Tag Archives: Archaeology

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

One Isaiah

Everyone wants to be remembered. While many don’t wish to be famous, we all hope that someone notices the noteworthy things we’ve done. By any measure Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have succeeded. Every year around Christmastime his words, set to music, are sung in churches around the world. He gets regular readings among those who attend synagogue and even those who take secular Bible classes have to reckon with him. Isaiah even attracted imitators before his book was finally compiled. According to the Good Book he was a trusted advisor to King Hezekiah. But what do we know of him as a person? Biographical episodes in his book are rare, unlike those of his fellow major-leaguers Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Who was Isaiah?

It’s not Christmastime, so why am I writing about him now anyway? Well, a friend pointed me to a recent archaeological discovery from Jerusalem that is a broken seal impression (technically called a bulla) that may have originally read “Isaiah the prophet.” The news was broken in Biblical Archaeology Review, but it can be read about for free here. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist publishing the inscription, notes that it reads “Yesha‘yah[u] nvy…” As often happens in archaeology, the end of the inscription is missing. In case your Hebrew’s even rustier than mine Yeshayah sounds a lot like Isaiah—go ahead, sound it out. The word prophet is nvy’. Don’t let that apostrophe fool you; it’s a full-fledged consonant in Hebrew. If that final letter has been reconstructed correctly the seal would read “Isaiah the prophet.”

My friend asked me what I though of this. My initial impression is that it would be odd for anyone to sign themselves with the title “the prophet.” If they did it would require a bit more hubris than I mentally attribute to Isaiah. You see, a prophet was selected, so they believed, by God. Chosen even among the chosen people. It wasn’t a pleasant job—once again, Jeremiah’s jeremiads come to mind. Would someone have signed himself “the prophet”? We don’t have a terrible lot of information from the ancient world about individuals. What we do know is subject to exaggeration and other forms of hyperbole. Did Isaiah, mouthpiece of Yahweh, carry an official seal declaring that the contents were bona fide possessions of a man who saw God sitting on his throne and survived to tell the tale? Or is it a hopeful reading of those who want to demonstrate the Bible is true? It’s a question the reader must decide, for, as always seems to happen, the evidence is broken just at the crucial point.

Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.

Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.