Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish world — right now.
Since 1981, the archetypical image of an archaeologist has included a wide-brimmed brown hat, a brown leather jacket — and, of course, a bullwhip.
This week, with a new Indiana Jones film having hit screens across the globe, we wondered how this Hollywood legend has affected the careers of the actual, digging-in-the-trenches excavators here in Israel today.
So we met up in Jerusalem with Prof. Aren Maeir, who recently published an essay, “On My ‘Colleague’ Dr. Jones and His ‘Publications’” and discussed how archaeology has shifted from the first Indiana Jones installment until today.
“I think this has nothing to do with archaeology, and if anything, I would say it’s almost anti-archaeology in many ways, but it has brought archaeology to the public’s interest in a very, very significant manner and numerous archaeologists in the field for the last several decades have come to the field of archaeology because of the Indiana Jones movies,” said Maeir, the head of Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Archaeology and the longtime director of The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.
After watching the new Indiana Jones film, “Dial of Destiny,” we ask Prof. Aren Maier, what matters now.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Aren, thank you so much for joining me today in Jerusalem’s Nomi Studios.
Prof. Aren Maeir: My pleasure.
We are here in a week in which Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr. has put out another publication — his fifth in a series after a very long break. And so I ask you, Aren, this week, what matters now?
Well, I think we have to discuss Dr. Jones’s new publication, and I think it’s a great opportunity to do it.
That’s for sure. And of course, we’re being a little tongue in cheek here, and we’re talking about Indiana Jones, and his new publication is, of course, “The Dial of Destiny,” which you and I coincidentally saw in the same Jerusalem theater this week.
Absolutely, yeah. I wasn’t expecting you there, but there you were.
Same. First of all, did you enjoy the film?
I think I enjoyed it as a light adventure film, I would say probably for a teenage-like crowd. It wasn’t, I would say, as enjoyable as maybe the first Indiana Jones movie, but I think it was better than a few of the following ones.
I think the first and the third are my personal favorites. Now, you’re an archaeologist, of course, for the past 40 years, and you’ve, in a way, had to live under the shadow of the Indiana Jones legacy. So briefly, how has that affected your job?
Well, first of all, very often when I introduce myself as an archaeologist and by the way, it’s always great, I think this is perhaps the only profession when you introduce yourself, what you do, you always hear is: “Oh, that’s cool. Oh, I wanted to do that when I was a kid,” et cetera. So there’s always a nice aspect to that. You very rarely say: “Oh, that’s boring. Why are you doing that?” So that’s one good thing. And the other thing is very often you’ll be told: “Oh, I know archaeology, Indiana Jones, and are you Indiana Jones?” or something of the sort. And not only that, time and again, quite embarrassingly, I’m introduced by the PR of my university as “Our Indiana Jones” or something of the sort. So it’s always there in the background.
We in the media, of course, like shorthand, and just say Indiana Jones means archaeologist, but Indiana Jones is not exactly a classical archaeologist, and even for his time period, he would be an outlier, wouldn’t you agree?
Well, I would say that first of all, all the interface between the figure of Indiana Jones and real archaeology is very, very minimal. Indiana Jones as he’s portrayed, even though he is portrayed as a professor of archaeology, he really is something more or less like an adventurer/grave robber/collector of valuables. It’s very different from, of course, archaeology of today in the last few decades, but I would say it’s even different from most of what was going on in archaeology in the times that are described in these movies right before, during, and right after World War II. And I think it’s more of an image of this great white hunter, going out to these barbarian lands and saving the relics. I think that’s what’s going on there.
And to a certain extent, that does connect to an image that did exist, of the explorer, the hunter, the archaeologist who went all over the world, usually under the aegis of some sort of a colonial power — United States, England, Germany, Russia, France, et cetera — went to faraway places and “rescued” these objects. And so many of the large museums in the world are filled with all kinds of objects that were so-called “rescued” by these explorers and taken to European capitals — very often poorly excavated, even in the standards of the time — and exhibited until today. One of the things that’s going on now today is that many of the countries from which these objects originate are asking for them to be returned from the museums. And so for the best-known example is the Elgin Marbles they want returned from the British Museum to Greece. But there are many other examples throughout the world.
I’m glad you’re talking about that, and it isn’t something that I anticipated that we’d speak about, but even in Israel, we have in the Israel Museum many cases of questionable parentage or provenance, at least, including, for example, the very famous Steinhardt Neolithic masks that are still some on display today. And in terms of researching where they came from, it seems really clear that they came from the West Bank. And so the question becomes, especially in light of this year, something being repatriated from the United States to the Palestinian Authority, from this Steinhardt collection, the question becomes, whose responsibility is it to perhaps continue in that trend?
Well, I think there is the aspect of the unprovenanced antiquities in general, and that’s something that I would say it’s a subset of some of the ethical problems in archaeology. It’s not equal to the “great white hunters” who are stealing these objects from the “poor, uncivilized countries.” Of course, I’m meaning that cynically.
The unprovenanced antiquities problem is basically a problem in that we don’t know where they come from in general. And it’s almost always an indication that these are objects that were retrieved through robbing, through illicit excavations that were, first of all, against the law in any country. Two, they destroy the sites from which the objects are taken. Three, we lose the context of the object to begin to understand, because, with all due respect, even to Indiana Jones, there is no inherent importance in a beautiful object if you don’t understand the context from which it came. Did it come from a temple? Did it come from a private house? Did it come from this period or that period? Or from this site or that site? And once you don’t have the contextual information, we’re losing an enormous amount of information, I would say the most important information.
I think we’re very, very captivated by the beauty or the uniqueness of an object, but for the information that we want to learn about the past, and that’s what we do, we want to understand societies of the past better. Just the object, it’s a nice thing, but it tells us only a very small part of the story that could be told by an object or objects in their actual context, excavated well, documented well and researched well.
Which is why, turning back to the film series, whenever Indiana Jones says, “This belongs in a museum,” that’s only part of the story, right? It doesn’t only belong in a museum, it deserves to have five different works of research published about it as well.
Well, that also and it’s sort of funny that — again, it’s a movie, and you can do whatever you want to and you can say whatever you want to — but I’m saying, if we would take Indiana Jones and judge him as a bona fide archaeologist, “It belongs in the museum,” is, I’d say, one step in the right direction, even though in some of his, if I remember, there was one movie where he was willing to trade antiquities with some sort of an underworld figure. So that’s a little fishy.
But again, it belongs in the museum. First of all, after it’s well excavated, well documented. And for example, what museum? Does it belong in a museum in Paris or London, or does it belong in a museum in that country, or even local to the area of the find? And then, that’s already something to be said is, who are you to say which museum this belongs to? It belongs to the country of origin. It belongs to the place of origin. The people who live there want to learn about their past, so they should be able to learn about it through the objects that were excavated properly and documented properly.
And so if the “great white hunter” comes to say: “Oh, this is a beautiful piece. It’s going to look great in the Louvre, it’s going to look great in the British Museum” — who are you to say that?
Correct, and that’s one of the evolutions of archaeology that we’re here to discuss. In fact, people going after objects isn’t necessarily the theme of archaeology today. We’re more interested in discovering how the people were. But even, let’s take the 1930s, when Indiana Jones started his career, here in Israel there were several excavations that were more interested in proving the Bible, for instance, or finding monumental buildings, palaces, things of that nature. Of course, there’s Eric Cline’s great book about excavating at Tel Megiddo, which sheds insight into this. So how was archaeology here in Israel in the 1930s?
Well, first of all, some of what you say unfortunately continues until today. We still have people who are very much out to prove or disprove the Bible, or to find monumental finds or very special objects so that you have a nice story, a sexy story to tell. And I think there’s less of this than there was in the past. But if we go back, as you say, to the 1930s, and not only 1930s, even before that, and also after that, you had people who had a very strong agenda which they allowed to take over their research. Now, we all have agendas.
There’s no such thing as objective science. We try to be as objective as possible. But I think in certain cases, this subjectivity takes over. And so if you are looking to prove something, you’ll probably find the proof that you want to find, even if it’s not there. And I think one of the things that we have to do is try to shed our ideological baggage as much as we can, and try to research the past as an objective science as much as possible. And the way we do it is we have to study as much of the past as possible.
I very much like the analogy that what we find of the past is sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. Imagine you had a jigsaw puzzle with 10,000 pieces, and we were only given 300, and they didn’t stick together and we didn’t have any of the border and they didn’t even give us the box with the picture on it. So with those 300 pieces, we have to try to recreate the picture of the past.
So to do this, we have to use as many analytical perspectives in the study of the past. And as archaeology develops from the times of the 1930s until today, more and more tools have been added to our toolkit. And I would say that in the 1930s, there were some archaeologists, even when they came with an agenda, who tried to use the best methods and the best analyses that they could, while others did not. And I think there’s an ongoing uphill effort among most professionals, as you go through every decade and decade for, I would say, the leading group to try to bring in the better methods, the better theory, the better excavation, the better documentation so that we can try to understand the past in a more complete manner.
Now, for the non-archaeological viewer, the layperson, I think very often that a beautiful object talks to them much more easily than a piece of broken pottery or a fragmentary bone or a layer of sediment. You know, we can take layers of sediment now and tell a whole story about this. The layperson isn’t going to look at it that — well, that’s just a pile of dust. What do I care about a pile of dust?
So if you get a beautiful Greek vase or the mask that you mentioned before, there’s something aesthetic that speaks much more directly. But I think as archaeologists, we have to go way beyond that. It’s not just the object. It’s the whole story that goes around with the object. And the object, even if in the past it was of value. Let’s say you find a beautiful ivory bowl, which is beautiful today, and it was of significant meaning in the past as well. But it’s not only the ivory bowl — how they used it, where it came from, who used it, who didn’t use it, why is it found here and not there? Can we tell where the ivory came from, et cetera, et cetera?
You’ve used the word science several times, and in fact, in the movie, it was alluded to as well, by Indiana Jones reprimanding his colleague: “That’s not science, Baz.” But I wonder, when did archaeology become a science? Because initially, it seemed like some of the archaeologists were biblical scholars or architects or things of that nature. So when did it become its own scientific field?
Well, I think the study of the past was always some sort of a science, if you define science as a field of inquiry. So I think it was. So if you look at archaeology, very often in the past it was connected to humanities, or for example, in North America, it’s very often connected to the social sciences. But even in the humanities, for example, the academic study of Jewish topics in Hebrew is called mad’ei haYahadut, the science of Judaism. So what it’s saying is that I’m taking a topic, and I’m studying it in a scientific manner — in an organized, as objective manner as possible. So I think that goes for any field of study.
I think in archaeology, what we have is, because of this paucity of the data or the preservation of the data, we have to bring in perspectives to this inquiry that come from humanities, social sciences, exact sciences, natural sciences, geosciences, et cetera. To all try to bring this together to understand the past in a more complete manner. And even then, our understanding of the past is very limited.
We just had a conference at Bar-Ilan University on the archaeology of the modern period. So first of all, people say: “Why do you need archaeology of the modern period? Everything’s written.” And it turns out that, first of all, everything isn’t written. And there’s a lot of aspects of daily life, even of today, that we don’t know about and we don’t write down. And so looking at modern times through our archaeological lens also can provide us information. But once we start going further back, and there’s less and less historical data and less and less preservation of the physical data that we use as archaeologists, our understanding of the past becomes hazier and hazier, and hazier and hazier. So the more we can add to our toolkit to throw into the analysis, we have a chance of getting more answers.
I imagine in a thousand years archaeologists will consider this a dark period, because the books will have become waterlogged and destroyed and there’ll be no internet data available through the technology that they have. So we’ll just be those poor primitive people who lived and had these plastic boxes that they carried around with them in their pockets.
Let’s turn back to the idea of archaeology as science. And over the course of your 40-year career, you’ve seen, I imagine, quite a stark evolution, quite a stark, huge startup nation drive here in Israel, at least. Because even in the past 10 years, in which I’ve been following archaeology more closely, there’s all sorts of new technology, all sorts of new fields of archaeology that have opened up.
Okay, well, first of all, that’s completely true. I mean, if I think of what I was taught as a student, both in the class and how I was taught to excavate and the types of analyses that were conducted from the materials that I as a student excavated, as opposed to what I can do now at excavations and research projects that I conduct, or my colleagues conduct, it’s a world of a difference.
And again, going back to an analogy which I really like is, it’s sort of like the comparison between 19th-century medicine and 21st-century medicine. We have the same goals, but a whole new set of completely unknown tools and methods. In medicine, so a lot of less people die of heart attacks. People can have hip replacement surgery, and it works wonders. My paternal grandfather died of meningitis, and a year later they discovered penicillin, which probably would have saved him. So, I mean, that’s the type of — in medicine it’s a little different, but nevertheless, the same thing happens.
I think maybe in 40-50 years, is that there’s been a real revolution in archaeology, that it’s opened up to us all kinds of new fields, new materials that either we didn’t have access to, or we didn’t even know existed. And let’s just think, like in the 1950s, they invented carbon-14 dating. This was an enormous revolution. And this, by the way, it’s constantly being developed, and it’s becoming more and more sophisticated, accurate, et cetera. But this goes for all kinds of other aspects. For example, everybody hears about DNA, ancient DNA. This is a developing field with spectacular results both in the study of the human past and this goes even before our species, Homo sapiens, that we have astounding results. For example, we know now how that, for example, the Neanderthals and the Homo sapiens apparently intermixed sexually. It’s really astounding results.
But we have things, for example, now they’re analyzing the plaque between your teeth, and it can tell what you ate, what diseases you had. And just recently, they analyzed a cemetery not far from the site I excavate, Gath, from about 1000 BCE. And there were bananas there, and soy, which came from the other side of the Earth.
So all kinds of fascinating things. They’re talking now about how you can take DNA out of the sediments, that if you walk by and you shed a hair, your DNA is in the ground and that can be found. And it goes on and on and on, all kinds of methods and all kinds of types of materials that even if we were aware of it, we didn’t know that it exists. I mean, personally, one of the most fantastic things I’ve done is this ancient yeast that we discovered from several sites, including mine with vessels which contained alcoholic beverages. It turned out that there were surviving yeast cells within the ceramic matrix of these vessels.
Well, they weren’t dormant. They were probably the great-great-great grandchildren of the original yeast. But for some reason, a very small micro-colony managed to survive. And we were able to isolate them, regrow them, and identify them. Some of them were the exact same yeast that we use till today in beer. And just recently we made beer out of this, which you may have tasted at the museum, at the exhibition on the feast at the Israel Museum.
So there’s this whole slew of new and exciting methods. I don’t think a month goes by without, somewhere in the world, someone doing something cool with a new method or a variant of some method that we knew and adding on knowledge of the past that wasn’t available beforehand.
Maybe because I’m a bookworm or a journalist, I am always maybe, perhaps too excited about inscriptions. And one thing that I’ve noted in the past decade is the ability to use technology to read them a lot better. Now, not everyone is as capable as Indiana Jones in quickly reading ancient, ancient whatever, coded Greek as he does in the movie. But now, today, we’re able to read these inscriptions through imaging and things of that nature. Have you had experience with that?
Well, we’ve done imaging on inscriptions and something that to the naked eye, is very hard to read, using ultraviolet, infrared and all kinds of other multispectral wavelengths, you can sometimes see things better. But it’s more than that. It’s not only using imagery can you see inscriptions better, but using various digital methods, you can also understand a large corpus of inscriptions in a way that the human brain can’t grasp. And so nowadays, using what we call “digital humanities,” you can scan tens of thousands of inscriptions in Akkadian, Syriac, Hebrew and Latin or whatnot.
First of all, you can teach the computer to read ancient script. Once it learns to read ancient script, you can ask it, for example, what’s the average distance between vowels and nouns in this type of sentence, or that type of sentence? And it can give you answers to questions that even if we could ask, we didn’t have the computational abilities in our limited brain to give answers to that.
So there’s all kinds of very exciting stuff coming out from all directions. And I think the main thing that comes out is that to do good research today in archaeology or anything that has to do with the past, you have to be interdisciplinary. The days in which you had one scholar who knew all the languages and recognized all the material and could jump from anywhere to anywhere and study the past with all the available tools are gone. Today, even in an area where I’m an expert, such as the Bronze and Iron Age of the Land of Israel, when I excavate, I have to use a whole team of co-investigators, each one with his or her expertise in a very specific field to bring together a better picture of the past.
I can attest to that. When I visited your site several years ago with one of my children, the bone expert had just come, and a brick person was on his way to talk about some kind of stove or furnace you found. You mentioned residue analysis, and in some of the cases that we’re hearing about, the residue analysis was taken from something that was found, perhaps even 30 years ago, 50 years ago. Is this changing the way that you’re dealing with artifacts once they come out of the ground?
Well, I would say even before they come out of the ground. One of the things that we know is that if we want to conduct various types of analyses — for example, whether it’s organic residue analysis, whether it’s DNA or other — very often you have to excavate it as if you’re excavating in a surgical room. You have to sometimes wear masks and gloves and even a hazmat suit so you don’t contaminate the specimens that you’re excavating.
It’s sort of like nowadays when you see police work, CSI type of work on crime scenes. Nowadays they wear these suits because they don’t want to bring in their DNA, their dirt, et cetera, into the crime scene. It makes it complicated. So the same thing goes for archaeology. We have to work very, very carefully to try to not bring in extra information.
And by the way, one of the questions is for you mentioned organic residue analysis. People can ask: “One second, you say there was vanilla in this vessel. How do we know that it didn’t come off of the sandwich that you ate at lunch?” So there’s a whole procedure in the analysis of organic residue or DNA or kinds of other things, which is to be able to differentiate between the old and the new. And for example, if I claim there’s vanilla in this vessel, I have to check the residue around it and all kinds of other vessels to show that in only one there is, and in the others there aren’t. So there’s a reason why it survived in there, and it’s probably related to its original function. So we’re very much aware of that issue.
I recently received a press release from one of the universities here. I won’t name which one, and it seemed like an interesting story, but my eyes glazed over because it was so technical that I couldn’t find the story in the story. Are you finding that in the science of archaeology, as well?
Well, I would say that nowadays it’s sometimes hard to follow the technical details of some of what’s going on. And if I read an article, and the field is not my expertise and I understand it, I’ll turn to a colleague who knows more about that and say: “What do you say about this?” So that you have another expert opinion on the matter. So, I think in any field where you’re bringing in so many different expertise and different analytic perspectives, you have to be able to utilize your colleagues when something new pops up, because if it’s out of your field, you don’t have the, I would say, the critical apparatus to really look at something critically.
And that brings me to one of the things you mentioned in your lovely article about Indiana Jones and philosophy, in the collection — you mentioned that you’re in the search for facts, not truth necessarily, but don’t you always kind of wish that the facts build into at least some kind of truth?
Well, I would say we’re looking for different types of facts. And they always say that archaeology is the art of digging a hole and then telling a story about it. So we are trying to understand the past from the objects, from the facts, from the analysis that we conduct. I think one of the things that we have to do, is we have to be very careful between an interpretation that’s rock solid and an interpretation that’s a possibility. And I don’t think we, I’m saying we as a profession, we’re not careful enough to differentiate between the two.
That means someone comes up with a find, throws out an interpretation, and it makes a great headline in a newspaper. But I think if you would have said: “This is my interpretation, and I think there can be others.” If you did that, you wouldn’t get the headline. So I think one of the things that we have to do is, even if it doesn’t work in The Times of Israel banner, we have to be careful to take into account, let’s say, the other opinion, the skepticism, the minimal interpretation. And very often, I would say, it is easy to go for this simple black-and-white explanation. But I think we have to aim, to try to at least, tell the public that: “This is my suggestion. I can’t guarantee that this is exactly what happened. But you should know there are other options.” Now, that’s not very sexy.
And it is a push-pull situation in which most of the digs, at least here in Israel, perhaps around the world, are in a way, publicly funded, would you say? Or privately funded through massive donors or publicly funded through universities. So you need to drum up some kind of interest in the field.
Well, first of all, there has to be interest. And I think since archaeology is a field that’s, at the end of the day, funded in some manner by the public. Whether it’s donations or through money coming from research foundations or from the government or from whatever, you are getting money from the public. Gone are the days when archaeologists are independently rich, and they can fund their own excavations. I wish I was that and I could fund my excavation, but nobody has that nowadays, or very few people have that nowadays. So the money we have comes from the public. So I think we do have to have a very clear eye towards the public’s understanding of what’s going on and justify why we are wasting your funding and prove that it’s not wasting. I think it is important to raise that awareness of the public. And I’ve had, I don’t remember if you, but people who work on internet newspapers have told me that whenever there’s an archaeology article in the newspaper on that day, that’s one of the best-read features in the newspaper for that day.
Without a doubt.
So I think there is public interest, we should foster the public interest, but I think we also have to do it in a responsible way, because if we run to the public and tell a story which has no basis, first of all, two years from now when I publish it, I’ll look like a fool if I announced A and it turns out B. So I try not to. Some people don’t mind that, but that bothers most people.
The other thing is, archaeology is such a popular topic, and particularly in this region, archaeology is very often used for non-archaeological, ideological agendas — whether religious, nationalist, et cetera. So if we go out and spin a yarn that has no connection to actually what it is, and that then is misused by politicians, by religious leaders, or the lay public, we’re actually perhaps setting up minefields with our material.
So I think we have to be careful. But on the other hand, I think it’s important to sell your wares in an attractive manner, which, by the way, goes back to the Indiana Jones movies. I think, as I said, this has nothing to do with archaeology. And if anything, I would say it’s almost anti-archaeology in many ways, but it has brought archaeology to the public’s interest in a very, very significant manner. And numerous archaeologists in the field for the last several decades have come to archaeology because of the Indiana Jones movies, having seen them as a child or as a teenager, or even as an adult. It’s: “Oh, this is fun, I want to do this,” and you go and now it may, in the end, turn out to be something else. But that was the initial jump start for many people. And I think that’s very important.
That’s why I always say that I forgive Indiana Jones for his horrible archaeological technique because he’s been such an important ambassador for our field. And he’s contributed substantially, perhaps more than anybody else. Even more than Lara Croft.
Fair enough. Aren, thank you so much for your time.
Oh, my pleasure.
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