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Across The Middle East – Interview With Archaeologist Dr. Mark Schwartz

There are so many examples of experts in Michigan making global impacts. I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of them–Grand Valley State University’s Dr. Mark Schwartz–to talk about his work and experience as an archaeologist in the Middle East, exploring some of the first major elements of modern human society. His work contributes to the body of knowledge through which we understand our own history. Enjoy.

ADRIAN: Thank you for sitting down with Science Around Michigan, Dr. Schwartz. You are currently a professor of anthropology at Grand Valley State University, but your expertise, and original passion, is archaeology. You’ve worked firsthand in places many of us will only ever read about in a history book. I think many of us have a very romanticized, yet vague, understanding of what archaeology entails, so I’d like to start off asking how might you explain archaeology to someone unfamiliar with the work?

DR. SCHWARTZ: Archaeology as a discipline is very different from the public perception of the field. Sure there are discoveries of tombs, treasure, shipwrecks etc. but most of what archaeologists do is to generate information and answer questions about our shared past. This may entail someone sitting down and cataloguing thousands of broken fragments of pottery or sorting through animal bone remains. These activities wouldn’t necessarily make for a good news story but the questions they ultimately answer do.

A: Your undergraduate work included a summer of exploration in Israel, could you share a bit about where you were working and what you were working on?

S: My first field experience was in Arizona at a site called Homolovi II run by E. Charles Adams at the Arizona State Museum.  The site was inhabited by people who later became known as the Hopi.  It was a wonderful summer and a great site.  It was a good model for how an excavation should be run and how people could work together cohesively.  The next summer I worked in Israel at 3 sites an Upper Paleolithic site (Nahal Ein Gev), a Neanderthal cave site (Amud) and a biblical city (Tel Hazor).  Tel Hazor was a large Canaanite city that became an Israelite city during the Iron Age.  The experience was different from the experience in Arizona (I was there to dig but not necessarily learn about what I was doing) but I became very interested in the ancient Near East and decided to pursue the study of Mesopotamia for my graduate work.

A: For your dissertation, you spent a significant amount of time in Turkey along the contentious Syrian border. I understand that your digs focused on early trade in Mesopotamia along the Euphrates River. Would you expound on that for us?

S: I worked on my advisor Gil Stein’s excavation, Hacinebi Tepe which was part of the very first colonial trading system in history.  Around 5,500 years ago people who would later be known as the Sumerians left southern Iraq to establish trading colonies upstream on the Euphrates to obtain the things they lacked in Mesopotamia, stone, copper and wood.  This was the period when Mesopotamians were building the first cities and creating the first writing.  It was a very exciting period in history and we were looking at the trading system of Mesopotamia and Anatolia at this one particular site to help learn about the overall system.  I examined bitumen (petroleum tar) artifacts and sourced them back to specific geographic areas to help reconstruct trade routes and networks.

A: The regions you worked in are playing central stage to geopolitical conflicts that could endanger many of the historical artifacts . What does that mean for the litany of sites in the area?

S: Typically, one of the casualties of war is archaeology and archaeological sites.  Sites and artifacts are destroyed by looting, bombing and intentional destruction.  Sometimes it is done to make money for weapons or food, sometimes to erase the history of your perceived enemy or a past you don’t care about.  We see this going on in Syria right now on a large scale.  In Turkey the construction of hydroelectric dams and the flooding or archaeological sites has ramped up excavations in these areas as salvage projects.  In Syria there is the potential to lose some very important material such as thousands of years of history in Aleppo, the crusader castle of Krak de Chevalier, the oasis city of Palmyra, the city of Mari, sacked by Hammurabi, the oldest synagogue in the world at Dura Europos, etc. Obviously I am deeply concerned about the cost in lives but it is not an either or situation.  Both should be saved and protected.  Many people in Syria feel their ancient past gives them a sense of identity.

A: Later in your career, you returned to research along the Tigris River to explore an ancient village dating to the time of Hammurabi. Tell us a bit about that experience.

S: I was part of a salvage project on the Upper Tigris River east of Diyarbakir and north of a city named Mardin.  It was a salvage project because the Turkish government was constructing a hydroelectric dam downstream from the site and major portions of the site would be under water with the dam’s completion.  The site was from a period called the Middle Bronze Age which is equivalent to the time period of Hammurabi of Babylon.  It was a relatively small site, not a major city but it had well preserved foundations of buildings and interesting decorated clay plaques with anthropomorphic figures that appeared to have had a religious function.  The site had a specific section that was devoted to ritual and may have been a focal point for the surrounding communities.  I was an assistant director and it was good training for me in terms of how an archaeological project is organized.  Compared to the hard sciences, archaeology is not an expensive venture but compared to other social sciences it can be.  For example a typical summer would cost at least $25,000.  A large project could have a budget of $100,000 a summer.

A: When we first sat down to discuss this interview, you mentioned how important your relationship was with the communities you were working in and around. Why is that?

S: Sometimes when people see western archaeologists overseeing mostly local labor they think archaeology is still a colonialist venture.  Actually the relationship between foreign archaeologists, Turkish archaeologists and locals from the village or city near the site, is a mutually beneficial one.  In terms of cost we could not fly out the numbers of people required for the excavation.  However the summer employment we provide gives people in the local community a way to earn a little extra income during their break from school or down time in the agricultural season. I became close with many of the workers from the sites I was on and am Facebook friends with some of them.  One of the cooks we had used the money he made from his work on archaeological projects to fund his kids’ university degree and I know one of his children was employed at an archaeological museum.

A: If you could visit one place on Earth to explore, where would you go?

S: When I was in my 20s all I wanted to do was to travel.  Now that I am older, married, etc. my wanderlust has decreased a bit but there are still a few places I fantasize about going to.  I would love to take a camel trek in the Sahara and sail the South Pacific to Tahiti and Bora Bora.  I would love to see the Mesopotamian cities of southern Iraq but I don’t think that will ever happen in my lifetime.  I would also love to hike part of the Incan trail and visit Machu Picchu and Cuzco.

Mark Schwartz received his PhD in Anthropology from Northwestern University. He currently teaches at Grand Valley State University as an associate professor of Anthropology. In addition to his coursework, Schwartz is involved in a collaborative project exploring early 20th century steamboat shipwrecks in a West Michigan lake.

Photo Credit: Grand Valley State University

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