Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Applied Research

(Note: this is the first in a series of three blog posts about UNC Charlotte's Mount Zion Archaeology Project.)

I know what you’re thinking, and no, this isn’t about that. There are no stories forthcoming in this post about new nanoparticles that will allow some company to make better solar cells, or molecular biology that is going to lead to a new way to attack cancer and maybe make a pharmaceutical company a lot of money.

We're not in this for the money. This time.

 Not that that kind of research isn’t important stuff, but what I’m writing about here is important too. I’m writing about archaeology. Unorthodox archaeology at that.

Getting hooked on unorthodox archaeology and why 750-year-old fishbones matter. Photo by Rafi Lewis.

I’ll forgive you if you don’t think archaeology is as important a research topic as discovering compound to cure cancer or build a faster circuit. If you think that, you have a lot of company. And how in the world, you’re thinking, can archaeology be “applied”? But please allow me to try to show to you why that kind of “applied thinking” might be a little wrong.


I just got back from a trip to Jerusalem, where I got a chance to visit UNC Charlotte’s Mount Zion project, the only American-university-led archaeological excavation currently licensed in the city of Jerusalem by the Israel Antiquities Authority.  The excavation at Mount Zion has been going on since 2007, and I’ve written about it before, back in 2013, when some interesting discoveries were made. This time, I went not only to look at new discoveries, but also to participate in the dig itself, which was a new experience for me, though I have visited many other archaeological sites in my career as a science writer. This dig is a little different from any of the other digs I’ve written about, and I thought I needed to participate.  I was right.

The dig at Mount Zion, Jerusalem, following the 2015 season. Photo: Rachel Ward

How is this archaeological dig different? Well, to begin with, most archaeological “investigations” (as an archaeologist would call a project) are more “focused” in their goals than this one is. Generally, in order for an archaeologist to mount a major excavation, they need to first get funding to pay for materials, to pay for the dig staff, to pay working expenses in some far away locale. To get funding, archeologists need to get grants, and funding agencies don’t tend to give money to a scientist who says “I think I’ve found an interesting piece of ground, and I want to dig into in and see what is down there.” Instead, funders want a specific goal – a specific important ruin that has just been located and/or no one has ever investigated before or a specific scientific question (“what was the domestic economy of 13th Century Zuni village life based on?”) that needs to be answered.  They want an archaeological investigation to be a lot like a scientific experiment, with a specific phenomenon to be explored or a specific hypothesis to be answered.

 The Mount Zion dig is not like that and is not funded like that – it has been funded by small grants from the university and relatively small, private donations from donors – many of whom have come and volunteered to work on the dig.  This gives the excavators the freedom to cast a wider net. And the dig has been able to make extensive progress over the last seven years working on a shoestring budget because many participants in the effort paid their own way to the site and volunteered their labor – often a lot of hard, dirty labor.

Ah, the glamor of archaeology! (Note the sweat stains.)

 Mount Zion is really different because it is not a targeted exploration of a known set of ruins nor the testing of some sort of anthropological question. Instead it started from very basic historical premises and as a kind of research gamble.

At the beginning, the project -- as conceived by UNC Charlotte Visiting Professor of history Shimon Gibson, a widely respected middle eastern archaeologist, and Professor of Religious Studies James Tabor -- was to explore a couple of acres of vacant land in the old city of Jerusalem (where there is virtually no vacant land and almost everything is some kind of historical structure that can’t be disturbed) on a steep hillside between the Ottoman-built city wall and a modern roadway.

At the project’s start no one really knew what the excavation would find. When Gibson and Tabor first received a license to excavate from the Israeli Antiquities Authority in 2000, they began to get an inkling of the potential of the site, but full-scale operations did not begin until 2007, due to political tensions and unrest in the city. At that time, the information regarding the area was sketchy but tantalizing.

The site was a vacant strip of land that a renowned Israeli historian and archaeologist named Magen Broshi had probed at in the 1970’s as part of a large series of digs he was doing, surveying what might lie buried just beyond the city’s 16th Century Turkish walls. Broshi’s findings were unpublicized, but Gibson had observed the excavations as a child and remembered that some ruins of buildings had been partially uncovered. Though the site’s contents were unknown, Gibson and Tabor suspected that it might contain something important.  “It may look like a vacant out-of-the-way spot in our time, but Jerusalem and its walls have shifted around over the millennia,” noted Tabor. “Back in the time of Jesus, this was at the center of things.” Note that it was a strong knowledge of history, not the presence of some specific data, like a stone wall, that led them to the site – knowledge matters.



They didn’t know what they might find, but they knew they would find something significant. One goal the excavators did have was to explore the wealth of history left by the wealth of cultures that have controlled the city over the last 2000 years, and this rare, abandoned piece of ground in the old city promised to offer some record of that. And so they dug… and found a lot.

Sorting a few of the thousands and thousands of potsherds
from the site. Photo: Rachel Ward.

 It turns out that the site is packed with physical evidence of Jerusalem’s rich history. “We have found material on this site from every historical period from the Herodian Roman through the Byzantine, from the Umayyads through the Crusaders,  from the Ayyubids through the Ottomans,” Gibson noted. Though there are not any plans to dig deeper, the team has also found some even older material from the late Iron Age.

Peeling it back, layer by layer, the site has been a living history book. This year, digging in an area being supervised by UNC Charlotte graduate student Kevin Caldwell and his staff (a diverse group of students, staff, retirees, Charlotte friends and donors) found in the sweat-moistened dust evidence of a once-prosperous market from the time of Saladin (potsherds, coins, fish bones, hooks, clam shells)… then, immediately below that, evidence of occupying Crusaders (pork bones, northern European horseshoe nails) and signs of fighting (pieces of metal from belts that got ripped off in physical struggle).

When you participate in this dig, you can literally touch historical events as your hands clear away the dirt and go deeper and deeper in time.

Kevin Caldwell (far left) and his excavation team in early July. Also in this photo: Henry Doss (back row, third from left) and UNC Charlotte Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Nancy Gutierrez (black shirt, center front) Photo: Rachel Ward
The nearly constant discovery of finds like these are what drive the volunteer workers to work so hard and to keep coming back. It’s thrilling, but more than that, it’s meaningful, as they see the complex history of the city and its many conflicts – conflicts that are still going on today – being revealed under their feet. You understand Jerusalem when you get to touch its depth. Just ask Henry Doss, one of Kevin’s volunteer workers and a Charlotte area entrepreneur who has com to Mount Zion now for several dig seasons.

“Archaeology is about 95% digging dirt and carrying buckets full of dirt and emptying them,” said Doss. “It’s hot and dirty and dusty and tiring. But it’s also part of a process of accumulating, and understanding and learning about this region and its people and its history. “

Doss muses: “It’s difficult to explain how this kind of aggregates over time. So if you look around and see dirt and dust, you see one thing, but the experience -- the total experience of being here -- is really a magical thing. You have this profound sense of place and time. I am absolutely convinced that this kind of experience, especially for young people, undergraduates and graduate students, is one of the most important things they can possibly do.

UNC Charlotte student Brijesh Kishan
Photo: Rachel Ward
“And it’s important in a number of dimensions. Number one is coming to a place like this and participating in this work is a wonderful exercise in leadership development.  Probably the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in leadership development all of my adult life. Students who come here learn to make decisions, they learn how to discern things, they learn how to think in certain ways. They learn how to interact with other people and they learn about history and culture. They have a really, really deep sense of place and time by being here... It’s priceless, absolutely priceless.”

And so, this unorthodox project has unorthodox results, but perhaps better research results than you would expect. By not looking for something specific, the excavation at Mount Zion has found something perhaps more important, more interesting, more relevant… and really useful. It’s applied research – and learning the researchers themselves can apply. If you doubt that, come to the dig next year and see for yourself.






(Next post: What the stones say.)





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