Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What has the past done for me lately?

(Note: This is the last in a series of three posts discussing UNC Charlotte’s Mount Zion Archaeology project. Previous posts are here and here.)

What faculty at universities should teach and do research on is a fraught topic, especially in these days when the funding states spend on their public universities has come under close scrutiny. I mention this here, not because I want to engage in that larger debate (that’s for the citizens of the state and the legislature to argue over, not me), but because the very field of anthropology (which includes archaeology) has, in recent years, come into question  as to whether its study has public value.

If you’ve been reading these posts, I’m curious -- what do you think?

As someone who writes about university research and academic endeavors, I think that there is no question that anthropology and archaeology are worthwhile endeavors, but I also understand why that might not be obvious to many people outside the realm of university life. The scientific study of the human past seems so… academic. But is it, really?

In the first post I wrote, a North Carolina businessman, university graduate student and supporter named Henry Doss already made a very impassioned argument for the value of the Mount Zion project as a learning experience for our students, so I don’t need to say that again.  There are a lot of other arguments that could be made, but here I’d like to make the most basic one: We can’t understand where we are – the dynamics of our world and the issues that confront us --  unless we also know and understand the events and processes that got us here. As William Faulkner once famously said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives.
Consider Jerusalem. It’s one of the world’s oldest cities and it’s a holy city to three of the world’s great religions, each of which have occupied it and controlled it at various times. These succeeding civilizations have left marks, which remain to this day in sacred monuments and distinct populations in different “quarters”: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. When it wasn’t controlled by a religious interest, the city was also a prize and toy to various empires – Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Muslim (there are several of these), Ottoman, British… and so on to today. It’s a complex history that has not only left its marks in the stones and the streets, but is also still playing out in the politics and the social dynamics of the 21st Century. The issue of Jerusalem and who should control it is not only really important to Israelis and Arabs, but also has global ripples that are reflected in the international news media and even reverberates in American political campaigns.

The diggers at Mount Zion see beneath their shovels the ebb and flow of civilizations, and they are reminded that this is still relevant when they walk through Zion Gate every morning, still pockmarked with fresh bullet holes left when the Israeli Army took the city in 1967, during the Six Day War. They have also felt a connection to the past with the Second Intifada, which prevented their project from really beginning for the long period of 2000 through 2007, and in the violence that flared up again last summer, bringing that year’s excavation to an early end. The issue of who controls the city is still being fought over. In Jerusalem, it is impossible to ignore the past because history is still in process.

Zion Gate in Jerusalem. Note the bullet holes.
But not everyone sees the whole picture the way the archaeologists do, as people tend to rebuild cities and monuments to reflect the primacy of current owners and to tell narratives that support political ends.  The past may not be past, but it’s often half forgotten.

The Mount Zion Project, perhaps, is a useful corrective for that – a kind of truth commission for history.  Once it is completed, the project will have laid bare for all to see 2000 years of history, and the physical signs of all the various peoples that have come, gone … and, in part, remained in the current place.

To this end, Gibson and Tabor are in discussion with local authorities to turn the excavation, once it is completed (in the next couple of years), into an archaeological park that will show tourists and residents the history the dig has uncovered – Jewish houses, Byzantine houses, Muslim houses – their stones in layers, the layers intertwined. In the following video, project director Shimon Gibson talks about this proposal:

Click Here to View Video

So, is archaeology merely academic? Are public understanding and the pursuit of peace academic? I don’t think so. Archaeology is a deep look into the past – a past that shouldn’t be forgotten – a past that really “applies” to today’s world.


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