Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stones (Avanim)

Crusader Column in Bethlehem
Is it possible to write the world's shortest blog entry? I am so so tired, and tomorrow am giving a talk to my colleagues that I'd like to be peppy for (is 46 images of monsters, orientalism and morality too much for an hour?), but I just can't stand not writing out here, and plus I'm so very excited for my trip to D.C. tomorrow to attend what promises to be an absolutely marvelous conference.  The hope is that, as these thinkers and muses have inspired me so often out here, I will feel equally and utterly inspired at the conference and will come home and write write write over Spring Break. In honor of the scholar whose provocative, fantastic work I eagerly anticipate more than ever (I've recommended a hearty trip to Brittany for the megaliths!), I will write, if ever so briefly about stones, both hewn and unhewn (as apparently "avanim" connotes, I was told by David, our guide in Israel).

Just about everything about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is sad. Bethlehem is such a choked place, existing now behind the wall. But these weathered (don't they almost look torn?) marble columns of the Crusaders I find especially moving.  Fading witnesses.  There are something like 24 of them that line the basilica plan of this old, old church.  Their faded glory also bespeaks some kind of crazy experimentation in medieval painting: who paints (in tempera?) on marble??? I need to look up the work of Jaroslav Folda to get the full details.  But it's Da Vinci painting in oils on frescoe avant-la-lettre: an attempt to do something grand and new with something old and grand.  I don't think that there's any hope of restoration, either technically or financially, and so they're going to keep on fading, these stones, until they will go back to just hewn and unadorned - the smooth surfaces of the Romans that the Crusaders had sought to embellish.

Beit Guvrin
Beit Guvrin is an archaeological site that relies of volunteers to come dig for a day within the organization Archaeological Tours (motto: "We dig Israel!").  Rebecca (friend, archaeologist extraordinaire) was quite skeptical, both about the method and the site (could inexperienced diggers really cause no harm? was there really no strata to mess up?). But at the same time, we both admired this American archaeologist who had come up with an endless and independent funding source.  Turns out a lot of people want to touch old stones. The site is a series of caves in this chalky stone that were basically used as work and storage spaces (a garbage can is what he said).  But there are dozens and dozens of these caves, and he is finding some fantastic stuff in there. This image (it's in the negative, so look at it that way) of an Egyptian-type figure/goddess for example...

Sifting at Beit Guvrin
... of the dozens of pottery shards and animal bones (his favorites) that Oliver found digging and, here, sifting.  Touching ancient stones carries its own thrill.  Jeffrey Cohen is right: stones move, breathe and shift with our desires for them to tell us about history, to be real and a witness.  I remember the first time I spread my fingers out onto a megalith at Montneuf - it hardly seemed inanimate (plus, we'd been reading Breton fairy tales in which the stones walked once a year to slake their monumental thirst).

Inside a cave at Beit Guvrin

And so when you're done digging, you go inside one of the undug caves and realize for yourself the unbelievable amount of work that remains (there are dozens of these caves), and the incredible potential for discovery - for more artifacts, more traces of human presence, more evidence of struggles and triumphs.  This hallway, for example: incredibly hewn.  Carved out not by archaeologists but by the original inhabitants.  I spread my fingers out on those marks, too.

Entrance Gate of the City of Dan
These smooth, "Cyclopean" stones made one of two monumental gates to the Canaanite (c. 3000 B.C.E.) city of Dan (near the Jordan river).  I took dozens of pictures here, of the stones marking off building, boundaries, walls.  Heavy and still imposing - still able to make us feel as though we are leaving one place and entering another.  The flat space to the left is where people would have come to do commerce or petition to get in, or conduct a visit.  Diplomats and subjects waiting, looking at those massive stones, hoping that the walls will disappear as a welcome is extended.

City of David, Jerusalem
And then there are hewn stones, enormous piles of hewn stones, that remain a mystery.  The City of David in Jerusalem is a burgeoning archaeological site. But here when you are touching stones (which you are actually not allowed to do), you are touching the history of King David - he who bought the threshing floor around 1000 B.C.E. that would become the home of Solomon's Temple, and then the Second Temple.  These are heavy stones. I hope that you can see the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers underneath the canopy there. 

There are many stones in Israel - I could keep going (plus, I love to type and say "hewn") and wondering specifically about stones as witness to history that we will to speak through archaeology, through our presence.  They move, it's true, because they move us.