By: Alex Joffe
Tucson in August is predictably hot. But no one had told us that the center lanes on the major east-west roads change direction at rush hour, or that at 4 p.m. the skies erupt with a biblical deluge. The steam rose off the streets as we arrived at the apartment, foretelling the next few years of graduate school, the predictable, the unknown, and the deluge. In 1984, when I arrived, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, née Biblical Archaeology, was taught in the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Arizona. That anachronistic yet refreshingly honest moniker was jettisoned a few years later, but it gives my MA diploma a vaguely Russian sound, as if I had earned it in Leningrad.
Of course, I did not. I had come to Tucson to study with Bill Dever, the doyen of the new style Syro-Palestinian archaeology. We had first met in the bar at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston in 1982 or 1983. Bill was holding court while my former teacher at Cornell, Jim Weinstein, leaned on the bar at an unusual angle. Al Leonard, with whom I was to study Mycenean pottery, was ambulating, not worse for wear. Why Tucson? The problem was where to study archaeology of the Southern Levant. I had been advised after college by an eminent professor of bible, for whom I periodically raked leaves, to go to University College London. At the time this seemed far-fetched but it would have allowed me to see The Clash in their heyday. I had thought about Harvard and the University of Chicago but I was underwhelmed by their traditional and almost stodgy approaches. I also wanted to avoid big cities, and in any case neither would have accepted me, nor would I have managed to stay in if I had been. How Tucson became the center for Syro-Palestinian archaeology in the 1980s seems one of those fortuitous, that is to say mostly random, things. Bill needed a job; in 1975 there was a job at the University of Arizona, with the help of deans and donors he built a program, and by the early 1980s it was the place to be. Arizona had other archaeologists in its famed Anthropology department, which also included Norman Yoffee, the most anthropologically inclined Assyriologist, possibly of all time. Bill’s anthropological inclinations, his rebellion against the biblically centered Biblical Archaeology, with its theological precedence of texts over artifacts and literal readings of both, and Arizona’s anthropological strengths, all combined. At least for a time.
It is worth emphasizing how original the Arizona program in Syro-Palestinian archaeology strove to be, at least on paper. The first novelty was conceptual. Whatever Biblical Archaeology claimed to be, biblical places, periods, and issues stood at the center. They had the gravity of a black hole, pulling surrounding periods and places towards a mysterious center. In contrast, Syro-Palestinian archaeology put a ‘cultural zone,’ integrated by geography, language, and culture, at the center. Investigations were aimed at institutions and ideologies, peoples and ethnicities, patterns of production and consumption, animated by notions of social evolution held in common with other archaeologies. Pedagogy was also different. Traditional courses in biblical and Mesopotamian history, Hebrew language and Biblical texts, and seminars on archaeological sites and ceramics, were complemented by required courses on archaeological method and theory, ethnoarchaeology, and others. The goal was to think differently about problems in the past. The truly anthropological courses on cultural and physical anthropology were not required. A small cohort of Bill’s students was actually enrolled in the Anthro department and took the full complement. Perhaps they were the smart ones. Though unfortunately named, Oriental Studies aimed to have the best of all possible worlds, so in reality it fell short on one or more sides of the equation. This may have been predictable although a more positive take is that it gave students opportunities, the chance to learn how to think archaeologically. Whether they could was another matter. I had been admitted reluctantly, or so I was later told, having had a checkered college career and being the beneficiary of a less than enthusiastic (although perhaps quite honest) recommendation. Working hard was one solution. Having spent the previous two years studying alone helped. But the other students also mattered. I remember only a few from that year, above all Dale Manor, without whom I would not have passed Biblical Hebrew.
In that specific regard it was probably a good thing that Peter Machinist was in Germany my first year, and that I had no courses with the estimable Norm Yoffee. These two scholars, so different in their personalities and approaches, became important intellectual models for me. Had I taken courses with them that first year, I would not have survived. They exuded a nearly fanatical intensity with which, at least at the beginning, I could not have coped. But soon thereafter I began to see another side, that both helped attune me to their intellectual requirements and temper my view of them as people. Peter and Norm were and are the deepest of friends. This was driven home in some lecture attended by a hundred or more people. I sat on the side to hear them and watched as Norm took furious notes and prepared to eviscerate the speaker. But before he rose Peter whispered to him, “No, Norm, no, don’t.” I saw for the first time not two professors but two friends, one brash, one reserved, who knew each other deeply, in ways that reminded me of myself and my own friends, youthful, impetuous, cautious, disdainful, respectful. They were of course much younger than I am now. I think Norm asked the question, but I’m not certain. But it was Bill who presided. From his lovingly restored Spanish style house where we would have parties and receive visiting scholars, to his cramped office in the Franklin Building at the end of the hall, he dominated the program and our lives. He would connect these points on a motor scooter, strapping on a little white helmet as evening came and tootling his way home down Tucson’s wide side streets. The program was his creation, his idea, and, at least for me, the idea of Syro-Palestinian archaeology oriented around a culture area, around ideas, social evolution and social organization, trade, production, politics, and more, was infectious. It was not literary or historical – no lists of Kings of Israel and Judah standing at the center – but biblical issues were never very far away. Who were the Israelites, the breakout problem of the 1980s, was on the horizon. The stratigraphy of Iron Age gates and hence the character of biblical kingdoms, the ‘missing ninth century,’ and more, remained at the forefront. Bill was a full participant in these neotraditional debates, and indeed, he relished the role of innovator, gadfly, outright provocateur. Thus the old problem of “Israelite” religion vied with more contemporary questions like the nature of social collapse. The newer questions never quite broke out fully, and the old questions were never fully answered, or escaped. This remains the situation today, although in places they meld together, neither fish nor fowl. The tension was obvious, if unavoidable. How could this new Syro-Palestinian archaeology, about ideas and processes and people, and which was intended to stand on its own as an equal of Mayan or British or Japanese archaeology, not be held back by the old terms of the Bible? Faith, Scripture, literalism, fundamentalism, miracles, these were a kind of burden. The questions of text-as-history, who were David and Solomon, kept intruding. How was the new Syro-Palestinian archaeology to be taken seriously? I learned only in the next decade, as a faculty member in an Anthropology department, that it would not be, at least not there. Ironically, I had a hand in placing my position in that department rather than in Religion or History. But that is another story.
But I at least tried to break away. My interests had already migrated away from the concerns of traditional Biblical Archaeology, which in any case seemed to be a form of historical archaeology, requiring a formal procedure of giving precedence to artifacts and then tacking, as if with the wind, to texts and back again. Late prehistory and protohistory, the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages, were periods without textual overburdens, where archaeological and evolutionary thinking could be at the forefront. It would take me another decade or more to make my own minor contributions to Iron Age archaeology. With the Chalcolithic and the EB there was room to move, to use my imagination. This too had its own problems, and in recent years I have rethought many of the ideas and conclusions I put forward so confidently during the 1990s. In a sense, Syro-Palestinian archaeology in Tucson was the opportunity to systematically rethink everything that had gone before. Of course, this was an unattainable ideal. But it remains a challenge, to generate a mindset of respectful self-criticism and progressive refinement, rather than dramatic paradigm slaying. Then again, I have had to systematically rethink all my intellectual and personal premises to an unusual extent. Charisma was the key. By the time Bill got to Tucson he had already developed an international reputation that helped put the program on the map. This meant that deans allocated extraordinary research funds, which Bill used for his own project at Be’er Resisim, and then gave to students; Steve Falconer and Bonnie Magness for Tell el-Hayyat, and then to JP Dessel, Bonnie Wisthoff and Beth Alpert for Tell el-Wawiyat. At the time this seemed a marvelous way to grow professionals but it soon became apparent that even small projects quickly generated more data than grad students could ever process. Was this predictable? Perhaps not. But being in the program was a social thing. Wherever I would go people would look at me as a ‘Dever student.’ Sometimes this would be benign, like the time I knocked on James Mellaart’s office door in London and spent three hours listening to him talk about Çatalhöyük while choking on the smoke from his noxious Dutch cigars. Other times the stigmata were more noticeable, as in my first interactions with Ruth Amiran of the Israel Museum, who regarded me with suspicion, until, in her grandmotherly way, she adopted me, as she had with so many others. This said something about the never fully articulated but strong imprint Bill had made on people, and the expectations created for his students. Perhaps everyone just expected us to be as overconfident and arrogant as he. I certainly was. With Tucson on the map, in a literal sense, it became a destination for foreign scholars visiting the US. Bill’s legendary parties, held in his and Norma’s wonderful house, complemented lectures and seminars. I recall having ice cream with David Ussishkin long before I worked for him and Israel Finkelstein at Megiddo and drinking Scotch with Giorgio and Marilyn Buccellati. And where else could one meet a scholar like Lucio Milano in the living room and then go from the hot tub to the dance floor next to the pool? To be honest, Lucio Milano might not have been the one visiting that time I climbed out of the hot tub to dance with Norma to the sounds of Zamfir, master of the pan flute. But it was Bill and I alone in his living room after Thanksgiving dinner, listening to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, a dark and unpredictable foreshadowing of their son Sean’s tragic death a few years later. Peter’s house was different. I recall a quiet Passover seder, and most of all the garage converted to a library, a tiny precursor of what became the grandest personal library I have ever seen, occupying a four (?) car garage outside Boston. Peter swam in books, all of which he appears to have read. Norm’s more spare house was where the Early Civilizations seminar was held. Anthro and Oriental Studies students presented on the many hundreds of pages of readings and drank beer. By 10 p.m., after hours of sometimes stormy discussion, Norm himself would sink lower into his armchair in satisfaction. We would usually be out by midnight. The end of the year party, where each student brought a dish related to their culture area, for some reason saw me making improbable amounts of gazpacho.
Bill’s lectures were equal parts archaeological content and social history. So much so that I kept notes in two columns, one about the site or period, the other about that time when Kathleen Kenyon came for a visit. Norm’s lectures were marvels, precise views through many facets of a crystal, beginning at point 1A on his handout and continuing to refract in a great arc to point 10Z. I took too few of Peter’s courses but his Assyrian seminar, an interrogation really, nearly brought me to tears on several occasions. His demeanor would change from smiles to utter seriousness once the threshold was crossed. Bill was the story-teller, the nuts and bolts of pottery and stratigraphy and the archaeologists who had brought them to light; Norm, the Babylonian priest speculating on the shape of the world; and Peter the Assyrian scribe, finding the pattern in all knowledge. Not a bad crew. Carol Kramer, Bill Longacre, Al Leonard, others that I am forgetting, taught my classes and seminars. At the end of my first year, after I learned of my quasi-probationary status, I was offered the job as Bill’s teaching assistant. I extend apologies to the students who sat through my so-called lectures. By the end, Mike Schiffer understandably dozed through my dissertation defense. Then, on to the world. Bill’s theory was that individual students would be tailored for placement in different types of schools, Mormon, Adventist, Jewish, liberal arts, Research I, and so on. The sheer numbers of students who seemed to be in the program during its heyday was a function of this. Some, like Randy Younker and Steven Ortiz, fortunately succeeded. I think I was intended for a large university, which is where I ended up, for a while. Along the way many students came and went. There was Arthur and Gwen, Nephi, that Saudi guy, others, and Larry of course (who had taken me to not one but two strip clubs when I visited Tucson, and memorably advised as we pulled into the parking lot – “I don’t see her car, just go along with whatever I say”). Sadly, JP Dessel was gone from Tucson by the time I got there. It would be another year before we became the closest of friends. By exposure to such variety and transience one could see who had it and who didn’t, and such experiences also bred arrogance and blindness to one’s own limitations. But I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, or being anyone else. I should have. Other lessons went unlearned, but some of these are only evident in hindsight. The ‘secular’ anthropological approach of Arizona has faltered in the last decade or more, even as a de facto ‘secular’ Biblical Archaeology emerged. The same historical questions are asked about the emergence and nature of ancient Israel and its neighbors, the same biblical texts are mined, but divine intervention and social processes alike have receded to the background. Comparative and evolutionary analyses are still rare, but science is triumphant. There was a conservative reaction by many practitioners, set in their ways and knowing which side their bread is buttered on, in some part attributable to Arizona’s evangelical tone. The public, too, seemed to know what it wanted; old style Biblical Archaeology, with its kings of Israel and Judah, however diminished their kingdoms. I once thought this was a function of professionals not taking responsibility and educating the public regarding the full potential of archaeology. I now see it as something intrinsic, the result of the Western religious heritage (or what remains of it) and a basic attraction to what the region has to offer. Egypt and Mexico have pyramids. Southern France has caves. The Southern Levant has the biblical heritage. This positions it far better in the public eye than, say, North American archaeology, which mostly has earthen mounds and post holes. The evolution of complex polities across la longue durée doesn’t sell. Israel and Judah do.
The refusal of most other archaeologies to take Syro-Palestinian archaeology seriously remains. New political economies of higher education are also at work, along with the sensationalist zeitgeist of cable television, the simultaneously democratizing and authority corroding Internet, and more. Biblical Archaeology seems relatively safe in seminaries, where we had foolishly tried to displace it, but along with all other archaeologies it is on thin ice in public and private universities. We will see if the current scientific turn in Biblical Archaeology (which puts a particle accelerator in every square) will help. Perhaps the larger lesson is the power of irony and unintended consequences. The Arizona school set out to overthrow the paradigm of traditional Biblical Archaeology using anthropology and science. Now a scientific Biblical Archaeology is ascendant. Perhaps all this matters little. My own life has gone in different directions and archaeology is now only one of the things I do. It is no longer what I am. This is rather a pity, and something I would have not believed thirty years ago. The limitations of imagination, being unable to see the far horizon, are characteristics of 20-somethings. Growing up means approaching that horizon and seeing it, and yourself, for what they really are. Perhaps archaeology should do the same. But Tucson’s contribution to Near Eastern Archaeology cannot be ignored or minimized. In a unique and feisty way it asked questions about archaeology and text, about putting people and processes and choices back into the past, which will not go away. It gave Bill a place to preach a new approach, and it trained scholars who have made an impact on archaeological knowledge, on students, and on that amorphous social enterprise called ‘the field.’ Above all, it challenged people to think in new ways. It certainly did for me, and for that I am grateful. My own sojourn in the desert, so long ago, was not in vain.
Alex Joffe is editor of The Ancient Near Today. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Archaeology from the University of Arizona in 1991.
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