Ellis School's budding archaeologists 'learning how history gets written'

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To Ellen Bedell, chairwoman of The Ellis School history department, it's like planning a battle.

Every year, she stages an all-day ninth-grade archaeological dig, complete with ground-level radar, global positioning systems and a 4-ton capacity sandbox stuffed with historical artifacts.

"When I started teaching, I realized that the kids had no idea where this knowledge that they were reading about in books came from," said Dr. Bedell, who has a doctorate in Egyptology and has run the dig since 1993. "With the dig, they're learning how history gets written, rather than just a bunch of dates."

Dr. Bedell painstakingly plans each station of the Raiders of the Lost Sandbox-esque dig, from digging out the artifacts, to sifting through the sand, to washing and photographing the items, to setting up a Web site.

To do so, she draws from the knowledge she's learned working on an archaeological dig in Jordan for the past five summers.

Students at Ellis -- an all-girl private school in Shadyside -- get introduced to archaeology in the third grade. On Friday, younger students watched the ninth-grade dig from afar as they paraded through the playground.

"We've been looking forward to this for like 10 years," said 14-year-old Jennifer Odle, of White Oak.

One year, the dig even included the excavation of a corner of the Ellis field hockey field to uncover the foundation of a mansion that once stood on the site.

Though the foundation was successfully exposed, the athletic department at Ellis wasn't thrilled with the project.

"I got in big trouble for that," Dr. Bedell said, laughing and pointing to grass on a corner of the field that still won't grow correctly.

So these days, the "digging" is confined to the giant sandbox, designed to mimic an excavation site for the Anasazi people, an ancient civilization in the American Southwest. Every few years, art teacher Ceil Sturdevant organizes a pottery-making activity for students to produce more artifacts.

Once items are uncovered, students must map their location -- using a GPS device on loan from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania's archaeology program -- before washing and identifying the artifacts.

Ms. Sturdevant pointed to a piece of pottery and asked the students if it was a rough, ridged piece used like "Tupperware" for storage, or a painted, formal piece that would be used in a religious ceremony.

By the end of the day Friday, the students also had a Web site posted with pictures cataloging their finds.

And Dr. Bedell hasn't abandoned the hockey field entirely. For the first time this year, she borrowed a three-wheeled ground-penetrating radar machine from IUP and tried to map the foundation without disrupting the grass.

"I think we found the wall," shouted Beverly Chiarulli, an archaeologist and associate professor of anthropology at IUP. The radar technology is so new that IUP, which has one of the largest archaeology programs in the state, just got the machine in January.

While other schools in the state do archaeology activities, Ellis' is the longest-running and most extensive, said Dr. Chiarulli.

The students liked some of the activities so much, such as drilling through a stone to make jewelry, that they kept working through a snack break.

"You learn how different it was back then," said Elena Ambrosino, 15, rubbing her hands together to manually drill through a stone. "If I had to do this all the time, I would drive myself crazy."

"We can't understand it until we do it," said Jennifer. "Not many people get to do this."

But while they agreed that it was "better than class," the activity also gave them a realistic feel for even the mundane aspects of archaeology. "It's a lot more tedious than I thought," said Jennifer.

"But it's also more fun," interjected Elena. "I loved uncovering stuff."

Over the years, Dr. Bedell has had a few students pursue archaeology as a college major, including one who is currently getting her doctorate, said Dr. Bedell.

But most are content just to use the day as a learning experience.

"This is tedious and hard work," said Dr. Bedell. "This isn't Indiana Jones."


Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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