|U of S archaeologist and students explore ancient Middle East sites|
By Sigrid Klaus, appeared in On Campus News, 1998
Professor Christopher Foley, of Anthropology and Archaeology at STM and head of the interdepartmental program in Classical and Near Eastern Archeology, has started preparations for a dig in Jordan next spring.
He's been excavating in the Middle East since the early 1980s. His wife Laura, a sessional in classics, does her own excavations there each summer, and their two sons, now 17 and 18, help out on the digs.
And for the last few years, Foley has also included on-site field experience for students in a number of courses. So that expense isn't a factor in participation, students receive support from the Offices of the President and the Dean of Arts and Science as well as STM and U of S International.
Last year, his department solidified an archeological partnership with Professor Michelle Daviau, of Wilfrid Laurier University, which Foley believes will be greatly beneficial to U of S students.
"Wilfrid Laurier's contacts with the Antiquities Authority in Jordan will give our students a chance to participate in a complex archaeological situation."
But before any picks hit the earth in the Wadi ath-Thamad, south of Amman, there's work to be done here to prepare the 20 students participating in the program.
"Just arranging for the different travel agendas for the students and ensuring that they have the requisite immunizations, visas, and passports is a project in itself."
Foley also ensures that students are sufficiently acculturated to the society they'll be working in before they leave Canada.
"Learning to excavate, process, and record aren't the only skills archaeologists must acquire. For example, since students will be working with local people, it's important that they respect local mores and social codes. And, of course, they should be prepared for lengthy security checks in airports."
Because he'll be responsible for doing an archaeological survey of the site, Foley is already planning a rigorous physical regimen.
Lifting weights and jogging
"Surveying involves long hikes over difficult terrain, along river banks and escarpments. So it involves being in shape. About two months before I leave, I begin lifting weights and jogging."
But he sees the months of preparation as being well worth the effort.
"While the practical experiences the students gain provide skills that are much sought-after in the professional world of archaeology, the geo-political understanding they acquire of the region is equally valuable. Most come away realizing that the problems in that part of the world are far more complex and nuanced than is generally reported.
Not that the Foleys haven't had a number of harrowing experiences during their working holidays. He was once attacked while photographing a site on the West Bank. Another time, when the family was having tea on a balcony during a 14-month stay in Jerusalem, a bomb squad announced over a loud speaker that a bomb had been discovered in the building.
"We decided to go on drinking our tea on the premise that we were probably as safe on the balcony as anywhere else."
While he's philosophic about the difficulties of working in the region, he says he never exposes students to unnecessary risks.
"In actual fact, the Middle East isn't a whole lot more dangerous than any other region. But there are areas where I won't take studentsnot Hebron at the moment, certainly not Nablus, maybe not even Bethlehem."
But for himself professionally, Foley says the thrill of exploring the ancient sites of the Middle East more than compensates for the problems.
"Archaeology is a way of reading history. The site we'll be working on next summer is a case in point. The central site has two major componenets: an Iron Age city dating to 800 - 700 BCE, and a Nabatean/Roman settlement dating to 1st century CE.
"The regional survey I'm doing is designed to study the relationship of these central sites to outlying settlement patterns - road systems, socio-economic relationships, trade patterns, etc."
Iron Age to Hellenistic
He says that archaeologists' site choices reflect their interests and adds that, during his career, he's moved around in terms of time-lines from Iron Age to Bronze Age to Hellenistic, but always in pursuit of variations of a particular theme:
"I've traced sites as they developed from hunting and gathering to established agricultural communities. The wadi I'm working on in Jordan this summer provides a case study of the development process from hunting/gathering to settled community and, beyond that, to when the region ceased to be viable agriculturally.
"The Nabataean, for example, developed sophisticated hydrological technology with large cisterns and a network of channels to collect rainfall. The Romans, too, developed sustainable agriculture there. But, over time, this semi-arid, productive area became a wasteland. Various settlements built dykes, but erosion got the upper hand.
"We're studying what caused this process, whether goat or sheep grazing or the felling of trees. The archaeological reconstruction of the area has a great deal to say to us about the nature of sustainable development, for instance."
Although it has been some time since he has done survey work as on the joint U of S/Wilfrid Laurier project, Foley says he's found the change challenging.
"After doing tels for a long time, I'm enjoying the overviews that survey work affords. The new site is more contained than the one I had been working on in Dor, and thus more compatible with the field experiences my graduate students need."
He says working in Jordan has advantages, particularly when it comes to the generous cooperation of the Antiquities Authority there.
"Most countries, aware of such famous counter-claims on national treasures as between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles, are leery about letting archaeological finds leave their jurisdiction.
"In Jordan, there's a policy of allowing artifacts to leave the country for scholarly purposes as long as they're recorded and eventually returned."
Generally, Foley says there's a spirit of international cooperation in archaeological scholarship that fosters technical advances ranging from a new system of ground-penetrating radar to new excavation techniques.
"Even ordinary Middle Eastern citizens take an active interest in these archaeological advances. Once while I was going through airport security in Amman, one of the officials, after carefully examining electronic equipment I'd brought, said, 'I've always wondered how these worked.' Although these countries have profound political and geographical differences, there's an interest in the historical record, which, after all, represents our common humanity."