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Towson University grad student unearths history in Israel

Ilka Gray just helped uncover ancient secrets buried in rubble for millennia.

The Towson University Biblical archaeology graduate student returned in late July from an archaeological dig in Tell es-Safi, Israel. The thrill of that endeavor is obvious; her eyes light up when she talks about it.

“It was so exciting,” she beams. “It’s exciting to do in Maryland – you’re talking 400 or 500 years old and you’re ecstatic. There, it’s thousands of years old.”

Gray is in the midst of a kind of personal rediscovery, too. Divorced after a long marriage, she found herself a single mother and realized that her son would be off to college soon. “It was a whole paradigm shift,” she says. “I just really had to sit down and think about what I wanted, what I liked after all these years.

“And I had always liked history.”

That innate curiosity sent her to the internet, where she found an archaeological society. Then she took a trip to Israel with friends in 2011.

“I was standing in Capernum and the tour guide was saying, ‘This is Peter’s house. This is where he cast out the demons.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. This is what I want to do when I grow up. How can I achieve this?’”

A friend and Towson alum told her about the Jewish Studies programs at Towson and about Baltimore Hebrew Institute. Since most institutions don’t have Biblical archaeology programs, TU immediately had Gray’s interest. Soon she was enrolled - back in school for the first time in 25 years, and loving it.

“I’ve never met a staff that’s so involved and so interested in me, personally, as a student,” she explains about TU’s Jewish Studies faculty. “They have been extraordinary.”

It was TU professor Susanna Garfein who suggested that Gray go on a dig in Israel. She and fellow faculty member Barry Gittlen spent months helping Gray choose the right one and plan for her trip.

Tell es-Safi, or Gath, has been an active dig site since 1996. Gray says archaeologists have uncovered a two-horned altar there – different from the typical four-horned version, which might indicate Philistine influence. She says that discovery and others might show that Gath was larger than originally thought, with more cultural diversity.

She also remembers letters that shed interesting light on a historic battle, describing how the authors had lost sight of fires that were apparently usually visible from the settlement at Azekah, to the northeast.

“So one morning at 5am, we dressed like Philistines and climbed to the top of the site and set a fire,” she describes. “And the people in Azekah did the same thing. And they actually could see our fire, but they had to look at it through the telescopic lens of a camera. So it was very interesting , testing this theory – can you see the fires?”

Gray is just at the beginning of her studies at Towson. Her summer dig was supported by a BHI scholarship from the Rose Winder Scholarship Fund. She also gets financial help from the Jeanette Hoffman Scholarship Fund. It’s aid she says is vital.

“My son just started college last year. So I’m not only trying to figure out how to pay for my studies, but also my son’s. I honestly don’t know if I could do it without the scholarship.”

When she’s finished with her master’s degree and retired from her government job in a few years, Gray wants to get a job in Israel for part of the year. She says her son – who will transfer to Towson in the fall – thinks her studies are interesting.

“I don’t know that he would want to do it himself, but he thinks it’s great that I’m enjoying myself so much.”

To view photos from Gray’s archaeological dig in Tell es-Safi, Israel, click here.

To view the Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Weblog click here.







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