Italy and USA
2021 Balzan Prize for Art and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 01.07.2022 (Video)
Mrs. President of the National Council,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Marilyn and I first went to the field together in 1966. We spent one month in Syria, doing a survey in the steppe near Palmyra, and then three months in Iraq, excavating at the ancient site of Nippur. Many other seasons of field work followed, in Iraq, Turkey, Georgia, and especially in Syria, ultimately in the major project at Tell Mozan, ancient Urkesh, where excavations stopped in 2011 at the beginning of the war, at which point we started an intense activity of community archaeology with the local stakeholders.
The Balzan Foundation award comes as the culmination of this effort of ours, which has recently passed its half a century mark. In accepting it, we wish to express our profound gratitude for the recognition it gives of the theoretical and practical implications of our approach. These implications are perfectly embodied in the category in which our award falls: art and archaeology of the ancient Near East. Inverting the sequence of the two terms, we wish now to show how archaeology may be seen as the search for the whole, and art as the resulting whole, one that can have a profound impact not only in academia, but well beyond, within the social texture where archaeology takes place.
Let us reflect on the very notion of what an archaeological “find” is. What we have come to see more and more clearly is that what an archaeologist “finds,” in ways that are unlike any other discovery, is not so much this object or that architectural monument. It is rather the physical association, in the matrix of the earth, of the million bits and pieces that are buried in the accumulation resulting from their own collapse. It is a daunting task to fully understand this extremely complex cultural stratigraphy that is the unique
signature of an archaeological site.
All the more so as these bits and pieces, as in most ancient Near Eastern sites, stem from a “broken tradition” – that is, a tradition that has no longer any living carriers. There are, today, no ancient inhabitants of Urkesh capable of telling us what this or that piece means, and thus how it correlates to other bits and pieces.
We only have these mute witnesses, in their physical juxtaposition in the ground. The task of archaeological reason is to recognize patterns that can lead us to attribute meaning, in a valid arguable manner, to these otherwise disjointed remnants of a tradition once alive. Archaeologists, we are called to mend the brokenness.
“Bits and pieces.” The term “bits” brings immediately to mind the digital dimension. And we may in some ways say that archaeology is natively digital. It is so in the first place metaphorically: on an excavation, the myriad fragments come to light in a disaggregate fashion out of the ground, similar to cells in a database. It is then properly digital when the physical record is translated into a referential record, one that accounts for each individual fragment and for its contact association with other fragments. A theoretical concern of mine, and one that has been successfully tested in the website I have created for our project, has been to go beyond the fragments and to create a website conceived as a whole, a website that is not just a container of fragments, however well structured. The Urkesh website proposes instead a digital discourse that interlaces the fragments into a new whole, one that develops a proper digital argument.
It is a new departure in scholarly communication, one that affects the very notion of a website as a more powerful tool than recognized in current practice. One that ushers in an axial new moment in our history, comparable only to the beginning of language and the invention of writing. A successful search for the whole yields, invariably, a little triumph. Nowhere is this more perceptible than when the resulting “whole” emerges as a work of art. Here I wish to share with you one example that has involved me deeply during the excavation years, and subsequently.
In an accumulation on ancient palace floors we found some 10,000 pieces of fragile dried mud. They were very small, most of them the size of a fingernail. Many bore the impression of a seal, so we had to save them all individually, recording their find spot, their contact association with everything else in the same context, and then clean them. Some one thousand turned out to bear an impression of a cylinder seal. And these impressions came in turn from some 50 different seals, and I had to reconstruct the iconography of each of them.
It required infinite patience, but the “whole” that emerged from them was truly extraordinary. I had here the portraits of the king and his queen, of princes, courtiers, and officials. They were exquisitely designed, in a style that was quite new. And they were inscribed with cuneiform legends that gave us the name of these individuals, as well as the name of this ancient city, Urkesh, which had not been inhabited for some 3000 years.
It was all extremely important for our understanding of the history of ancient Mesopotamia. But, as things developed, this new “whole” I had refashioned struck a much deeper cord, one that brought together, in the time of war, very different groups and individuals that might otherwise have been in conflict with each other. Since the beginning of the war, in 2011, we have conducted an extremely active program aimed at helping the local stakeholders appropriate this very ancient history of their territory, one that preceded all of them – Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis – and gave them a new sense of belonging.
These tiny fragile pieces, which would have escaped the attention of anyone but a trained archaeologist, spoke with a new vibrant voice. The channel for this voice has been a series of activities we have undertaken with local members of our staff – exhibits in the main cities in the area, illustrated
lectures in private homes in the villages, guided tours to the site, and ultimately programs that involved the youngsters in the schools, all the way from grammar schools to universities. And you can imagine my reaction at seeing young children sitting within one of the buildings we excavated, coloring our drawings of those seal impressions I had so painstakingly studied.
We leave you with one final thought, that has been weighing heavily on our minds in these years. In our collective “west” we have given much weight to an armed response to ISIS. We must go beyond that. As intellectuals, we have unique ways in which we can contribute to the fight against extremism and terrorism. The sense of pride in a heritage to which we, archaeologists, have given new life is a winning response to the ideology that nourishes extremism.
We know that none of the people exposed to the beauty of art coming from their own subsoil have ever joined or will ever join ISIS, will ever even think of looting our site. It is, as I said, the real triumph of this whole which is only latent in the ground, a whole that emerged from the myriad fragments I had the good fortune to bring back to life.