On the Appeal of Complexity
Like the historian, the archaeologist works with material that is often immensely informative, but equally often, highly perplexing. The challenge in understanding and interpreting the evidence is what makes this vocation so rewarding. What is understood by the archaeologist, what is lectured about and published, is never really, to use a particularly appropriate expression, "set in stone". There is always room for an alternative view, and although those who like to have everything neatly explained might regard this as a handicap in the discipline, it is perhaps actually its strength.
When several years ago I was examining the topic of Frankish housing, I carried out an extensive survey over several weeks in the coastal town of Akko. The former crusader city of Acre is the urban location with by far the largest number of remains of what were apparently crusader period domestic buildings. An earlier survey had been carried out by the architect, Alex Kesten in 1960-61, and he had published his results in a study titled Acre. The Old City Surveys and Plans, which he subsequently updated and expanded in a general study of the crusader city and its quarters in 1993.* This useful and comprehensive examination of all the standing remains within the Turkish city walls identified 104 Frankish structures mostly of a domestic nature. I assumed that I would be able to expand upon it still further with additional structures exposed in excavations that had been carried out within and beyond the city walls since 1961.
In spite of this, by the time I had completed and pondered extensively over my own survey, the results were rather disappointing. Other than the acquisition of a serious caffeine addiction (it is impossible to enter a house in Akko without the owner insisting on what is perhaps as much a ritual in the Middle East as is the tea ceremony in Japan), I found that the main thing that I had achieved from my examinations was the reduction in the number of identifiable Frankish houses to a meagre 25. The reason for this was that I had applied a somewhat more rigorous set of criteria than Kesten apparently had, which forced me to rule out most of the houses that he had included in his list. The difficulty for me lay in the realisation that in the resettlement of Akko from the late eighteenth century on, many of the methods applied in domestic construction were virtually identical to those employed by the Franks in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
I have no doubt that a serious scholar re-examining my results might reach rather different conclusions than I did, and might expand or further reduce the list that I had made. Some may find this inconclusiveness frustrating. I think that it is part of the charm of archaeology.
It is not surprising that those who like detective novels find archaeology intriguing. It is perhaps what attracted that great writer of mysteries, Agatha Christie to her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan. But perhaps she had another reason for marrying an archaeologist than the appeal of an often complex plot. He famously claimed that she had said that an archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have, as the older she gets, the more interest he shows in her. However, she later denied having said this, and made a more prosaic statement in her autobiography, "I am unabashedly devoted to the objects of craftsmanship and art which turn up out of the soil".**
*Alex Kesten, The Old City of Acre. Re-examination and Conclusions, Akko, 1993. For my survey see Adrian J. Boas, Domestic Settings, Leiden and Boston, 2010, pp. 262-90. ** Agatha Christie,
An Autobiography, New York, 1977.