Tag Archives: Archaeology

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.

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.

Historic Crossing

If Washington crossed the Delaware, I figured, so could I. Of course, I have a car and I was going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, but history doesn’t always repeat itself precisely. In New Jersey, the landing side of the crossing, a modest park marks the spot, along with plenty of space for outdoor activities. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has a tripartite park which includes sculptures, an historical village, and a tower. The tower was built from 1929 through 1931 in commemoration of the momentous crossing. My mother visited the site as a teenager, some few years after it opened. On a mission to recapture part of her childhood, I made a visit to see a bit of history, and also to experience the great views. As far as towers go, this one isn’t the tallest, but in Bucks County, it is among the highest points and you can see for many miles on a clear day. On the top of the tower I overheard a man explaining to his family that Washington built the tower in the 1700s and that it was used in the Revolutionary War. He lamented that it would be easy to be trapped on top of the tower, and urged his kids to imagine what it would have been like.


My thoughts went to the Bible. We’ve come to know through archaeology and comparative sources that many of the events portrayed as history are about as accurate as having Bowman’s Tower built by a long-deceased George Washington. And yet we continue to teach children that stories for which no evidence exists are history. We don’t always have a good grasp on how to tell the difference. In the United States George Washington is nearly divine in reputation. His travels are attested on an almost omnipresent scale; even my childhood home of Franklin, a tiny burg near the Ohio border in Pennsylvania, saw visits from the general. I grew up knowing little of the history of the man who would become the first president. I did know, however, that he’d crossed the Delaware.

History is not so easy as it seems. What “actually happened” on the ground may not offer much meaning to those who seek it. Only when the events become story—sometimes sacred story—do we start to get a sense of why the Bible has such a grip on a large swath of the human race. It is story with no apology. Its historicity is far beyond recoverability: who saw the creation of the world? Even the events in the human timescale were written, for the most part, centuries after the occurrence, with all the liabilities that entails. Built by members of the Washington Crossing Park Commission, the park I’m visiting intends to demonstrate the importance of a singular event that led to the freedom of an entire nation. Indeed, the crossing of the water to free a nation has a distinctly biblical feel to it. And even if that first exodus never happened, we tell our children it did, and we have no less a figure than George Washington building a tower to prove it.

Explained Away

The premise seems sound. Although science tends to indicate that God is not necessary to explain anything, religion itself may still be useful. In a nutshell, that’s the basis of Alain de Button’s TED talk, “Atheism 2.0.” We don’t need to believe in God to find religion a useful paradigm. There’s so much more to being human than being simply analytical. De Button begins from the premise that there is no god, but that religion teaches us many useful lessons. It is a fascinating concept. I’ve had de Button’s book on the topic on my reading list for some months now, but like so many pressed for time, I find it simpler to watch a 20-minute TED talk than to read an entire book. It is refreshing to see someone on TED not simply dismissing religion. My friends in the STEM community often recommend TED talks, and they usually leave me feeling small and insignificant. Now I can at least show my face.

A deep irony pervades this condescension to religion. Scientific study of the past (known by the collective term archaeology) has recently given strong indication that the religious impulse is what led to civilization itself. The mysterious site of Gobekli Tepe, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to reveal that even before high antiquity what drew people together was the emergence of religious belief. Religion leads to culture, and culture leads to science. Science rejects religion and what happens to culture? Just take a look around. I’m still a naive man with working class values. In the course of my business travels I’ve often ended up in what might be considered the sketchiest kinds of neighborhoods. The suburbs keep moving further out. What happens when we run out of space? God only kn— wait, that’s a forbidden premise. Materialism only knows.

De Button’s talk is fascinating in that he doesn’t simply dismiss religion. Like most non-specialists, he focuses on the accidentals that reveal something savvy religionists have always known—there’s a healthy dose of psychology in any religion. Call it neuroscience, or call it truth. Religions have something to teach us. Civilization, it seems, began because of religion. De Button is clearly correct that we need not believe the minutia of religious doctrine to get something out of it. Atheism is not always evil nor is piety always above moral suspicion. Being human, we can’t help but wonder what is really real, however. Religions claim to know, as do some sciences. Little can be said beyond the fact that none of us know. Of course, TED will ask some of us to speak to the issue and the rest of us should just sit still and pay attention. To be noticed is to be an expert.

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

Stone Age Henge

At a hotel during a recent excursion, I saw a National Geographic (I think) special on Gobekli Tepe (this is the fate of those of us kept from a daily sustenance of academic listservs bearing the most exciting news). Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey, discovered several years ago by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. It is an odd site, dating back to some 11,000 years ago, that consists of megalithic (big stone) constructions earlier than Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Egypt, both dating from the Bronze Age, roughly. The complex of odd buildings seems to be religious in function because they bear no practical purpose, and the implications of the site are that our earliest steps towards civilization have been misinterpreted from the beginning. We have been taught that domestication of plants and farm animals led to fixed centers of living. Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion led to settled life and farming came later.


The implications of this are rather startling for those of us who’d been working on the assumption that religion developed as a way of keeping the gods happy after people had the luxury of surplus food brought on by agriculture. It turns out that hunter-gatherers learned to live in settled locations because of religion. That is, religion, instead of being just another component of culture, is what led to culture in the first place. In a climate where the most vocal intellectuals insist that religion must be shut down, chopped off at the roots, and burned in the oven of rationality, we see that none of us would be enjoying our urban lifestyles if religion hadn’t brought us together in the first place.

There is no doubt that religion may be taken to extremes, and that when it is, it becomes dangerous. Religion, however, is no foe to rational thinking. Gobekli Tepe is a site of astounding engineering for Stone-Age hunter-gatherers. Engineering is applied science, and so these people were using their understanding of the world to establish a ritual site for the practice of their religion. They needed to live nearby, although they still had to spend their days chasing animals and gathering foodstuffs along the way. Religion made them realize that life together was a necessity for humanity to thrive. We should take a more balanced view before declaring religion a source of evil only. We may never be able to coax the gods into the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a very important function for human civilization. If they are taken in reasonable doses, they might even lead to astounding transformations.

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.


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.