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Lost and found

Springfield student handles archaeology finds untouched for a century

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Elana Neher identifying objects “lost” in the attic of an archaeological research institution in Israel. Photos courtesy Johns Hopkins University
Elana Neher identifying objects “lost” in the attic of an archaeological research institution in Israel. Photos courtesy Johns Hopkins University

Elana Neher spent her summer in Israel learning about sewage — ancient sewage dating back to Roman times, that is. “It’s going to help us learn how the Romans managed water in an area where there’s not a lot of water. Maintaining an army requires a lot of water,” she said, adding, “It’s really cool and really interesting!”

That might not be the average person’s response to sewage, but for Neher, 18, of Springfield, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, studying ancient waste removal marks an exciting start to her archaeology career, as this was her first experience in a dig. 

The dig came with the honor of being selected as the 2017 Johns Hopkins University-Albright Institute Undergraduate Archaeological Fellow. The W.R. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, founded in Jerusalem in 1900, is the oldest American research center for ancient Near Eastern studies in the Middle East. 

The fellowship includes one month of digging — in this case in the Jezreel Valley Regional Project’s archaeological field school in Megiddo, basically where the Romans camped out while securing the northern part of Israel. It also includes a second month in what is known as the lab, cataloging some of the finds from the previous summer’s excavation as well as identifying and cataloging objects long stored, often lost, in the attic of the Albright. Some of the items hadn’t been touched in 100 years or more, according to Neher.

She is committed to majoring in archaeology, as she has wanted to do this kind of work for as long as she can remember. “I used to tell people I wanted to be a paleontologist in kindergarten,” Neher said. “It really never changed. I was also interested in science and history and enamored of museums.” 

Excavation is not for everyone, she explained, because the work is exacting and can be physically challenging. “Basically, you’re digging and carefully, meticulously, recording any change you notice and anything you find,” she said of the day-to-day work at the Megiddo site. So, if the sediment changes color, or texture, or at a certain point the soil changes to ceramic tiles, she would photograph and record that shift. 

Although she didn’t make any unusual finds, that wasn’t necessarily what she was after. She liked the idea of looking at the project as a whole, and knowing that the minutiae she detailed could contribute to large discoveries and a broad understanding of how the Romans managed a scarce resource.

At Albright, she faced the task of working in a basement, “looking at stuff, cleaning it, and entering it into a computer. It can get mundane and wear you down mentally,” she said.

She also acknowledged, “Adjusting to doing manual work every day was a big challenge. As a student, I’m not really doing that sort of thing.”

But she was thrilled to have this summer opportunity, which exposed her to the varied specialties within archaeology. “It opened my eyes to all the things you can do in the field.” People specialize in ceramics and database and mapping and photography. There’s also archaeobotany — that’s the study of archaeology and plants — and animal bones. Now, she said, she knows she wants to explore the options before choosing her focus. 

Landing a fellowship that took her to Israel was a happy accident for her. A member of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, she has family in Israel and has visited several times as a tourist. “This was really an opportunity to dig,” she said.

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