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Staff and students at the Huqoq dig, where a 1,600-year-old Galilee mosaic was uncovered.

Editor’s note: Huntersville resident Ashley Mills is a student at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism in Chapel Hill. Her first-person account of a recent class trip was shared by her instructor, John Robinson.

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HUQOQ, Israel — It’s 4:30 in the morning and I am walking a mile and a half up a mountain to get to an archaeological dig site.

I’m going to do this every day for the next five days. No one is forcing me, a 21-year-old college student, who usually wakes up no earlier than 9:30, to do this.  Rather, I chose it happily, when I signed up at UNC-Chapel Hill for “MEJO 390: Documenting the Dig in Israel.”

A UNC professor, Jodi Magness, is the director of the archaeological dig in Huqoq, Israel. She and her team of professionals and students is working to excavate a fifth century synagogue, and for the first time, the School of Media and Journalism decided to send a team to document their findings.

As a radio reporter, I knew there would be cool sounds and unique stories out of Israel, and I had been more than excited to sign on for the project.

I was already starting to regret that decision. 

As my classmates and I hike, I can’t help but ask myself, “How on earth did I get here?”

I asked myself this often over the course of my 10 days in Israel. 

It was my first time on an airplane, my first time traveling internationally, and here I was, hiking up a mountain at 4:30 a.m., surrounded by nothing but pitch blackness and cow dung. This was not exactly what I envisioned I’d be doing.

When I first got the email in my inbox that said “Congratulations!” and I found out I was going to Israel, I was in the middle of my political science class, and I actually screamed out loud in the middle of my professor’s lecture on direct democracy.

Now that I was here, I felt like I was wasting my first international trip. I came all the way to Israel, and I was spending it watching people dig in the dirt. 

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to dedicate his or her summer to archaeology, let alone his or her life whole life. It’s back-breaking, time consuming work and the payoff is uncertain at best. As the archaeologists would tell us, many times, you never know what you’re going to find. 

That rang true throughout the whole week.

Here’s what I found: I found a group of new friends, I found cool stories from cool people, I found a love for Israeli strawberry-banana soda, and I found an appreciation for archaeology. 

It took a few days, but I was finally able to understand why people would devote their lives to this field. 

We were allowed to help dig in one of the sections of the synagogue. I use “dig” in the loosest way possible, because really, they gave me a trowel and a brush and I tapped around in the dirt for 30 minutes.

But while I was digging, one of the photo students, Will Melfi, found a coin. To the archaeologists, it was just another day at the dig, but to us, it was thrilling. We had found something that mattered, that would help date the synagogue the team was working so hard to excavate.

On one of the last days, I watched the archaeologists clean off the mosaics. I saw a portion of the mosaic that completely changed the meaning of the panel when it became visible. Supervisors were called over to look, people came running to see it.

The students chattered excitedly about their find. But even though the mosaic had just been uncovered, I heard one of the supervisors say to another, “We’ll have to start covering this back up on Sunday.”

I knew that this was the reality of archaeology; at the end of every season, the archaeologists backfilled the area they worked on. If the excavated areas weren’t refilled, the synagogue could be damaged. 

After watching the students so carefully and lovingly clean the mosaics, when I heard that, I nearly burst into tears. 

So much work had gone into uncovering those mosaics, just for them to be reburied. All their weeks of hard work, gone. It seemed unfathomable. 

Then I realized, that it’s almost exactly like journalism, the only difference being that archaeology tells the past, and journalism reports on the present.

Like the archaeologists who spend so long working to uncover their mosaics, we as journalists work on our stories, making them the best they can be, and as soon as they are, we’re done with it forever. 

It is a hard thing to come to terms with, but knowing you are helping make history makes it a little bit easier.

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