Dig in: UM-D student unearths her passion on Spanish island

Photo courtesy of Abbeygail Epelman

Abbeygail Epelman excavates two human skulls in a tomb in a Roman necropolis near the city of Sanisera on the Spanish Island of Menorca in June.

Sunday Times Newspapers

DEARBORN – Make no bones about it: University of Michigan-Dearborn junior Abbeygail Epelman’s interests have always been different from those of her peers.

Epelman, 20, of Canton Township, was on the Spanish island of Menorca June 1 to 28 with the Cap de Cavalleria Ecomuseum Archaeological Field School, where she explored ancient remains.

Epelman’s lifelong fascination with archeology was fueled by a deep interest in death, which caused her worried parents to seek the advice of a therapist, who assured them she was merely imaginative.

“At six years old I was obsessed with ancient Egypt,” Epelman said. “I was obsessed with the theory of afterlife and the mummification process.”

She said she taught herself to read, and had a shelf full of adult books on the subject. She said she also taught herself hieroglyphics and did chores around the house in exchange for new books.

Her interest in archeology was deepened when she learned later that her ancestors were Holocaust survivors.
“At first I was attracted to the psychological part of it,” Epelman said. “But as time went on the death still attracted me, and I think that’s why when it comes to bones I’m so interested, because bones don’t lie. If something happened in your life… it all shows up in the bones.”

In 2009, Epelman tested her love of archeology by visiting Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado to participate in archaeological excavation and lab work and learn about the Pueblo Native Americans.

She later learned about the Archaeological Field School on Menorca from a website and was intrigued by the possibilities it presented.

“The place is beautiful,” Epelman said. “Warm, ocean, Spanish men and bones – I mean, what else do I need?”
On Menorca, Epelman did field work at two locations as well as lab work identifying bones.

They excavated a prehistoric funerary cave, dating back to 2000 to 1350 B.C.

Epleman also assisted in tomb excavations in a Roman necropolis, or burial ground, near the Roman city of Sanisera, dating back to 123 B.C. to 550 A.D.

Many of the caves Epleman and her 24 other classmates toured had been so looted that the floors were covered with random segments of bone.

“You won’t find a body all together,” Epelman said. “You’d find a little piece of a tibia, then over here a cranium piece; it’s all over the place.”

She explained that the necropolis on the port was very different: sometimes several whole skeletons would occupy one tomb.

“If you were higher class, you got your own grave,” Epelman said. “If you were lower class, you could find ten individuals in that grave. So it really shows that when you’re excavating if you find one person they’re a hot shot; if you find ten, they’re probably low-class citizens.”

She also noted how the tomb bones differ from the way bones are normally perceived.

“When you think of a bone, you think of a really hard bone,” Epelman said. “When you’re digging those bones, you take your fingernail and cut through the bone – that’s how soft they’ve become… like chalk. You have to be so careful.”

At first she was concerned that the students might feel animosity toward her because of her experience with the subject, but she said when her work was checked her bone identifications were always completely accurate.

“So I almost became treated as an equal with the instructors because they saw me as an equal,” Epelman said. “They saw that my intelligence was the same as theirs, and there were times that I corrected the teachers.

Following field work. she and her group moved to a lab to study the human remains they found.

When they were working in the field at the necropolis she said her ability to identify bones made her more valuable to the site, and she said she was able to see the discoveries at the other tombs, not just the one she was working on.

“The fact (is) that we were the first people, aside from the looters… to uncover these 2000 year old remains,” Epelman said. “This is our past, and I’m the first person to touch this individual since they died 2,000 years ago.”