Look on these works, ye mighty; But don't despair, for archaeology still yields riches
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 October 2008)

EPHESUS, TURKEY - Archaeology may be the most complicated art form created in the last 200 years, and one of the most valuable. It's an art of unending disclosure, a system of imaginative scholarship that justifies itself through unpredictable revelations.

While increasingly shaped by science, archaeology retains the quality it had when it was created in the 19th century: It always tells a story. The narrative of each ancient society follows a familiar pattern (tentative rise, exuberant prosperity, pathetic decline) but the details always differ. Why, for instance, did this civilization fail? Scholars develop elaborate disaster scenarios: Barbarian hordes arrive suddenly, the local product becomes unpopular, volcanos erupt, changed environmental conditions turn the drinking water brackish.

Tragedy colours most of the stories. And even when there's a pleasant quality to the evidence presented by the professionals, a certain moral darkness hovers over an archaeology site. A visitor can't help mentally filling in the ugly details -- the slaves who worked themselves to death building the granite masterpieces we admire, or the warring kings who joyfully slaughtered their enemies on these very steps.

After a society dies and its gods are banished, its monuments must suffer further humiliation. Inevitably, succeeding civilizations destroy great sculptures and buildings for the sake of commerce or a more up-to-date religion. My first visit to an archeological site, long ago, was also the first time I heard the phrase "Christian barbarians."

An Italian professor used it to describe those who chopped up ancient monuments to provide marble for their churches, robbing Zeus to pay Jesus. Decades later, while absorbed in studying a Roman monument in the south of France, I learned that its 2,000-year-old marble facing, which once gleamed like victory in the sunshine, now forms the floor of the cathedral in Nice.

The central concern of archaeology is memory and its most pressing concern is time. Nothing so graphically concentrates historic memory as an archaeological site. Nothing so vividly brings time to the forefront of human concern. Lately, meandering around Greece and Turkey ("meander," I just recently learned, is an ancient word that derives from the chronically twisting Meander River in Turkey), I had a chance to observe archaeology as the only living art form whose subject is totally dead.

Consider Ephesus, a magnificent once-upon-a-time city of about 300,000. It is now on Turkish soil, but over the centuries it's been governed by a dozen other jurisdictions.

The Greeks built it and erected a gigantic temple to Artemis that became famous as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Later, Ephesus was annexed by the Roman empire, sacked by Goths and absorbed by the Ottoman Empire. St. Paul spoke there, in the amphitheatre that seats 44,000 (and that some years ago held a Ray Charles performance, before the engineers concluded that concerts were slowly destroying the structure). The Apostle John lived and died in Ephesus. There are mysteries everywhere on the site.

Archaeological digging in Ephesus began in the 19th century. In recent times, thanks to a squad of Austrian archaeologists and US$18-million in corporate donations, things have speeded up. The archaeologists have recreated, out of many scattered pieces, the elaborate Greek facade of a great library and restored a series of terrace houses occupied in antiquity by the more prosperous citizens. Ephesus therefore looks better than it did in the 1990s. It will look better still a few decades from now, if interest in archaeology remains intense. While much work has been done on the site, close to 90% of the ancient city still remains buried beneath the ground.

The revival of an ancient site on archaeological principles takes longer than any other construction project of today. Archaeology has a time sense all its own, proceeding in slow-motion and only after the most scrupulous planning. The work at Olympia in Greece, where the Olympic games began, started nearly 150 years ago and continues. Those who first explore an archaeological site, and prove its importance, set in motion an enterprise that their great-grandchildren probably won't see finished. Even the Parthenon in Athens is surrounded by scaffolding, with vast areas that appear to be still in the early stage of recovery.

Eberhard Zangger, in his book The Future of the Past: Archaeology in the Twenty-first Century (2001), describes the way science has altered his profession. Technological searching for historic evidence goes back a long way: Early in the 20th century, scientists working with Stonehenge could study its surroundings in photos taken from aircraft. But in recent decades, archaeology has deployed everything from identification of populations through DNA to satellite imagery.

Zangger discusses one of the spectacular results of satellite archaeology, the location of the lost city of Ubar, a place everyone believed had existed but no one could locate. Lawrence of Arabia heard it discussed by Bedouins and called it "the Atlantis of the Sands." It was said that five millennia ago it became rich through trading and processing frankincense, a perfume and medicine considered essential in many religious services and cremations.

In the 1930s and 1950s, major expeditions sent to find Ubar came back empty. Almost by accident a satellite radar system found it. Instead of showing shapes below the surface, radar revealed thick strips of land too hard to penetrate, straight lines stretching hundreds of kilometres. These turned out to be caravan routes where thousands of camels had trampled the ground over hundreds of years, leaving it firm as concrete. When archaeologists found the point where the lines intersected, they found Ubar, in the sultanate of Oman at the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Diggers soon uncovered a well, a thick fortress wall, remnants of eight towers and enough foreign pottery and incense burners to prove that this was once a major trading centre. They also discovered why Ubar had vanished: The walls of the fortress were built over a limestone cavern, which collapsed, burying the city in sand.

Archaeology waves its magic wand and, if we are willing to wait a few years (or maybe decades), it reveals the marvels of the ages. Spyridon Marinatos, an eminent Athenian professor of archaeology, once said, "To excavate is to open a book." Year after year, all over the world, archaeologists are opening books, adding new chapters to humanity's memory.

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