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Providence High School student lives archaeological dream

Noah Tobias’ parents joke that he’s a kid who loved dinosaurs and never stopped.

When the Providence High School sophomore was in second grade, his father, Alan Tobias, took him to Washington, D.C. They first visited the National Air and Space Museum, which Alan thought his son would love.

Noah liked the museum, but it couldn’t compare to the Museum of Natural History.

“Noah wanted to read every placard,” said Andrea Cooper, Noah’s mother. “They could have been in there for weeks. That’s when we first realized he was keenly interested in this.”

Now 15, Tobias has traveled overseas twice with Davidson Day School teacher and archaeologist Mat Saunders, who oversees the nonprofit American Foreign Academic Research.

This summer, Tobias was the only student from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools on Saunders’ dig at a 12th-century medieval castle of Zorita de los Canes, an hour east of Madrid. The group of students excavated a cemetery believed to be the site of tombs of medieval knights.

The group spent 11 days at the site, and Saunders reported during the trip that it was going better than expected. He said the Spanish media had been extremely interested in the students’ finds.

Tobias said the dig started with the typical finds of ceramics and animal bones in the first layer of dirt. But further digging produced everything from human bones to Spanish coins from the late 1400s.

As Tobias worked with a handpick one day, a human mandible popped out of the ground with one tooth still attached. That led to finds of more human remains, including more than 270 bones in an area students dubbed the “crazy corner.”

“You’re so overwhelmed ... when you find something like that, your brain doesn’t comprehend what you just found,” Tobias said. “It’s like, ‘Oh cool, a mandible,’ not ‘Oh, cool, someone chewed with this.’ ”

Later, working with a brush, he uncovered a dome that turned out to be part of a human skull, and later students found the entire skeleton.

Based on iron found in the skeleton’s throat and ribs, students theorized that molten iron had been poured down his throat, a form of medieval torture, Tobias said.

Students also found a section of ground that smelled like sulfur and was filled with “burned stuff,” that they believe was a military site. They found bronze pins, iron nails and part of a blade.

Tobias said he initially thought adults would handle most of the artifacts, but Saunders allowed students to work with the bones and other items that were found.

“Cleaning away a skeleton was beyond my wildest dreams,” Tobias said.

He said after making a big find, his reaction would be shock. Then, he said, it’s like your team wins the Super Bowl.

“Everyone on the site knows immediately,” he said. “People all run over to see what you have found, and everyone is amazed.”

Tobias said he plans to go to Belize next summer to return to a site he visited with Saunders’ group in 2013. That year, students looked for a Mayan staircase.

He said he’s always been interested in history and loves to travel. Tobias said he hopes to pursue a career in journalism or diplomacy.