Ask an Archaeologist: Adam Aja – Harvard Semitic Museum

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While at the Semitic Museum at Harvard, Ask an Archaeologist also spoke to Dr. Adam Aja, the Assistant Curator of Collections at the Museum and Assistant Director of Harvard’s expedition at Ashkelon in Israel.

[See our interviews with Dr. Joe Greene and Dr. Stephen Bourke]

We asked Dr. Aja questions we received from children attending Archaeology Day at the Boston Museum of Science in October.

  1. What did they use pyramids for?
  2. What were Ziggurats used for?
  3. What were ancient buildings made out of?
  4. What do archaeologists find of old houses?


“Pyramids were tombs and ziggurats were essentially temples,” Dr. Aja told us, answering some of our most popular questions about the ancient Near East.  They were built for “fame and glory,” and to bring attention to the rulers of Egypt or the gods of Mesopotamia.

“People didn’t live in them,” Aja explained, but rather in buildings made out of more common materials such as “wood, brick or stone.”  Most houses in the ancient Near East were made out of mudbrick, which Dr. Aja explained is a lot like adobe in the American Southwest.  He even gave us a recipe for mudbrick:   “This was dirt that was mushed into a form with water and maybe some straw to keep it together and then it would be laid out to dry in the sun.” That could be an interesting project for young aspiring archaeologists this summer!

So what do archaeologists find in these ancient mudbrick houses?  Dr. Aja said that occasionally, archaeologists will find a whole house, but only if they are lucky.  Usually, ancient people would tear down houses when the became old and build new houses right on top of them.  Archaeologists usually find “some parts of the foundation and some parts of a mudbrick wall.”

If you would like to visit the Semitic Museum and see the spectacular collections from the ancient Near East, and a great example of a mudbrick house in case you would like to try and build you own, click here for more information.

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