Interview with Gil Stein

Interview with Gil Stein


Welcome to the Oriental Institute’s Oral
History Project. Today is Tuesday, April 17th, 2018, and I’m here in the Research
Archives with the head of the Research Archives, Foy Scalf. I’m Anne Flannery,
the OI’s archivist and our IT Specialist Knut Boehmer is behind the
camera. We are here today with Gil Stein, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology,
former Director of the Oriental Institute and current Senior Advisor to
the Provost for cultural heritage. Professor Stein received his PhD in the
Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. He’s
held professorships at New York University, Northwestern University, and
came to the University of Chicago in 2002. In addition to his extensive
research in the areas of urbanism, Near Eastern archaeology, and ancient colonies,
Professor Stein is committed to cultural heritage and has worked with the State
Department to form a museum relationship between the OI and the National Museum of Afghanistan and this past year was awarded a State
Department grant to train conservators from the Central Asian Republics.
So welcome, thanks for being here and we’d like to get started with some
general questions about your history and education. So could you just discuss your
background from your early schooling sort of how you came to this area of
study in the most basic sense? Well I think one of the most important influences on
me was I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, on the East Coast and Providence’s,
like Boston, that they have a sort of a Latin public high school. In
Providence it was called classical high school and we had a four-year Latin
requirement. We were the last public high school in the state to have that
requirement and as part of it we also had courses on ancient history. And so
that was from the word go starting in high school that was really hammered
into me and I learned Latin pretty well, good enough that I was
able to write an obscene parody of Virgil’s Aeneid that was perfectly
scanning in dactylic hexameter so I figured that was the mark of a good
education. But that combination of the Latin combined with the ancient
history really enhanced an interest that I’d already had from my parents. My
parents had always been very interested in history and things like that and they
gave me a wonderful book when I was around 13 or 14 called Gods, Graves, and
Scholars by the man whose pen name was Ceram, C-e-r-a-m. I think it was actually Marec
backwards but something like that. Anyway it was the story of the origins of
archaeology and it talked about Heinrich Schliemann and Troy and Arthur
Evans in Crete. So I was just so taken with it and I was reading it at just the
right age. I think that between 11 and 13, if you can get someone interested in
archaeology they’re old enough that they can really understand what
it’s about and they’re still very kind of idealistic. And so it really just grabbed me and I just found myself getting more and more interested in archaeology,
reading archaeology, going to museums and it simply grew from there. So when I went
to college I had already decided when I applied for college (I ended up going
to Yale) that I wanted to be an archaeologist and that was this very
strong passion of mine really early on. Was there any other subject area you
even considered studying as an undergraduate, or were
you just focused from the start? I was really focused on archeology from the time I
showed up at Yale and the only other career I even considered was that maybe
going to law school to study constitutional law, because I thought
that was an area where you could really make a difference in just the basic
rules of setting up how our country works and its government. But I still
remember in my senior year at Yale standing in the hallway tearing up the
applications for law school that I had sent away for and saying I’m going for
this whole hog and I’m going to follow my dream. And when I told my
parents about it my dad said, well you’ve taken vows of poverty now but not of
chastity or obedience, [laughter] so I figured that was parental approval [laughter]. But really being
at Yale was an incredible education for me and it really fixed me on this pathway
that I’d already gotten interested in in high school. Can you remember certain instances that kind of drove the point home for you
while at Yale, or was it just the education overall? Well, there’s a
couple of things. One of the reasons I went to Yale was that it was far enough
away from home that I could get away from my parents, but close enough that I
could take a train back with a duffel bag full of laundry. But also my dad
had told me he got his PhD in Economics from Yale and he said that one of the
things about Yale was that he loved the most, that he respected the most, was that
they had senior professors teaching the introductory courses for undergraduates
and they didn’t just fob it off on grad students and stick them in front of the
lecturer of like two hundred thousand, two hundred people, rather. And so there
you had like the, just these brilliant minds teaching you at the introductory
level, and so it was perfect. Then they also had
these distribution requirements that really forced you to take classes across
the board and, you know, offered an interdisciplinary archaeology major so
you could basically really follow up on your interests. So I took that
major. I started it and I really threw myself into it. And in my sophomore year
I had this one class taught by Harvey Weiss, professor Harvey Weiss, who ended
up being my advisor and it was called the introduction to method and theory in
Near Eastern archaeology. And the thing he taught us that was like totally new
and bizarre to me was, he would give us a reading assignment and it would be like two or three articles on the same topic that had completely different points of view
and interpretation. And we’d say well, which one is the right one? And he
said no, you’ve got to figure that out. And so this idea that the printed word
is not the gospel, but that it’s points of view, and that different
people can have different opinions was really something that had an enormous
effect on me. It taught me how to read an article. And taking that class
taught me how to think critically about things and not just accept it simply
because it was in print. Then the other thing in the same class that
really just had a deep impression on me, really deep impression, was we talked
about this great man theory of history: that history is made by this one great,
great person this brilliant genius who’s, you know, by sheer force of intellect and
personality, changes the world. And Harvey Weiss was saying, you know, I remember
talking to him after class about this and saying well, you know, you’re
dismissive of this great man theory, but what about someone
like the Prophet Muhammad? He just came out of nowhere and changed the world. I
remember that was the exact example I used with him. And he said well, actually,
not really. He said there are a whole bunch of social and cultural conditions
within which Muhammad rose to prominence and he was as much a product of that as
his own personality. And if he hadn’t been living in that place at that time,
he never would have done the revolutionary things he did. And he said here, read this article. And it was like, no, he gave me two articles to read, and I think
one may even have been by Eric Wolf, but after I read that I came back and I said
geez, I guess so. And so I gave up on the great man theory of history and I
started gravitating more and more towards an anthropological approach:
where the idea that you can’t understand an ancient culture unless you
understand how modern cultures work or how culture works. And so that really
just kept all the classes I was taking in this archaeology major and related
fields, just reinforce that more and more. I took a course on social and economic
history of Mesopotamia, taught by Benjamin Foster, and that was like a
revelation to me about all the things that the textual record can tell you and
all the things that it can’t tell you. Then I took a course taught by a very
young assistant professor named Fred Donner at Yale and it was called The
Crusaders in the East. And the whole idea of the course was we’ve read about the
Crusades without ever reading any European chronicles, but we only read
chronicles by Middle Eastern authors whether they were Armenian or Syriac
Christians or Arab Muslim historians. And it was like being hit over the
head with a two-by-four to realize, wow, you know this is
what it’s like to have someone from another culture talking about your own
culture and how they see it in this completely different way. And I realized
this whole idea of cultural relativism was really important and the idea that
you have to understand the cultural context and then from there it was a
very short step to, you have to understand how cultures work, cultures in
general, and then use those insights— comparative insights from different
cultures around the world— in the present time and use that as a way to understand
how ancient cultures might have worked. And so by the time I graduated I had
come to believe that the only way I could really be any good as an
archaeologist, because I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist—I tore up the
law school applications—was that I had to get a PhD in anthropology. And you have
to understand I had no idea what anthropology was, but I knew it studied
culture, and that archaeology was one approach to it. Because you can study
archaeology from a variety of different intellectual standpoints. And you see
that just at the University of Chicago, where archeology is taught and I think
six or seven different departments on campus with different intellectual
perspectives, like from classics or East Asian languages or anthropology or
art history or religious studies. They all teach, will have at least some
offerings in archaeology, but they’re all teaching it from a different point of
view. And what anthropology does, is it gives you this idea of the comparative
perspective. What is it that’s shared by cultures and how are they different? And
why they’re different. So it’s what I like to think of as intellectual
bifocals: if you look through the top part of the lens you’re seeing these
cultures comparatively and you look at the bottom part you’re seeing each one
as the product of what anthropologists will call, jargonistically, they’ll call
historical contingency. Meaning that every
culture does things in its own very specific way. So like you could take the
idea of kingship and that’s an hereditary absolute ruler. If you want to look at it
comparatively across cultures, a hereditary absolute ruler in charge of a
state-level society, that’s a king. But the difference between how that general
idea of kingship plays out in Egypt with the idea of a pharaoh as opposed to
Mesopotamia with the idea of a sharrum— a king—is totally different. So that
right there in a nutshell is this idea of you want to be able to look at ancient societies, both comparatively, to see what’s shared, and what are general developmental trends.
Like six different societies around the world developed States—developed,
invented writing, developed urbanism, independently of each other. So there’s
something going on there if so many in the societies develop that independently,
but each one is the product of its own history and for that reason went in its
own unique direction. I thought that is such a powerful perspective and that’s
how I want to try and understand the things that I’m interested in. And my
own interests were very much about the development of the earliest
civilizations in the Middle East from an anthropological perspective. So with
that as the basis I jumped into anthropology at the University of
Pennsylvania and I had no idea what I was getting into. How did you prepare
yourself for that transition? I had a really good summer before. But I was very
fortunate that again my senior advisor, Harvey Weiss, he was the advisor for my
senior honors thesis and all that, he said, you have to apply for a National
Science Foundation graduate fellowship. And if you get it they’ll pay for like
your first three years of graduate school. And I thought well that’s pretty
good and so I you know I put it through draft after
draft after draft and I was very fortunate—I got that fellowship. So I
basically had the choice of going wherever I wanted to go, because any, you
know, most grad programs would take free money and still do. So that was one
reason I went to Penn. Actually I had three reasons for going to the University of
Pennsylvania: the first is well, four actually. First is that it had what’s
called a four-field approach. That anthropology, when it was pretty much
invented as a discipline by Franz Boas in the end of the 19th and early 20th
centuries, he conceived of it as united by the concept of culture. But there were
four subfields, which were archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic
anthropology, and biological anthropology. And the idea is they’re each studying
culture: archaeologists study culture as it evolves through time, ethnographers or
cultural anthropologists study ethnographic cultures—living cultures or
cultures in very, very recent past, linguistic anthropologists study
language, as this unique property of human culture that has an enormous
impact, and then biological anthropologists study this really
complex relationship between culture and our biology and what’s there. How have we evolved as anatomically modern humans and what’s the variation
of modern humans across the world? But how does that relate to culture, because
they actually both influence each other. And it’s a very complex relationship but that’s at the very heart of who we are.
So I really wanted to have that kind of synthetic perspective and Penn was one
of the very few places that still followed that four-field approach, where
they insisted every damned graduate student had to take what’s called a
common core program of like 12 courses in your first year that spanned the full
range of, I think, two courses in each of the subfields. And then you had more
general courses like the history of anthropology and things like that. And at
the end of the first year, when you’ve done all these 12 courses, they
give you this two-day, 12-hour comprehensive exam that covered
everything you learned in the first year. And based on that they’d either kick you
out of the program or you, you would continue. And of 21 people who started
that year, seven of them were flunked out and are probably much happier people now. [Laughter] And the rest of us had, you know, we had, we were committed at that point or
should have been committed at that point. And I still feel like that was one of
the most intense and interesting intellectual experiences in my life: is
just to be totally immersed in it. And then to have all my friends in my cohort—
these 21 people were in these different subfields, and we would get together, like,
a group of us Monday nights. And there was this real dive bar in West
Philadelphia called the Tavern, where they had a Monday night was discount
pitcher night on Rolling Rock beer which is brewed from the waters of the
Monongahela valley in western Pennsylvania. And we’d just drink beer and
we would talk about anthropology and, because everyone was—we had people from all four of the subfields—students who are studying the four subfields, we
would just talk for hours about this stuff and it was great. And I learned
almost as much from my fellow grad students as from my professors. And I
thought, this is the best experience I could possibly have to really teach
me why I’m doing anthropology. And I was so excited by it, it was an
amazing experience and I’m really glad I did it and I I still remember, you know, X
years later how valuable those classes were. Yeah you seem to mention at Yale
and at U Penn there is this sort of core curriculum of sorts. Was that uncommon at the time in many programs or was it just done particularly well there at those
two? Well, Penn did it particularly well and Yale had distribution
requirements, but the thing is the trend over time in anthropology departments as
they’ve sloughed off, they’ve given up, and at least informally, they’ve given up on
the four-field approach and they’ve tended to specialize in maybe two or
maybe three of the subfields, but no longer all four. And the result is that people
come out of the program and if you’re a cultural anthropologist you just, you
know, you don’t have a lot of respect for archaeologists. They look at us as the
shop class in anthropology high school that, yeah, they’re good at wood-burning
and maybe, you know, maybe soldering things but they’re, you know, they’re not
really smart. And archaeologists just are totally dismissive of cultural
anthropologists for the idea that all they’re interested in is
theory and any attempt at comparative studies they dismiss as
being, you know, intellectually shallow. And so what’s happened is that the field
of anthropology has fractured a lot and that it’s really a loss for
all of us because as human beings, as social beings, we are all of those things.
I mean you can’t picture culture without those four components to it. So I’m kind
of sorry that’s happened, but I feel like getting that kind of education was the
absolute best thing that ever happened to me and it really validated going
to Penn. I mean the reasons I had for going to Penn they were really rational
reasons but, you know, they didn’t, in retrospect, they had nothing to do with
what happened. I went to Penn because I wanted to be with my girlfriend from
college and she was still finishing up at Yale so I wanted to be close to her. Then I wanted to do archaeology in Iran because Penn was one of the best places in the
United States to do Iranian archaeology. Then I wanted to work with this
professor named Chris Hamlin who, when I met him when I visited Penn, I thought
this is the smartest guy I’ve ever met in my life. So that was in September of 1978, I started
at Penn and within four months my girlfriend broke up with me, the Iranian Revolution took place, and Chris Hamlin
didn’t get tenure. And I was stuck at Penn. [Laughter] Way to make the best of it. But it seemed so rational at the time, but in the end, it was, I’m so glad I went. Why—you were, sort of got interested in this by basically
of got interested in this by basically studying classics right? You talked about
studying Latin things in high school and then you had this amazingly diverse and
interdisciplinary young college education at Yale and Penn.
Why the Middle East, why the Near East, out of, because you seem to
sort of really like generalisms and sort of synthesis, so what was it about
Iran or the Middle East in general then? Well in this ancient,
the ancient history course I took in high school, it didn’t start with the
Greeks and Romans, it started with the history of, like, Mesopotamia. And so it
was largely focused on the old world. But they really hammered home the point that
James Breasted made about how the true origins of civilization of states
and writing and urban life were in the ancient Middle East. So if you wanted to
understand how it all began you had to work in the Middle East. And I started
off with this very generalized interest all across the Middle East. And it, taking
these classes with Harvey Weiss and with Ben Foster, and I even ended up having my
student employment was working in the Yale Babylonian collection which was wild.
And it just really hooked me on Mesopotamia as the mother of
civilizations and . . . So it’s really about those origins? It’s about that? It started,
it started off as an interest in origins, like what happened? And then more and
more it evolved into something just more general, but that the case study where I
really wanted to focus was Mesopotamia but always remembering that it was one of a
group of civilizations. A group in the Middle East proper, but also a group of
early civilizations across the world, what they call the six pristine
civilizations. So it sort of widened. So if you could just give us a sense of
your time at University of Pennsylvania and kind of how that focused you into a
dissertation and then coming coming out of your graduate school career sort of
what shaped your intellectual identity and how did you go from this
sort of broader range of interests and the four fields of anthropology into a more
narrowed focus? Okay, well first thing is, it’s
like my focus has—I don’t know if you’d think of it as like an hourglass and
in some ways it’s narrower and in some cases, in some ways it’s wider, and it’s
both of those things. But I mentioned how taking this core program at Penn really
opened my eyes. And I also took classes on a variety of things and I had a real
interesting mix of teachers. So I mentioned this guy Chris Hamlin, who was
really interested in archaeological theory, and this is back in the late
1980s, and he’d gotten really interested— he was one of the real pioneers of
remote sensing and he was working with Landsat satellite data very, very
early on before . . . he was one of the very few people working on it at the time. And
he was teaching deep interesting theory and so I really
absorbed that from him. And then I had other teachers—Jacques Bordas, who was a specialist in Neolithic Anatolia and he was sort of your hyper
empiricist and just really hammered the data. And then my adviser, Robert Dyson,
Bob Dyson, was, he was just this amazing man with just an encyclopedic
mind. And he just hammered me that, first he didn’t want me to get too cocky,
and so we were talking in his office once and he was asking me questions like
well, you know, what’s some of the early evidence for craft specialization? And I
said to him well, you know, I’m aware that at the site of Shahr-e Sukhteh in eastern
Iran, because Dyson was an Iranian specialist, so I’m aware that at Shahr-e Sukhteh at eastern Iran there’s very early evidence for lapis lazuli and shell bead
production. And Dyson just looks at me really intently and he said, that’s the
trouble with you, you’re aware of a lot of things, but you don’t really know
anything. And so from there my fellow students and I came up with what we
called the the ladder of gnosis which is the very, very lowest level is to be
aware of something and then the next is, oh yeah, I have the reference. And then
the next level up is, oh yeah, I have a photocopy of that. [Laughter] And then the next level up is, oh yeah, I’ve read it. And then the level, the highest level that
that no one ever achieves is, oh yeah, I know that. So I was stuck at the bottom
of the rung. So Dyson was very good about making sure that you were grounded. And
one of the best courses I ever took with him was just a reading course, where he
said, we are going to read the foundational sight reports from the
Middle East. And it sounds like the most boring thing you could possibly make
someone do. What you’ve done the purple blue thing, but it was great
because we read like the Amuq Report. And that turned out to be the first book
review Bob Dyson ever wrote was of Robert and Linda Braidwood’s Amuq
Report. And he said he learned a real lesson from that because he was like really,
really critical of the Braidwoods’ fieldwork methods. And Dyson had this
amazing steel trap mind that that he really critiqued the work that the Braidwoods did. And he said that review was my first publication and it was in the
American anthropologist and I just sort of really attacked them for doing, having
very low fieldwork standards. And he said, and I really came to regret it later,
when I finally met Robert Braidwood, and he said, you know, you were kind
of harsh on me with that and and how Braidwood explained, we were doing the
best we could. And when Dyson made me actually read the site report, he said,
read the introduction. And I read the introduction and the Braidwoods were
totally honest intellectually. They said look, we’ve dug this site as, I dug it as
part of a much larger project, where they gave me a step trench and said dig
there on this one site and that’s what I had and I made the best I could of it.
It was when, in the middle of this area being transferred from Syria to Turkey,
right before World War II, we— archaeological methods were still not
very good and that was in like the 1938 or something or ’39, very, very early
on, when they had the plebiscite deciding where the Amuq would belong, to Turkey or to Syria. And it was even an independent republic for like half a year. And they
didn’t publish the Amuq Report until like 1960 or ’61. And in the intervening time
archaeological methods had gotten so much better. And what Braidwood said to Bob Dyson was, I could have just sat on the thing but
I figured it was really important to get it published. So we just published it
knowing it was imperfect, but at least we got the information out there. And for
people who are not archaeologists, you should know that the Braidwood site report from
the Amuq established the basic chronological sequence for all of north
Syria, all of northern Mesopotamia, all of southeast Turkey. And it was still in use
like 40 or 50 years later. We still refer to Amuq as abcdefghi and they were doing the best they could in these chaotic conditions before the
war. So one of the things Dyson told me is you have to understand everything you can
about the context of the dig and then that will change your perspective. Then
he said you have to read the preliminary reports because there’ll be a lot of
stuff in the preliminary reports that never makes it into the final report. And
if you just skip over it and say oh I want to, you know, I want to read
the last chapter the murder mystery, then you’re going to be missing a lot
because you can see how their understanding of the site evolved from
season to season as they found more and more stuff. And ideas they had at
first they just realized well, that’s wrong, and that’s an important thing to do. So
you can’t just read the final report. And then he said, now look, look at their
stratigraphic sections. I want you to see if you can— if there’s a north section,
bulk section, the drawing of what the stratigraphic sequence looks like in the
north part of your square trench and the west part. Photocopy them and see if you
can match up the sections at the corner. And if you can’t, if you see lots of flat
lines, that means they’re faking it and they didn’t do a good job. And so he got
me reading the Amuq Report, the reports of Byblos, the reports of Tepe Gawra— a
whole bunch of them— I think I maybe got through in a whole semester, I maybe got
through eight major site reports. And those things were like burned into my
skull. And he taught me how to understand what makes a good site report, what makes a crappy site report, what is intellectual honesty when you’re, when
you’re doing your work and when, more importantly—no, as important as when
you’re doing the work, is how you write about it. Do you try and hide things or
not? And he, we read the Leonard Woolley’s report on the excavations at Ur, which
was a joint excavation of the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum.
And Woolley’s reporting was so good that you could disprove his theories and his
interpretations based on what he wrote. He was that honest. And he said if you
can write something like that, where people can disprove you from your own
reporting, you’ve done your job right. And he also talked about this idea of how
the empirical data is so important because, even after your theoretical approach
gets disproven and theories come and go, if you’ve done your job right, the
empirical information that you publish will last and be useful 100, maybe even
200, years from now. And all of us who are archaeologists or study, you know,
the ancient Near East, we all know that’s true because we read a lot of old site
reports and it’s not because, you know, we can’t read the new ones. We read the new
ones as well, but the old ones really have information in them that’s valuable.
So Dyson taught me so much about how to be a good archaeologist and how to
respect theoretical approaches, that you really need to have them, but if they’re
not grounded in data then you’re not doing your job right. And you have to do
both and that’s something that Mary Voigt really taught me very well. Mary
had worked with Bob Dyson in Iran and she dug a Neolithic site in
northwestern Iran called Hajji Firuz in Azerbaijan near Lake Urmia, right up
to the time of the Iranian Revolution. And Mary, she really exemplified this
idea of having a theoretical orientation and theoretical interest, but just being
a very meticulous, really, really good field archaeologist and her site
report on Hajji Firuz, Robert McCormick Adams, at one point, called it the best
site report he’d ever read. So I felt like I, just by working with all these
different people, in addition to the cultural anthropologists I took courses
from, I feel like I got such a well-rounded education and I learned how
to be a good archaeologist not just there, but also through fieldwork. And
in my fieldwork I tried to get experience working in the America
Southwest. And it’s like a comparative area for the Middle East, where I could,
you know, it’s in a semi-arid country where all the architecture is mud brick
and you have these village-based agricultural societies that developed
greater complexity. And I just learned how did they do archaeology in the
southwest? What kind of things did they did they focus on? And the part about
doing anthropological archaeology was just completely proven for me because I
took a year off from grad school just to work in the southwest. And I lived on the
Zuni Indian Reservation and working as a tribal archaeologist. And so we were
living in a modern-day Pueblo Indian town where these people were directly
descended from ancestors whose remains I was digging up and the kinds of ritual
structures they had. These kivas, these underground ritual structures, were
exactly the same as what they still had. And the idea that you could use
ethnographic analogies to modern-day peoples to help you understand—they
don’t explain everything—but they really give you a lot of insights into the
archaeological record. It was an incredible education for me.
And I’ve learned just how different regions focus on different questions and
how they have different methods. And then after spending that year working on
three different digs in the southwest— the three great southwestern cultures
are the Anasazi, the ancient Pueblo peoples, the Mogollon, and the
Hohokam, or they’re now called the Tohono O’odham— those are the three great
cultures, and I got to work on a dig in each one of those areas. So again it’s
like this incredible education for me. And then I went out for my first field
work actually in Turkey where, because I wasn’t going to work in Iran
because of the Revolution, so I just moved next door to Turkey. And when I
started working there, Mary Voigt was one of these senior staff
members of the dig and so Mary really taught me stratigraphic excavation. And
Mary had learned how to dig stratigraphically
from Bob Dyson, who is a brilliant strati graphic excavator, and Bob Dyson had
learned how to excavate stratigraphically from Kathleen Kenyon
at Jericho. And I thought, wow the chain of apostolic succession and but no one ever laid
their hands on my head, but I felt like I really learned. And Mary Voigt was
great with this anthropological approach because, while we were digging, we’re
excavating at the site called Gritille Höyük in the Euphrates valley of southeast
Turkey, and it was part of a large chunk of the Euphrates valley in the southeast
that had never really been the focus of a lot of archaeological fieldwork
because it had always been politically unsettled. But they were building, the
Turkish government was building, the sixth largest dam on the planet to dam
the Euphrates, called the Ataturk Dam, and it’s going to flood hundreds of sites so
we went in there to dig one of those sites as a rescue excavation. And so we
lived in a Kurdish village and Mary had us look through the village to
understand how mud brick buildings were constructed, how they were used, and then
how they fall apart and become an archaeological site. So it was amazing to
be able to dig neolithic things from 7,000 BC and be living in, and
looking at, and living among, modern-day mud brick buildings 9,000 years later. So we’re talking about your
graduate training, your early archaeological experience, and one thing
I’m always really curious about with anybody who’s kind of coming to the OI
from earlier generations is the job market when you were sort of completing
your graduate degree and what that looked like. Was it something sort of, I
don’t know, as dire as people make it out today, where getting a job is so
difficult? What was that landscape like when you were finishing at Penn? That’s a really good question because I think we were all this combination of
really idealistic—we really believed in the value of what we were doing and the
interest of it— we were really committed to it and at the same time we knew that it
was a horrible job market. It was just horrendous and that was
something we were very, very aware of early on and there was a lot of pressure
to make sure you actually had publications out before you finished
your PhD or else you wouldn’t even stand a chance. And so I worked really hard and
I got my first publication—I published my, some chapters in the report
on excavations that I’d worked on in Pueblo of Zuni, but that’s in what they
call the gray literature of CRM, Cultural Resource Management or rescue salvage
archaeology reports, so I had some chapters in that. But my first real
publication was in this journal published by CNRS, the French Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique, called Paléorient and I wrote an article
while I was in the middle of doing my dissertation, but it was basically what
are the main results of my dissertation. And that one it was really useful to me
in helping me figure out, oh, that’s what I want to say in my dissertation, because
you had to say it in like ten pages. But it was also really useful
because when I went on the job market I at least had one really good,
peer-reviewed, international publication and that helped me a lot. But we were
terrified of the job market because there were so few jobs and I was
very lucky that I got a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian, where I
was able to do, you know, a pretty advanced project of archaeometry
using neutron activation analysis as a way to get the chemical fingerprint of
the clay in different pottery potsherds. And so I would say if I’d done an
archaeological survey in northeast Syria at the site Tell Leilan, that my undergrad
advisor Harvey Weiss was excavating, and I did a survey of, with Patricia
Wattenmaker, we did a survey of the ten kilometer radius around Leilan and we
looked at the early Bronze Age settlement patterns to look at the
relations between a city and the countryside around them in the early
Bronze Age. And one of the things we were interested in was the traditional model of
what— that cities make finished products that they trade to the villages and in
return they get food from the villages. So I did neutron activation of the
pottery from Tell Leilan itself and from kilns at Tell Leilan and then sherds that we
picked up, early Bronze Age sherds, that we picked up from villages
surrounding Tell Leilan to see, well, were the villages making their own pottery
or not? So I got a postdoc doing that project and workd with a really, just
incredibly fine, scientist named Jim Blackman at the Smithsonian. And he
helped me and we, you know, we’d grind up potsherds and shoot them into a nuclear
reactor to get irradiated. And they never called it a nuclear reactor, they called
it the Code Neutron Research Facility so people wouldn’t worry. But we were
able to get like two or three really good publications out of that and that
helped me also. But I had given myself three years to find a job. And if I
couldn’t get a real tenure-track job after that I was just gonna leave the
field because I figured, you know, I have a really good education, I’ve got
publications. If I still can’t get a job then it’s just not gonna happen for me.
And actually in my third year I got on three short lists—this is after a lot of
failed efforts—I was on three shortlists at Columbia, University of Chicago
Anthropology Department, and Northwestern University. And Columbia was just this
horribly factionalized department. And then at the University of Chicago
Anthropology Department it was very, it was a very tough environment and they
never even sent me a rejection letter. I’m still waiting for it. And I ran into one of
the professors there like eight months later and I said, whatever happened to
that job? And she said well you were our leading junior candidate, but then we
decided to go with the senior candidate. I said, oh, thanks. But Northwestern was the place where I
felt so comfortable and it was just a welcoming, nice environment then—it was an
anthropology department that really still focused on the four-field approach
to anthropology and so that was the only job offer I got. And that was in my third
year when I was on the verge of giving up and that one came through, so. What would, I’m just curious, because you bring it up, what did—was there any thought about what giving up looked like? Meaning, did you have anything in the back of your head— oh I would go do this—or was this
something that, well, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll figure it out and retool at
that time? I had no idea. I just, I said if I don’t throw myself
into this whole hog, totius porcus, I just, I owed it to myself because I, you know,
Penn is kind of like the University of Chicago. We always would joke that there
were these old ads for Paul Masson wines where I think it was Orson Welles, you
know, this big, rotund guy with a beard, and he said at Paul Masson wineries we
will sell no wine before its time. And we kept saying, oh, Penn and Chicago they
will give no PhD before its time. So I was intent on the 10-year plan and I
figured . . . Decided? I this is it, I’m gonna throw everything I have in it and if it
doesn’t work, I don’t know what else to do and I’ll come up with something. Sure.
Do you think you really would have given up at your 3 or would you have . . .? Yeah, I think I would have. OK. A friend
of mine had this, he said this thing that was just horrifying to me. His
name’s Peter Just and he’s now, he’s been the chair of the Anthropology
Department of Williams College. And he was joking about some people would
finish their PhDs and would just go to the anthropology meeting say, interview,
and nothing would happen. He said people start to look a little shopworn after awhile. He was thinking of like, you know, the stuffed rabbit in the store that just is—is kind of battered around but finally a little girl saw it and took it home. So it was, I figured, no, there’s a difference between being stubborn and being pigheaded and three
years is the borderline between those two. So it’s clear then that the OI and the
U of C was obviously on your radar, sort of big-time. You are already reading
Braidwood reports and sort of learning from them, you’re talking about sort of
being in this chain of training and stratigraphy going back to Kenyon, and
even making the short list on the Chicago job. So what does the sort of Oriental Institute look like when you’re at Northwestern, sort of from the outside?
What did it mean to you at that time? Was it, you know, did it have a reputation good or bad or for anything in particular, outside of
some of the stuff that you’ve already talked about, and what did that look like?
Well, the first thing to say is like from the time I was first aware of it as an
undergrad, the Oriental Institute is this legendary place. I should tell you—no
even before then, in high school I already knew about the Oriental
Institute in the University of Chicago and I applied to the University of
Chicago as an undergrad and I got admitted. And in the end it came down to
between Chicago and Yale and I couldn’t decide. And my parents got mad at me and they said walk around the block, when you come back we want a decision. So I just got
into the Gibson’s house when I think, three quarters of the way around, I said I’ll go to
Yale it’s closer. But I could easily have gone to Chicago because I, when I
visited it with my dad I felt like, wow, I feel really comfortable here. And I felt
really comfortable at Yale so it was almost a toss-up as an undergrad.
Then for grad school I got admitted to the, to the OI and I, again, it came
down to between that and University of Pennsylvania and I ended up going to
Penn. So I feel like it was almost like kismet for me to end up there. Then while
I was teaching at Northwestern I taught some courses on Middle Eastern
archaeology and it was the neatest thing because I had, there were like a group of three or four grad students from the OI who were taking the train up to Evanston to
take my class and it was, like, so flattering. And when I started my first
year at Northwestern, I made the pilgrimage down to Hyde Park and I
visited Robert and Linda Braidwood in their, in their lab in the basement and
Linda Braidwood gave me her homemade yogurt. They invited me to just sit with
them for lunch. I was just like nothing— this, like, untenured assistant professor. It didn’t, you know they didn’t have to give me even the time of day and
they were so nice and so encouraging and welcoming and I never forgot—I never
forgot their kindness. And you know, it’s like you read about some legend and
then you actually meet them and, it’s, this is so cool. So the OI was always on my radar and it was on
my radar as, this is the pinnacle of the ideal. It’s almost a monastic ideal of
total rigor in doing your research. And of course there were, at the same
time, you’d hear these stories and it’s a real carnivorous place there and . . . but I
saw the students who came up to take classes with me and they knew so much.
They’re so bright and well-read and I just, I just kept thinking sooner or
later something will happen and eventually it did. So, so was that, you
know, you sort of, before, right before you came to the OI, in a sense, you had
already made it, right? And you had a professorship, you know, tenure, you’re
there, what was the real motivation then to sort of take this opportunity to come
back here? Was it, does it all stem from this early, I don’t want to call it
nostalgia, but this idea about how important and how incredible the OI is,
like, this is the place so there’s this opportunity to come back? And did the
sort of Director role change your motivation for that? Well, while I was at
Northwestern, I was running an excavation. I’d gotten an NSF grant to do my excavation at a site called Haji Nebby in southeast Turkey. I had been on the
NSF panel. I had done fundraising, private, you know, from private donors, so I had
experienced at a very small scale of administration and fundraising and
dealing with, you know, major grants and larger federal entities. So I had some of
that experience, but that was almost secondary. The main thing was that the, I
think Matt Stolper put it really well, he said something like, he was talking about
when he came from Michigan to Chicago he said, oh you know, when you get that call from the Yankees you just can’t say no. And that’s sort of how I felt like, no
matter what one might say about the departmental or the institutional
culture of the OI, it is the single best place that I know
of in the United States and maybe one of the three best places on the planet to
study the ancient civilizations of the Near East. So even though I was really
happy at Northwestern and I love being in an anthropology department, having the
chance to be at the Oriental Institute was remarkable. And Tony Wilkinson had
contacted me about the job and he said you really need to apply for this job.
You should do it. And I was, you know, to be honest, I was very intimidated and I
was scared that, and I said, if Tony believes in me, I’m I’m gonna try this and I will
apply. If they don’t want me, I already have a job. I’m a professor, I’m tenured, I can do whatever the hell I want. And but
the idea of having the chance to shape the direction of research and to be able
to build up the Oriental Institute even more and and modernize it was like
really exciting and tempting for me. And, you know, meeting the faculty,
you know, really convinced me I can do good here because I’m coming in as an
anthropologist and not just as a specialist in the Near East. So that I thought I could bring a broader perspective to it and I
could do something useful by really pushing people towards more engagement
with theory by really bringing back that synthesis of the textual, the
archaeological and the well, to a lesser extent, the art historical, because the
art history had sort of lapsed in the meantime at the OI. But it was really
attractive and to be able to do this in the best place in America and maybe one
of the three, probably, I would say one of the three best in the world, it’s like,
how could you say no and not even try for it? So that’s why I tried for it. And
you sort of hinted at it in that description of your motivations but, when
you were coming in, what did you see as the real big needs of the OI? What did, I
mean, obviously you, you’ve thought about this at the time and probably also since,
but it sounds like you really had an idea for, these are the areas where I
think the OI can really improve on where it’s at, versus just sort of staying the
course? Well all the people who were like finalists for this position or
actually, maybe even earlier, we were supposed to, at one stage in the
application process, we’re supposed to give like a, give them some written
document saying well, what did we see as the areas we want to encourage? And I
wanted to really reinvigorate research because the field projects that the
OI was doing had shrunk down to like
maybe three excavation projects and I really wanted to build that up again. I
wanted to build up as much as possible dialogue between the archaeologists and the textual people because, from visiting the place, I’ve got a really strong sense
that the textual people and the archaeologists didn’t interact nearly
as much as they should have. And that was the single greatest strength of the
Oriental Institute is, in the same building, you had all these people. And if
they actually talked with each other and interacted
with each other it would be an incredibly powerful thing. And that’s not
saying there was nothing, but it could have been some, it clearly could have been so much better. I also wanted, I was very interested in the fact that the Oriental Institute was so conscious of its traditions and sometimes too conscious
of them and too conservative and and I worried that institutions can become
fossilized. I’ve been reading a lot about organizations and and leadership and
stuff like that, and one of the biggest challenges is to avoid fossilization. So
I’ve, I realized that one of the best things to do is something that I already
knew people at the OI had sort of said they would like, and that is to develop a
postdoctoral program. And the reason why it’s so valuable is, it’s a way to bring,
to cherry-pick the very smartest recent PhDs and cycle them through the OI so
that as a source of ideas and innovations, they very often come from
the younger generation and not from the senior scholars. So it was a way to make
sure that there would always be really smart postdocs cycling through and it
was to educate the tenured people, not vice versa. And then, at the same time, by
having them organize conferences, you could make the Oriental Institute this
international center where every year there would be this postdoctoral
conference on a really important topic of theory or method—not just total, some,
total, totally narrow thing about, you know, just pilgrim flasks of the second
millennium, but something really significant that would be of interest
beyond the field of Near Eastern archaeology. Okay, so we were, we
were just talking about your Directorship and sort of what, what made
it—how you were able to successfully implement all these sort of
idealistic projects that you wanted to do. So if we could just elaborate on the end
of that a little bit? Well, one of the the items that I didn’t really write in my
two-page proposal to them of what I would do, was, I was very aware of the
sort of the broader reputation of the O I as a place of very smart people who
are not very nice to each other. And I felt like it’s really important to
set a culture, an institutional culture of, I’ll call it transparency and
collegiality and professionalism. And those sound like just pap general words,
except an organization can stand or fall on them. And I’d seen other departments
that were just riven by factionalism and essentially fell apart. My Columbia
went into academic receivership because no one could get along with anyone else.
And I felt like, when I started there, I realized no one even had performance
evaluations. No one on the staff had any idea how they were doing and there was
no way to hold people accountable. So one of the first things I asked Steve Camp to
do, as associate director, was to develop a system of performance evaluations and
that way people would know if they were doing well. No one ever gets
“attaboys” and it will be in writing and you would also highlight areas where we
think you should, you could do better. We would ask people, tell us what your goals
are, you know, and then be in a dialogue we’d come up with goals that you felt
you wanted to do, and could do, as a staff person and also things that, as director,
I would like you to do. And we’d duke ’em out and come up with a solution. So I
really wanted to encourage, among the faculty, this idea of talking with each
other, of knowing what your colleagues do. It’s it’s frightening how people can be
in offices next to each other and not know. So I set up, this took a while to set up, was, in addition to the postdoc conferences,
these connection seminars were faculty. We’d get up and we’d have alcohol and
food and everyone will show up for that work—90% of the faculty will show up for
that—and then you talk about where is my research going, what kind of questions am
I interested in? And the whole point was to find areas of common ground between
what you’re doing and what your colleagues are doing. So I was trying to promote a
culture of collegiality with, among the faculty. I want to have professionalism
and transparency in the staff. I’m on there to be a culture of civility and I
made it my business to just walk around the building every day. And I wanted to
make sure I knew who was in every part of the, of the OI and going up into the
the prep shop and and meet with Eric Windall and, and get to know what he and
the other guys were doing. And to, to really know people and to get to know
the volunteers and really to build a sense of community in the OI. And I
thought that was, I still think, I talked about this at the reception the other day,
that that the OI is a community. That’s not just a buzzword. That it works really,
really well and people know what their colleagues are doing, if they feel like
they’re being treated fairly. I tripled the amount of research funds that was
available to the faculty because I really want to encourage research. And so
I figured that trying to model an institutional culture like that and hire
people where it’s not enough to be smart, you also have to be a reasonably
collegial person—that all those things were important. And then the other thing
that I think was very important is recognizing that I only know a piece of
the picture and it’s maybe even a narrow piece of the picture. And so what I
really wanted to encourage people to do is to come and talk to me and I may not be an expert on everything, but
most of the time I know a really good idea when I hear one.
So, for instance, the, right after I started, John Sanders and Chuck Jones
came and talked to me about the need to digitize our information. And so from
talking with them, I first of all I recognized how important it was. And then
I worked with them and I came up with this idea that I called the Integrated
Database. And the idea was, let’s pull together all these silos of information
into one overarching data structure and then, first we’ll do it at the level of
things that are institutional projects of the OI and then we’ll extend it to
individual, the research projects of individual researchers and we’ll have
their site reports, their data records their photographs, their plans, their
sections, the Museum Registry, the Library, the Research Archives, and pull it all
into one structure. But, basically, the only reason I thought of it was because
Chuck Jones and John Sanders came to me and said, we have to do something and we
have to digitize our data. And so I felt like, if I could encourage people to just
tell me, come to me with good ideas, my job is to advocate for those ideas, find
money for them, and make them happen. So it’s not like my own creativity, but my
job is to facilitate good ideas and do whatever I could to make them happen. If
it’s a question of money, I would go out and raise the money. So I thought that
it’s basically delegating, listening to people, and trying to create or foster or
encourage a culture of civility and collegiality and transparency so you knew where you stand. Now doing all the talking and handshaking, did that give
you a best story or anecdote about the OI in that time? Oh, my my best story it
has nothing to do with that, but it’s that one of our colleagues, two
of our colleagues, Rich Beal and JoAnn Scurlock, they had the most amazing
wedding that, in the Oriental Institute, where they dressed up as Hittite princes
and princesses and they got married in front of the winged bull lamassu in the
Mesopotamian gallery and their wedding contract was written in Hittite on a clay tablet. And it was presided over by this, this very famous Assyriologist, Simo Parpola. And you would think it was just made up, except I saw these faded color pictures
from the wedding and I thought, this really tells you so much about the OI
that, one, that it’s these very quirky people and two, that they’re so deeply
passionate about their field of scholarship that they don’t just talk
the talk, they walk the walk. So I mean that, that’s my, probably my single favorite anecdote and and it’s it’s really sweet, but there’s
something in it that tells me about people’s absolute commitment. They, they, not, it’s not a job, it’s, it’s like . . . It’s a lifestyle [laughter] . . . It’s a consuming lifestyle, yes . . . There are pictures of that in the Archives. And they should be and I would digitize them
because they were fading fast when I saw them. So another way in which your Directorship was very
distinct was your commitment to cultural heritage preservation, specifically the
State Department grants that you got to work in Afghanistan. And we’re hoping you
could just sort of say a little bit about your commitment to that in general,
but also these projects specifically. Okay, yeah, most archaeologists, for as
long as I can remember, have not really focused on cultural heritage
preservation. But what woke everybody up was in, was it 2003, when the U.S. invaded
Iraq in the second round, the second Gulf War and with the looting
of the Baghdad museum. I remember being at the Society for American archaeology
meetings, the SAA meetings, when the word came out about the the museum being
looted and it was just so appalling and horrifying that it had happened. And then
the fact that it had happened because the United States had not protected the
museum. And that it had happened even though people like McGuire Gibson from
the OI had warned them, this is ground zero, the most important cultural
heritage site in the entire country of Iraq, which is one of the most important
places of cultural heritage in the world and the US had failed. So on that day I
remember thinking we have to, there must be something we can do. And so, in the wake
of that, they organized—I spoke with Laura D’Alesandro, who is our, the head of
our conservation department in the, in the OI’s museum—and I said, we need to
be able to train archaeological conservators from these countries and we
need to train them from Afghanistan and we need to train them from Iraq. And so
we got two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, each one of about $100,000, and we brought, we worked in consultation with those countries
with their antiquities Department, saying, you give us a shortlist and we’ll pick
finalists from it. And we brought four conservators from Iraq and then later
four conservators from Afghanistan. And the whole idea, I may be even
getting that wrong, but in two separate groups, okay, I can’t remember which came first. But we always wanted to bring both of them. And the idea that, that
Laura came up with was really smart and was, first of all, we knew that it had to
be training people for an extended amount of time, otherwise you’re wasting
money to come for one week you learn nothing or very, very little. But six
months, you can really teach people something. Then Laura had the great idea
that, these people aren’t going to speak English very well so let’s just spend
the entire first month with intensive training in English as a second language. And that way they will be able to actually understand the instruction. Then
the following five months will be intensive conservation training. And so
we did that and it worked beautifully. And we were able to replicate it for the
second group, so four Iraqis and four Afghans. And then, that was so successful,
the Field Museum wanted to take the program. And they had way more money than we had, so we just gave them our entire curriculum and they wrapped it up and
were training like three times as many people, but only for short,
like, two-week visits. So I think we did it right. And when we go out, I’ve been to
Iraq and I’ve been to Afghanistan and I’ve met the people, you know, who had
taken that training program and they were doing wonderful things. So the
training really stuck. So that was the, the beginning of my own
involvement and my own awakening to the fact that this cultural heritage stuff—
it’s not just some abstract thing—it’s vitally important. It has real-world
consequences for people and it’s an area where we actually can do something and,
not only that we can do something, that we have to, because if we don’t, it will
be lost forever. And that you have to think of heritage, cultural heritage, as
it’s like petroleum—it’s a non-renewable resource. You get one shot
of it and when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And as much as archaeologists
want to avoid politics, you can’t. You no longer can stay on the sidelines,
because cultural heritage has become so politicized by the bad guys. So on that
basis, when the State Department asked us to apply for these Afghan grants, I went
back and forth on it and in the end, actually, my wife was really instrumental
in saying you can’t let this go, you’ve got to pursue it. And I realized of course
she’s right. And so we applied for these these grants
that the State Department ran, but the whole principles that we really focused
on were true partnership and not just experts from the West telling you what
to do. And then appropriate technology so it will be sustainable so, when the grant
is done and we walk away, that we will have trained the people well enough that
we’ve worked ourselves out of a job—that they don’t need us anymore. And so it was
really successful and and I’m saying that because the State Department
renewed us where we’ve had a total of four grants from the State Department
now and totaling eight million dollars. And then in this last year we got
another grant to start a similar kind of project in Central Asia where we’ll
bring together museum conservators from all five of the Central Asian Republics:
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, bringing
them all together in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, for training. So I
feel like we have to do this and I’m really happy that the Provost asked me
to be a senior advisor for cultural heritage. And he asked me to develop a
proposal for a university-level center, an interdisciplinary center, focused
on cultural heritage preservation at a global level that will bring together
not just the OI, but departments and centers and divisions across the
university. And when you just write out a list of what units within the university
should and, in fact, more of us do have an interest in
cultural heritage preservation, it’s a pretty long list—it’s like 15 to 20
units in the university, just on the face of it, should have a real interest in
preserving cultural heritage. So when I look forward at what I want to do is, I’m
really happy to be able to go back to doing my research because my research
really did suffer while I was director. I was able to keep excavations going, but I
fell behind. I wasn’t able to publish as much as I’d like to. I really want to do
that and my other great love in just archaeology is feeling like I can make a
difference by promoting—doing whatever I can to help preserve—cultural heritage
using the things that the OI and that the University is best at: using our
expertise and have my pragmatic projects, where it’s not just feel-good kind of
things, but it’s actually things with measurable metrics. Like you can say at
the end did we succeed or did we not succeed? So I’m really excited and I
completely believe in doing both of those things and that’s, that’s I’m
really happy to be, to have the chance to do those things. So we’d like to thank Gil
Stein for being here for the Oriental Institute
Oral History interview today and you can watch these and future interviews as we
post them on the Oriental Institute YouTube channel. So please subscribe to
that and give this video a thumbs up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *