Midway Through Summer

Where has July gone? We passed Yechiel’s birthday, the 28th yesterday (for those who just joined that’s our eldest son) as he was flying in to join us with his wife.  His son Tal has been with us since Tuesday.  The schedule is complicated, needless to say we are very busy.  There is a wedding, a Bat Mitzvah and many other plans that will keep us running until time to head out.

I didn’t have enough to occupy myself.  While staying in Virginia our younger son, Dan, showed me some courses he was taking on Coursera.org.  I loaded up the site and went to see what Brown (my alma mater) was offering.  They had just listed three courses as an experiment and one was titled “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” which in this day of acronyms has become ADLS.  I couldn’t resist.  My mother was an avid reader of Biblical Archaeology and had gone to a dig in Israel.  My sister worked for an archaeologist (anthropologist?) at Boston University after graduation.  I had brought home sherds and pots as an aspiring archaeologist at age 7ish when the local utility was trenching through our neighborhood to replace gas line (this was 1949 or so) and unearthed endless treasures from the former landfill under our street.

I delved into this 8 week course in early June and have been immersed in it ever since.  The faculty, lead by Professor Susan Alcott have been phenomenal.  They have brought presentations from A to Z or from Abydos in Egypt to El Zotz in Guatemala with stops in Montserrat and Petra.  We have been challenged with ethical questions and logistical issues.  I have had to write or create weekly.  For one assignment the option I selected was to create a video of a presentation which you can view at this link the video runs 5 minutes.  For the last class we were asked to be creative.  Since the best thing I do is write, I prepared an essay on the subject “Who Owns the Past” the title of the last session.  I’ll paste in in at the end.

I have not felt so engrossed in study in many years, if ever.  it has been a wonderful experience to stretch the brain in companionship with 35,000 wonderful students.  Yes that’s right 35,000.  I have become friendly with several on the classroom forums and expect we will continue to communicate on Facebook going forward.  I have managed to share email with several.  There is a group of women in their 80’s who are very active and there is a 9 year old girl who has much to say and a wonderful mind.  All in all it is an exciting community and I plan to participate in other classes, although I may be spoiled by the wonderful experience given by my alma mater.

Here is my last essay for the class:

This is not a poem or a piece of music. It might be a rant.  It is a  look at competing interests.  ADLS has changed my view of the world in many ways.  I see the neighborhood I live in, downtown Rochester, with eyes that have been veiled from the history I learned growing up here.  Now I revel in it.  I am distraught by the damage that Urban Renewal in the late 1950’s did to the fabric of this city and yet, as I look across the street at a monstrous structure built on the ruins which houses about 1,000 low income and disabled people I wonder what would have become of them had the structure not been built.  Would the preservation of Front Street, across the river, have provided a source of knowledge or merely a dingy if colorful market?  Today it is a parking ramp and a walkway along the river that is poorly maintained.  


I watch the video presented by Ian Straughn about the ongoing destruction in Aleppo, Syria wiping away ancient buildings and collections of artifacts and it brings tears to my eyes at the loss.  There is so much knowledge and beauty that is being destroyed.  Yet as I think about so many of the archaeological sites that are studied today, how many of them are stories of repeated construction and ensuing destruction by natural or human forces?  Tel Megiddo, my Mystery Site, is the result of repeated building and destruction, layer on layer.  Who owned the past of the lowest layer and the succeeding layers?  Who owns it today?  


The video about Rosia Montana presented by Emanuela Bocancea discusses a company that plans to mine in Romania to extract gold and silver. It is an area where there are many ancient gold mines.  In the process they will remove two  mountain tops and create a lake in the valley of cyanide laced water.  The environmental disaster they contemplate creating is beyond comprehension, unless you visit West Virginia, but the destruction of an area that houses evidence of extended habitation which has not been surveyed and recorded is incredible to think about.  Who owns this past? The company that has purchased the right to exploit the mineral wealth, the country that wants the financial resources that will be developed by extraction, the people of the region whose history it is and who will be displaced from their homes and their family burial grounds and whose health will be put at risk?  Or the world, which will lose forever access to knowledge of our history.


In the New York Times (Where Police See looted Antiquities, a Mayor Sees a Museum, July 22, 2013, Suzanne Daley) there is an article about the remote Spanish village, Aranda De Moncayo, that is neighbor to the remains of another settlement that was destroyed in warfare in the middle ages.  The locals have been aware of it  because of the surface finds they have picked up over the years.  Now one individual has been the source of eighteen rare helmets that have been put up for auction.  Archaeologists are dismayed. These helmets have been ripped from their context with no records being made and it seems according to the report that there has not been a find of so many of these helmets in one place ever before.  This find’s context is lost to our knowledge as certainly as if tablets of Linear B were to be smashed and scattered.


These stories, and the course we are completing, lead me to consider that much of what we view as destructive of the past is indeed the very formation processes that have created the sites that are the source of our knowledge and research.  A city is destroyed and its artifacts scattered about, even looted.  The remnant may eventually serve as the base for a new city and  future archaeologists will dig through the remains to learn the story.  I am having a harder time, no an impossible time, searching for some value in ripping apart mountains for gold and lacing the environment with poison in the process.  All that will be left is a savaged landscape that is inaccessible to anyone who values their life.  Likewise the looting of helmets from a place where a battle was fought seems to offer no redeeming feature, but maybe the looting itself will attract attention to the area and security will be improved and future archaeologists will have another place to investigate.


In the city I can see from my window much has been lost to developers’ need to develop. In many instances they have created new and better homes where there were nothing but slums.  Much has also been preserved,even the Warner Lofts building which houses my apartment is a preserved building from 1868 and the floors and window glass are original as is the cast iron structure.  In many places I can see marks left by the workers 150 years ago.  This is overlaid by the transition in the 1940s to a retail establishment and later to offices and presently to apartments above retail space on the ground floor.


The process of development destroys and preserves. The process of extraction destroys with no possibility of preservation.  Whether extraction is mineral or artifact ripped from its context the result is removal from the stream of human history and thus the question of who owns it become moot.  There is nothing left to own.

To my classmates, say hi to Paxil!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *