the best-selling paperback list.)

In "Hidden Prey," the author mentions a flight from Chicago to Atlanta where the book's main character, Lucas Davenport, meets a Tifton native named James Lever. Lever said Sandford told him his character would be included in the book after the manuscript was sent to the publisher.

"John is one of the most colorful people I've ever met," Lever said. "We've taken a lot of treks to Israel and we've kind of become traveling buddies. (In his books) he's made references to some situations that I'll know exactly what he's talking about because it's something we both know about."

Also with an interest in archaeology, Sandford wanted to do something to help that field. He approached experts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and asked if they had the funds to dig anywhere in the world, where would they dig? They selected the Rehov, and Sandford funds the project.

Each summer for the last 10 years, groups of archaeology volunteers have met in Israel and unearthed several artifacts that help supply missing links in the rich history of that region. The project has focused on Tel Beth Shean, a productive mount that served for several centuries as the stronghold of the Egyptian New Kingdom in northern Israel. The town is mentioned in several Egyptian sources of the New Kingdom and, although it is not mentioned directly in the Bible, there is little doubt that it was a major city during these periods.

"Last summer, we were working with Trudi Dothan, who is one of the top experts in the world on Paleo-Hebrew script," Lever said. "John and I were on her porch eating an Israeli dinner with Eric Myers, who is also one of the top experts in the world. There are a lot of very educated people that are interested in this project and are as excited as we are about it. My job is to run the site and make sure the squares are set properly and that everyone stays on schedule and gets fed and all of that."

In the book, Sandford refers to Lever as a barbecue judge, which he is, and has him wearing an official "Big Pig Jig" baseball cap, referring to the annual event in Vienna, one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast. Lever said he took some caps and aprons with the "Big Pig Jig" insignia on them to the workers in Israel. "We took some pictures of them wearing that. I'm not sure they want everybody over there to see those pictures," he said, referring to the region's religious objection to eating pork.

The dig is taking this summer off before resuming next year but that will not get in the way of the pair's adventure. This weekend, Lever said he is planning to meet Sandford in Minneapolis where they will leave to drive across the northwestern part of the United States, stopping at the site of Gen. George Custer's battlefield, which has become a popular stop for archaeologists. They will continue through Alaska to the city of Barrow, the northernmost point in the continental United States.

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