First-century archaeological site Omrit

By | Ben Shields ’17

From the moment I arrived on campus my first year, Macalester’s Classics Department has been incredibly kind and generous to me, wholly committed to my education, opportunities outside the classroom, and getting to know me as not only a student but a person as well. This summer, the department provided me a series of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in the Middle East.

In July I attended Macalester’s new conservation program in Israel at the first century archaeological site Omrit. Classics professors Andy Overman and Nanette Goldman were both there, along with Macalester alumna Erin Gibbs ’09. Erin, a fantastic teacher and person, led the instruction, with help from people from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). There we learned various ways to treat ancient architectural elements for damage, and the bulk of our work was on the temple steps and walls. After that I traveled around Israel and Jordan (with fellow Mac student Kelsey Coia ’16). Then for August and most of September I worked for the IAA at the Rockefeller Museum restoring mosaics, mostly from the Byzantine period. Andy arranged the entire thing for me. All I had to do was show up.

During the summer, I got to know Jerusalem totally by heart. I got to know exactly where I was at all times. It is a city of great joy and deep sadness. It’s my favorite place in the world. There is no shallowness there, even when ordering a drink or buying groceries. Everything is full of meaning. The most mundane activities have a particular weight to them that can’t be explained unless you’ve been there. In five or 10 or 50 years I’ll never forget my route home from work, how to find my favorite bars, where my friends lived.

When Andy and Nanette brought us to see the Western Wall, I was so emotional I hid from the group and delayed our schedule by at least 10 minutes. All the souls of the holy land—past, present, future—come rushing through you at Temple Mount. Turning the corner and seeing it for the first time will be the last thing I think of before I pass. The violence there, current and past, become merely a part of the totality.

I was honored and humbled to be considered for the IAA position at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, which is managed by the Israel Museum. It is a fantastic place and very few like it remain in the world. Nowadays when you tour a museum you are often bombarded with electronic screens, interactive distractions, and razzle dazzle that turns attention away from the art and artifacts. The Rockefeller, essentially intact from its founding in the mid-20th century, remains a place for contemplation and awe.

The IAA staff members were very kind, remarkably talented, and terrific to work with. Jacques Neguer, the head conservator, was my boss and is a true gentleman and friend, with a sharp wit. Archaeology brings together people from many disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, fine arts, and hard sciences. It was thrilling to work with experts every day and become good friends with them. I will never forget their patience, expertise, and delightful personalities. Several times they insisted I had become part of the family and was welcome to return anytime that I wished.

Through all of these experiences, my approach to classics has not changed: it is founded on an ability to feel awe and reverence. It’s an honor to be a classics major. My advice to any younger students is follow your intuition. Anyone with an inborn feeling of awe and reverence (which cannot be taught) should consider entering classics or art history or religious studies or literature, or a combination of the four. The rest will follow naturally. Avoid “deconstruction” or any current chic academic trends, and immerse yourself in the world’s founding and enduring traditions. The whole point of the humanities is to remember where we’ve come from and how we’ve dealt with it. In Jerusalem, a simple walk to work can give you that.

December 14 2015

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