Shadows and Ghosts

View of Haifa harbor and Mediterranean from atop Tel Akko.
View of Haifa harbor and Mediterranean from atop Tel Akko.

Here we are in Akko, Israel, at the Marine Academy and up on Tel Akko excavating an archaeological site that has already uncovered parts of  Greek, Persian and Phoenician settlements.  We are in our sixth season of Total Archaeology at Tel Akko, a project of Penn State and Haifa University joined by other universities including University of Massachusetts Amherst, Trinity College and the Claremont Colleges. 

So many of the faces are the same.  Faculty members return year after year.  Graduate students return to work, get experience, maybe a dissertation topic.  Undergraduates also return, each year getting a bit more responsibility, a bit more experience, a bit deeper into what might be their life’s work.

But everywhere there are ghosts and shadows, shadows of students who were here last year.  Who did the work, got their grades and passed through.  Ghosts of people who were here for years but for one reason or another are not here this year.  We miss them.  We see them out of the corners of our eyes.  In the place they used to hang out, where we could always expect them.  They disappear when we look hard for them.  They are ghosts.  Mental remnants of the people who were here and now are not.

This is inevitable with any long-term project and archaeological excavations are long-term projects.  Graduate students graduate and go on to jobs of their own, excavations of their own, projects of their own.  Volunteers find other opportunities, other adventures, other responsibilities and cannot be here.

Institutional memory though is very important on a large project.  One can write all the field notes possible, draw all the maps, photograph all the locations, but sometimes it’s someone who was around when something was found who remembers the little things that eventually may be important.

Certainly, having veterans means that many things will go smoothly.  They know what to do and how to do it and can show the novices.  Simple tasks, like setting up for breakfast, go much more smoothly when at least one person has done it before.

So we are here, second day at the tel and we are still cleaning, still removing sand bags and still clipping weeds which are bountiful this year.  Soon we will dig and make more memories and train another batch of students and some of the shadows will disappear and even some of the ghosts will fade, but many will remain hauntingly just out of reach.

Leave a Reply