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Unearthing quite a career

By Staff | Jan 7, 2010

On her eighteenth birthday, August 29, 2005, Stephanie Steinke left Rugby, headed for college at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

She knew she wanted to study ancient history, but she had no way of knowing that desire would lead to a fascination with archeology which would take her to several locations abroad, participating in archeological digs and discovering artifacts of historical significance.

Stephanie, the daughter of Al and Sue Steinke of Rugby, is a fifth-year senior year at PLU. A classics and religion major and anthropology minor, she spent her junior year at the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies in Athens, Greece, with a program called College Year in Athens (CYA).

It was there in January of 2008 that she took part in her first dig. A supermarket was going to be built, and Greek law stipulates that before any new construction or renovation is started the site must undergo an archeological survey and excavation.

“We were barely four inches into the ground when we found a cistern,” Stephanie said. “We found an early church, the large cistern with its plaster still intact, a human burial, who was probably a priest of the church, and 4th century B.C. remains.” Because the dig proved the site was relevant and interesting the supermarket had to be built somewhere else.

In Athens Stephanie lived in a small apartment with three roommates. “We did our laundry by hand and hung it on the balcony,” she said. “There was no TV or Internet. Our neighbors were nice and we exchanged gifts at Christmas as well as when we moved in.”

Language wasn’t a problem in Greece because almost everyone spoke English. But Stephanie has been working on her foreign language skills since taking Spanish in high school. She has studied ancient Greek and Latin, and modern Greek. “I’m working on German and French now,” she said. “Once you figure out how your brain works it’s easier to acquire languages.”

At the end of her year in Athens Stephanie knew she wasn’t ready to go home so she applied for a dig in Israel and was accepted. The Bethsaida site overlooked the Sea of Galilee and had two levels of interest, the Iron Age, approximately the 1200s B.C., and Hellenistic, from 323 B.C. to the Roman occupation. “It was also supposedly the site of the Biblical Bethsaida where Jesus healed the blind man and where some disciples were from,” she said.

The work schedule was harsh with days starting at 5 a.m. and lasting until 9 p.m. Temperatures were near 100 degrees and staying hydrated was a challenge. Participants lived on a Kibbutz, or collective living establishment, in an older building with common showers and only two sinks and toilets for 30-odd people. The house also had a pest problem and cockroaches and lizards were not uncommon.

“We got to meet and hang out with the Israelis who lived and worked there,” Stephanie said. “It also had a hotel and museum on site so there were hundreds of museum-goers and guests there everyday.”

The museum housed a first century boat that was found buried on the beach near the Kibbutz. It has become known as the ‘Jesus boat’ since it was from his time period, but there is no way of knowing if Jesus was ever near the boat, Stephanie said.

Following her time in Israel Stephanie was asked by a professor from CYA if she would like to dig in Halmyris, Romania. “It was a Roman military fort that used to stand exactly where the Danube entered the Black Sea, and it controlled trading and security along the river,” Stephanie said. Over time the river changed course and the fort was abandoned. “It was sort of square, surrounded by high defensive walls and towers,” she remembered.

In Romania dig participants lived in the house of the dig director, a native Romanian who taught at the University in Bucharest. The house had been remodeled to have three extra bedrooms for workers and students who bunked three to a room. It was small but very comfortable. The director and his whole family slept in another room in the house. Stephanie and other foreign students were transported to the site in a small van. “They gave us the best hospitality they were able,” she said.

The Romanian students, in contrast, slept in army tents on site, had to walk into town if they needed anything, and put water in a black bucket every morning and showered from it after work when the water had warmed up.

Many houses in the village of Halmyris had thatched roofs and people used donkey carts for transportation and shared a cow with neighbors. There was a common well where many residents got their water each day. The Danube Delta is one of the poorest districts in all of Romania.

Stephanie’s most recent dig was in Egypt this past November and came as a total surprise. A professor from the Classics Department at PLU invited her to go to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. He knew she had a keen interest in pottery and was knowledgeable in that area. She was also on the payroll for this dig, a first for her.

“They have many graduate students, but in’s pretty rare for an undergraduate (to be invited),” Stephanie said. She was told she was only the third undergraduate student in the world to have dug in the Valley of the Kings where many of the pharaohs were buried, including King Tutankhamun, Ramses II and Hatshepsut.

Stephanie’s main work was to excavate tomb number KV48 which held the remains of a man, Amenemopet, who was the vizier (second in command) to Pharaoh Amenhotep II, who reigned from 1427-1400 B.C. The tomb was cut out of limestone and consisted of one room and a small entrance shaft. Stephanie also did pottery drawing and reconstruction at the site.

At tomb number KV21 the workers put bones together, reassembling mummies as best they could, put them into wooden boxes built by a member of the excavating team, and turned them over to Egyptian authorities.

The dig group was in Egypt during Eid, the celebration 40 days after the end of Ramadan. “Sheep and goats were killed in the street, roasted and eaten,” Stephanie said. “There were also sermons in the streets and from the mosques all day long, and a general sense of celebration in the air,” she added.

But she also experienced another side of Egyptian life. She was hassled every time she left her hotel, with shouts of “hey, blondie” and other lewd gestures and comments. Not all Egyptians were rude, however. “Our workmen were wonderful and respectful, as were other Egyptians we got to know,” she said. “But there seems to be a mentality of harrassing tourists since they assume they will never see them again.”

Stephanie considers herself a small town kind of gal and believes growing up in a rural setting gave her a more well-rounded background than many of her friends. She recalls that while living in Athens a roommate rented a car for the weekend not knowing that nearly all cars in Greece had manual transmissions. Of the entire group planning on exploring the area for a weekend, Stephanie was the only one who knew how to drive a straight stick and became the designated driver.

Because of her experiences she encourages students to follow their dreams. “My parents always told me to do what I wanted, major in what interested me and always apply for new opportunities and programs because you will always hear ‘no’ if you don’t apply,” she said. She enjoys talking to people, explaining her work and showing pictures of where she has been.

Despite some of the drawbacks of living in other countries, Stephanie’s enthusiasm for her chosen field has not dimmed. Following graduation in May she would like to take part in another dig in Greece. The coming fall will see her attending graduate school for archeology in England, at University College London. Eventually she would like to earn a doctorate and teach at a small university in the Midwest.

“I’ve been extremely lucky,” she said of her opportunities and experiences of the past five years. “Everything just fell into place.”

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