Sunday, September 19, 2004

BOOK REVIEW in the Washington Times:
By Jennifer Wallace
Duckworth Publishing, $25, 220 pages, illus.


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."


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.)


The main theme of the book seems to be archaeology and literature but it sounds quite wide ranging. It deals with the usual suspects (Troy, Pompeii, the "Ice Man," etc.) and even the exhumation of John Milton and the excavation of Ground Zero in New York.

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