On What is Really Important
Updated: Nov 6
It is impossible to avoid making decisions. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning we are faced with the need to decide. Some decisions are easy enough to make, a choice between two or more basic things - what to wear, what to eat. In such matters, whatever we decided upon will not radically change our lives. Other choices are more difficult, either because what we choose to do might have a substantial impact on us, good or bad, or because we will need to forgo one desirable thing for another, or avoid one undesirable thing for another. We have to weigh the pros and cons.
In archaeology, decisions of what to expose, what to remove and what to preserve are subject to the preferences and particular interests of the archaeologist involved. Over the past decade and a half I have been excavating a site with a very short history of less than fifty years. Montfort Castle can be regarded as a single period site in that it was first built and then possessed until its destruction, by a single owner, the Teutonic Order, after which it was never reoccupied. But this is an exceptional situation, and most archaeological sites consist of layer upon layer, phase upon phase, and monumental buildings like Montfort are generally compilations of different periods, often different cultures, all of which are of historical value, even those that are visually less impressive. When one clears away a Bedouin encampment in order to expose a castle, one is destroying what for a student of Bedouin history and culture would be the object of greater value, in order to expose and preserve the lesser one. This is often the case, certainly in multi-phase sites, and unless one is only interested in the very uppermost level, the final stage, there is no way around removing whatever is above what one is looking for. That is the choice - either remove everything that is obstructing what you are interested in or, find another occupation. Archaeologists rectify this unfortunate state of affairs by carefully recording and publishing in great detail whatever they remove (at least in theory). But whatever way you look at it, archaeology involves discovery through destruction, and excavation means that something is always lost.
The first excavation that I directed was of a small twelfth century tower, Beisan in the Jordan Valley south of the Sea of Galilee. Located on a hilltop overlooking Biblical Beth She'an and the classical city of Scythopolis, it had been the possession of a minor feudal family. The site included some unusual features, one of which was that the tower had been surrounded by a water-filled moat, an exception in the Latin East where the dry moat was prevalent. While I was excavating in the moat one day, I was visited by Professor Yoram Tsafrir, director of excavations at the classical site, who at the time was working at the nearby Byzantine amphitheatre. He noted that the walls of the tower, the original parts below the reconstructed basalt upper storey (see above) were built of limestone ashlars, which had formerly been seats in the amphitheatre. The Franks had removed them from the ancient building and knocked the backs off in order to reuse them in the tower. Yoram jokingly told me that he had come to take them back for the amphitheatre, which was then undergoing restoration. I answered that I had planned to come by his site to get some more seats in order to reconstruct the upper part of the tower. This jesting discourse points to the very real dilemma that archaeologists not infrequently face - what should be preserved and at what expense?