Unearthing Jerusalem

Story by Andy Hildebrand, Sports Editor

Nick Jaeger had only flown once before and had never been outside the borders of the United States.
Even as he sat strapped into his seat aboard the United Airlines plane waiting for takeoff, he still had trouble believing what was in store for him.

When the plane took flight, Jaeger began a journey thousands of pilgrims make every year at Christmas. He was on his way to Jerusalem for reasons he never would have imagined just months before.

The travel time was about 15 hours, and while others on the flight took the opportunity to rest their eyes, Jaeger didn’t sleep a wink. He sat awake, thinking about the events that put him on that plane, and what the next ten days might hold.

Early last fall, UW-Eau Claire geography professor Harry Jol was worried students and members of the faculty lacked the ability to create websites to showcase their work. In an attempt to increase the department’s web presence, Jol reached out to
his colleagues.

Jaeger’s name came up and he expressed an interest in helping Jol with web literacy.

“It all started with me helping out Harry in one of his geography classes,” Jaeger said. “They were developing a website and I helped them out. That led to me doing some digital literacy research for him.”

By October, Jaeger was ready to travel to Omaha, Neb. to present his work at a conference. Around the same time, Jol caught word of an upcoming expedition for which he thought Jaeger’s skill set would be perfect.

“We had the initial discussion that an opportunity had arrived that might allow us to go and participate in an expedition,” Jol said. “It was the opportunity use Nick’s skills to actually do something live. After he presented at the conference, things kind of exploded from there.”

The expedition would take them to Israel, where they would join a team of archaeologists in an attempt to uncover an ancient bath house located near Mary’s Well, the site where according to biblical history, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she was chosen to carry the son of God, an event called the Annunciation.

They received the green light from the researchers. However, the University declined to sponsor their trip. If the duo was going to join the dig, they’d have to pay their own way to Israel. Jaeger had an extra hurdle to jump, as well. He had to tell his mom he was traveling halfway around the world to a country under a travel warning.

“We were pretty nervous about it,” Ann Jaeger said. “For Nick, going over there for something involving archeology, it combined his love for science, computers and the bible. As soon as I heard about it, I knew he was going to go. It was like winning the lottery for him.”

With their departure date nearing, Jol knew he only had one choice. Without university funding, there was only one way the two were going to makeit to the expedition. Jol dipped into his personal account to front the travel fare for himself and Nick Jaeger.

With their travel plans finalized, Jol turned his focus to preparing Nick Jaeger for exposure to an entirely new culture.

“I had Nick do some reading about the area,” Jol said. “We had extensive preparation and discussion about what was to come. We talked about what we were going to go through.”

When their plane landed in Tel Aviv, Nick Jaeger was immediately struck by the cultural differences he saw.

“You hear in the news about all the politics and violence that goes on there,” Nick Jaeger said. “When we landed though, my first thought was how tranquil it is.

“The climate and culture was a melting pot of religious views and culture. You are always surrounded by every representation of every culture in Israel.”

Their first challenge was fitting into a diverse group of scientists. Jol said Nick Jaeger’s value to the project was easy to see from the very start.

“We’re all a part of a team,” Jol said. “We all have different skill sets. Nick’s was the idea to bring our expedition to the world. He wanted to put our efforts out there for the public to see.”

The days were long. They would start at 8 a.m. and wouldn’t finish until 2 or 3 a.m. That provided plenty of time for Nick Jaeger to get to know his new colleagues.

“All the archaeologists are very realistic,” he said. “They don’t want to get their hopes up, but you can totally sense the excitement about what might be out there, what we might find.”

While the work was time-consuming, Nick Jaeger found plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of the job he was doing. He was immensely interested in the expedition from a historic and scientific viewpoint, but his connection with the area took on a deeper meaning.

“You’re going in as a team of scientists,” he said. “You have to view it as realistic as possible and try to separate the spiritual side. But as a Christian, everything meant more to me.”

Jol said working in an area as spiritually charged as Jerusalem can make it challenging for some to view the work from a neutral position. The crew’s dynamic makeup served as an example for Nick Jaeger, though.

“People have a faith in Israel that’s monotheistic, meaning either Jewish, Christian or Muslim,” Jol said. “So it has to be a challenge to separate that from the work we’re doing. Our lead archaeologist was a Muslim woman though, we were investigating a Christian site, and our head director was Jewish. It was a very diverse effort.”

On their final day in Israel, they took the day off and instead took a tour of Jerusalem. Of all the moments of his trip, this was Nick Jaeger’s favorite.

“I went into the journey with a hopefulness of grasping further into where the Bible comes from,” he said. “Walking through Jerusalem and seeing the original Roman roads where Jesus would have walked was incredibly moving. My experience there has allowed me to find myself again and find my relationship with God.”

With their work finished, at least for the time being, after 10 days abroad, the pair returned to Eau Claire. Due to a variety of political reasons, Jol said they aren’t allowed to release the full results of their findings, but he did say they were able locate the bath house they were looking for.

They’re submitting an application to the Israeli government to return in June and continue the excavation. But the work Nick Jaeger has done so far may have already opened up doors in his future.

“He’s been invited to develop other websites for other digs because of the phenomenal job he did,” Jol said. “There are opportunities for him once he graduates.”