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
"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
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
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
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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