• Name: Paul McLerran
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Friday, December 31, 2004

Disturbing a Sleeping God

Following is an excerpt from a lecture delivered a few years ago at Hendrix College in Arkansas by Dr. Nicolae Roddy, who is Assistant Professor, Old Testament, at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Roddy is also Co-Director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, which is currently uncovering the remains of the famous fishing village mentioned in the Bible's New Testament, as well as the remains at the same location of what was arguably the capital city of the ancient Geshurites, a people who lived at the time of the United Monarchy of ancient Israel. Dr. Roddy does a splendid job of relating the very essence of what drives many of us to dig...........

. . .The place to begin [pursuing the question of what it might mean ultimately to be human] is by confronting humanity itself, past and present, in order first to learn something about what it means merely to be human, and then move further on to what it might mean ultimately to be human. I am not arguing that one may learn this only through the work of archaeology. The same thing may be accomplished by looking basic humanity right in the eyes across the table of any soup kitchen or halfway house where one might volunteer one’s time. But I remember my earliest experiences with archaeology and understand why years later I still keep going back. From the very first moment that I held in my hand the worn and fragmentary handle of a jar, I felt an immediate sense of connectedness with the young woman who last grasped it, carrying water to wash and refresh her family some 2000 years ago. When I picked up a sling stone, I could almost hear the 3000 year old grunts, the war cries, the death blows echoing in my ears, and it made my head ache. And to this day I honestly cannot pick up a grinding stone without being reminded of the importance of the basic necessities of life and wonder at the fact that someone who laughed and loved and later died worked that very stone in order to have bread.

By holding in one’s hands the grinding stones, broken shards from water jars and cooking pots, oil lamps and perfume bottles, stones used as hammers and stones used as weapons of war, one is faced head-on with what it means to be human. We learn that what it means to be human is to eat and drink, work and sleep, love and hate, defecate and copulate, give birth and kill. Well, you may say, we don’t really need archaeology to show us all that. We can stay home and see all those things on Cinemax! But how do we learn from this what it means ultimately to be human? That’s a somewhat different matter—something one is not likely to learn from watching TV, even if all one watches is A&E or the Discovery Channel.
Digging in the dirt and handling the remains of human culture provokes thinking about human culture. For example, one of the first things volunteers notice while excavating in their assigned locus is that the walls surrounding them in their five meter square are stratified with various distinct soil textures and colors. Sometimes levels may be separated by a thick layer of dark ash, remnants of some past destruction. What the layers tell us is that the ancients liked to build on the same spot. Three thousand years ago, a group of settlers came to the place where the waters of the Jordan River empty into the fresh water lake that would later come to be known as the Sea of Galilee. This location not only offered necessary water, but was an elevated place offering the security of an overlook out upon the region. Surrounded by fertile valleys and sheltered on two sides by a cadre of rolling hills this spot became a relatively secure haven for generations of urban and rural settlers. From time to time that security would be threatened, either by some natural disaster such as fire or flood or earthquake, or attacked by other human beings who coveted the city for themselves or simply wished to plunder its wealth. Some places, like Hazor and Megiddo, are far older than Bethsaida; Jericho, one of the first real cities on our planet, is far older still. All have layers of occupation and destruction, telling us that the ancients resumed life at the same location once the danger had passed. We have uncovered seven distinct layers of occupation at Bethsaida. Older sites, like Megiddo, from where we get the apocalyptical Armeggedon, have as many as two dozen distinct levels spanning several thousand years.

I have watched volunteers marvel at the stratigraphy, or layers in the wall of their square, eagerly asking questions about when the layer of melted brick or dark ash might have occurred in history and how it may have occurred. I explain to them that archaeologists especially love destruction, because significant layers of destruction can often be correlated with known historical events. The layer just above the destruction layer witnesses to the survivors. Pondering this, our student volunteers cannot miss a fundamental clue about what it may mean ultimately to be human: we are indeed a resilient species.

Another clue that offers opportunity for reflection is the occasional piece of pottery inscribed with the distinctive mark of the potter. Ceramic is durable and plentiful in the region. It is important for archaeologists because its shape and material help us to identify the date of other artifacts and architecture found at the same stratum, or layer. Volunteers working in a single locus may retrieve buckets of these shards, but only once in the proverbial blue moon do we find one inscribed with a name, provoking excitement, wonder, and thoughtful curiosity. In antiquity, generally speaking there were basically two very disproportionately matched types of people: the king, and everyone else. At the whim of kings human beings might be forced into labor, conscripted into battle, or killed for any act of suspected disloyality or treason. The freedom and individuality we enjoy today and often take for granted is a fairly recent innovation. The ancients often worked and marched and died like ants, which might indicate to the modern observer that to be human often means to be obedient to powers who do not often have our best interest, or the best interest of other human beings in mind. And this is something we have not outgrown—the Neuremberg trials, the My Lai massacre, Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia all serve to remind us that we still have not outgrown our tendency to become mere followers. The late British author and physicist C. P. Snow reminds us that “more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.” That rare and exciting find of inscribed pottery, or ostracon as it is called, represents the individual human voice out of the darkness of the past and the silence of the masses, striving in its own way to be heard. It represents the individual human voice out of the silence of the masses, striving in its own way to be heard. It calls to mind the voices of other artisans, of poets, prophets, lovers, and other champions of dissent. In antiquity a name was substantially who one was; it was more than just a tag. And our volunteers sometimes reflect on the fact that each of us has a name. So what it might mean ultimately to be human is that out of a sea of mindless and obedient anonymity someone occasionally asserts her or his name, shouting the defiant “no” against the nameless waves of human destructiveness and the emptiness in its wake. In rediscovering the power of one’s name I believe some of our volunteers will have an opportunity to offer their names to service to the authentic life, and the rest of us will benefit.

There are additional lessons to be learned about what it means to be human that lead us to thinking about what it may mean ultimately to be human found among the remains of human culture at Bethsaida. Recently at the Iron Age level we found an eighth-century wall that appeared to have been hastily erected in order to fortify a ninth-century wall standing in the face of the imminent and impending imperial advance of the Assyrian warrior Tiglath-Pileser III. Apparently at some point during construction of the wall, as iron chariots and massive armies were fast approaching from the northeast, someone took time to set at the end of the auxiliary wall an elongated basalt stone, one that could just as easily have been used along with all the other basalt stones in the wall to afford even greater defense against the siege machines of T-P III. The stone was set up on edge as a self-standing marker, almost certainly consecrated as a sacred stone, dedicated to the power of a deity whose help, they hoped, just might deliver them from approaching doom. Unfortunately for the eight-century BCE citizens of Bethsaida it did not. The walls were breached, the towers collapsed, the huge wooden doors were burned into ash. It reminds us that quite often the human response to fear and insecurity, indicative of a kind of inherent incompleteness, is an appeal to transcendence for deliverance. That is what it means to be finite, human. Homo sapiens, the wise upright animal, is also homo religiosus, the religious animal. In discussing the function of the stele with volunteers, it occurred to one reflective and empathetic student that what it might mean ultimately to be human is to embrace Transcendence even when deliverance does not come. I do not believe the student was necessarily affirming theism at this point, but merely observing that often human beings are guided by their own personal perceptions about reality, acting out of unacknowledged fears and insecurities. But reality rolls on irrespective of our own perception of it. The most we can do is strive to bring our own perceptions closer into harmony with often harsh reality. . .

. . . So part of discovering what it means ultimately to be human is to confront humanity not as a mere observer, but in an active and participatory way. Digging at Bethsaida in June of 1997, one of my student volunteers who had come along to dig with his girlfriend, suddenly ran up to me with great excitement over having turned over a basalt stone and discovering a bull’s head carved on its downward face. Drew did not want to touch it again. What Rudolph Otto had termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the awesome mystery of the sacred—had actually prevented this young business major from being able to treat this stone like any other stone. I encouraged him to overcome his sense of awe and retrieve the object from the soil. By the end of that day of digging we had recovered not only the three other basalt stone fragments that completed the stele, but had uncovered the basin where it had once stood. We knew from the context of destruction that the once complete bull-headed stele, which once served as an altar for a Mesopotamean moon god, had been cast down by the conquering Assyrian Tiglath-Pileser III sometime around 732 BCE and that its pieces had rested exactly where we found them some 2,730 years later. You could almost run the tape backward in your mind to see exactly how the stele had fallen. Also significant about the configuration of debris is that it indicates that no one was present to pick up the pieces before the dust of time came to cover it over until that exciting afternoon in June. From his experience of coming into contact with the Mesopotamean moon god, Drew not only learned that what it means to be human is to worship, but found out first hand what it means ultimately to be human by experiencing for himself the awesome and transforming power of sacred experience. When Drew goes on to become the CEO of some major corporation, who he is and how he conducts business will be positively affected by his unforgettable, extraordinary experience of disturbing a sleeping god.

By digging in the earth, then, we really encounter a kind of mirror reflection of ourselves. Kneeling there in the dirt and retrieving human artifacts compels one to think about them, and think about the men, women, and children who relied upon them. Like the Great Passing Sights that compelled Siddartha Gautama Buddha to set out in search of the true meaning of reality, we too come around to asking ultimate questions. Can you imagine what society would be like if we could find some way of attracting large numbers of people young and old into doing something that is not only exciting and entertaining but compels them to think about ultimate questions and not rely on the pat answers so many of us are given? Having supervised hundreds of Bethsaida volunteers already in my short career, I have received a great many appreciative cards and letters that speak of enriched lives. Their words serve to remind me of why it is I keep going back and evidence the kind of positive personal transformation I am here to tell you about. . . You see, adventures such as these cannot be so easily dismissed as peak experiences, or mere “nice times.” Journeys are in a sense pilgrimages toward the center, the axis mundi, and it is through pilgrimage that we find the center in ourselves, bringing us into a fuller and more authentic existence. Experiences such as these help make us truer to what we essentially are so that we may be truer in what it is we ultimately may be. Digging in the earth and handling the rubbish of people who are in every essential way just like us, we cannot help but be faced with the paradox I described earlier. You see, it is the journey that really counts, for if your ultimate desire is goodness and you tend only to today’s leg of the journey by doing the good, then the goal will take care of itself.
Ashley, a young volunteer who has traveled with me twice now to Bethsaida once sent me a note that says it best:

"Working in the dirt in places that no one has seen for thousands of years I gained an incredible sense of history. I see just how small I am. We are all just tiny specks of dust in something so much bigger and complicated and integrated than any of us can imagine. We all stand on the earth, but under us is everything that ever was. Someday our children will stand over us."

Excerpt from the lecture, "Recovering the Past; Discovering the Present: What Really Happens on an Archaeological Dig".


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