Uncovering Archaeological Treasures

By Branan, Nicole | International Educator, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview
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Uncovering Archaeological Treasures


Branan, Nicole, International Educator


Education outside the classroom can broaden learning in unimaginable ways. This is especially true in fields like archaeology, where fieldwork excavating artifacts from the past can unlock clues to past civilizations and be a powerful force for promoting intercultural learning as students travel with their professors to further discoveries in archaeological science.

SILHOUETTED against the rising sun, Egypt's Great Pyramids pierce the pale-blue morning sky as Emily O'Dell leaves her home in Giza to make her daily way to work. Towering above the ancient city atop the Giza Plateau, the three majestic monuments cast their enormous shadows over the desert that extends to the horizon. As the African sun slowly starts to warm the fresh morning air, O'Dell climbs the steep hill leading up to the plateau. Past the Great Pyramid of Khufu-the last remaining monument of the ancient world's seven wonders-lies the Western Cemetery where she and her colleagues will spend the day excavating tombs that are more than 4,000 years old and harbor unseen treasures of the ancient Egyptian empire.

Discovery in the Field

For hundreds of years, archaeologists from all over the world have come to Giza trying to unlock the secrets of the pyramids and their surroundings. O'Dell, a Ph.D. student in Brown University's Egyptology department, is one of them. Eleven months out of the year, she lives a typical graduate student life, spending 10-hour days sifting through the Egyptology Collection of Brown University's library, teaching undergraduate classes, and conducting research for her dissertation. But from December to February every year, she exchanges her apartment in Rhode Island for a villa in Giza on the west bank of the Nile, just opposite Cairo. As chief epigrapher of the Abu Bakr Epigraphic Survey-a joint expedition between Cairo University and Brown University-O'Dell directs the transcription of all ancient writings and trains her Egyptian and American colleagues in the discipline. "Not only is it a great honor to be invited to such an expedition, it is also nice to be part of a joint project between two countries because we can learn so much from one another!' O'Dell said.

Archaeology Abroad

The Abu Bakr Epigraphic Survey-named after the famous Egyptologist Abdel- Moneim Abu Bakr, who began to excavate the cemetery between 1960 and 1976-belonged solely to Cairo University until Brown joined the project seven years ago. Since then, Edward Brovarski, co-director of the expedition and adjunct professor at Brown, has brought on average three graduate students to Giza every year to participate in the daily excavations. "These expeditions provide an opportunity for our Egyptology students to gain field experience," he said. "I believe this hands-on training will serve them well in the future, for example when the occasion arises for them to head an expedition themselves."

Universities around the globe conduct archaeology field programs that take graduate and undergraduate students to the world's archaeological hotspots where they help unlock the secrets of past civilizations. These projects offer a unique teaching opportunity because "students live in their classrooms and are constantly surrounded by the subject matter. That makes the learning a lot more immediate and constant," commented Ben Thomas, education and outreach coordinator of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ancient Egypt has been a fruitful field for archaeologists, but many aspects of the longstanding civilization are still a mystery. Clues hidden in tomb chambers such as those found at the Western Cemetery add pages to the book that tells the story of ancient Egyptian life. The tombs, some of which are from the time when the pyramids were built, around 2,500 B.C., provide a glimpse into the life of the common people. "We hear a lot about the precious jewelry and gold of the kings and the royal family, but we don't know so much about burials of people who belonged to the lower classes.

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