First graders wearing yellow hard hats headed to Jerusalem's Independence Park one day last week and dug with surprising determination, gradually revealing the floor of a large ancient cistern. As the buckets accumulated, the children lined up on the steps and created a human chain to remove the rubble.
Every few minutes they called over an archaeologist to look over a bit of pottery or plastic they had just pulled out of the packed earth.
"It's fun because you don't know what you're going to find," explained one boy, a student at the nearby Jerusalem Experimental School.
A different class from the school has had its turn to dig in the cistern every day last week, as part of a community dig aimed at exposing the public to archaeology in an unmediated way. The organizations behind the project are the environmental group Friends of the Earth and Emek Shaveh, an organization of archaeologists and community activists that organizes public digs as one way of spreading its message that archaeological finds should not be used to prove ownership by any one ethnic group over a given place.
The group has organized other public excavations in Lod and the Ir Ganim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
"We do this without very much philosophy and politics, in order to show that it is possible to enjoy archaeology even without kings and conquests," said archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi, one of the two professionals running the dig.
The other is Gideon Suleimani, who has previously taken part in two excavations in the Independence Park area, and has been exposed to his share of politics.
The first dig, in 2005, was in a rescue excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority at the site where the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance is now under construction. This dig eventually became very controversial because of the large quantity of human bones found there, remnants of Jerusalem's large Muslim cemetery.
Suleimani left the Antiquities Authority with a slam of the door and came out against building the museum over the cemetery. Now that the construction of the museum is underway, Suleimani has gone back to the park, 50 meters from the museum excavation.
This time, old bones have not been the only finds. The elementary school students are also turning up newer treasures, like plastic dishes, outdated Israeli coins and bits of glass. They have also found Israeli identity cards and empty wallets that appear to have been stolen and dumped in the cistern. The diggers are making up for their lack of experience with an enthusiasm that applies equally to discoveries from the last decade as to finds from a millennium ago.
The cistern was probably built during the Muslim period, which began in the 7th century C.E., or perhaps the Ottoman period, said Mizrahi. The cistern, which is large enough for dozens of people to work at once without difficulty, is an expanded Byzantine burial cave that is reached by a staircase.
The archaeological finds excavated thus far are unlikely to make headlines, but they do raise the question of what archaeology is and where to draw the line between everyday contemporary life and the past.
The most important historical find is the stone-carved top of a column that was apparently part of a splendid building before being brought into the cistern. In addition, several large marble blocks have been found that apparently served to close a burial opening.
The children have also discovered an ancient nail and a small collection of pottery shards. One shard, which has only just been found, is even ornamented in color. Judging by the kind of ceramic and the paint, Mizrahi believes it was produced during the Muslim period.
Many of the finds would have been discarded in any other dig, but at this dig they are treated with respect.
From the burial caves to the identity cards, the cistern tells the story of the expanse above it.
"The students learn that this cistern, which is now in the center of town, was once at the edge of the city," said Gila Bartana from Friends of the Earth. "This area was used for agriculture and subsequently served for burial and then as a cistern, and when the users change it becomes a garbage dump."
One of the questions engaging the students now is what will be done with the cistern when the excavation is completed. Should the cistern be kept as is? Should it become a tourist site, or perhaps a space for art or music?
"The idea is to connect the students to this expanse in a different way," said Mizrahi. "The park that had seemed hostile to them has become a place to which they feel a connection."
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