Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ancient Rome and Particle Physics

"Ancient Rome" and "Particle Physics" appear to be options in the game, "One of these is not like the other..."  Believe it or not, these two worlds have collided over the responsibility of each with regards to the use of material culture.

Yesterday, an article detailing the debate appeared in several online publications.  The debate concerns Ancient Roman shipwrecks that contain stores of iron ingots--a unitary means of transporting metals in the ancient world (think bar of gold).  The iron ingots of two shipwrecks in particular have been plundered by particle physicists for a unique reason.  Modern lead contains Pb-210, an isotope of Uranium.  The ancient lead, because of its submersion in water for nearly 2,000 years has largely escaped contamination.  This more heavily purified lead creates a more stable environment when it is used to detect the reaction of atoms when they are smashed together.  The article can be read in more detail here, but the contents it discusses raises an important archaeological question.  What is the archaeologists job in preserving material culture?

If the experiments being performed in the supercolliders of the United States and Italy have the potential to help people in the future, could the material culture warrant destruction?  The answer to this question is yes but also no.  Archaeology in itself is a destructive endeavor.  Once an artifact is removed from the ground its initial context has been ruined.  You can never dig the same dirt twice.

If what the scientists are discovering with their experiments in the particle accelerator could aid future benefit to humanity, then yes, I believe limited destruction is warranted.  Full-scale destruction, however, would rob future archaeologists of learning from these shipwrecks.  If these wrecks are tourist attractions, such wide-spread destruction could diminish an industry within the area, immediately affecting real people.

Hopefully an agreement can be reached in which important research can continue with limited impact on the material culture. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

ASOR 2013 in Baltimore and the Archaeologist's Responsbility

I am beginning to realize the importance of consistent, daily writing.  Instead of reserving my commitment of the written word to an electric screen when a paper is due, I am going to make a concerted effort write consistently on matters of interest related to archaeology and biblical study.

Last week, a group of friends / colleagues--luckily in our field, the distinction between the two easily blurs--journeyed to the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.  In layman terms, it is one of the main archaeological scholarly meetings that takes place each year.  

When I have discussed this meeting with friends who are not in the field of archaeology, images of scholars akin to Indiana Jones pop in their mind.  What could be more interesting than hanging out with such a group?  While I agree with the sentiment of excitement, the reality is that it is merely another conference with good deals on books and fascinating papers to attend.

The plenary address for the conference took the cake for the most engaging discussion, at least in my book.  C. Brian Rose of U Penn challenged all Archaeologists with our role when the countries we study go to war.  What is the archaeologists job who digs in Syria, when the political climate renders travel to the country impossible?  Our job, Dr. Rose said, was not to take sides in any conflict.  Our job first and foremost is to ensure the protection of material culture.

He implemented a fascinating program where he and other archaeologists traveled to different military bases in the U.S. to provide servicemen and servicewomen with information regarding antiquities of the countries to which they would soon be deployed.

Another interesting item discussed was the purchase of looted antiquities in foreign countries.  Although it might be pretty cool to purchase an assortment of ancient coins or a Roman short-sword, the money exchanged for such items often goes directly into the hands of people that fund terrorism and violence.

The conference was a blast and included many opportunities to touch base with former professors and colleagues.  I was privileged to present a poster with a fellow student, and also I was able to spend a brief period of time with a former professor from Centre College who was seminal in my journey to where I am today.

All in all, it was great week with nothing but fantastic memories.

Jocelyn and I with our poster.