The Treasures I Found on Mount Zion–Reflections from a Digger

By: Theodore Cornejo, Participant

When I was preparing to go on the Dig Mount Zion this summer, I looked at its website and was thrilled to see that a gold coin from the time of Emperor Nero had been found there. This find was an exciting event and caused me to wonder what ancient treasure I might find when I went to work, helping to excavate the site.

I found some treasures such as a coin, which was quite exciting. Now, after returning home, I realized that the amazing, maturing experience of digging for history in Jerusalem with a dedicated group of archeologists and volunteers was perhaps an even greater treasure.

My name is Theodore Cornejo and I am a 15-year-old boy from the suburbs of Chicago. I have been interested in history since I was very young, so I was excited to attend a lecture at my church by a biblical archaeologist on ancient Assyria and Israel at the time of King Hezekiah. Learning that it was possible to go on archeological digs in Israel as volunteers, my mother found one that was located in Jerusalem. This was Dig Mount Zion 2017, co-led by Dr. James Tabor and Dr. Shimon Gibson, an archeologist.

My mother and I were pleased to join with some 40 other volunteers to help the archeologists. One day, while working with a dig mate—Marcus, an economist from Germany— I was scanning a locus with the metal detector, and heard a loud beep, meaning that a metallic object was either very close to the surface or was large. I then grabbed the metal detecting wand to pinpoint the metallic signature. I found the exact point, and Marcus and I scraped a portion of the soil with a trowel and then divided the soil into both of his hands to be inspected with the wand. We did this because metallic objects can be caked with dirt, making it hard to see with the naked eye, warranting special tools. Suddenly, I scanned Marcus’ hand and again heard a loud beep, filling me with excitement about what I would discover. I lifted it from the soil, pulling up dust and the smell of dry earth. It was green, suggesting that it was made of bronze and it also was in the shape of a small disk, denoting a coin. I marked the spot in which I had found the coin and darted off to tell Rafi Lewis, an Israeli archaeologist and one of the leaders of the dig, so that he could aid me in identifying it. He took a wooden skewer, shaved off some dirt, and found a large cross on the coin, denoting that it might have been from the Crusader time period. There I was, holding an artifact in my hand that could be almost 1000 years old. It made me wonder: could this coin have belonged to a pilgrim entering the city, a soldier from one of the many holy orders, or of a resident, living under the crusader occupation? I will never know who it had belonged to, but there are endless possibilities for learning more as numismatists clean and date the coin.

After the dig, I had a newfound appreciation for archeology. Before going to Jerusalem, I had volunteered at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. There, I interacted with many artifacts, but I had no idea about the process of archeology and how artifacts get to a museum. Going on the dig enlightened me about the process and helped me to understand that archeology is more than working with a trowel and brush. In fact, the majority of work is picking and shoveling large quantities of dirt into buckets and hauling them away. Working at a dig provides a look into the past directly by uncovering artifacts, just as volunteering at a museum provides study of the artifacts and the history they relate to. Both experiences have allowed me to obtain further knowledge and insight into the past.

The dig experience really highlighted how specialization of labor, teamwork, and leadership fell together in order for us to work effectively. Also, the willingness of people to fill in any role helped immensely. In the beginning I was assigned to pick and shovel a pit. Later, I started to fill more roles as the need arose, such as sifting, hauling dirt buckets, and metal detecting. Everyone was easy to work with and committed to the project. This made the dig both enjoyable and rewarding. One couple who goes on digs around the world told me that they came back to Mount Zion because of the people and how they are so pleasant. This cooperation made the experience great, and this was not only at the site, but continued into comradery in the evenings. I found myself many evenings in the courtyard of the hotel, conversing with college students and adults alike, as well as enjoying the discussions led by Dr. Tabor. Another aspect that tied the dig together was everyone sharing similar interests. I had never been in a place before with so many people who were enthusiastic about history and sharing their knowledge of it.

One day, while I was digging in the “War” pit (A pit in the upper area in which objects from the Six-Day War were found), Dr. Gibson walked over and suggested that I work with him and a local boy, in a section of uncovered wall in the upper level. While scraping the outline of the wall to uncover it, I asked Dr. Gibson how he found his passion for history and archeology. He told me that he had been going on digs since he was a boy. He also told me that he became immersed in history as a little boy reading books about Rome. I share a similar backstory because when I was younger I would read books about the day-to-day life in the Roman military. Since he had been going on digs since he was a child, he believed that it was important for young people to be exposed to archeology as he was, so they can find their interests and passions.

As a 15-year-old on an archeological dig, I never felt limited due to my age. The other volunteers, both adults and young adults, were always accepting. This really played into the enjoyment I had from the entire experience. Because of this, it is my hope that I return to dig on Mount Zion.