Emory Report

August 3, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 36


Borowski pieces together Jewish history with shards of past

By 5 a.m., Carl Austin's long workday had already begun. Armed with shovel, pick and other tools, he toiled away the morning in his assigned square, digging, sifting and carting away excavated dirt to its proper place.

At various intervals, his supervisors would appear, measuring changes in the dirt and marking the location and elevation of uncovered materials such as bones, tools and pottery shards. Finally, in late afternoon, he and his dig mates fell to the task of washing the pottery to be kept for further analysis.

Despite the difficult and often tedious manual labor, Austin thought his summer excavation in Israel was inspirational. "Before I signed up for the summer abroad program in Israel, I'd only had one course in archeology," said the recent Emory graduate, now contemplating a PhD in archeology. "[And the dig] was nothing at all like the Indiana Jones movies," he laughed.

But it didn't matter, he continued. "I truly got this incredible sense of what life must have been like so long ago."

Oded Borowski understands Austin's high. A professor of Middle Eastern studies, Borowski has been fascinated by the history of his birth country ever since his childhood in Ramat Gan, Israel--a place surrounded by neighboring excavation sites.

"My kindergarten teacher took us to a local site, which set my imagination in motion," he recalled in his office amid shelves of books on Near Eastern subjects. "Then, after high school and the army, I joined a kibbutz that happened to be next to an excavation site. When I came to the United States, I decided to immerse myself in ancient and Near Eastern studies."

Borowski remains passionate about his vocation and still gets excited over the excavation materials he and his teams have uncovered during his career.

"I've worked on many sites over the years," he said. "When you discover something beautiful, it's exciting. People always ask, 'Have you found gold?' Yes, I have. But the excitement of finding a wonderful object ultimately goes away. What fascinates me most is when we find answers to the questions we've posed."

Those questions have less to do with objets d'art than with determining something about the lives of communities that exist thousands of years ago. Borowski, co-director of the third phase of the Lahav Research Project located at Tell Halif in southern Israel, noted that for every mystery solved, others are revealed. "We think the area was destroyed by an Assyrian king around 701 BCE. [So] then we ask, 'Are the materials we find the product of that particular event, or was that the natural way of keeping house?' We've found lots of strange jars that show they were preparing for a siege. Or would they have used those jars anyway? Basically, we need to get more material and then compare that information from other sites."

Even the smallest items can provide clues. "Bones, seeds and pollen offer great insight," Borowski said. "We have specialists now who, for example, can look at a fishbone and not only tell us what the fish was, but where it came from."

Israel, of course, is rich with excavation sites, befitting a land that has been settled for millennia. But you can't just grab some tools and start digging. Borowski cited the extreme difficulty in getting approval from the state-run Israel Antiquities Authority for new projects.

"First you have to show what you wish to learn, whether it be of a historical, social or economic nature," he said of the painstaking process. "Then you've got to put together a staff--not just diggers but specialists who can perform all sorts of analyses. [And] funding and the support of an academic institution is also vital."

Additionally, he said archaeologists must promise to publish their findings within a given period of time following project completion. And finally, although most of the objects uncovered are used only for the purpose of analysis, Borowski noted that those pieces deemed museum quality ultimately find their way to the Israel Museum.

The various details surrounding an excavation, according to Borowski, only reinforce what may be the most vital element to a project's success: getting it right the first time. "Archaeology," he emphasized, "is a non-repeatable endeavor. You can't go into a lab and run an experiment 20 times. If you don't do it right, it can't be redone. Once you've dug a piece of dirt, it's dug."

--Sue Wasserman

This article is reprinted from the Atlanta Jewish Times and is used with permission.

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