Midpoint Musings from the Semitic Museum

It is hard to believe that I’m already past the half-way point of my summer here at the Harvard Semitic Museum. Since my last post, I’ve spent many mornings walking through Cambridge and admiring its tidy gardens and historic homes, and then settling in the museum’s basement, where the collection is housed. Over the past months, I have handled and archived ancient materials- mostly from the sites of Nuzi and Tel el-Keleifeh, and am now working to complete another project- organizing, inventorying, and archiving the museum’s collection of work produced by Theresa Goell, a female archaeologist who worked in the late 1940s through the early 1970s.

Goell was a truly groundbreaking archaeologist, as it was not common for women to lead digs in the 20th century, especially in the Middle East (she dug several sites in Turkey). She commanded so much respect that there are stories of her mediating disputes between government officials and local tribal leaders, in order to acquire the proper permits to excavate. I recently completed work on materials produced at a dig she led at the city of Samsat, a site just off of the Euphrates River. Shortly after the dig, the site was permanently flooded as a result of the building of the Atatürk Dam, leaving Goell’s records even more relevant.

Photo Credit: “Atatürk Dam” by Bernard Gagnon. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

My experience going through artifacts has been satisfying on an emotional and intellectual level. It is truly moving to hold an artifact produced and used by humans living thousands of years ago. One particularly moving moment for me was when I picked up a ceramic figurine of a woman, from a site near modern Eilat in Israel. The figurine was likely a representation of a goddess, or a young girl’s doll. Either way, this figurine was of immense importance to its owner, and I felt a connection to that individual through our shared experience of holding the figurine. Working with these ancient artifacts, I was constantly reminded of the daily lives of ancient Near Eastern people, and to the unique experience of each person and each culture.

A similar clay figurine, but this one is from the collection of the Jewish Museum.           Photo Credit: The Jewish Museum New York, via Wikimedia Commons

It has also been enlightening to steadily work through the Goell materials. I have developed an intimate familiarity with her and her team’s archaeological records, and have gained a great understanding of the process of how excavations are conducted, and the centrality of record keeping to an excavation’s success. As my supervisor put it, being an archaeologist is 90% archival work.

My work at the museum has given me greater perspective on life in the Ancient Near East, and also the many ways in which to study it. I’ve worked with ancient artifacts, modern excavation materials, and I recently met with a museum team that is creating a 3D model of Giza based off of archaeological records (a neat video demonstration is here). I will come back to Brandeis with a broader perspective of the field, but also with more technical archaeological and historical knowledge.