One by one, the eighth graders hop over the iron safety bar, and quickly descend the steep flight of steps until they are in the bottom of a giant hole. There, they grab small picks and shovels and get to work filling buckets with centuries-old dirt. The kids are excited about the ancient floor they’ve discovered.
“It is really fun,” Adam Sher, 13, tells The Media Line. “We all have to work together and it’s so cool that we found the floor.”
“Be careful,” archaeologist Yoni Mizrach warns the students. “You don’t want to damage anything.”
Mizrachi says the students have unearthed the floor of a Byzantine water cistern right next to The Experimental School in downtown Jerusalem, where they study.
“What they find is important, but it’s even more important that they explore the area that is right around their school,” he told The Media Line. “This is a different way of teaching history and archaeology. You study the past, not only in books.”
A few of the students who are afraid to go down the stairs or say they are afraid they will feel claustrophobic are made responsible for emptying the buckets of dirt and sending them back down to their classmates below. But by the end of the morning, almost everyone has made it down to the newly-found floor, at least for a little while.
Teacher Avigail Shoshan says the school’s participation supports the progress of the archaeological project also has social benefits for the students.
“They learn to work together in a group,” she told The Media Line. “It also makes them more connected to the place where they live and study. They have responsibility for their environment.”
The project is an initiative of Emek Shaveh, an organization of archaeologists and community activists which focuses on the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We view archaeology as a resource for building bridges and strengthening bonds between different peoples and cultures,” the group’s website says. “Our fundamental position is that an archaeological find should not and cannot be used to prove ownership by any one nation, ethnic group or religion over a given place. We believe that the archaeological find tells a complex story which is independent of religious dictates.”
Every Israeli student studies archaeology in primary school, and visits local archaeological sites, some dating back thousands of years. As the students from The Experimental School dig, a group of preschoolers stops by to watch them work.
One of the participants, 14-year old Miki Vishnai recounted the day’s events, saying that, “They explained a little about the history of this place, then they gave us some safety tips and then we started digging. Everyone cooperated and it was really fun.”
The area where the excavation is located is part of the Mamilla pools, one of several reservoirs that supplied the people of Jerusalem with water during ancient times. It is found in Independence Park, in the modern center of west Jerusalem, amid rolling green hills and trees. The city has started a project to develop the area into a cultural center and to encourage young people to attend concerts and other events there.
Part of the area within the boundaries of the project includes a Muslim cemetery. “The cemetery is falling apart and we want to clean it and preserve it,” architect Itay Aharonson tells the students. “We must respect it.”
The students take a break and eat the sandwiches they have brought from home. But they’re anxious to get back to digging. One girl descends the stairs wearing flip-flops.
“I told you those shoes are not appropriate and you could get hurt,” archaeologist Mizrachi tells her. “I know,” she answers, “but just let me dig for a little while. I promise I’ll be careful.”
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