Tall al ‘Umayri, 7 July 1994

As thrilling as each new discovery is during a dig, the scientific process of documenting an archaeological site can occasionally become a bit tedious.

Tall al 'Umayri, 7 July 1994

Photographer Ron Graybill used a small whiteboard between each sequence of photos for a given square on a site’s grid to identify it during the development process. (Yes, we still used film back in 1994…) When we got particularly bored, we’d have a little fun with the interstitial photos.

BONUS: Compare my beard in 1994 with the beard that recently accompanied me to Emerald City Comicon. Beard-off! 1994 vs. 2012!

Andrew in a fez

Petra’s Al Khazneh in LEGO

Cross-posted from The Brothers Brick.

One of my dearest memories of the summer in 1994 that I spent working on an archaeological dig in Jordan was a weekend trip to Petra. We arrived from Amman late in the evening, but several of my fellow archaeology students couldn’t wait until morning to see the amazing structures carved from the sandstone 2000 years ago, so we snuck across wadi after wadi, avoiding the main paths. Once past the guard posts, we walked through the narrow gorge known as al-Siq — pitch black at night — until the passage opened in front of us to reveal Al Kazhneh, lit only by starlight.

ArzLan built his LEGO version of the Treasury for the Hong Kong Animation Festival, and features Indiana Jones in his Last Crusade visit to this UNESCO Heritage site.

Al Khazneh

Lost tools of the paleolithic

The summer of ’94, I spent my days excavating a 5×5 meter square of Tall al-‘Umayri near Amman, Jordan. As with so much of Near Eastern archaeology, the dig was mostly funded and staffed by Christian colleges in America, with a goal to reach the layers most likely to contain artifacts of interest to believers. I can’t fault the completeness or rigor of the science applied to the process along the way, but it always seemed like there was so much more to learn than the Late Iron II strata could offer — from the late Roman mikveh near the surface to the neolithic burials excavated without fanfare on the fringes of the project.

I was drawn inexorably to that deeper past, far beyond the 6,000-year timeline to which so many believers back home limited their thinking. There in the field, even theology professors set aside their biblical literalism to work and talk within the context of the facts evident all around us.

Neolithic blade - 'Ain Ghazal
Neolithic blade from ‘Ain Ghazal, a “mere” 8,500-9,250 years old

Drawn by stories of undiscovered sites nearby, I walked in the cool evenings through the fallow fields surrounding the school for Palestinian girls where the project was headquartered. I found myself stepping across the surface of a world much, much older than Moses, Abraham, Noah, or Adam and Eve. Chipped stones lay scattered across furrows of barley stubble ploughed under at the end of the last season, and I filled my pockets with chunks of tan stone streaked with oranges and browns.

I’d corner one of the archaeologists and seek an impromptu lithic analysis. Laid out on a table or the side of an unmade bunk bed, I’d wait with baited breath for each pronouncement of “paleolithic scraper” or “mesolithic spearpoint,” disappointed with the overwhelmingly common “Sorry, that’s most likely just a rock.”

Surface archaeology — walking surveys of the landscape — tells us what lies beneath, where to dig someday when there’s time and money, but often little more. Recovered from the churned soil of a modern field in a part of the world where human history goes back far older than 50,000 years ago, it’s shocking to learn that there’s little value in these little hunks of rock — an easy approval for me to take them home by the nice man from the Department of Antiquities.

And so, these tools knapped from chert by people thirty, forty, fifty thousand years ago became some of my most treasured possessions. I could hold in my hand something made when ice sheets still covered much of Europe and humans still hadn’t entered the Americas — a time even before artists put aurochs, woolly mammoth, and herds of prancing horses on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet. I felt a real connection with the men and women who lived all those years ago, a deeper connection than with any character from an ancient storybook.

In a cross-country move between Boston and Seattle, carefully packed to ensure no new chips flaked away, I lost track of my priceless artifacts. In a sense, it’s funny: Excavated by the larger blades of modern, mechanical ploughs, they emerged into the sunlight after tens of thousands of years only to be reburied in a box of miscellaneous office junk (a fate shared by many artifacts in museum vaults).

So I search for them all over again. Every so often, I’ll take down a box left packed for more than a decade and remove a few layers — books of 33-cent stamps, half-used note pads, and stacks of bills paid long ago. Someday, I’ll find them buried at the bottom of a box, pull them out, feel the smooth stone and hear them clink against each other. Someday, I’ll excavate these lost tools once again.

My 10 favorite museums in the whole world

Mark Twain wrote in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Truer words could not be said today. For me, a nation’s museums encapsulate its own culture but also take visitors beyond the country’s borders, helping one understand the shared connections and fascinating differences between all people. In museums, I feel connected not only with people living today, but also with all those people who came and went hundreds or thousands of years before. Museums make me proud to be a human.

Gates of Nimrud - British MuseumBritish Museum, London
http://www.britishmuseum.org/

Empire has its benefits — the systematic pillaging of world cultural heritage and its subsequent preservation. Where might key pieces of the Parthenon have ended up if Lord Elgin hadn’t carted off the best pieces? Similarly, the wholesale looting of Iraqi museums in 2003 makes Sumerian and Babylonian collections in The British Museum that much more important.

And yet, “That’s here?!” kept running through my head as I walked through the crowded galleries last August. The archaeology books I grew up reading were filled with pictures of the very objects I found myself standing next to that day.

Mixed emotions aside, The British Museum remains the favorite museum I’ve ever visited, from the stone age atlatl carved like a mammoth to the handwritten letters between residents of Roman Britain. The modest exhibit of Japanese items took me back nearly 20 years to my childhood. An amazing day only got better when I connected with a friend for the 2008 edition of the Non-Smoking Vegetarian Teatotallers’ Pub Crawl.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
http://www.mfa.org/

My favorite museum in the States, the MFA’s collection includes important early American art, key pieces of European art (the usual Monets, Renoirs, and Van Goghs), and a surprisingly excellent collection of Egyptian and Asian antiquities.

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-FieldsThe National Gallery, London
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

I never intended to visit The National Gallery, but after wandering alone from Russell Square through Covent Garden on my first afternoon in London and allowing myself to get lost, I emerged onto Trafalgar Square. To my left, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. On my right, the steps leading up to The National Gallery.

I switched my iPod from The Clash to Mozart’s Requiem (as performed by the Academy and Chorus from the aforementioned church). With an hour before the museum closed for the evening, I blew through the Impressionists (“Yup, I’ve seen a picture of that.”) and the stifling religious iconography of the Medieval period.

Instead, I lingered among the Dutch Masters until the docents began herding visitors to the exits. It was dark outside when I walked down the steps and looked up at Nelson’s Column. In the distance, the moon rose over Big Ben.

Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo

What wasn’t hauled off to the British Museum, the MFA, or the Louvre sits crammed into the echoing halls of the Cairo Museum. In August 1994, I’d just wrapped up a dig in Jordan, and was touring key sites in Israel and Egypt with archaeology professors and students. I hadn’t visited the British Museum or the MFA yet, and my first exposure to important pieces of Egyptian archaeology happened right there in Egypt.

From King Tut’s treasures and the strange art of Akhenaten’s rule to the famous mummies in their climate-controlled room (a brief respite from the 113-degree heat outside), there was more than I could possibly take in in a day.

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
http://www.si.edu/

Sure, the other museums that make up the Smithsonian have important works of art and fascinating displays about history and science, but nothing so elegantly summarizes the American spirit for me than the Air & Space Museum. The Wright Flyer, Apollo 11 command capsule, and Spirit of St. Louis symbolize the spirit of exploration and progress that emerge now and then from behind the darker spirit symbolized by the hulking nose of the Enola Gay…

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp

…which brings me to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. My grandparents visited us in Japan in 1981/1982, and I took a multi-city train trip with my Grandpa B. The apocalyptic diorama full of bomb-blasted mannequins in the museum gave me nightmares for years. “Favorite” is perhaps not the right word for this museum, but the horrors of that museum made me an unreserved pacifist for life.

National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin
http://www.museum.ie/

Two days after visiting the British Museum, I spent a rainy day in Dublin at the National Museum of Ireland, where I learned that Dublin was founded by Vikings. Who knew? The gold hoards were certainly spectacular (with many a missing item noted as “in the collection of the British Museum), but I particularly enjoyed seeing the bog people.

Trinity College - DublinTrinity College Library, Dublin
http://www.tcd.ie/Library/

The Dublin Writers Museum north of the Liffey held my hopes for finding literary inspiration while in Dublin, but instead the tourist-thronged Book of Kells and medieval manuscript exhibits at Trinity College’s library were much more intriguing. Beyond the spectacular illuminated Bibles, the exhibits included day-to-day books from medieval Europe.

The Long Room in the Old Library building itself is a place of beauty, scented with the leather of books older than most cities in America. The room is lined with marble busts of writers dating back to the 18th century. The oldest harp in Ireland (the very harp depicted on its coins) stands to one side, along with a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the Easter Rising of 1916.

Auckland War Memorial MuseumAuckland War Memorial Museum
http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/

Without much time to leave Auckland during my free time on a business trip last December (or to learn much beforehand — I left on 24 hours’ notice), the Auckland Museum served as my crash course in New Zealand’s natural and human history.

The dramatic effect of human migration was evident on the natural history floor, where it felt like the exhibits included mostly extinct or near-extinct species (including a cast of the famous Sue from Chicago, though humans had little to do with the extinction of the T. Rex).

Growing up as an American in Japan, my perspective and understanding of the Pacific War were dominated by those two countries. Seeing exhibits about World War II from the point of view of a third Pacific island country was fascinating.

National Archaeological Museum, Amman

A lot less shiny (and biblical) than the Israel Museum less than 50 miles across the Jordan Rift Valley, the National Archaeological Museum in Amman, Jordan nevertheless has an amazing collection spanning essentially the entirety of human civilization, from the paleolithic to the Islamic era. Jordan controlled what is today the West Bank in the early days of excavations at Jericho, and key sites in the country also include well-preserved Roman cities and the rock-hewn Nabataean capital of Petra (you know, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Standing face to face with a skull on which someone nine thousand years ago carefully recreated the features of the deceased was one of those moments I’ll never forget.

Bonus: 5 more museums to visit before I die

  • Musee d’Orsay, Paris
  • The Louvre, Paris
  • Prado Museum, Madrid
  • The State Hermitage, St. Petersburg
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York