Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, Jordan. Photo taken by Calvin College professor Bert DeVries

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Lost City of Stone

News: February 4, 2005

Students Expose Culture by Digging Out

For over 30 years Bert de Vries has been reminding workers on archaeological digs not to dig down, but to dig out.

"You can't dig vertically," he gently tells them. "You must dig horizontally and expose layers of culture."

Yet often when he checks on the excavation's progress, he finds the digging going down.

That's because vertical digging belongs to something de Vries, a Calvin professor of history and director of the school's archaeology minor, calls "the discovery mentality."

It's the pursuit, he says, of an exotic, museum-quality find — the aura of discovery.

But, says de Vries, this sort of archaeology that gives priority to the spectacular can lead to damage or improper documentation of a site. Worse still it yanks the artifact out of its context and hinders reconstruction of the broader picture of the culture under excavation.

So while the public perception of archaeology focuses on the monumental — tombs, temples and rare artifacts — these things usually represent the lives of the elite 10 percent of an ancient society.

For de Vries good archaeology is deeper than that.

"I think archaeology should also be about the ordinary people," he says, "the other 90 percent."

It's a philosophy de Vries, an archaeological architect by specialty, has practiced with a group of colleagues on the Jordanian archeological scene, several of whom will visit Calvin as lecturers in conjunction with the upcoming Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition.

"You meet on a project and get acquainted with each other's skills and abilities," he explains. "It's a community, but it's not a large community."

Yet de Vries is doing his part to make the community bigger.

When he returned to the U.S. from Jordan in 1991, after serving for three years as the director of the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR), he was determined to equip Calvin students to join the larger archaeological community. And in 1995, the archaeology minor de Vries had envisioned for Calvin was approved.

The program allows students the flexibility to craft their minor across an array of disciplines, giving them the training to dig out — not down. All students take two archaeology courses at Calvin — an Introduction to Archaeology offering and a more advanced course called Field Work in Archaeology. Students who minor in archaeology also take four elective courses from a cross-section of academic disciplines, including art (architectural history for example), biology (courses such as comparative vertebrate anatomy), engineering, geography, geology, Greek, Hebrew, history, Latin, religion and sociology.

"Archaeology," says de Vries, "is not all glamour and treasure hunting. There is a lot of painstaking, boring work that takes place on a dig. That's one of the things that our students find out. That doesn't mean we're trying to discourage them or steer them away from archaeology. It just means that they get a realistic picture."

After almost a decade in existence the minor is producing results says de Vries.

"They (graduates of the program) get placed in field schools all over the world," he says. "And they get excellent evaluations."

The winner of the 1998 Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, de Vries also has worked as the project architect at Tell Hesban, oversaw excavations of the successively superimposed Nabataean, Roman Byzantine and early Islamic communities at Umm el-Jimal, drew the Roman legionary fortress at el-Lejjun for the Limes Arabicus Project and currently is the co-director of the Wadi el-Far'a Project, which sees Calvin partnering with Birzeit Universit to study a West Bank watershed.

He is excited that his employer and alma mater will be partnering with the American Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Art Museum to host the the Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition April 4 to August 15.

Waves of sand