- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

JERUSALEM — Deep in a 2,000-year-old tunnel system outside Jerusalem, a young woman participating in an archaeological dig unearths a rare oil lamp used in ancient rituals.

For Abby Krewson, the discovery is especially gratifying: She is a 10th-grader from Philadelphia participating in a Dig for a Day archaeological experience with her family and a Bible college group. “I didn’t expect to find something like that, so it’s very exciting,” she says.

Tourists like Abby pay $25 to spend the day working in ancient tunnels in Israel’s Bet Guvrin National Park, about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Participants do the dirty work, digging and sifting through the ruins; their fees underwrite the more difficult parts of archaeological work: washing pottery shards, logging finds and publishing papers in academic journals.

Ian Stern, director of Archaeological Seminars, which is licensed by the Israeli government to do the dig, says it’s a “Tom Sawyer-ish, paint-the-fence-white kind of a situation.”

About 30,000 to 50,000 people pay to do the dig each year, raising about $1 million, he says.

Different excavation vacations exist around the world, from a medieval graveyard in Poland to plantation ruins in the Caribbean. Mr. Stern says the Holy Land dig, drawing all kinds of tourists in Israel, has been especially popular with Christian tourists and Jewish youths visiting Israel for the first time on the Birthright program.

“We’ve provided more people with a personal contact with archaeology than anybody else in the world,” he says. “It helps them connect to their roots.”

For Reynaldo Villarreal, a Christian tourist from Texas, the connection has special meaning. He recently learned that his ancestors were Sephardic Jews who left Spain for Mexico during the Inquisition and then immigrated to the United States. One year ago, he says, his 17-year-old son died in a drowning accident, and this trip is to help him and his wife grieve.

In the cool subterranean caverns, Mr. Villarreal loses himself in the dig as he uncovers pottery shards and animal bones. “It’s exciting to help in the excavation of this cave and think of the people who lived in this place,” he says.

The caves were made in the Hellenistic period, about 2,200 years ago, and are found near Maresha, the ancient capital of the biblical Edom and possible birthplace of King Herod the Great, Mr. Stern says.

The dig is one of the richest in the world, he adds. “People find so much that they get skeptical and think that we planted some of it. But this isn’t Disneyland; this is real.”

Beverly Horne, a tourist with the Philadelphia Biblical University, says she is thrilled to see places she read about in the Bible and to handle artifacts from the ancient world.

“We’re touching stuff that hasn’t been touched for 2,000 years,” Miss Horne says. “It’s exciting. I can’t wait to tell my kids.”

The group finishes the day by crawling through an untouched cave where the dirt nearly reaches the ceiling. Mr. Stern says it helps participants get a perspective of how much work has been done at the dig site, where vaulted ceilings rise up five to seven yards above the floor.

William Krewson, Abby’s father and the director of the Bible college group, says that last year when he came to the dig, the dirt was about a yard higher. He says he keeps scheduling the excursion for his tours because “the students love it. It’s fun, it’s educational, and every once in a while, somebody finds something really significant.”

• • •

Archaeological Seminars in Israel: For information on the Dig for a Day and other tours, visit www.archesem.com or call 972/2-586-1524. The cost for the dig is $25 for adults, $20 for children. Tours meet at the Delek service station just outside Bet Guvrin National Park. Park fees are not included.

Bet Guvrin National Park: The best way to get to the park is with a tour bus because no public buses make the half-hour drive from Jerusalem. Renting a car is a good option, and the drive is scenic. For directions and information, visit www.parks.org.il/ParksENG/company?card.php3?CNumber=509499 or call 972/8-681-1020 or 972/8-681-2957. The entrance fee is $5.50 for adults and $2.80 for children. In groups, $4.50 for adults and $2.60 for children.

Other archaeological trips: Visit www.archaeolink.com/archaeological?vacations?archaeo.htm to find direct links to archaeological vacations throughout the world. Go to www.responsibletravel.com for several different package trips. Click on the link for Special Interest vacations and then follow the link to Archaeological Vacations.”

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