In Touch with History

A friend recently sent me a package with a Roman jar handle from Caesarea Maritima. It’s not everyday that I receive 2000 year-old artifacts in the mail. Holding that ancient jar handle reminded me of my short stint as a wannabe archaeologist, not far from Caesarea at the site of Tel Dor. There’s no thrill like unearthing an artifact that has been buried for millennia, knowing that you are touching something a fellow human being dropped for the last time back in the days of the early Roman Empire. It is a humbling experience. In all probability the final touch was a heave into the dump, since clay jars are easily broken. But as I finger this ancient piece of useless junk, I can plainly make out how fingers like mine twisted the clay and pressed it on the jar body, much as I once did in art class, decades ago. I am connected with a stranger over the millennia by this simple bit of clay. We are united in an ancient family.

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Archaeology began as a biblical venture. Anyone who watches Raiders of the Lost Ark with archaeological sensibilities, after rolling their eyes (yes, it’s deserved) can’t help but realize a kernel of truth is buried here. Archaeologists don’t search for the ark, but it was religion that gave them the idea in the first place. Travel to the Middle East and begin digging up the places mentioned in the Bible. Those early archaeologists wanted to prove that the Bible story happened just as it was laid out. Only it didn’t. Archaeology soon began to reveal a more complicated picture. Jericho was uninhabited in Joshua’s day. And was there even a historical Joshua? What began as a charge to demonstrate that the Book of Books never gets it wrong transformed into a science with its immutable commitment to objectivity. And objects.

The desire for historical proof meets a deep need in people. We want to know what really happened. This simple jar handle before me tells a mute story of a person like most of us—never famous, never noticed in the noise of first century Palestine. Just some Jane or Joe throwing out the trash. That is the story of archaeology. That is the story of human life.

Every once in a while I ponder how insignificant we are. The vast majority of us will be remembered only a few years or decades beyond our demise. What will our artifacts say about us? One of the relics that will be found in the rubble of my life will be a Roman jar handle from an even earlier age. Long ago deemed junk by a person so different, but not so very different, from me. It was discarded two millennia ago. When it was found in the twentieth century it was a treasure. Thanks, Susan, for putting me in touch with history.

3 thoughts on “In Touch with History

  1. Coincidentally a mutual friend, Karen Clopp, reposted this post today. I worked on this archaeological dig at Caesarea Maritima in 1984 during much of the summer with Drew University, Prof. Bull. While there, ancient coins washed up on shore and many shards were tossed aside and so I do have a few small artifacts. First century artifacts are recent history to most folks who reside in and around Caesarea. But those participating in the dig were already in their 13th year there. I don’t know how much longer that dig continued. It was such a beautiful location–easy to see why Caesar chose such a beautiful and culturally rich location to build his city. Central to all travelers throughout the Fertile Crescent.

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    • Thanks, Susan. I’m aways glad to meet a fellow enthusiast for history. After my summer at Tel Dor, I almost decided to follow archaeology as a career. I was at Dor in 1987, and like Caesarea, it is right on the Mediterranean. Yes, the location is stunning. My own visit to Caesarea was brief, but wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

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