“It’s a Dirty Job, Connecting With the Past” from the N. Y. T imes

It’s a Dirty Job, Connecting With the Past

Published: July 25, 2004

A cluster of teenage girls, some in designer Rocawear jeans and some wearing elaborate gold earrings, were gossiping over the latest episode of “Oprah” as they sifted through dirt, uncovering hidden treasures and the occasional slithering worm.

Their mission: to unearth artifacts from the grounds of a 217-year-0ld school that has earned its place in New York City history as the alma mater of celebrities like Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Bobby Fischer.

For three weeks, 22 boys and girls from the Science, Technology and Research High School, known as STAR High School, worked an archaeological dig at the historic Erasmus Hall High School campus in Brooklyn, finding coins, pottery and other items from the oldest secondary school in the state and one of the oldest in the nation.

“It’s kind of nice for present-day high school students to learn a little about the high school students on this scene in the past,” said Alyssa Loorya, director of the archaeological laboratory at Brooklyn College, which is supervising the project.

Erasmus Hall Academy was built in 1787 on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn on land donated by the Dutch Reformed Church. At first, the school taught young white men who were the children of local farmers. Around the breakout of the Civil War, girls were admitted to help stabilize the dropping attendance rate and the students lived in dorms on campus. The original building was moved about 100 feet and now stands in the courtyard of the Erasmus campus. The excavation took place where it first stood. Among the discoveries were an Indian-head penny dated 1889, slate pencils that students from the original school probably wrote with, 19th-century pottery and red bricks thought to be from the original building’s foundation.

“We learned that they basically did the same thing we did except they slept on campus and they learned religion, since it was connected to the church,” Dashana Payne, 14, said about students at the original school. “Nothing’s really different, just the times have changed.”

The program, called Young Archaeologists at Work, involved a partnership between Brooklyn College and STAR High School. The students were selected based on test scores. For the three weeks of work, which ended on Friday, they received three college credits and a stipend from the New York Community Trust.

The excavation gave students a hands-on history lesson while preparing them for college level coursework, said Dr. Arthur Bankoff, chairman of the anthropology and archaeology department at Brooklyn College and the leader of the dig.

“Something kids don’t often take to heart is what happened before they got here,” Dr. Bankoff said. “The history is real history and the best way to experience that is to dig up things real people used. It gives them a measure of connection with the students that were here before.”

Connecting with the past – which meant getting covered from head to toe in dirt – took a little getting used to for some students.

Ayodele Amao, 14 , said he was not very excited about it when he learned he had been selected for the project.

“I joined it for the college credits,” he said.

Since then, he said, he has learned “how an archaeologist thinks” and how he can “relate stuff they did back to life today.”

Dashana Payne, who came to the dig nearly every day wearing gold earrings bearing her name, has relatives who attended Erasmus. She said her family knew little about the history of the school.

“My aunt and my two uncles went to Erasmus,” she said. “They thought I was crazy because I don’t like to get dirty.”

But working on the dig allowed the students to get a feel for what archaeologists do.

“At first I thought it’d be exhausting working in the hot sun, but it’s fun,” said Orlanda Holland, 14. “Now I see that excavation is kind of cool. Getting paid for something you enjoy doing is good.”

Professor Bankoff said he decided that Erasmus would be the perfect site for a dig after he led an excavation there in 1987 and found pipes, metal and other artifacts, which he gave to the school to exhibit.

In recent years, Erasmus has been known more for violence and lagging test scores than for illustrious graduates.

To ease such problems, the school has been restructured several times and broken into a campus of smaller schools, some of which have not been much better themselves. One of the most recent additions is STAR, which just completed its first year. It had 76 ninth graders and will welcome 170 new freshmen this fall, said its principal, Henrietta Coursey.

Toward the end of the dig, students reported to the lab at Brooklyn College, where they used toothbrushes to scrub their findings. What once looked like little more than a clump of dirt revealed itself to be an old watch part, colorful glass or pottery, even the face of a combination lock. There were clam and oyster shells, and a marble that, Ms. Loorya suggested, Erasmus students may have used for games in the 19th century.

Melinda Vargas, 15, said she hoped the Erasmus dig would not be her last.

“I wanted to be a doctor,” she said, “but now I’m thinking about archaeology.”

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