A gentlewoman and a scholar

Lynn Roller

Photo By Larry Dalton

Lynn Roller, professor of classics and art history at the University of California, Davis, has been traveling back and forth to Turkey for years, spending a few weeks most summers analyzing the detritus of ancient civilizations. She’d like to visit Iraq in 2004, but American archaeologists haven’t been welcome in Iraq since before the first Gulf War.

How’d you get into archaeology?

I did my undergraduate work at Bryn Mawr and my graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve always been interested in archaeology and old stuff. … I got involved in this field project called Gordian, which was a site in Turkey. It’s about 60 kilometers southwest of Ankara, so it’s right in the center of the country. I enjoyed working there, and I really found the intellectual problems fascinating.

The intellectual problems?

So many people nowadays have a very positivistic view of modern society. We think we’re moving forward, and technology is going to solve our problems. But when you start studying how people lived together in the past, thousands of years ago, you find the same kinds of personalities and the same kinds of social problems and the same dynamics of living together in a group.

Describe the Gordian site.

Gordian is a large mound, and that’s what a great many other sites are in the Middle East. They look like low mountains or small hills, but in fact, they’re completely artificial. What they are are places where people have been living for so many thousands of years that you have a settlement, and then that settlement is abandoned and rebuilt. And there’s another settlement right on top, and people dump their garbage in the holes of the previous one, and they bury their dead there, and then the next level gets filled in so that the whole process causes the mound to be built up to an ever-greater height. … We’ve found material running from the Neolithic, which goes back to about the fourth millennium B.C. down into the early medieval period. There’s probably about 4,000 or 5,000 years of settlement there.

What have you found?

It’s not a treasure hunt. We’re not there to look for that great tomb or this great valuable thing that you can put in a museum. We’re trying to understand the social processes, why people settle where they do, how they live together and how governments control territory. Having said that, Gordian has produced a lot of really spectacular finds, something like 25 large tombs that have been excavated, and almost all of them have been found with the contents intact. … We found beautiful wooden furniture, exquisite bronzes, bronze bowls and all kinds of very elaborate bronze practical objects. … Their principle deity was a mother goddess, and her cult eventually spread into Greece and then Rome and becomes very well-known in the ancient Mediterranean world, as well.

Let’s switch gears. You’re an expert on Iraqi art. What’s your insider’s view of the looting?

Some of the objects that were in the Iraqi museum, particularly the ones that come from the Sumerian settlements, are very, very well-known. I can’t imagine that anyone could dispose of them on the art market, even on the black market. It would be like trying to sell the “Mona Lisa.” … What was even more distressing, from an archaeologist’s point of view, is that there was a lot of deliberate damage done to the record-keeping system. A lot of these small finds really don’t have much value unless we know their record. We need to know what site they come from, what level of the site, what other objects were found together with them.

Why would a culture destroy its artwork, its history, its intellectual property?

The people who live there don’t necessarily identify this as their own cultural, intellectual history because the groups we’re talking about lived there thousands of years in the past. This is particularly true of people who identify themselves as very strong Muslims. For many people, these are works of pagan religions and idolatry. Another problem, a major problem of archaeology in the Middle East, is that it’s very much a product of European intellectual history. A lot of the local people, particularly the people who are very poor, see Europeans and outsiders coming in and paying attention to the treasures and putting thousands of dollars into excavating sites and building beautiful museums when there are villages that have no schools and no running water. It’s really a very, very delicate issue.

During the war, were you concerned about Iraq’s archaeological sites?

The major sites are all in the regions around Basra, and that, of course, was the first campaign in the war. I was a little less concerned because these are huge mounds that have the accumulation of thousands of years of dirt on them. The older material is buried several meters under the surface. The greatest damage would come from stealing the objects in the museum, and that was my fear at the beginning of the war. And unfortunately, my worst fears have proven to be correct.