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Controlled dig gives archaeology students fuel to learn


PHILADELPHIA--Trowels in hand, the student archaeologists had settled down to the day's dig when Katie Gerbner, 18, spied a blue-trimmed vase and peered inside.

"Guys, there's coins in here," Gerbner announced.

"Katie," said their teacher, Matt Glendinning, "how many are there, and can you see anything on them?"

"They're Roman," Gerbner said.

Gerbner and her 15 Germantown Friends School classmates would say they are on an adventure that's the next best thing to a real archaeological dig.

The students had embarked on a discovery mission that ultimately will span ancient Greece to the Middle Ages.

It is all part of the junior-senior archaeology seminar, the brainchild of Glendinning, 36, an ancient-history expert and a veteran of numerous real digs. Glendinning, a teacher at the school for five years, spent three years planning the project and about a year collecting hundreds of replicas of ancient items and artifacts.

Last summer, with the help of a backhoe, a 5-foot hole was dug on an 8-by-15-foot patch of the school campus, and Glendinning carefully buried his collection in thematic layers.

'Why am I doing this?'

It took the whole summer -- and more work than he had imagined.

"I was seriously wondering, why am I doing this?" he said. "But it was all worthwhile."

His students are using their knowledge of history and ancient cultures to form theories about the story of the site as each layer is revealed. Even if the terra-cotta patio tiles they unearth are from Home Depot, not Rome, the archaeological methods, including recording and cataloging their finds, are the real deal, Glendinning said.

The dig was the draw for many students who signed up for the elective course. Instead of getting down in the dirt straight away, Glendinning's students spent the first three-fourths of the course in a classroom, learning about archaeology and ancient cultures.

"We all entered the class thinking Indiana Jones," said Alicia West, 17. "It was like, textbook? Excuse me? Where's my whip?"

But the material, the promise of what was to come, and Glendinning, a popular teacher, carried them along.

The students agree the experience has been worth the wait.

"It's something I'll never forget. It's imprinted in your mind," said Alex Walbridge, 18, a senior who decided to take the course even before he knew about the dig. "This really gives you a chance to test what you've learned."

'This is our payoff'

"This is our payoff," said Andrew Yim, 18.

That day it was Yim's turn to record what other students were uncovering. That is an important part of archaeological research, Glendinning said, because sometimes you have to destroy what you find to get to the next layer.

Yim had drawn a careful diagram of the site as it stood that day, but he admitted: "I'd rather be digging."

So would a lot of others, judging by the interest the project has generated.

Other students have been regularly stopping by to check on the dig's progress, and as the seminar students moved on to what was meant to be the remains of a Roman home between A.D. 100 and 200, Byzantine artifacts unearthed the week before were displayed on a tabletop.

A group of first-graders was enthralled.

"Is this a table you found under there?" asked Nick Dye, 7.

Then, curiously eyeing the dig site, he asked the big question: "Can we go in?"

Glendinning nodded them in.

In coming weeks, the students will go back further in faux time, to the Classical Greek era, around 400 B.C., then to the earlier Greeks, around 900 B.C.

Most of the students won't be pursuing archaeology as a profession, but their teacher has enjoyed witnessing their excitement in learning.

"A couple kids in the class remind me of myself. It's kind of scary," said Glendinning, who once took part in the excavation of the capital city of King Midas in Turkey.

After all the students' finds have been made, and they have recorded what they have discovered and learned, it will be time to re-create the site and rebury the items so other students can learn from the course, probably in two years' time.

Glendinning said he has learned something, as well.

Next time, let the students do the burying.

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