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The Big Dig

What do teachers do all summer? If you’re Middle School History teacher, Rachel Barany, you’re on an archeological dig from sunrise to sunset in Greece, studying what civilizations were like through artifacts and considering how to implement these findings into your curriculum.

Rachel had been toying with the idea of going on a sabbatical and deeping her knowledge of ancient and medieval history. After speaking with a member of the community who is an architectural historian, she was encouraged to check the Architectural Institute of America (AIA)’s Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin for field work related to the subjects she teaches at Friends. 

A few months later she was packing her bags for Sparta to join a small excavation team to uncover the remains of the Spartan Sanctuary Of Apollo Amyklaios, one of the most important Spartan religious and civic centers. In its prime, the Amyklaion site was the location of a tall sanctuary dedicated to Apollo and Hyacinthus. Almost all that remains now are small sections of the altar. 

Rachel’s days began at sunrise. With the help of bulldozers, the team cleared brush to reach a new enclosure wall on the hillside, which had not been touched for centuries. Then they began the painstaking process of carefully chipping away at the ancient walls, learning as they went, carefully handling living pieces of history. While the team did not find artifacts from the sanctuary itself, the excavation team discovered hundreds of pottery shards along enclosure walls, spanning many periods of Greek history. 

With the fact finding mission in place, Rachel immersed herself in on site documentation, recordkeeping, archaeological drawing, pottery cleaning and sorting, describing and cataloging artifacts She was soon able to identify which walls were constructed in the 19th century versus the 9th century BCE and which shards of pottery belonged to which ancient period. During the meticulous process of counting, rebuilding and bagging artifacts, she came across animal bones from sacrifices, fingerprints from the 900 BC, and a roof tile signed by builders and contractors—all of them playing a part in how historical evidence is extracted from archaeological objects.

“We’re learning history through material culture,” Rachel explained. “Ancient history is all based on artifacts, their importance, and what they tell us.” She continues, “This journey has been incredibly eye-opening. I have so much respect for the artifacts and I came back from the trip more invested in what I am teaching and able to convey that to students.”

Will Hopkins, Associate Head of School for Teaching and Learning, explains “The School is proud to support Rachel in this unique, on-the-ground opportunity that will greatly enhance the Middle School history curriculum. The support from summer grants and funds for professional development and curriculum projects support teachers like Rachel to delve more deeply into their areas of specialty and to think more innovatively about how to bring engaging experiences to their students. Open-ended exploration produces innovative and dynamic experiences for our students and is dependent on the space and time that only summer support can provide.”

Rachel is currently crafting inquiry works for middle schoolers based on her excavation—perhaps a Grade 5 mini dig or using her images and findings to reconstruct pottery from Geometric, Archaic, and Roman times to answer the question “What do these artifacts tell us about history and ourselves?”
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Friends Seminary — the oldest continuously operated, coeducational school in NYC — serves college-bound day students in Kindergarten-Grade 12.