Bringing Back Memories

Steve Wiggins of Sects and Violence in the Ancient World fame has a post on his teaching activities and his personal relationship with the Egyptian god Bes, not that they are directly related. Yes, even I think it is possible to have a relationship with a god, particularly when you are holding its image in your hand. But what struck me about Steve’s post were these words,

Back in 1987 I volunteered as a digger at Tel Dor in Israel. This was my first exposure to archaeology, and I loved every bit of it. The digging, the expectation of discovery, the honest physical work, the endless bouts of Herod’s revenge — well, some parts were better than others.

Some readers will know that I spent three seasons at Tel Gezer back when real archaeologists slept on cots in six person suites tents. I still think that field archaeology is the most human of human activities. It calls upon all our physical and mental capabilities and then highlights all our limitations. What Steve calls “the honest physical work,” and sometimes exhausting physical work it is, and the expectation of discovery are only part of it. The other part is the intense mental activity, the continuous effort to understand what one sees and how the various parts relate to the whole of the history of the site, the history of the region, the history of our species. I once described fieldwork as the simultaneous pursuit of two quite different vocations: one of a laborer who spends many hours a day manually digging a hole, the other of an academic who spends the remainder of his or her waking hours trying to understand the work of that laborer. What could be more human than the combination of intense mental and physical activity? What could be more human than one group of humans trying to understand the detritus of another group of humans? We are a narcissistic lot.
While I’m not quite as cynical about archaeology as Anson Rainey there is more than a little something in his famous saying, “. . . archaeology is the science of digging a square hole and the art of spinning a yarn from it.” What he didn’t mention is that digging is hard work and so is spinning the yarn.
I would add that history as Rainey (and Ranke) would have it is the science of philology and the art of spinning a yarn from it. Both of these, like blogging, can be done while sitting on a chair.
Did they really call the שלשול “Herod’s revenge” at Tel Dor? I bet they slept on comfortable beds too.

Rainey, Anson R., “Stones for Bread: Archaeology versus History,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64:3, Sept., 2001, 140-148, here 140

2 thoughts on “Bringing Back Memories”

  1. Yes, the mental processing is certainly a major part of the archaeological enterprise as well. It was my first (and only, so far) exposure to archaeology and the whole experience was too much to take in fully. We did sleep in beds or cots at a local school, several to a room if that’s any consolation! And yes, they did call it “Herod’s revenge.” I was once so dehydrated with it that I started having hallucinations; so many memories!

  2. Well, I am glad to hear that you slept on cots. Hotel based archeology never seemed right to me.
    I was never as dehydrated as you were. Our staff doctor would make the rounds telling us to drink enough so that we peed as frequently as we did at home. Of course, no one knew exactly how frequently that was and if one had the shilshul it was nearly impossible to keep up.

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