Hats, trowels and scuba tanks: Experiential learning on an archaeological dig

Imagine a student of nursing never training or dealing with real patients, an astronomer never using a telescope, or an artist never dipping a brush. Now imagine studying archaeology in books and in the classroom, but never actually getting the chance to sink a shovel, scrape a trowel, or sketch a stratigraphic profile. This is the challenge of "classical archaeology"—the study of the material remains of the ancient Greeks and Romans. While anthropology students can often get into the field and "do" archaeology locally (and our Anthropology Department here at Luther is excellent!), those students interested in the archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean world must be satisfied with learning mostly the results of classical archaeology, that is, what other archaeologists have found and how those artifacts can be interpreted. That is, unless they can figure out a way to volunteer at a dig in a Mediterranean country.

Fortunately, students from around the country are presented with a wide variety of opportunities to travel to this region and take part in archaeological field-schools. The experience can be life-changing, as it was for me. As an undergrad Classics major at the University of Iowa I volunteered at Caesarea Maritima in Israel. This immense Roman city, built from scratch by Herod the Great in the closing decades of the 1st century B.C., lies directly on the Mediterranean coast midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa (Fig. 1).

I remember the experience vividly. Upon arriving I met another student volunteer who had arrived two weeks earlier. She asked if I had heard what they had recently found. I hadn't. She told me that another student volunteer (from Concordia College) had been assigned to excavate a smallish square in an unassuming part of a Roman house in the ruins of the ancient city. He was cleaning a floor with a fragmented mosaic and noticed a wide gap. He brushed away more dust, then lifted it carefully. There, beneath sixteen centuries of dust, lay a large pile of gold coins known as solidi. The owner had hid them, but never returned for them (Fig. 2).

It wasn't long before the whole excavation team descended on the spot. The pace slowed as the student and director documented the coins where they lay. Then removal began. One, two, three, … the count went on… 97, 98, and 99. In all, 99 coins were removed from the pit. Ninety-nine. Needless to say, the student took some ribbing for the rest of the season ("sure you didn't take the one coin!"), but the experience affected him. He, like the rest of us, wondered what had happened to the owner. How could he have left behind a substantial sum of money? Had the city been attacked and he killed? Was he exiled before he could collect his property? This is what archaeology is all about. It's the questions that drive us, and in so doing help us to connect directly with the past.   

My experiences at Caesarea also helped shape me, but in a different way. My interests were not so much in the urban sphere, but in the underwater realm. I had been interested in the technology the Romans used to build harbors out of scratch, and there was no better place to see it first-hand than at Caesarea.

Herod had apparently hired Roman engineers to help him build this immense harbor on a relatively flat and open beach. They constructed two long breakwaters using caissons, or cement-filled barges, which they sank in sequence to create an immense protected basin (the largest in the Mediterranean outside of Alexandria) and to form the base for the warehouses that would serve the ships. The powder that went into the cement to make it harden underwater is called pozzolana, a volcanic ash imported (by ship) from far away in the Bay of Naples in Italy. To thank and honor the emperor Caesar Augustus, Herod named the city and its harbor Caesarea Maritima, "Caesarea on the Sea" (Fig. 3 and 4).

I arrived with a group of students from all over the U.S. A smaller group of us volunteered for the "wet" field-school: we would be diving on the sunken harbor breakwaters, which required excavation and mapping. These tasks were already in full swing by the legendary marine archaeologist Dr. Avner Raban. Alas, on the first, second and third day of diving, Dr. Raban was away on other work. His assistants showed us the ropes, taught us how to work the dredge (an underwater vacuum cleaner), how to map, and how to drive the dive-boat to the outer breakwater, some half a mile offshore. The team developed a routine, and soon our long dives became productive as we tried to reach the base of one of the caissons, where it was believed we would find the actual timbers, rather than the voids left behind after the wood had been eaten away (Fig. 5).

I had managed to dig straight down between the ruins of two caissons, creating a vertical tunnel just large enough to accommodate myself, my scuba tank, and my dredge tube. I could only work upside down. Soon the distinctive brown hue of timbers came into view. I cleaned them carefully and made note of the flat faces and notches worked by a Roman shipwright twenty centuries ago.

Just then, my euphoria was interrupted; someone had tapped my fin. It was no easy matter to extricate myself, so I ignored the distraction, hoping the intruder would go away. More taps, then the person took off one of my fins. No matter, I could still work. Suddenly, the same person grabbed both of my ankles and forcibly lifted me up and out of the hole. My facemask came off, but I didn’t panic. I fixed it, then came face to face with him, both of us blowing bubbles out of our scuba regulators. I had no idea who he was. This fuzzy-haired older man had not come out on the dive boat, and yet he had a look of authority as he insisted on taking the dredge from my hand. We made an exchange, the dredge for my fin, whereupon he descended into the hole and continued where I left off. All I could do was stare at his fins and wonder how he had come all the way out here.

After the rest of the team and I had surfaced and climbed aboard the dive-boat, I related my story to one of the assistant dig directors. "Ah," he said. "That's the boss. Sometimes he swims out here on his own." And that is how I met Dr. Raban. Over the next few weeks I got to know him well, and he gave me the best advice. I asked him: "Is it possible to make a living in this field of marine archaeology? It seems so competitive." His reply: "If you're good, very good, you'll find a niche for yourself." I've been trying to achieve that standard ever since.

An archaeological dig such as this is an intense education. Students meet people from all over the world and work side by side with them in the trenches. They share their backgrounds, their dreams, their foibles, see sights they've never seen, eat food they've never eaten, and connect with the past in a myriad of ways. At the same time they take on the responsibility of excavating and recording the past so that we can pass on what we've learned to the present and future. Most of the volunteers I served with at Caesarea are now professors, conservators or museum directors. No doubt of it, a dig is experiential learning at its finest.

Fast forward 20 years. This summer Luther’s Classics Department is sending three students (Regina Preston, Marshall Stay and Andrew Waites) to an archaeological field-school in a different Roman town with a sunken harbor. Kenchreai lies 50 miles southwest of Athens, Greece, near ancient Corinth (Fig. 6).

The town is mentioned in the New Testament as the place where the apostle Paul caught a ship bound for (of all places) Caesarea Maritima (Acts 18:18-22), and later he mentions Kenchreai's deacon, Phoebe, in his epistle to the Romans (16:1). Classics has forged close ties with the director of excavations, Dr. Joseph Rife of Vanderbilt University, to offer a momentous opportunity for our students to get their hands dirty, to learn the nuts and bolts of a real archaeological excavation, and to avail themselves of all the experiences these kinds of digs offer. No longer do they have to be satisfied with studying the results of the work of others; now they can produce their own. And next summer, with a little luck, we will start excavations on the sunken harbor itself.

Headshot - Dan DavisDan Davis, assistant professor of classics, has taught ancient Greek, Latin and classical civilization courses at Luther since 2011. For the past three summers he has served as the chief archaeologist for Black Sea Deep-Water Archaeological Surveys with the Institute for Exploration and the Ocean Exploration Trust. He received a bachelor's degree in classical civilizations from the University of Iowa, a master's degree in nautical archaeology from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in classics with distinction in classical archaeology from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact Davis or read more about his field work.

{ Return to Ideas and Creations for more posts. }

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