An unlikely dig

The archeological site at Tel Esur, on the coast south of Haifa, allows students to discover ancient artifacts – as well as their own capabilities.

kids doing archeology 370 (photo credit: Henry Rome)
kids doing archeology 370
(photo credit: Henry Rome)
Dr. Shay Bar, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa and a scholar of Iron and Bronze Age artifacts, found an unlikely research partner last week – 13-year-old Rana Kabha, a student at an Arab school in Umm al-Qutuf.
Bar was running a communal archaeological dig for local students of an ancient fortress in Tel Esur, an area near the coast about a 30 minute drive south of Haifa.
Within an hour of learning how to use the brushes, brooms, trowels and axes, Rana uncovered a rare artifact: An Egyptian scarab from the 13th Century BCE, the late Bronze Age. The scarab, no larger than a halfshekel coin, depicted intricate hieroglyphs of the Egyptian god Amun, holding hands with a pair of creatures with falcon heads and human bodies.
The discovery of the amulet was perhaps the archaeological highlight at the dig site.
But for Bar and his team, finding artifacts at the Tel Esur site was only part of the goal. Since 2010, the Haifa archaeologist has brought more than two thousand teenagers from local schools – including schools for Arabs, Jews and at-risk teenagers – to learn about the ancient communities that used to inhabit the area and the importance of archaeology. The site is active for three weeks each year.
The Tel Esur dig is the largest communal excavation in the country, Bar said.
“It’s a project of the community, for the community, for the education of the children of this community,” Bar said last week at the dig’s makeshift headquarters. He said that different skills involved in archaeology – from the meticulous digging required to unearth artifacts to careful record keeping – allow the teenagers to discover their talents.
“Here they open like a flower,” he said. “They are flourishing.”
On a typical day in Tel Esur, 150 children from four different schools work at different areas at the dig site, supervised by 20 staff members, volunteers and the students’ teachers.
The teenagers don’t necessarily mix with students from other schools, in order to simplify the logistics, Bar said. Still, students from Arab and Jewish schools “can work five meters from each other” on a common project under the supervision of researchers from a variety of backgrounds, he said.
At points throughout the day, students take a break from digging to hear short educational lessons about archaeology. Instead of discussions about who recently owned the land, the archaeologists attempt to instill an appreciation for the craft of the research.
“They have to understand the value of history before they understand the relationship to different ethnicities that existed here,” said Netanel Petrushka, one of the archaeologists.
The dig is the result of a partnership between the Haifa archaeologists and a local non-profit organization founded in memory of Itzik Dori, the secretary of Kibbutz Metzer who was killed in a 2002 terrorist attack. His friends have worked to carry on his passion for friendship among the different cultures that live in the Menashe region. The dig also receives funding from the Menashe Regional Council, according to the council’s mayor, Ilan Sade. The researchers work off of a land survey conducted by Adam Zertal, a wellknown Israeli archaeologist.
Compared to professional excavations, the pace at Tel Esur is extraordinarily slow, and the researchers need to balance the educational mission of the dig with the research objectives of Bar and his team. In particular, the researchers aim to understand the relationship of the fortifications and buildings here to other encampments in the area and how different buildings were used several thousand years ago.
That said, some of the students had their own ideas.
Standing in “Area D,” which researchers believe once housed an administrative building, Nizan Hanan told a visitor that he found bones from livestock.
“We’re guessing it’s a kitchen,” said the 13-year-old student from Emek Hefer school in Kibbutz Ma’abarot.
After a classmate uncovered a neck bone apparently from a sheep, Hanan revised his assessment. “It could be a slaughterhouse,” he said.
Back at the site of the scarab discovery, Rana flashed a shy smile when asked about her reaction to the find. She said the object looked different than its surroundings, which were mainly composed of stones and broken ceramics.
For his part, Bar said he will be sending the artifact to a specialist on Egyptian scarabs to learn more about its origins.