Chicago high school students find new 'classroom' at O.I. dig in Israel

A successful Oriental Institute program, which last year sent talented Chicago high school students on an institute dig in Israel, will be renewed this summer when a new group of students from the Rowe-Clark Academy's Exelon Campus will learn about ancient cultures and the work of archaeologists.

“I am so pleased that the Oriental Institute was able to partner with the Rowe-Clark Academy to give students there the chance to experience first hand the excitement of discovering our past through archaeology,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute.

“It gave the Rowe-Clark students a chance to work as part of a team with slightly older University students, who are wonderful role models. The dig gave the students a unique exposure to a completely different culture halfway around the world, and they got to see what kind of future they can aspire to,” said Stein.

The students found that joy comes in making both big and small discoveries.

Keonte Griggs, a senior at the Rowe-Clark Academy’s Exelon Campus, part of the Nobel Street Charter High School on the Northwest side, recalls helping find a basalt grinding stone after digging through layers of dirt during a four-week stay at the site in Israel. “There it had been for 6,000 years. It took us four or five days to excavate it.” 

Archaeologist Yorke Rowan, a leader of the expedition, said although the fragment of the grinding stone was only large enough to fit into a bucket, the stone was probably much larger when it was manufactured. The discovery was important because basalt was not available near the site, and that suggests it had to be transported from elsewhere, an aspect of the ancient economy that the students found fascinating.

“I’m interested in history, so it was fun to find these pieces and think about how people back then may have traded, how they transported their goods, ” said senior Marcellus Nichols, who was intrigued by the pottery pieces she found.

Griggs and Nichols were among the five high school students who traveled to Israel with Rowe-Clark Academy dean Bridgette Davis, excavations director Rowan and fellow archaeologist Morag Kersel, assistant professor of anthropology at DePaul University. The group went to work at Marj Rabba, a prehistoric site in the Galilee region of northern Israel.

John W. Rowe, chairman emeritus of Exelon Corporation, who along with his wife, Jeanne, is a founder of the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy, called the dig in Israel, a “one-of-a-kind experience” for the students. “They learned about Israel and the Middle East, about history and archeology, and about the craft and responsibility of ‘digging.’ Most of all, our inner-city students had the kind of experience that kids from private schools or elite suburban schools receive. Jeanne, our Principal Joe Tenbusch and I are deeply grateful to Gil Stein at the O.I.,” said Rowe, who is a member of the Oriental Institute Visiting Committee.

Many lessons for college-bound students

The Rowe-Clark students went through a careful evaluation process to determine their interests and abilities and then took training sessions at the Oriental Institute on weekends before the trip.

“We chose the students because they demonstrated team work, curiosity and integrity,” said Davis. The students follow a rigorous college-preparation program of four years of laboratory science and double courses each year in mathematics to prepare them for college. The trip to Israel provided more college preparation, which the students might not get in school.

“By going on the trip, they could experience positive risk taking—doing something unfamiliar with the expectation of something positive coming from it. They also learned how to be more independent,” Davis said.

The training offered at the Oriental Institute before the trip also gave some of the students a feeling of special competence once they were in the field. For instance, Stein trained them in recognizing the bones of domestic animals they might unearth.

Patience pays off in the field

At Marj Rabba, the students got up at 5 a.m., were at the site by 5:30 and continued working in the field until 4:30 p.m. During an afternoon break, the students would gather with the entire team to wash pottery they had found.

The team has excavated what appear to be three buildings, although the floors may not be totally exposed. The site dates from the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, a key transitional time between the Neolithic and Bronze ages. The period, from about 4500 to 3600 B.C., was a time when people developed a slow form of the pottery wheel, the first metallurgy and dramatically new burial practices.

The excavation is intended to shed new light on the rapid changes in craft production and agricultural expansion in a region where very little research on the Chalcolithic period has been conducted.

“They learned that not all archaeology involves finding gold, but rather it is a process that requires patience. Frequently, small discoveries are very important,” said Rowan, a research associate at the Oriental Institute.

“The students learned how to use the tools archaeologists use, including a flotation device that we use to separate items such as seeds from the debris we find. One of the things we found this season was a lentil, which told us about the diet of the people who lived at the site during the Chalcolithic era,” he said.

“The high school students were good excavators, keen to learn about the people and places of a new land and willing to adapt to their new circumstances,” Rowan said.

Senior Samuel Aponte said he enjoyed finding bones as well as pottery on the dig. “I am a very curious person, and I enjoyed learning about a whole new part of the world.

“I enjoyed removing the stones and the soil at the site, to dig deeper, and finally finding a huge pottery bowl or bones. I could recognize them as lamb bones because of what we’d learned. People would bring me bones that they had found and I could recognize them. That made me feel like an expert on bones,” said Aponte.