Students Nicole Awad (right) from the University of Hartford and Alexis Pingel from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, help map the Great Synagogue of Vilna.
Nicole Awad of New Canaan, Conn., came to the University of Hartford to major in international studies. Currently a junior, she says she has known since she was a little girl that she wanted her future to be about digging into the past, like archaeologists do. She had no idea how quickly that dream would become a reality.
During her first year, Awad connected with Richard Freund, the University’s Greenberg Professor of Jewish History and a noted archaeologist. He put her to work on a project at Griswold Point in Connecticut where she used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) in an attempt to uncover the remains of a stockade fort from the Colonial time period. She wrote a paper on her experiences and made a presentation at the University’s annual spring Undergraduate Colloquium.
Impressed with her work, Freund asked Awad to assist on a project in Rhodes, Greece. For 10 days in the summer of 2014, Awad used GPR to discover the remains of a synagogue and determine whether the findings were from the Byzantine era or the Hellenic era. “It was physical work, but it also involved research and conducting interviews. It was detective work,” Awad said.
In summer 2015, she joined a team of archeologists from UHart and across the nation on a major project in Lithuania to uncover the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a huge complex of buildings that was a hub of Jewish life before being ransacked by the Nazis at the end of World War II and ultimately demolished by the Soviets in 1957. The locating of the Great Synagogue of Vilna garnered worldwide news coverage for the team and for Awad, whose picture using the GPR equipment at the site was included with most of the news stories.
Awad laughs about the attention, saying “It’s crazy to think about how many people around the world have seen my picture,” but she also knows how special this is. “The opportunities are amazing,” she adds, noting that she is presenting papers at conferences and talking to other archaeologists on a peer-to-peer basis. “Now I’m having conversations with people that I looked up to, it’s crazy.”
“When I started, I asked a million questions, but over time, I was given the opportunity to run the GPR equipment and by the time of the Lithuania project, I was mapping a whole site.” Awad knows that it is rare for undergraduate students to get these kinds of experiences. “The fact that [Professor Freund and the other members of the team] involve us in their work, even though we are just students, is incredible.”
Freund and the team (which includes Professor Philip Reeder, dean of the Bayer School of Science at Duquesne University, and Professor Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire) have mapped the sub-surface of the Great Synagogue, which is four to eight feet below the street level in Vilna. The GPR mapping shows an entrance and steps into the synagogue, the central shrine for the Torah scrolls, the bemah (the area where services are led), and the Jewish bathhouse and ritual bath system attached to the complex.
Awad is very excited about plans to work with Freund and his team when they return to Lithuania in summer 2016. “I didn’t really understand the significance of the project until I started seeing all the tourists there,” she admits. “We talked to people from all over the world who were visiting the site.”
Working on the archaeological projects has solidified Awad’s love of history. “To do it well, you have to put yourself in the mindset of the people of that era to understand how they thought and how they lived. It’s fascinating,” she concludes.