Preserving Cultural Heritage with Archaeologist Joseph Greene

HMSC Connects! Podcast 21


Jennifer Berglund, Joe Greene

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Joe Greene, the Deputy Director and Curator of the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East. He's also an archaeologist who's worked all over various parts of the Mediterranean, from Tunisia to Jordan, and other parts of the Middle East. I wanted to talk to him today about how this work influenced his perspective about the fragility of ancient sites, and the role museums play in preserving them. Here he is. Joe Greene, welcome to the show.


Joe Greene 01:13

Oh, you're welcome. Thank you. My pleasure to be here.


Jennifer Berglund 01:19

You grew up in a small college town in Louisiana, which, at the time was, as you called it, a multicultural experience. Explain why that was, and how do you think that experience coupled with your love of the outdoors ultimately inspired your pursuit of a career in archaeology?


Joe Greene 01:39

Well, I described my upbringing as multicultural because that small college town was in the very southern part of Louisiana that is sometimes called Acadiana, or the Cajun country. Now, it's not my heritage, my family all comes from Mississippi and Alabama. But I grew up there in a milieu that, in retrospect, I think I didn't actually realize it at the time, but in retrospect is something that would be called multicultural. It's mix of Francophone and Anglophone communities, of Protestant and mainly Catholic communities. The original settlers were French-speaking Acadians, from French Canada, they had been expelled by the British in the late 18th century. And eventually, a large group of them settled in southern Louisiana in what was, at the time, still part of a French possession in the new world. Very shortly after that, that possession was purchased by the United States. It was the Louisiana Purchase. And so they became automatically part of America, but because of their mainly geographic isolation, they remained cut off from what we think of as America in the 19th and early 20th century, and largely followed the ways they had established in the 18th century. That part of Louisiana is not connected with the Mississippi Valley, so it was not part of that great system that connected the inner-US, with the Caribbean and the rest of the world. They were, in fact, separated by a swamp from the Mississippi Valley. And not until the railroads came through in the early 20th century were they really connected, and even then they were still isolated. It wasn't until petroleum was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico that the town of Lafayette ballooned into a service center for that industry, and in came hordes of oil engineers from Texas, all Anglophone and Protestant. And so it created, as I say, a milieu that was multicultural before that was a term. The years I grew up there, the French-speaking community was just beginning to recover its roots in Francophonie, the habit of speaking French, and it developed into a series of connections from that region to French-speaking Quebec, and Canada and with metropolitan France. So it was still before the whole notion of things Cajun was turned into a commodity and exported, so it was a period of transition. And I left before that transition was culminated, and I have, since I have no family there anymore, I haven't been back for any reason. So it's a place I'm from, but not a place I'm necessarily any more part of. You alluded to my interest in the outdoors. Well, what I discovered in archaeology was its it was sort of a discipline in which I could be outdoors and still use my brain. Because, when I grew up, I did do work outside. One particular experience just before I went to graduate school was to work an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and that was certainly outdoors, but it wasn't, you know, using one's brain very much. But it is amazing to me what you can accomplish with a group of men-they were all guys in those days--and a few simple tools, and that experience, too, I think, is also decided me that this is not I want to make a living for the rest of my life.


Jennifer Berglund 05:06

For your graduate work, you studied archaeology at the University of Chicago, where you developed an interest in the Phoenicians. Can you provide a brief description of who they were, and then explain how and why you became interested in them?


Joe Greene 05:23

Who they were in antiquity, I think, a case can be convincingly made that they were the group of people known in the Hebrew Bible as the Canaanites, and the land which they inhabited broadly as Canaan. So, the Phoenicians, as we know them to English speakers now were probably Canaanites in antiquity, it's just that we have no specific written evidence that that's how they called themselves. There is a sort of further confusion because the Phoenicians spread widely across the Mediterranean in the first millennium BC after about 1000 BC, founded numerous colonies in the far west on the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily, Sardinia, before that in the island of Cyprus, which is quite close by, but most notably Carthage. And at Carthage in North Africa, they eventually encountered Rome with whom they fought three losing wars--the first, second and third Punic Wars, the last of which culminated in the utter destruction of Carthage, that is the physical destruction of the city and the political and economic expunging of that city. The Romans called the Carthaginians, as we sometimes refer to them in English. Part of the problem of understanding Phonecians is that there isn't, as there are for the Greeks and the Romans, or even for the Israelites, a connected account in their own language. There may have been, there probably was such an account, because there are indications of libraries both at Tyre, the main city on the east, and at Carthage, the main city in the West, but those libraries have not survived. They're known, I can say for three things. They were globalizers before that was a term because they connected markets across the Mediterranean. They were seafarers of great renown, and everyone who encountered them understood this. They were fairly sharp businessmen and women, and this prejudice sometimes comes through in what the Greek say about them, but they were interested in making a profit, and they had an information system, something we call now an alphabet, that allowed them to exchange information over long distances without actually having to send someone to give the message. Now, the development of writing in the ancient Near East is a long story, and it begins with hieroglyphs and Cuneiform writing. The genius of the Canaanites in contributing to this long development of written language was to devise an alphabet based on something linguists call the Acrophobic Principle, that is one symbol one sound, and you can rearrange these symbols in a number of ways to make words, and this development of the alphabet seems to begin already in the early second millennium BC. The clearest physical traces of it are found at a turquoise mine in western Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim. It's a site that the Egyptians controlled and monumentalized, to a certain degree, with temples, but the Canaanites who actually did the digging, the mining of the turquoise, observing Egyptian hieroglyphs, pictorial writing, decided we can do something better than that, and they adapted hieroglyphic symbols to this acrophobic principle in order to write graffiti in the mines. Typically, they were imprecations to their godness Baalat, or Ba'alat. This byproduct of that interaction between Egyptians and Canaanites led ultimately to the script we identify as the Phoenician alphabet, which was the parent to the writing of a whole host of Northwest Semitic languages--Hebrew, Aramaic, a whole host of languages spoken on the east side of the Jordan by the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites, and it was the script that the Greeks discovered in their interactions with those Canaanites, those red men, those Phoenicians on the Syrian coast, and brought back to the Aegean. The alphabet that was invented in the second millennium survived into the first and emerged as the Phoenician alphabet, which is, in effect, ancestral to the alphabet we use today because the Greeks got it from the Phoenicians, the Romans, got it from the Greeks, and through a series of transformations made that alphabet the alphabet that appear on Latin monumental inscriptions already in the late first millennium, and well into the Imperial period,


Jennifer Berglund 10:06

How did you become interested in them in the first place?


Joe Greene 10:10

It was, in part, accidental because Phoenicians, of course, famously, their homeland was Lebanon, our modern Lebanon. In the middle 1970s, the Lebanese Civil War was just ginning up, and it wasn't really safe, and then ultimately became impermissible for Americans to do anything there. Carthage was located rather far away from the shooting war in the Middle East in relatively placid North Africa, and through a series of circumstances of which I played no part in, a project was mounted there in Carthage as part of a UNESCO-fostered project to preserve the ancient city from real estate development, and I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time when the professor with whom I was studying, a man named Larry Staiger, said, "okay, we're going to Carthage." So, off I went, and it was, for me, a different kind of archaeological experience, because it was not the Near East, it was really Mediterranean. But that was a happy accident, and it led, ultimately, to further work on Phonecians and others on the island of Cyprus, and from there, it was an easy hop across the easy Mediterranean to Jordan, where I spent a good bit of time later in my career.


Jennifer Berglund 11:30

Today, much of your work involves thinking about the conservation of cultural resources. What inspired your interest in that?


Joe Greene 11:41

I alluded to my involvement with the UNESCO-fostered Save Carthage Project, and this was initiated to try to rescue and record archaeological remains, cultural heritage, in advance of the economic development of the site that had been the ancient city of Carthage, and this came about because the Tunisians who were taking responsibility for this cultural heritage, their cultural heritage, realized they didn't have the infrastructure or the people to do it all. And they appeald to UNESCO, UNESCO fostered a project that brought in foreign excavators who brought their own personnel, and their own funding, to explore the city. Tunisians were open-handed in giving permits for excavation, and what UNESCO did with the host government was attempt to build up their capacity to deal with all these excavations, to deal with the amount of archaeological materials that are going to be produced from it, and the documentation. And so I was working in this project at the frontline level. I'd also worked in two other places, Cyprus and Jordan, and in Jordan, specifically, on a project aimed at the preservation of cultural resources, I began to look at archaeological problems and their fit into the wider social and economic world in which they took place in a slightly different light, because the academic investigation of archaeological sites does produce information that is of interest to a small group of people who study the ancient world, but the impact of the current social and economic milieu on those sites can be detrimental because a road has to go here, and the hospital has to be built here, or the school has to be built here, and therefore we have to destroy the cultural remains that are in this location. And this particular problem had been dealt with in the United States under the rubric of something called cultural resource management, largely because the federal government and certain state governments had mandated that any sort of modification landscape had to be preceded by an investigation of the impact of that project on the landscape. Now, the earliest kinds of instances of these were, in fact, environmental impact statements, you know, what will building this dam due to this watershed and the landscape around it, but it was an easy step from there to say, "well, what impact will it have on the ancient cultural landscape?" And in the US, this was developed under various sort of legal protocols and the insistence from the federal government that development on federal lands be preceded by a cultural resource management impact investigation. So this was a transfer of this notion to a part of the world that is especially rich in cultural resources going back much, much earlier, and much more substantially than anything found in the US. And many of the countries around the Mediterranean, both in the north and the south rim and east and west, have fairly strong antiquities laws that say these things should be protected. What they lack is a good mechanism for enforcement and protection, and this was certainly true in Tunisia, where the Tunisian Antiquities Service was not staffed fully enough to cope with the kinds of threats that the ancient city was faced with, which is why they appealed to UNESCO, and why UNESCO brokered the advent of these foreign teams, mostly Europeans, but also Americans, which is how I ended up there. The project in Jordan was very deliberately aimed at trying to foster this kind of approach to antiquities protection within that country, and it had a boost from the fact that the country was already receiving a support from the US Agency for International Development, USAID, for various kinds of infrastructure projects, which had, as a result, impacts on the landscape, both natural and cultural. I was based there for 18 months, and worked on two separate archaeological field projects, but also in the larger frame of trying to, as I say, inculcate this notion that development needs, at least, to take into account the existence of cultural resources, and that archaeologists should have a place at the table when it comes time to discuss what's going to be done. Generally that it was well accepted because those people had some understanding of the need to protect antiquities, the status quo ante, the department was faced with emergency situations-- the bulldozer has hit a tomb, please, can you come help us? And the idea was to plan ahead sufficiently that there wouldn't be accidental discoveries because archaeologists have ways of determining where archaeological remains are, and it was a matter of trying to insert into the discussion, what's the relative worth of this site versus the relative cost of changing the road alignment? What can be done to recover what might be otherwise destroyed without record if there can be no possibility of changing the project? In some cases project were stopped completely. Now, this took intervention at sometimes high levels, and it was in part a political aspect of the project, of which I as a foreigner couldn't participate fully, but I knew who to call to try to make the case to the right person. Nowadays, in Jordan, it is replete with local archaeologists trained in these techniques. The term doesn't have to be explained at all, but that was a development that actually needed to take place that local archaeologists, local advocates for preservation, need to make the cases to their fellow citizens. Technical expertise from the outside is certainly welcome and useful, but it's not something that's sustainable, as with any sort of development project, whether it's cultural resources or healthcare or agriculture, irrigation, it has to develop from the inside.


Jennifer Berglund 17:55

One of the sites that you were particularly involved with is the site of Petra. One of the issues with Petra is not necessarily the physical development of roads, but the impact of tourism. Can you explain what kinds of impacts tourism was having on Petra, and what recommendations you made.


Joe Greene 18:20

What is visible in the site today are largely the monumental facades cut into the, this Rose Red Rock, sandstone, of tombs. Tombs are empty. They were long ago looted. So that was the first attraction of the site, and what drew ultimately early European explorers there, although the site was tightly-guarded. And the development of the site as a touristic attraction occurred primarily in the 20th century, both before and after the First World War, but mainly after it. Because the site was attractive, and because it as I say, advertised itself, as economic development continued in Jordan after the Second World War, one of the things that seemed obvious was to develop its potential for tourism, Holy Land tourism. And the attraction of Petra was obvious, especially in the early 1990s in the aftermath of the Oslo Peace Accords, there was a tremendous amount of infrastructure development for tourism, not physically within the site. But outside in the village of Wadi Musa--lots of hotels. USAID had helped put in a very necessary, often an afterthought, a sewage treatment system, because


Jennifer Berglund 19:33

That's important.


Joe Greene 19:34

when you've got lots of tourists filling up hotels, and taking showers, and using the bathroom, that sewage has to go somewhere. The threat, as it were, to the site was not the site itself, but its surroundings. And of course, the locals being entrepreneurial, were very interested in in promoting this and getting as many tourist feet inside the site as possible because they also raised the price of admission. What was occurring, clearly, was an overload of visits to the site. Now, the site, for all its apparent solidity, is actually quite fragile. And this observation has been made in the US in the case of Yosemite National Park. And of course, the Park Service has it within its capacity to say, you know, "this many people and no more on this day." The temptation to do that at Petra was averted, because, obviously, if tourists want to come and pay this handsome sum, let them come. I served as a consultant right around the turn of the era, 1999/2000, in an attempt to strengthen its capacity to advocate for the site, and that too, was a long term project, but it seems to have have borne some fruit. People are actually now concerned about mounting tourist numbers. Now, of course, tourism in the Middle East, anywhere in the Middle East, is sensitive to political events, and there have been since the early 90s, a lot of downturns in the political temperature and increases in the conflict temperature. So, tourism, it's a very changeable source of income. So the site nowadays is, as it were, holding its own. There is still a functioning Petra National Trust, which attempts to, again, advocate for protection of the site. There are increasingly now Jordanian academics, and cultural heritage professionals that are playing a role. Petra is just emblematic of a whole host of other archaeological sites across the Middle East that live by tourism, but also could die by tourism.


Jennifer Berglund 21:45

How did these experiences give you an appreciation for the role that museums play in educating audiences about the value of cultural resources and the threats they face?


Joe Greene 21:58

As it were, museums, especially archaeological museums, are the distilled essence of archaeological investigations. They hold collections that come from excavations, and they present those objects to a public with an explanation of what they are and why they're important. It's become apparent now after looking back over how archaeological museums were structured 100 years ago or more, that what's important is to make things contextual, to understand why that particular piece of ceramic irrigation pipe found at Petra, how it ties into the whole notion of Nabataean water management, how that particular Phoenician inscription fits into the wider understanding of the Phonecian commercial network that spread from the east to the west Mediterranean, and why it's important that these things that are now protected in the museum also be protected, as it were, in the wild. It's a difference between, say, holding animals in zoos and having them on nature preserves in the wild. It is a matter of public education. One of the things that was quite apparent to me even very early on in the cultural materials management in Jordan in the late 80s, was that you need to start early. You need to help schoolchildren understand the importance of these things so that when they grow up to be you know, engineers, or economists or politicians that make decisions about development, they remember that these traces of their past are important to preserve. And, as I say, at least need to be considered. And it isn't an absolute prohibition against development, I mean, that is something we cannot do. We can't tell those in the developing world, "don't develop, don't mess up your environment. We've done that, but we're okay now." But there has to be, I think, a balance, and that balance begins with educating people who are not just school children, but everyone, about the value of preservation. And this is exactly the approach that was taken nature conservation to begin to explain to children at a very young age, why it was important that nature be preserved, likewise with the cultural environment, because, as I say, those two parts of our world are equally threatened by economic development.


Jennifer Berglund 24:20

Joe Greene, thank you so much for being here. This has been wonderful.


Joe Greene 24:23

My pleasure, and my pleasure as always.


Jennifer Berglund 24:29

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museum of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Joe Greene and the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East for their wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!