Friday, October 12, 2012

Touching the Past: Archaeology of the Hand, the Head and the Heart



Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.


And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?


I am the grass.
Let me work. Carl Sandberg (1878-1967)
Looking at the excavation at Largo di Torre Argentina
I love this poem by Carl Sandberg. I memorized it years ago and often quote it in my classes. It never fails to move me, especially the haunting final lines: What is this place? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work.

Realizing that even two years, ten years, can erase some of the visible blood drenched horrors of a battlefield one must conclude that the passing of time does not so much heal all as cover all–obliterating so much of the material evidence that would serve as memory markers of our human pasts. So much is lost and forgotten, and archaeology–the scientific investigation of our material past bring informs our minds but also stirs our hearts. Whether wandering Gettysburg or entering an ancient Jewish tomb, what one “knows” and what one “feels” are a complex mixture of head and heart.


In January, 2011 we had the honor and privilege of being led about the oldest parts of the city of Rome by the incomparable Roy Dolinger, who is often called upon by the Vatican to show official delegations the art treasures of the city. One of the spots he showed us was the archaeological remains of Largo di Torre Argentina, a square that hosts four Republican Roman temples, and the remains of Pompey’s Theatre. It is located in the ancient Campus Martius, right in the center of a busy modern section of Rome. Tourists can hardly miss the Colosseum and Forum from the time of the Empire, but this tiny excavated area dating back hundreds of years earlier is fascinating beyond words. I was particularly captivated by Roy pointing out the precise spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on March 15, 44 BCE, see the recent story here. I remember just standing there, riveted to the spot, staring at the steps where Caesar’s body had fallen and trying to imagine it all.

I have no professional training as an archaeologist although I have held licenses and participated in a half dozen “excavations” in Israel over the past twenty years, working with or under veterans with years of experience. Since 1990 I have made 50 trips to Israel, twice staying for more than two months. Archaeology, in my limited experience, sorts itself out into three areas–sheer hard work and painstaking effort, scientific analysis resulting in new information, and the thrill of touching the past. In other words, the hand, the head, and the heart. It is that third area, which involves our very human emotions of touching the past that often drives us through the hard labor and exacting analysis required to produce good and useful results.

Temple to Juturna, built by Catulus to celebra...
Temple to Juturna, built by Catulus to celebrate his victory at Aegades islands, in Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I first experienced a bit of this “thrill” side of the material past on a family trip to Jerusalem in 1962 when I was a mere lad of 14. I recently wrote a blog post about this, marking the 50th anniversary, see here. In both my head and heart were Sanberg’s questions–what is this place? Where are we now? I had experienced it earlier, at age 10, when my father, a career Air Force officer, was stationed at the Pentagon and my grade school, appropriately called Patrick Henry, regularly took us on the customary trips to the various sites of D.C., from Mt Vernon, to Ford’s Theater, to Lee’s Mansion. At every place I was riveted, trying my best to imagine, to take in the thought, of how George Washington might have sat at that dinner table, or Lincoln in that very chair in the theater booth where he was shot, or General Lee walking through the door of his house after the surrender of the Confederacy. Over the years this experience of touching the past has been multiplied a hundred fold–a day at Auschwitz, standing under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at the precise place where Hitler stood (see video here), or at the communion table in the main Church in Tabor, Czech Republic where John Huss invited the masses to come “Eat the bread, drink the cup” freely in an open “Lord’s Supper.”  Whether going through a grandparents old box of letters and memorabilia, or in my case, actually digging around a bit in the ashes of my grandfather’s home place in New Mexico that had burned down in an accidental fire, we are all “strangely moved” by touching the past.

Most of my students are interested in the area of Christian Origins, that is the earliest Jesus movement, centered in Judea and Galilee in the 1st century CE–up to the 1st Roman revolt and its aftermath. That “aftermath” of course includes the formation of our Gospels and the beginnings of what we can see emerging as a new religion called Christianity. We usually work backwards, beginning with our “latest” texts–what Robert Wilken rather brilliantly called, “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them,” see the main texts here, and tracing things back into the early 1st century CE, with our earliest text, Paul’s letter we call 1 Thessalonians. Every summer we spent time digging in Israel, most recently at our Mt Zion dig in the heart of Jerusalem, which Dr. Shimon Gibson and I have directed since 2009.

For my students the experience of digging at a site that is exposing Herodian Jerusalem in the time of Jesus is a  particular thrill, whether finding a Herodian lamp or a coin with the image of Pontius Pilate or even a pavement of a street, a mikveh, or an oven.  Since both Gibson and I have focused a part of our research on what he has called “the final days of Jesus,” we are able to offer them quite a bit–from the newly exposed pool of Siloam with the ancient roadway now uncovered leading up to the Temple Mount, to what we are convinced was the Praetorium judgment seat of Pontius Pilate just outside the Western Wall of the Old City, to the necropolis surrounding ancient Jerusalem that gives us great insight into the circumstances of Jesus’ cave-tomb burial. Regular readers of my blog know that I have posted regularly on these topics (see herehere, and here).