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Students attend presentation on archaeological dig site in Ireland

| Friday, November 18, 2016

Stephen Mandal, Ph.D., co-founder of the Blackfriary Community Heritage and Archaeology Project, visited Saint Mary’s on Thursday night to speak about the archaeological dig held in Trim, Ireland.

Saint Mary’s student Nina Zeiger, who studied abroad in Trim and participated in the dig, said she found a lot of interesting things while digging.

“I found some stained glass, and some Georgian glass and bones but only animal bones,” she said.  “It was so cool not knowing what you’re going to find, and everyone was finding different things.

“Everyday there’s something amazing found.”

The project is based in the town of Trim, located in County Meath, Ireland. Mandal said Trim is filled with several archaeological finds and historical landmarks.

“The centerpiece of Trim is the castle, which was built in 1172,” he said. “[Trim] has more upstanding archaeology than any other town of it’s size in Ireland.”

Mandal talked about their dig site and its past as a Franciscan friary, the Blackfriary.

“They brought in friaries, and they were keen on their friaries because they needed monasteries there to pray for their souls because the modus operandi of medieval knights was to go on and oppress people and kill people and take over land.”

Mandal said the specific site of the dig was once a graveyard coupled with walled gardens the friars used to walk around. Before they arrived, the site had become an open field filled with trash. Mandal said the town had to make difficult budgetary choices concerning which landmarks to maintain.  

“Are [they] going to spend the budget keeping up [their] outstanding, incredible archaeology, or use it for this?” Mandal said. “So the dig site has gone into ruin over a number of years and our challenge then was, how do we turn it from this dumping ground into something that the town could take ownership for and the town could value?”

Over the years, Mandal and his team have started a children’s dig site at the field and have opened a community garden. The team welcomes those who live in the town to come and see the dig, see what they’re doing and take part.

“The first thing from an archaeological standpoint was to have engagement,” Mandal said. “It is an open site. We have 29 community days where we talk about archeology and show them what we’re doing, and work with them to get them involved in activities that you don’t have to be a trained archaeologist to do, but that still respect the archeology.”

Mandal said positive community involvement wasn’t always so easy to come by.

“One of the big problems we had with the site was that teenagers used to drink on the site,” he said. “There was no point in really going toe to toe with them — the best way to get it to stop was by working with the younger kids. There are 2,000 primary school kids, kids under the age of 12, and every single child has been on the site and done a project on the site.”

Mandal said getting students involved at a young age will create a positive impact on the site and the community.

“These guys are going to be teenagers and will do what teenagers do, but they will respect this site because they understand it and they know it,” Mandal said. 

Zeiger said she enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to all students looking to study abroad.

“Getting to know other people and working with the community was great,” she said. “Even if you’re not interested in archaeology, we all still have a really good time and they teach everyone about [archaeology]. You get to learn all about the town and then you still get to learn all about Ireland.”

The project has received critical acclaim, namely by being published in “100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life,” a book written by National Geographic’s Keith Bellows. Bellows, in an interview with CNN, went on to name Trim, and the archaeological dig, as one of his top-10 favorite places in the world.

But Mandal said what makes a difference in the town and what really matters is the students who study abroad in Trim. He said the shared experience between the community and the student creates a progressive and lasting legacy.

“From a student perspective, by coming to this project, and if you’re looking for any study abroad project, look bigger than what you’re actually doing,” Mandal said. “Look at the community you’re going into and how engaged you are going to be in that community. Study abroad is evolving and becoming much more experimental. You’re going out of your comfort zone and have the opportunity to experience another culture and to participate and be a part of something that’s a legacy.”

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