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by Bob Brooke

Charlotte held her breath as the chief archaeologist examined the spear point she had uncovered. "Yup, it's real," said Stephen Warfel, senior curator of archaeology at the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg. "I'd say it's about 4,000 years old." Santangelo's eyes gleamed with excitement. And that was within the first half-hour of her first day at the dig.

People interested in archaeology don't have to travel to far off lands to fulfill their Indiana Jones adventure fantasy. They could participate in a dig as close as Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

"Sometimes the clues to history are right under your nose," said Warfel. During June and July each summer since 1994, he and a group of volunteers had been carefully removing layers of solid earth to uncover evidence of the lives of people who once inhabited this 18th -century communal society.

For those who like to look at other people's trash, then sifting through the dirt of an archaeological site might be the best vacation.

During my visit, Warfel and his student volunteer crew were continuing to explore the location of two large structures which once stood at the center of the community. A series of depressions, foundation stones and former post holes provided the partial outline of these significant buildings.

Founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, Ephrata Cloister was one of America's earliest communal societies. Celibate brothers and sisters, as well as a married congregation of families gathered in medieval-style buildings to worship, learn and live. Celibate members led a life of strict discipline and self-denial. At the community's peak from 1740-50, nearly 300 members worked and worshiped at the Cloister.

Following the death of the last celibate member in 1813, the married congregation formed the German Seventh Day Baptist Church, but members continued to live and worship at the Cloister until 1934. In 1942, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the historic site and began to restore and interpret it. Today, nine original buildings are part of the nearly 30-acre  complex.

Fragments of pottery, glass, iron hardware and items as small as pins help suggest the lifestyle of the former residents. "Trash piles are an unintentional record of the past, and, therefore, are uncolored by later historians," said Warfel. "Volunteers have also found prehistoric arrow points in addition to items from the Cloister."

The most remarkable piece found so far is a glass trumpet, blown from one piece of glass.

Warfel originally believed this was as piece of tubing used in the ancient art of alchemy--turning lead into gold. But evidence shows that it was probably a special Baroque trumpet, similar to those found in Germany, that had been buried as part of an expansion ceremony.

In addition to the ongoing removal of artifacts from the ground, the team set up a temporary lab at the site for the cleaning, numbering and cataloging of the uncovered items. Volunteers worked in either the lab or doing excavation, or a combination of both. By working in the lab, volunteers get to see a lot of artifacts, not just the ones they might discover while digging.

The work day at the site usually began at 8:00 A.M. and went to 4:00 P.M., with an hour for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. Break times gave the archaeologists and volunteers a chance to discuss both what was currently happening at the dig and what had happened in previous summers.

For those who just wish to visit Ehprata Cloister, a special exhibit has been set up in the activity cabin adjoining the excavation to give an introduction to the science of archaeology.

Displays help tell why archaeologists have been digging at the site. The exhibit also shows where future digging may take place. Though there are only eight buildings now, there were over forty in the 18th century.

Most of the year the last tour of the Cloister begins at 4:00 P.M., but from July 12 to August 30, costumed guides at Ephrata take visitors on a one-hour tour featuring three of the buildings—visitors can tour other buildings at leisure. Many visitors say the quiet and coolness of the site gives them a peaceful and refreshing feeling at the end of a warm day. Visitors can also take advantage of a dinner and tour package available through the Restaurant at Doneckers nearby.

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