Urkesh one-on-one
  a project for youngsters around the world


"Distancing" is the word we hear today, the world over.

But archaeologists have been practicing "distancing" for a long time. It is a chronological "distance." We look into a "distant" past and make it our own.
We break the barrier of time.

The Urkesh One-on-One project bridges the distance in both time and space.
And it does so relying on the young.

The youngsters who live near the Urkesh of today study the Urkesh of yesteryear, they visit the excavation site, and they interpret it and its history for the youngsters around the world – under the supervision of young Syrian archaeologists on three continents.

They do this on an individual basis, talking with each other across borders with the use of online connectivity. The cyberspace is being populated by the figures from ancient Urkesh, brought to life by their young "compatriots."

It is a new way to discover heritage: the local heritage being shared by the young Urkesh inheritors on a global and yet personal basis.

Urkesh One-on-One, by Hiba Qassar
     The global pandemic provoked by COVID-19 wasn't the first challenge facing the Urkesh archaeological project. Nine years ago our team was forced to keep the physical distance from the ancient site of Urkesh and its local communities due to the war. Nine years were long enough to develop our remote communication approach, skills and projects to be close to local people despite the physical distancing. Therefore, various outreaching programs were delivered to respond to the Syrian dynamic scenarios and its needs, in order to keep local communities at the centre of the Urkesh Project. Thus, the pandemic didn't lead us to improvise solutions or to try what we were not already familiar with. In this sense, we were prepared and ready to act in order to face the new emergency and its consequences.

The project
     The project was designed to adapt to the new safety measures caused by COVID-19 leading to school closure in many countries around the world. As a result of this closure, schools, especially in Europe or in North America, shifted from classrooms to online-learning. However, this change was not that simple for under-resourced or poor countries. Students in Syria, for example, were left without remote learning, due to the lack of resources in modern technology in schools and the lack of reliable internet access. Our concerns therefore went in particular to the youngest generations in Syria, aged between 12-14, who grew up in isolation due to the war, the sanctions and now the global pandemic. Although we had several successful previous experiences with schools in Syria, what we were looking to achieve this time was a more personal approach in which participants, i.e. the youngsters, can be the protagonist as individuals of the project. We were looking to see ancient Urkesh through their eyes and to listen to the history of the site through their parlance. In the same time, we were keen to consolidate their hard and soft skills through the various phases of the project.
     To respond to this challenges, the One-on-One project was born in the summer of 2020 to include a group of school students from Syria, Italy, Greece, who were eager to discover themselves through their heritage and share it with their peers around the world using their own prospect and talents.
     This project doesn't pretend to bridge any educational inequities gap between the participants or to contribute to the systematic educational process in any of the countries in question. However, it aims to offer the participants the possibility to increase their knowledge by discovering new aspects of other cultures through personal contact. Different from classrooms, this experience allows the students a certain level of liberty to satisfy their own cultural curiosities and to develop their communication skills with their peers from other countries. Through a direct and personal contact, among mid-school students, the individual youngsters talk to each others to create real relationship, using virtual means.
     The meetings took place under our supervision and were designed as a journey that starts by talking about the past and heritage to move on to the present or the future. Based on the participants' interest and will to know about the others' past, present and future, each One-On-One meeting, took its personal shape and led to variety of outcomes. After the planned meetings under supervision, participants were invited to keep in touch with each others to know more about the life and the general landscape of other countries.

     The project took its shape through various phases: click on the headings below, to follow its development.

Phase 0: Youngsters at the centre of the Project

Syria and Italy
     This phase started by gathering a group of students in both Syria and Italy to participate in the project. The meetings of the Syrian group were led by Dr. Hiba Qassar, based in Florence, Amer Ahmad, based in Qamishli and Carine Tamamian, based in LA. While the meetings of the Italian group were led by Dr. Qassar.

     Phase 0 for both Syrian and Italian groups started in June 2020- in a critical phase of the pandemic in both countries- therefore participants connected from their own houses to respect the safety measurements applied in each country.
     The first contact with the youngsters was challenging. We sought to overcome the difficulties forced by the virtual means, in term of trust, in order to help the youngsters to feel comfortable enough to tell us about themselves, interests, talents, aspirations, expectations and future hopes.

     Various meetings were needed to create an environment in which the participants, who are in a very critical age, don't feel judged by their thoughts or opinions. Giving the needed time to build this confidence was like the foundation stone for the project.

     We proceeded then by digging into the perception of the young participants of heritage and its role in their life. We asked them how can their own heritage serve them to improve themselves and their skills?How can this heritage be useful to enrich their modern life? To which level do they consider it relevant for their own generation? If not, how can we work on its presentation to make it relevant to them?
     These questions led to interesting discussions among the participants and prepared for the next step-phase 1- which was designed to respond to the interests of the participants.

Greece: Corinth Excavation
     The first Collaboration between Corinth Excavations and AVASA began in the fall of 2019 when Corinth Excavations was invited to participate in the School Project, an educational program that unites middle and high school students from different regions of the world-on a collective basis- under the shared experience of living in archaeologically rich areas.
     Corinth Excavations was invited to participate in the new program, the Urkesh One-on-One Project. In Corinth, the project is being led by Eleni Gizas, Steinmetz Family Foundation Museum Fellow in Ancient Corinth, assisted by Dr. Ioulia Tzonou, Associate Director of Corinth Excavations, and by Rania Sazaklia, Director of Educational Programs of the Municipal Library of Corinth.
     Phase-0 was dedicated to gather a team of Greek students interested in participating in this program during their free time. Rania succeeded in quickly gathering a group of seven students between the ages of 11 and 15. At the end of July, the students gathered at the Media Center of the Municipal Library in order to meet Eleni and to learn more about the program.

     In order to know better the youngsters, we asked them to write "Letters from Corinth, Greece" as a way to share basic information about themselves (hobbies and interests), to express what they hope to learn from this exchange, and to practice writing in English (click on the image to the left to read the text full page).

     Some examples of what the students hope to learn include:

     Based on students' interest and desires, phase 1 was planned.

Phase 1: Formation

     The structure of the formation was thought to be dynamic to adapt to the cultural particularity of each country and its participants.

     The Syrian team included a group young students-14 years old- from Qamishli city, located in North-Eastern Syria, and is 25 KM to the west of Tell Mozan. The group of eight students was divided into two groups in order to have enough space of dialogue with the participants during the meetings. Most of the meetings were held in English to improve the linguistic level of the participants which is a key factor in the One-on-One meetings.
     Our previous experiences and working in Syria have taught us how tricky it is to teach about archaeology and ancient past. For many reasons, that we won't mention here, the relationship between Syrians and the archaeological patrimony is missing to some extent. We were aware that the approach we follow will be decisive in the success or failure of the project. Therefore, we paid a lot of attention to not transform this experience to a history lesson. It was crucial to keep the students interactive with the archaeological information and help them develop their knowledge through their own curiosity and questions. Therefore, we started the formation officially as follows:
     'Once upon a time there were a strong city called Urkesh, ruled by a king called Tupkish and his beautiful queen Uqnitum..'. The ancient city is 25 km to the west of your own city, imagine how was the life in ancient Urkesh and ask us-the archaeologists- your questions and curiosities to uncover its history, so we can write together the hi-story of Urkesh.
     Here are some of the questions they asked:

     ..And many other questions for which we didn't always have answers.
     Leaving their questions without answer was exciting for the students since they started to think of the answers by imagining themselves as charterers in ancient Urkesh, taking examples of some parallels in their modern life.
     The questions gradually developed to have a logical line, so they can construct, through the answers, the history of ancient Urkesh. To some extent, it was like excavating the site again, with a faster pace.
     At the end of the formation, students were invited to visit the site so they can 'live the history' being surrounded by the ancient monuments they learned about.
The visit was organized with our local archaeologist in the field, Amer Ahmad, who was ready to explain further any missing information. The visit was open to the participants, their families and friends.

     During the visit many students took the initiative to explain certain features or monuments (phase 1 image 3) that they became fond of, to their relatives and friends. Others were inspired by the site and read a small poetry they wrote in front of the visiting group. While most of the students recorded the site through their pictures, some were interested in showing the site through a short report on their Instagram in Kurdish and English to invite other locals in the nearby cities to discover Urkesh.
     The site visit concluded Phase-1 and students were encouraged to think of presenting what they consider relevant or interesting for them from the ancient site of Urkesh, using their own parlance, talents and creativity.

     Due to COVID-19 most schools in Italy shifted to online learning. The new method of learning, and lack of previous organization, left most students and their teachers exhausted from the online experience. Therefore, phase-1 with the Italian group was completely different from the Syrian one. We didn't seek any type of formation regarding the cultural patrimony. We focused instead first, on discussing the favourite features of the youngsters regarding their cultural patrimony, what is relevant to them and what parts they would communicate to the rest of the world as a representative of their identity. The second aspect we focused at was their ability of communication in English. Since the participants showed difficulties in communicating in English, we offered them an English support to improve their linguistic level and to be able to communicate with their peers in English.
     Based on the common interest between the Italian participants, they chose the San Carlo Theatre in Naples to present to their peers in Syria. As it's commonly agreed, the theatre is an important monument to the city and the whole nation. However, the participants elaborated critically the reasons behind considering this monument is interesting for the young generation. This process helped them to choose the valuable aspects of the theatre's life. The challenging part for the Italian participants was how to show really the important role of the theatre to their peers in Syria, where theatre doesn't make part of the common popular culture.
     These challenges pushed the participants to take a step back of the common discourses regarding the value of the monuments and to think creatively in how to interpret their own culture and interest to others. It led them to deepen their knowledge of their own patrimony while trying to communicate it to others.

Greece: Corinth Excavation

     Prior to phase-2, students were asked to prepare short assignments in English that includes three photographs and to write brief descriptions of each. The assignment included: one image of an archaeological artefact or monument from Ancient Corinth, one image from any archaeological site or museum in Greece, and an image of their favourite place in Corinth. Some students chose the Temple of Apollo as the emblematic monument of Ancient Corinth, others chose caryatids and kouroi as examples of famous statues from ancient Greece, and most students chose Kalamia Beach, the central beach of Corinth, as their favourite place in Corinth.

     Similar to the Italian participants, the Corinth group was challenged to think how to reveal the value of their heritage to the Syrian peers who are not familiar with the Greek ancient history.