Saturday, September 18, 2004


By Jennifer Wallace

Duckworth Publishing, $25, 220 pages, illus.


Archaeologists begin as readers. The young Heinrich Schliemann, captivated by the ancient Greek epics (so the

story goes), grew up and went to Hisarlik, in Asia Minor, in 1870 to find his Troy — a walled city by the sea, straight out of the Iliad. The hoard of gold jewelry he found there was Helen’s own. At Mycenae, Schliemann unearthed a gold mask hiding a mummified face — Agamemnon’s face — that turned to dust after the archaeologist kissed it.

Schliemann was admired as much for the depth of his love of Homer as for his archaeological discoveries. The jewelry was far too old to be Helen’s, and the man he kissed was far too young to be Agamemnon. Much of Schliemann’s life, and a lot of his archaeology, have been cast into doubt. But can we, should we, ever hope for an archaeology unclouded by a vivid imagination?

As Cambridge literature lecturer Jennifer Wallace suggests in her interesting new book, “Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination,” archaeology is burdened by the sheer evocativeness of its subject: the ground. The business of digging things up cannot help but be an imaginative enterprise as much as a scientific one. As such, there is a need for what the author calls an “archaeological poetics” — “a sensitivity to the ground’s elegiac capacity for recording and memorializing vanished histories and personal loss.”

The chapters that make up this book, on some of the more evocative of archaeological sites and subjects — Troy; the buried, perfectly preserved city of Pompeii; the bog bodies of Denmark and the “Ice Man” found in the Alps in 1991; the barrows of the author’s native Wiltshire, to name a few — do not constitute an original argument so much as an extended, endlessly diverting riff on the theme of burial and excavation and the long kinship of archaeology and literature.

Archaeology and poetry both work, the author observes in a chapter on the graveyard-obsessed William Wordsworth, through what she calls “monumental hints … [a] kind of understatement — apprehending the meaning of something by what is lost or lies hidden or is hinted at.” Burial itself, she writes, “must be considered a type of understatement and understatement a metaphorical act of burial.”

Stones, therefore, are inextricably intertwined with stories, and when we walk the ground we can’t help reading between the lines — perhaps reading too much. “[T]he story of Troy,” for example, “is the tale of what happens when fact and fiction become confused, when one is used wildly to justify the other.”

Although archaeological methods have advanced since the days of Schliemann, people are no less moved nowadays to interpret the paltriest remains in terms of their favorite stories. We seek reassuring physical evidence of their historical truthfulness, scrape for signs that they weren’t (at least not completely) made up.

Archaeology in the Holy Land is a case in point. Although Ms. Wallace offhandedly suggests that all religions probably have their archaeology, faith in the historical validity of the miraculous seems intensified in Judaism and Christianity, accounting for the age-old, profound, at times naive, archaeological obsession with the landscape of Israel — a landscape one 19th-century Protestant called the “fifth gospel.” The author observes that the ways Catholics and Protestants have approached that stone-strewn ground differ markedly, reflecting different feelings about history and faith.

For Jews, whose inhabitation of that landscape is ratified by the biblical narrative, the religious significance of the stones is further complicated by politics. (Israeli-Palestinian politics, Ms. Wallace observes, is the largely unacknowledged rhinoceros in the room of contemporary biblical archaeology.)

Excavation reveals as much about the excavator as it does about the stones and bones. When archaeologists dig, it is often a national or ethnic essence they are digging for, forensic proof of their innermost ideological commitments. The swastikas that Schliemann found decorating the pottery of his beloved Troy were, to him, more than just archaeological insight into the book that, he claimed, stirred his imagination as a child; they were also proof of a great Aryan identity connecting modern (non-Jewish) Europeans to an original Indo-European people in remotest antiquity. Long before Adolf Hitler adopted the symbol for his party, Schliemann’s discovery fired many 19th-century scholars’ racist blood.

Underlying archaeologists’ frequent haste to tie stones to stories is a deep existential anxiety: the absurd, mocking fact that, in most cases, the ground yields up no traces, an absolute erasure of memory and history. A case in point is the excavation — for the task was essentially archaeological — of Ground Zero in New York.

When the towers fell, nearly 2,000 of the victims were vaporized beyond any hope of identifying any remains — a grim reminder of just what “dust to dust” means. Dust is hopelessly irredeemable, a fact that depressed the 18th- and 19th-century antiquaries who excavated England’s ancient barrows as much as it depresses New Yorkers now.

Yet it is precisely this disappearance of the past, the author notes — following the philosopher Michel de Certeau — that also acts as the most powerful spur to belief. It is after all an empty tomb, not a full one, that lies at the heart of the Christian religion.

The idea sounded in the book’s subtitle, that archaeology has an imagination, is not entirely new. The poetics of relics, burial, unearthing and nostalgia have been discussed in one way or another by a wide range of writers in various fields, such as David Lowenthal (“The Past is a Foreign Country”) and Susan Stewart (“On Longing”), for example; and the critics Gaston Bachelard (“The Poetics of Space”) and Walter Benjamin, as the author acknowledges, paved the way for her inquiry. (In psychology too, not only the towering figure of Sigmund Freud, but others such as the existentialist psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger have written about the poetics of depth and burial in the ground.)

It is when she explores the subterranean passageways directly linking archaeology and literary figures of Britain’s past and present — from Shakespeare’s poor Yorick and the plague pits that dismally obsessed the poet John Donne, to Lord Byron’s literary trampings among Greek ruins and Seamus Heaney’s bog body poems — that she is at her most original and insightful.

Her chapter on understatement, about Wordsworth and his archaeological analogue (and near-contemporary) William Stukeley, is a fascinating piece of criticism. And her accounts of the exhumation (and subsequent drunken desecration) of the poet John Milton in 1790, and the 1815 disinterment of the poet Robert Burns, are just plain good stories.

Dug up for scientific curiosity by phrenologists, Burns’ excavators took turns trying their hats on his skull to see whose would fit it. It all makes the point in a morbidly direct way: Archaeology’s heritage is inseparable, as in Schliemann’s self-made myth, from the world of poetry and stories.

And this may not be, necessarily or always, a bad thing. “Good archaeology,” as Jennifer Wallace puts it, “needs a vivid fantasy.”

Eric Wargo is an associate editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington.

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