How A Hurricane Made Me a Better Archaeologist
Thurgood Marshall Middle School is a beautiful 100-year-old brick building located near my house in New Orleans. When the levees broke on August 29, 2005, the school flooded, as did all of my Mid-City neighborhood along with 80% of New Orleans. But now, nearly two years later, many homes and businesses have begun the long process of rebuilding. This is not the case for Thurgood Marshall. It has remained frozen in time — a snapshot of a very bad day. The clocks inside all read 4:23, marking the time on the morning of August 29th at which the electrical supply was cut due to severed power lines. The building flooded later that night, and the waters remained there just short of three weeks. That's why there is a thick black line on all of the walls. The chalk boards in the school record what transpired on the afternoon of Friday August 26th, 2005, the last day of a very short school year. There are calculus equations, diagrammed sentences, civics lessons, and homework assignments. At that time, nobody knew that Hurricane Katrina would change its course a day later, or that the levees of New Orleans were so dangerously flawed, or that only half of the 60,000 students in public school would return two years later, or that Thurgood Marshall Middle School would remain closed until this day.
There were three public elementary schools in my neighborhood before Katrina, though only one, John Dibert Elementary, has reopened. I volunteer there every Friday. Despite great teachers, it's not a very good school at the moment. An incompetent state bureaucracy known as the Recovery School District has taken it over, and they've proven unable to produce things as simple as a hot meal, textbooks, or toilet stalls. Recently, I was in a fifth-grade classroom, and the teacher showed me psychological histories of the students. Several of them had witnessed relatives drown in the flood. One girl's mother drowned while she was holding her mom's hand, as they tried to wade and swim to dry land. I'm ashamed that my government took that kid's mom away, and now it can't give her a decent education.
Tragic stories such as these, along with what I witnessed firsthand in New Orleans the days following Katrina, cause me to think quite a bit about my work as a Near Eastern archaeologist. Archaeologists by nature love destruction. The bigger and more widespread the detritus, the better. Many of the famous strata in biblical archaeology, including Lachish III, Hazor XIII, Megiddo VIIA, and Gezer VIII, were all ended and sealed by massive destructions. Similarly, much of my work in the field deals with destruction. I spent the summers of 2004 and 2005 with Ron Tappy excavating at Tel Zeitah in the Shephelah, and I'll be joining the team again for the 2007 season. At Zeitah, we have several examples from the Late Bronze and Iron Ages of "very bad days." In my square, O-19, there are two thick layers of destruction. The first dates to the late ninth century B.C.E. and is possibly linked to a campaign of Hazael of Damascus. Below this destruction layer lies quite a bit of Iron IIa material culture, and then another thick layer of burned detritus seals a tenth century B.C.E. stratum that lies beneath it. This tenth-century layer has been made famous by the discovery of the Tel Zayit abecedary, found just weeks before Katrina. So I count myself among the many who've benefited personally and professionally from someone else's very bad day.
Eleven thousand kilometers and 3,000 years separate my New Orleans from tenth century B.C.E. Zeitah — and yet, I am drawn to their parallels. I've experienced firsthand the destruction of a city and the pain of exile. I witnessed death, and when I see the many lingering signs of New Orleans' destruction I don't take them lightly. There are certain neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, that still evoke feelings of sacred space — places where we let our children know that playing on the debris piles or speaking loudly isn't appropriate in the wake of what transpired. It is important to me that the story of what transpired in New Orleans be recorded as accurately and objectively as possible. From this experience, I better understand how we owe it to the people who suffered tragedy long ago to do our best at excavating — as we get only one shot at it — and we need all of these clues to tell their important story accurately.
Recently, my own house has become an archaeological excavation. We've just begun gutting it, the long delay due to Allstate Insurance (but that is another long and tragic story). We've been peeling away the layers of paneling, and we've discovered archaic wallpaper on plaster that, along with a map from 1908, has helped us establish terminus post quem and terminus ad quem dates for our house's construction. As we've removed the plaster and lath, we've found inscriptions, pictures, newspaper clippings, and even mummified birds, all giving us clues about the history of the house.
We in New Orleans believe that we're part of the remnant, those who are rebuilding in the wake of devastation to face an uncertain future. My family and I estimate that we'll be living in our repaired house in about one year. And we have faith that someday soon Thurgood Marshall will once again have students. I pray, as did many people who suffered a long time ago, that they won't forget what happened there on a very bad day.
Michael M. Homan, Xavier University of Louisiana
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Citation: Michael M. Homan, " How A Hurricane Made Me a Better Archaeologist," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=685