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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tourists Help Excavate Ancient Israeli Tunnels

APU.S. tourists standing in an entrance to the tunnels near Beit Guvrin, Israel.
JERUSALEM -- Deep in a tunnel system dug 2,000 years ago outside Jerusalem, a young woman unearthed a rare oil lamp used in ancient rituals during an archaeological dig.

For Abby Krewson, the discovery is especially gratifying: Krewson is a 10th-grader from Philadelphia participating in a "dig for a day" archaeological experience with her family and a college Bible group.

"I didn't expect to find something like that, so it's very exciting," Krewson said.

Tourists like Krewson pay 104 Israel shekels ($25) to spend the day working in ancient tunnels in Israel's Bet Guvrin National Park, about 32 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem.

Participants do the dirty work, digging and sifting through the ruins, while their fees underwrite the more difficult parts of archaeological work: washing pottery shards, logging finds and publishing papers in academic journals.

Ian Stern, director of Archaeological Seminars, which is licensed by Israel to do the dig, called it a "Tom Sawyer-ish, paint-the-fence-white kind of situation."

About 30,000 to 50,000 people pay to do the dig each year, raising about $1 million, he said. He says hundreds of thousands of people have participated in the experience since the project started 25 years ago.

Different "excavation vacations" exist around the world, ranging from a medieval graveyard in Poland to plantation ruins in the Caribbean.

Stern says the Holy Land dig, which draws all kinds of tourists in Israel, has been especially popular with Christian tourists and Jewish youths visiting Israel for the first time on the "Birthright" program.

"We've provided more people with a personal contact with archaeology than anybody else in the world," Stern said. "It helps them connect to their roots."

For Reynaldo Villarreal, a Christian tourist from Texas, the connection had special meaning. He recently learned that his ancestors were Sephardic Jews who left Spain during the Inquisition for Mexico and then immigrated to the United States. One year ago, his 17-year-old son died in a drowning accident and this trip was to help him and his wife grieve, he said.

Sebastian Scheiner / AP
U.S. tourists standing in an entrance to the tunnels near Beit Guvrin, Israel.
In the cool subterranean caverns, Villarreal lost himself in the dig as he uncovered pottery shards and animal bones.

"It's exciting to help in the excavation of this cave and think of the people who lived in this place," he said. "Maybe what we find can be of some help."

The caves were made in the Hellenistic period, about 2,200 years ago, and are near Maresha, the ancient capital of the biblical Edom and possible birthplace of King Herod the Great, Stern said, adding that the dig was one of the richest in the world.

"People find so much that they get skeptical and think that we planted some of it," he said. "But this isn't Disney Land; this is real."

Beverly Horne, a tourist with the Philadelphia Biblical University, said she was thrilled to see places she had read about in the Bible and to handle artifacts from the ancient world.

"We're touching stuff that hasn't been touched for 2,000 years," Horne said. "It's exciting. I can't wait to tell my kids."