A Latin teacher, a hospital administrator and a nun are part of a volunteer corps exploring the foundations of a 2,000-year-old seaside temple built by King Herod.
Most of the 107 volunteers rise at dawn to scrape away the reddish-tinted earth that obscures the ancient limestone blocks.Others don scuba gear and plunge into the Mediterranean Sea, using an air bag the size of a Volkswagen Beetle to move rocky rubble from a site so it can be explored.
"The volunteers get great diving experience - three or four dives a day and at the end of four weeks, you're a great diver," says Trad Hughes of Washington, D.C., a tan and muscular former government bureaucrat who is spending his second summer at the dig.
During the summer, the peak dig season, volunteers can find work on 24 archaeological sites in Israel. These include Canaanite ruins near Ashkelon, Roman and Byzantine remains on the Dead Sea, and a Bronze-age site at Megiddo, the Biblical Armageddon.
Most of the digs are sponsored by U.S. universities, and most of the volunteers are American college students.
Seymour Gitin, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, says that over the past two decades digs have increasingly become outdoor classrooms, and as a result the quality of the volunteer workers has improved.
Archaeological expeditions fund part of their field work from fees paid by student volunteers. The students get college credit for their work in return.
At Caesarea, students pay $1,000 tuition for four weeks in the field school and can earn up to six college credits.
During the course, they attend lectures on the history of Caesarea and participate in workshops in which they learn how to "read" pottery - determine its origin by its style and composition. The student archaeologists also have to write two research papers based on their work.
Not all the volunteers, however, are students.
"We've had physicians; we've had a trolley car operator; we've had nurses and pilots," says supervisor Farland Stanley Jr., a former rock musician and now an assistant professor of classics at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, Okla.
Stanley, sporting a red bandanna and a wide-brimmed straw hat, is top kick on the Caesarea Combined Expeditions, which has used 1,800 volunteers over the past nine years to explore a temple built about 22 B.C. by King Herod to show his loyalty to Augustus Caesar.
Sister Laurie Brink of Chicago, Ill., left her habit behind this summer to dig in khaki shorts and Birkenstock sandals at the Caesarea excavation where ruins of an ancient church sit atop the Temple foundation. She came to Caesarea as a volunteer three years ago, prompted by her interest in biblical studies, and is now a staff member.
Michelle Peters, a Pennsylvania State University junior who wears her silver lipstick and nose rings every day to the dig, gently brushed away dirt to uncover pottery shards and then carefully placed them in a bucket nearby to be read later that afternoon.
Underwater, the treasures can be even more bountiful. The promise of finding ancient artifacts in good shape is greater underwater than on land, due to water's preserving qualities. Last season's team uncovered gold coins, whole plates and jugs, and wooden hair combs.
But you can't take anything home with you. Israeli law forbids the removal of finds from dig sites and has prosecuted offenders.
Back on land, Brad Chamberlain, a second-year digger, says volunteering helped set him on a career path. A native of Houston, Texas, he came to Caesarea the first time to see if archaeology was really what he wanted to do.
"I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist, but until last year I didn't know. On my first day, it was like, `This is it,' " says the University of Oklahoma senior.
But don't be fooled. Digging is hard work. Volunteers are up at the crack of dawn and spend up to eight hours in the heat before attending afternoon lectures and workshops.
Despite the hours in the sun and cramped dormitory rooms, the desire to return is strong among students.
"It's the only thing that can get me up at 4:45 in the morning," Chamberlain chuckles.