6/22/2008

The REAL Indiana Jones




The summer of 1981 I had just finished my sophomore year in college and was about to embark on one of the grandest adventures of my life. Several friends and I signed up for summer school: not some dreary course with a heavy reading list, but a class in ancient history that gave us 6 hours of college credit. This was just the paperwork part of it ; the actual class involved two archaeological digs in two different countries : a one month long archaeological excavation in Beersheva , Israel, and a one month long excavation in Metaponto, Italy.

*

The college professor who would be teaching these classes was a 33 year old, recent PHD grad himself, WJN, who taught classical history courses at the college I attended. WJN was tall and tanned, muscular and handsome, with the sort of thick wavy blond hair, roughly cut, that you associate with ancient images of Alexander the Great found on old Greek coins. The kind of good looks that used to be described as "Byronic" (Although the real Byron had a club foot, and who knows how sexy that was?) . I have never cared much for blonds, myself, and even I thought WJN was handsome. He frequently wore a black, billowy peasant type shirt with white jeans, which looked just fantastic against his tanned muscled body. He was a sexy smart sort of pirate. Each fall he would show slides to his students of the digs he had participated in the previous summer. A fascinating and deeply knowledgeable teacher, WJN was one who drew deep connections between various broad - ranging aspects of history. Someone who made it all come alive, was fun to listen to, and seemed as captivating as a bedtime story. It is easy to see why his classes, just like those of "Raiders of the Lost Arc" movie character Indiana Jones' were full of girls and guys who idolized him and who stared dreamily at him with " luv you" written on their closed eyelids. ....and all this was before "Raiders of the Lost Ark " was released in theaters. Let me just state for the record, I never saw WJN use a bullwhip, for any purpose. We were never chased by Nazis.

*

In 1981 I had just spent my sophomore school year drinking beer with WJN and a group of history students at an on-campus pub named "Valhalla", which was located in an odd tunnel shaped room , formerly a storage area, underneath a steep flight of stairs that led up into an old building known as "the chemistry lecture hall". The door to this secret lair was around to the side of the building and it was unmarked; you kind of had to know where to look, to find it. Valhalla was dark, even at brightest noon, and perennially smokey. The bartenders played only music by "The Rolling Stones". No disco or pop allowed. They also felt it was their right to throw out anyone they didn't personally know or like. I was never thrown out, in fact, I often danced to the Stones atop the bar in Valhalla, and regularly flirted with all the guys around. WJN, in a moment of excitement once drank beer out of one of my Dansko clogs (it had a little design made out of perforated holes in it, much like a small leather colander.) So I felt, at the tender age of 20, myself to be a member of a very select, glamorous, secret sort of club. The cool history students club.

*

In hearing these tales, many people have asked, or surmised, that perhaps WJN and I were at one point, lovers. I am not sure if I would have been tempted, or not.....but the simple fact is, we were each involved with other people at this juncture in our lives. I was having a passionate love affair with a young man my age whom I refer to as "Latin Boy", or LB; and WJN was busy sleeping with his baby-sitters. You heard me right - for you see, WJN had a wife, a 3 year old child, and a college-aged, former student of his - his lover, also his baby-sitter. Later he broke off with her and found another gf, who may or may not have been one of his baby-sitters at some point. He was a playa, WJN was. It's all very much like "Mystic Pizza".....the oldest cliche in the book. So I felt a certain amount of detachment from the amorous goings on of this group, as off to Europe I went that grand summer of 1981, to participate in two, not one, but two, archaeological digs with my extremely sexy college archaeology professor and his retinue : his wife, his kid, his former girlfriend, his latest girlfriend, her ex boyfriend. And about a dozen odd other random students. Keep going, it gets better.

*

College ended in early May, and my boy friend at the time,"Latin Boy" or LB ( so named b/c of our common interest in all things relating to ancient Roman history, language and culture - he was an extremely tall , lanky Texan , smart beyond words, and is now all these years later, a law professor) and I headed off together, planning to meet up later with the others in the summer school contingent. Latin Boy and I took a flight which landed us in Amsterdam, and for inexplicable reasons, we decided to go to Greece as soon (and as cheaply) as possible. Towards that end, we immediately hopped on a train that took us on a week long journey from Amsterdam to Athens, through former Soviet bloc countries , stopping every few hours at some random station along the way . I remember what seemed to be days and days going through Yugoslavia, it was always raining , and having not planned well for this jaunt, we had brought no food with us. The train sold sandwiches and coffee and pre-packaged cookies, which we got tired of eating after awhile, and we often tried to run out (when we had a 10 minute stop in a station somewhere), and grab something hot, just to vary this diet a bit. One night, in the middle of the night, the train was very crowded and getting more so at every stop. (Some segments of this trip, we had the compartment all to ourselves, and could stretch out and sleep in relative luxury.) Around 3 am, a family got on board and crowded into our already packed compartment. Speaking to each other what I am sure must have been Serbo-Croatian, they pulled out a giant picnic basket and began smacking away. LB and I must have been watching them, hungrily - they were eating, of all things, fried chicken - because they offered us some, and it was mighty tasty.

*

It was our last hot meals for days. We had to go all the way AROUND Albania, for some reason, the train was not allowed to go through that country, and we never stopped, either, just miles and miles of high concrete or metal walls lining the train tracks; the officials in charge didn't want us to see fully the bleak countryside we could peep at beyond the walls. There were cracks in the walls, though, and you could catch glimpses of guard dogs, razor wire and laundry hanging dispiritedly on lines. Everything looked gray. We eventually pulled up in Thessaloniki, Greece, at around 6 am. With a 10 minute layover in the station, LB ran out and grabbed the only food available - hot fresh Spanokopita and warm orange Fantas. Let me tell you, I have never had such a tasty meal in all my life.

*

Latin Boy and I spent the next month bumming around Greece-the mainland and the islands, seeing all the sights. Had a memorable moment where we nearly died together, when a motorcycle we were riding wiped out of a patch of gravel, on a steep hillside, on the island of Crete. Fortunately, we were only scraped up and minorly injured, and managed to get up off the bike and gimp back to the road, where a kindly sheep farmer eventually came along in his truck, picked us and our bike up and hauled us back to town.

*

We showed up in Beersheva, Israel, late on a night when every single roadside stand and place to grab a bite was closed .  It must have been after sundown on the Shabbat. Fortunately, our group was staying at a sort of group residence - not exactly a kibbutz, not a camp or dorm, but something sort of similar to all 3 . Being hungry was to be an important part of our memories for this part of the trip ......the actual archaeology part of being an archaeologist is not nearly as glamorous as it seems in the movies. In "Raiders of the Lost Ark", you see Indie running from native head hunters, clutching a gold statue or artifact in his hand while arrows rain down on him. Just in time his friend comes by with a seaplane and rescues him. For this dig, which was an iron age site out in the middle of the desert, we used the modern or American technique ( find the walls, or the initial item that has gathered your attention, such as the Leakeys searching for pre-hominid fossils in Kenya while scouring the ground for anomalies that might prove to be artifacts- then follow them, dig down carefully) rather than the British technique (lay out a grid, dig the grid, no matter what you find, or how it aligns, or doesn't align, with the grid. A very good illustration of this style of excavation can be found in "Raiders of the Lost Arc" in the scenes where the huge excavation is going on in Egypt, with thousands of laborers toiling in squared-off pits , marked with sticks and rope, while a director sits in his tent with a map and some native waving a fan on him.) We were a small group from a small college; we only had ourselves to do all the labor, intellectual, manual, or otherwise.

*

This all meant waking up at 4 am. Quick breakfast of hot tea, toast, one raw zucchini, one tomato, and a boiled egg. Drive out to the site, riding in the flatbed of a pickup truck, and be at work, with shovels, picks, axes, and wheelbarrows, by 5 am. Our site was what was believed to be an ancient small town, or part of a town, outside the modern day small city of Beersheva, in the middle of the Negev Desert. The site we were working was on a small tel - a raised hillock, out in the middle of nowhere. We worked in the hot sun, shoveling up sand and rocks, loading wheelbarrows full of it, walking them to the edge of a cliff , and dumping them off. Now and then using a hand ax and brushes to carefully clean and clear a wall or a large pot. Using the pick axes to help clear large rocks. It was back-breaking work, and while we all got really great tans and in the most fantastic shape of our lives, we were also burning far more calories than we could possibly take in. At 10 am we took a 30 min break, sat in the shade of a tent we erected over a picnic table, to eat the same meal as breakfast, all over again. This meal also had the addition of one fresh orange per person. While we ate, we looked out over the valley below, where a few Bedouin off in the distance managed flocks of goats. Every now and then you could hear a donkey bray. The guys in our group wore shorts and mountain boots and bandannas on their heads with headbands, "Arab" style, much like the locals. The gals wore bikini tops or halter tops, shorts, hiking boots, and pony-tails with bandannas tied as head-kerchiefs. Every now and then the wind would blow , which would cool it down from the 120+ degrees that it was, but would also stir up the sand , which would blow into your eyes and nostrils till it choked you and you couldn't breathe. That's when you'd wrap your bandanna head scarf around your face , and breath through that. You knew it was safe to take the headscarf off when the sand stopped stinging your skin.

                                                                           Negev Desert

People always say to me, upon hearing that I spent a summer on an archaeological dig in college, "Did you find anything exciting ? " Archaeology is rarely that exciting in the short term, and as Indiana Jones says, "X never marks the spot". You work for days or weeks doing back breaking labor, and maybe find a pot shard that proves the date of your site. Somehow it all fits together in some professor's theory of the importance of that area, some complex idea of trade routes or whatever. It's not like Carter's discovery of King Tut's Tomb, folks, - those days are long gone. Sure there are the random moments of excitement - I recently read a whole new series of tombs were found in a previously unworked area of Luxor, Egypt. But most of the time, it's teams of college kids and professors, slogging through mounds of data, trying to fit it all together, like a giant jigsaw puzzle of information. It's exciting if it happens to be your area of research or will help you write another paper or a thesis and get a grant, make a name for yourself. But it isn't exciting at that particular moment; rarely do you find a golden skull.

*

On the Israel dig, we'd head home for lunch at noon, and this commune or whatever kind of place we were staying in only served one meal, over and over, the same meal every day. Broiled liver. By then we were ravenously hungry, and would have eaten the hind leg off a live donkey, if one had been available. But most members of the group hated broiled liver, and they got pretty sick of zucchini and boiled eggs, too. Fortunately for me, I could tolerate all these things, and ate well. I ate what they did not want. Then we all took showers and long naps till around 4 pm. Next  it was over to the pottery shed, where we put in a few more hours carefully washing, dusting, labeling and storing various artifacts we had found - mostly pot shards, broken chunks of pottery. We were working this dig with another group from another university, and our professor and theirs would meet with various local professors who would confer on the pot shards, hazard theories about their dates, what it all meant.

*

By early evening, we'd head out for a meal in town most nights - we'd find a restaurant to eat something different - even though the camp provided an evening meal-you guessed it, more zucchini, boiled eggs, and liver. There was a pizza spot in town - Israeli pizza was quite different than American, they put all kinds of seafood and stuff on it. But it tasted pretty good, washed down with a cold beer. There was also a Chinese restaurant in town that we sampled some. I learned to eat falafel and hummus at every meal. We were all so hungry - the guys and the non-liver eaters, especially, we'd have gobbled up anything that came our way. After dinner, we stayed out late, listening to Israeli music, dancing in Israeli discos, playing hacky sack - it was much like the early scenes of "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" - then went back to the dorms and slept. There was a swimming pool at this place where we were staying, but the lifeguard tried to make all of us - even the guys - wear those 50's style rubber bathing caps. We would have none of it, so we never tried swimming in the pool again, after the first time. Our lives had little relaxation other than the quest for food, and booze. Then the next day we started all over again.

*

Weekends we spent on road trips - went to see Masada, went snorkeling in a barrier reef on the Red Sea, went to Qumran, Nazareth, Bethlehem, one trip to Tel Aviv to eat cheese burgers at the cafe in the Hilton hotel there. Several times natives mistook me for a Jewish American kid visiting the place, and I got invited to tour a kibbutz, visit a Shabbat service in a synagogue, or eat dinner with a family of strangers. I enjoyed it all and learned a good deal about other cultures. Ended up the month in Jerusalem, and saw all the historic sites there. A very powerful place, emotionally, religiously. We stayed together in a cheap hotel, and one night, I had a bit much to drink. Fell asleep , fully dressed, on my bed in my hotel room, with my shoes on. Awoke the next morning, with the shoes gone - they had been stolen off my feet while I slept. A pair of American topsiders, extremely worn . I bought a pair of Israeli sandals which I wore for the rest of the trip. All through this time, the dynamic between my history prof with his harem of wife and two gf's managed to stay relatively calm. People got along, no one argued much. How could this many people all share close quarters together without petty jealousies arising ? Maybe we were all too hungry, and too tired to be volatile, to have the extra energy  to think about it all. Mean while, my bf LB and I had a lover's quarrel and decided to part ways for a bit. At the end of this dig, I took off travelling with one of the other girls in the group, and he set off with some of the other guys. A few days later, the group was re-assembled in Metaponto, Italy, for the second dig.

*                                                          Greek temple at Metaponto

If Italy is a boot, then Metaponto is in the arch of that boot. The whole of southern Italy (from Naples on south) was colonized by the ancient Greeks as well as Phoenicians, and the area is just criss-crossed with ancient temples, towns, farms, and other sites of all kinds. Some of them have been fully excavated and you can go visit them, like Agrigento in Sicily. Some of them are still awaiting discovery......We were working a remote site situated in a farmer's field ,  a few miles from the coast just down the road from Metaponto Lido, which is famous now to Europeans as the location of a Club Med resort. For this dig our professor had rented the top half of a farm house for our HQ. This farmhouse was down a deserted gravel road in the middle of the countryside. There was no other habitation as far as the eye could see.The upstairs portion of the house had 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a spacious rooftop patio or piazza area .We were surrounded on all sides by fields lined with sun flowers and a few scraggly trees now and then. I can't remember exactly what was growing in the fields, but I think it was what the Europeans call rape, a sturdy yellow grain that is used as feed for cattle or for fuel or oil or something that humans do not eat. The beach, Metaponto Lido, was a few miles away; you could smell the salty ocean on the wind, and after we laid off work in the afternoons, instead of napping, we'd walk down the gravel road to the beach and swim in the Mediterranean Sea. I remember walking down that hot white road, the only sound was the cicadas buzzing, running from shady spot to shady spot, tree to tree, till I got to the beach. It smelled like sage, green herbs, wildflowers, and dust. This was years before the Club Med was there, there was nothing, no shops or people once you got to the beach at all, no other tourists, only a camp ground full of hairy pale Germans in tents several miles away, and one little stand that sold soda pop and played VOA on a radio. We had the beach and the ocean to ourselves. As you looked out at the water towards Africa, the ocean was calm, with few waves; it was just flat dark blue water, and a fishing boat way off in the distance.

*

Because we were renting a house, or half a house at any rate, we did our own cooking. This being Italy, the options were fabulous. The hunger that had prayed on us, made us focus on eating and nothing else while we were in Israel, finally abated. We began to make a grocery store run every day, around 10 am, to buy the food to cook for lunch and dinner. This excavation was entirely different from the one in Israel - we went back to a 9-5 daily schedule, for one thing, kept more normal hours. It wasn't as nearly hot. Only high 90's! But the clay in the fields which we were trying to excavate with hand shovels was so thick and hard and heavy, we had to water the site the night before we planned to dig, so it would be soft enough that we could shovel it up the next day. After a day or two of this, the girls started to peter out . Up till now, we had all been stalwart troopers, working every bit as hard as the guys. But this soil was just back-breaking. We needed a massive John Deere with roto-tilling blades the size of cows to till this field- which maybe explained why this site had never been excavated before. We began resting in the shade of a nearby tree every hour or so, while the guys kept going. I volunteered to do the grocery shopping and cooking for the group. At mid-morning every day, I took off, along with WJN's wife, who drove us in our car. Off we went to Bernalda , the nearest town, some 20-30 km away.

*

Bernalda was picture book quaint. It is a charming little medieval stucco-ed Italian town , with red clay tile roofs, perched on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. At some point, Mussolini or somebody had built a fancy new interstate high way through the area, but we were often the only car on it, passing farmers with horse-drawn carts going clickety-clack along as we passed them. Once in town, we drove round and round and up and up, navigating the narrow winding streets and a town square with a fountain at the very top. Church bells rang out to call townspeople to mass, or to mark noontime, or to watch a funeral procession. We saw one there one day : all the town members came out for it, there was a horse-drawn carriage pulling a glass walled hearse that revealed a flower draped casket inside. Members of the procession wound around and around, wearing their dark Sunday best, carrying saints ' effigies on giant poles. It was like something out of the National Geographic; you've seen that film where they take the saints' effigies, draped in flowers, out to bless the sea. Each day we would roll into town to grocery shop, and first thing we'd do was to find a spot to park the car. Then we'd stop in at the little cafe and sip a cappuccino, before going from store to store to buy pasta, produce, dairy, vino, and meat. Each item had its own little shop. Then back to the farmhouse. I'd start cooking, while WJN's ex-wife would go pick up the others from the site and bring them home to eat. We ate pasta and seafood and fresh produce and explored all kinds of wonderful Italian dishes. A professor friend of WJN's joined our group, and gave impromptu cooking lessons. (This was the start of my lifelong love of cooking, esp Italian cooking.) The schedule wasn't as harsh as it had been in Israel, but we were so isolated, too. There wasn't anything around us to entertain or to distract us, either. We had only ourselves. Some evenings we sang. Some evenings we played cards. Every evening, we drank. We bought wine by the casket - giant 5 gal drums of it - on a near daily basis. It was so thick and stout we watered it down 50%, like the ancient Romans did, to make it palatable.

*                                                                     Bernalda, Italy

On weekends, we took a few little side trips. Went to Grottaglie, which is famous for its pottery shops, and toured the countryside, looking at Trulli houses around Martina Franco ; saw of course the famous ancient Greek temple at Metaponto, which had been excavated earlier. (That was not our excavation, we were examining a purported ancient villa or farmhouse out there in that field. ) We visited all the quiet and somber little towns in the region, dozing sleepily in the sunshine, where WJN would shop in local junk shops for ancient artifacts. It was, in fact, illegal for locals to possess or sell them, and for us to try to buy them, for as Indiana Jones would say, "it belongs in a museum ! " But you never knew what farmer Gianni might dig up while plowing his fields one day.....and the area was just honeycombed with ancient habitations going back thousands of years. WJN had a way of browsing through the local "junk" stores, which invariably had fly-specked windows full of bric-a-brac and grand-ma's cast-offs. While seeming to peruse a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, a broken toaster,a wobbly chair, or an old bit of fascist ornamental stonework that had fallen off the corner of the local post office. He'd casually ask the owner- all the while not making eye contact - if he had anything "older" to sell. The owner would start bringing out things, a 1930's art deco vase, a wagon wheel, a older gold crucifix, a tattered bit of fabric, old books. "Older", WJN would keep saying, through each century's detritus, until , at long last, a small but perfect little ancient Greek drinking cup, a kylix, maybe no more than 3 inches across, would come out from the dusty back room.

*

It was the first time all summer that our bellies were full, and it is no surprise that it was here that the trouble began. It started out as a low level rumbling, overheard grumbling from the ex wife and the first ex girlfriend, complaining about the latest of WJN's girlfriends. (It takes a certain kind of man to go off of an extended trip with 3 women he is sleeping with, after all.) Days passed, and invisible lines were drawn up, who was on who's side. Who had been slighted, this little incident, or that. I think there were actual arguments and various events that had occurred all along, but I had been too caught up in my own volatile on-the-rocks romance with LB, to notice. I tried to remain neutral, to stay out of it. But suddenly, one night , a fight broke out as we were all sitting on the upstairs patio, drinking, and several of the guys, in a drunken stupor, began throwing broken wine bottles about. It seems the ex-boyfriend of the second gf of WJN was a tad upset about something. Can you imagine ? The farmer's family , who lived downstairs, got all upset, and called the carabinieri. This was not good. I don't remember exactly what happened next - it was all so long ago- but it seems that the dig was cut short. Or maybe we were near the end, anyways, when this particular event occurred. It seems like we left soon thereafter, or else I just don't remember what happened next. I think the guys directly involved in the fight left right away, and the rest of us, a few days later.

*

LB and I parted ways, for good, at that point. Our quarrel was unresolved, and with the passage of time, I have often asked myself just what the issue was, and had no good answer. I remember being sick and tired of all the soap opera like drama from all these characters. I left the group and continued to travel throughout Italy with the female friend I'd journeyed from Israel with. We went on Florence and Rome. This girlfriend, a strict vegan, was a difficult travel partner at times - it was a challenge to meet her dietary requirements. After a few weeks, we parted ways, I was tired of eating Japanese and wanted meat ! I went through Switzerland and back to Amsterdam by myself. I remember being in such great physical shape from all that hard labor on the digs that I rented a bike and rode through the Alps, no problem at all.

*

Years later, I ran into LB, and we buried the hatchet, and spoke to one another again. We ended up friendly acquaintances.

*

I also ran into WJN in as well....it seems the university did not take so kindly to an untenured professor sleeping with his students. Some colleges turn a blind eye to that sort of thing, but who knows, maybe there were other incidents, other issues, which got back to the college and ruined his chances there. Would Indiana Jones' mythical Ivy League university really keep him on, much less grant him tenure, if they knew of all the international incidents he had caused ? Last I heard, WJN was drifting about, as a guest lecturer of little old ladies Sunday School classes, I am sure charming them with his tales of adventures past. He seems to earn a living as a guest lecturer. I had a school I taught at once hire him for an evening, to tell the kiddies all about archaeology. Once, later, I ran into him at some function, where he was with a date ( no one from this story). The date, upon hearing that I was a former student of his, said to me, " I am sure he must have made a great impression on you." I smiled and said, " Yes", but to myself silently added , "If you only knew what kind of impression that was, lady....."



























1 comment:

  1. Knight at the OperaJune 25, 2008 at 10:49 AM

    There's no question that WJN was an original, and I've always regretted not meeting him. (On the other hand, perhaps he casts a larger shadow when he's known only through your stories of him.) However, just a little note on ancient culture, circa 1981: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was released even while you were on your dig, and not several years later, as you suggest here.

    Thus you were on the cutting edge -- or the digging edge -- of popular culture.

    ReplyDelete