Jacob Fischer and Jordan Baum were both hunched over the dirt, intensely examining the ground for hidden artifacts. The excavation had already proved fruitful; the pair of 11-year-olds had uncovered part of an oil lamp, bones (not real ones, Jordan pointed out), shards of pottery and tiles marked with ancient Hebrew script.
Other campers had managed to find charcoal from when the Romans burned down the home of a Jewish family nearly 2,000 years ago.
Not bad for a morning at Ramah Day Camp in Elkins Park.
"This is awesome," Jacob and Jordan said almost simultaneously, as they scooped a shovelful of dirt.
All 185 of the campers at the Mandell Education Campus have had the chance to experience as close to an Israeli archaeological dig as one is able to find in suburban Philadelphia. With help from a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the camp was able to host "Dig the Past," a fledgling Israeli program that aims to introduce kids of all ages to the art and science of archaeology.
Aaron Greener, the 29-year-old co-founder of "Dig the Past" -- who recently earned his master's degree in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel -- arrived early last week to begin the arduous task of building Tel Ramah, which would be used throughout the weeklong program. (Greener, a Jerusalemite, actually got a dispensation from his reserve unit to come to the United States. His unit is not on the front lines, but serving near Ramallah in the West Bank.)
Greener divided the designated area for the tel into quadrants -- much like a real dig -- and layered the soil in a manner similar to what would actually be found in the field; he also buried a number of objects of all kinds for the kids to discover.
"I told them at the start that we're in Jerusalem now," said Greener. "And that you will find anything you [might] expect to find from the Second Temple period."
The program actually got underway on Tisha B'Av, and the kids were told to imagine that they were searching through the ruins of Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. The aim of the exercise was to expose the campers, from the 4-year-olds up to the 12-year-olds, to a cornerstone Israeli experience, according to Sue Ansul, the camp's director.
In addition to plugging away with shovels and buckets, the campers also got to try sifting through dirt, washing and putting back together shattered pottery as part of a lab experience, and learning how to write and understand the older version of Hebrew script.
"Our job is not done. We have to put them back together again," Greener said to a group of 4- to 6-year-olds who sat waiting for some pottery and glue to use.
After struggling to rebuild a piece of pottery (which the staff broke apart before burying the pieces in the dirt), Yaron Bernstein, all of 4, approached Greener looking somewhat distressed. He held up a shard of pottery with a big gaping hole in it. But Greener told him not to worry; it looks more like an authentic tel find that way.
Later on, the 10- and 11-year-olds seemed no less enthused at the prospect of going back in Tel Ramah and searching for "artifacts."
"I just like digging and looking at all the cool stuff," said 10-year-old Jackie Rosensweig.
Greener announced that at the end of his stay, all the kids would get "Junior Archaeologist Certificates," which, he added, would qualify them to work on a real dig in the land of Israel.