Finding Stories in Stones

Article excerpt


Archaeologists begin as readers. The young Heinrich Schliemann, captivated by the ancient Greek epics (so the

story goes), grew up and went to Hisarlik, in Asia Minor, in 1870 to find his Troy - a walled city by the sea, straight out of the Iliad. The hoard of gold jewelry he found there was Helen's own. At Mycenae, Schliemann unearthed a gold mask hiding a mummified face - Agamemnon's face - that turned to dust after the archaeologist kissed it.

Schliemann was admired as much for the depth of his love of Homer as for his archaeological discoveries. The jewelry was far too old to be Helen's, and the man he kissed was far too young to be Agamemnon. Much of Schliemann's life, and a lot of his archaeology, have been cast into doubt. But can we, should we, ever hope for an archaeology unclouded by a vivid imagination?

As Cambridge literature lecturer Jennifer Wallace suggests in her interesting new book, "Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination," archaeology is burdened by the sheer evocativeness of its subject: the ground. The business of digging things up cannot help but be an imaginative enterprise as much as a scientific one. As such, there is a need for what the author calls an "archaeological poetics" - "a sensitivity to the ground's elegiac capacity for recording and memorializing vanished histories and personal loss."

The chapters that make up this book, on some of the more evocative of archaeological sites and subjects - Troy; the buried, perfectly preserved city of Pompeii; the bog bodies of Denmark and the "Ice Man" found in the Alps in 1991; the barrows of the author's native Wiltshire, to name a few - do not constitute an original argument so much as an extended, endlessly diverting riff on the theme of burial and excavation and the long kinship of archaeology and literature.

Archaeology and poetry both work, the author observes in a chapter on the graveyard-obsessed William Wordsworth, through what she calls "monumental hints . . . [a] kind of understatement - apprehending the meaning of something by what is lost or lies hidden or is hinted at." Burial itself, she writes, "must be considered a type of understatement and understatement a metaphorical act of burial."

Stones, therefore, are inextricably intertwined with stories, and when we walk the ground we can't help reading between the lines - perhaps reading too much. "[T]he story of Troy," for example, "is the tale of what happens when fact and fiction become confused, when one is used wildly to justify the other."

Although archaeological methods have advanced since the days of Schliemann, people are no less moved nowadays to interpret the paltriest remains in terms of their favorite stories. We seek reassuring physical evidence of their historical truthfulness, scrape for signs that they weren't (at least not completely) made up.

Archaeology in the Holy Land is a case in point. Although Ms. Wallace offhandedly suggests that all religions probably have their archaeology, faith in the historical validity of the miraculous seems intensified in Judaism and Christianity, accounting for the age-old, profound, at times naive, archaeological obsession with the landscape of Israel - a landscape one 19th-century Protestant called the "fifth gospel." The author observes that the ways Catholics and Protestants have approached that stone-strewn ground differ markedly, reflecting different feelings about history and faith.

For Jews, whose inhabitation of that landscape is ratified by the biblical narrative, the religious significance of the stones is further complicated by politics. (Israeli-Palestinian politics, Ms. Wallace observes, is the largely unacknowledged rhinoceros in the room of contemporary biblical archaeology. …