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Calvin Prof Part of Norwegian Grant
May 13, 2005

Calvin College history professor Bert de Vries will be joining an international team of 16 archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and sociologists, including Bethany Walker of Grand Valley State, in a wide-ranging study of global moments in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria - an area known as "the Levant."

The work will be funded over four years by a $2.6 million (16 million Norwegian kroner) grant from the Norwegian Research Council. The team was one of 17 successful applications out of 263 in an annual competition for 250 million Norwegian kroners of NRC funding for basic research in all fields.

The project, says de Vries, centers on a part of the world that is severely conflicted but not well understood.

A colleague on the team, Øystein S. LaBianca, an Andrews University professor and co-author of the funded proposal, agrees.

"Few places on earth can rival the Levant when it comes to both incubating global moments and having to cope with their consequences," he says. Indeed, he adds, these global moments often lead to new ways of thinking, new worlds of knowledge and new social worlds. Writing and literacy led to new forms of recording and storing information which changed the social organization of societies.

The name Levant dates back some 500 years, but today is typically used by archaeologists and historians, referring to the region immediately bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea. That area, says de Vries, has always been a hotbed of global moments because of its function as a geographical - and thus a commercial and military - bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe.

Over the years those who lived in the Levant encountered a variety of civilizations as a result of the Levant's strategic location, including those of Egypt, Rome, Byzantine, Medieval Christianity, Europe and more.

"It's a really crucial intersection," de Vries says.

For his part of the project de Vries will study the transition from Late-Antique rural villages to early Medieval fortified hilltops, a transition that took place between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The end of that period is characterized by such structures as the castles of the Crusaders and counter-Crusaders. He will use the abandonment of his own site at Umm-el-Jimal in northern Jordan as a case study.

"This project is not intended to just be dry history," he says. "It's intended to provide living understanding of the people of the Levant and their cultural background. The (research) team includes everything from people who look at the Paleolithic era to people who look at the present, and everything in between."

De Vries, the director of Calvin's archaeology minor, has been working for two decades at Umm-el-Jimal, a site whose habitation spans the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic eras.

The study also reunites de Vries with team members who have previously worked with him on a Calvin partnership with Birzeit University in Ramallah, a project that studied a West Bank Watershed.

The team, which is headed by Leif Manger, professor of anthropology at University of Bergen, Norway, will use that university as its center of operations.

The group's research will take a wide range of forms: both books and television documentaries are under consideration.

The team plans to meet in Bergen, Norway, for their first organizing session this month, beginning the week of May 23, and de Vries will be there.