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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Changing the Past


Dusting off for photography at Montfort, 2011

We might think that the past, having already taken place, cannot change. But in fact, it is constantly changing, or to be more precise, our perception of it is constantly changing. We are in a continual process of discovery. Every day, information that was lost, forgotten or unknown is being uncovered, and our ways of understanding the past are continually evolving with new insights and different interpretations.


When, as a student I participated in my first archaeological excavation, I came very near to the conclusion that this was not the profession for me. The excavation was at Tel Dor, a multi-period site on the coast about 30 kilometres south of Haifa. I was placed in a four-by-four square in the sandy soil near the remains of a collapsed Frankish tower (Merle), and spent the three weeks excavating what appeared to be entirely virgin soil. There were no ceramics, indeed no finds at all, and my companions and I found ourselves coming to the conclusion that archaeology did not really live up to its reputation, which at that time was enjoying a peak thanks to popularity of Dr. Henry Walton Jones (better known by his nickname, Indiana).

It was on our very last day, by which time we had excavated down several metres, that the pale sandy soil gradually began to change colour. A pocket of soft ash appeared, and in the last few minutes of the day as we were about to pack up, when brushing the ash I suddenly exposed a perfect, intact oil lamp. This discovery changed my whole perception. Even the area-director's terse command that we leave it and pack up, could not put a damper on the revived sense of excitement of discovery. The idea that just below us or just to the side of us there might be some remarkable evidence from the past, and that the chances of our encountering it are partly dependant on our comprehension, but also on pure good luck, makes archaeology rather like an exciting game, where wits and fortune are equal players.

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