On the Shoulders of Giants: Directing Jerusalem’s Albright Institute
Matthew J. Adams's Archaeological Views column as published in BAR, November/December 2014
Matthew J. Adams
October 27, 2014
Matthew J. Adams
With my appointment as the 51st director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem
, my name joins a long list which reads like a Who’s Who
of American Archaeology in the region. It includes some big names—William F. Albright, Nelson Glueck, William G. Dever—individuals who have made significant contributions to the development of the discipline and of whom BAR
readers are no doubt aware. When I first started, I was frequently asked: “How will you manage to fill such big shoes?” I answered: “I’ll bring my own.” I like to forge my own path, but the head of the trail of the Albright was well marked, thanks to my predecessors.
The medieval scholastic Bernard of Chartres is credited with the oft-cited metaphor of contemporary scholars as dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, thus allowing them to see further than their predecessors. The metaphor houses two truths. The first is the debt that we owe to our predecessors. Indeed, Bernard’s giants were the Classical philosophers, especially Aristotle, and later Neo-Platonist philosophers of the third–fifth centuries, whose ideas formed the foundation of medieval scholastic thought. The second truth in the metaphor is that while we are indebted to our predecessors, we have a responsibility to look further and in new ways to expand upon their achievements and to create new heights from which future scholars may view.
In many ways, the challenge of taking over the directorship of the Albright is to live up to the dualism in the scholastic metaphor. The very existence and long-term success of the Institute has been due to the achievements of former directors and trustees. My immediate predecessor, the happily retired Sy Gitin, held the position for 34 years. Not only is he a giant in the field, especially as an expert on Philistine culture, but during his tenure he built enormously upon the foundations of earlier directors to create one of the largest fellowship programs for the ancient Near East.
The Albright Institute has as many as 20 stipended fellows and nearly 50 associate fellows every year. The Institute hosts scores of lectures, field trips, workshops and symposia annually and remains one of the only places in the region where international, Israeli and Palestinian scholars interact on an academic level, meet in a social setting and even embark on collaborative projects. As the center of North American research in the region, excavation teams regularly come and go, providing a rich and multilayered atmosphere of academic book work, frenetic expedition preparation and a unique social atmosphere that comes with the melding of these activities.
My predecessors have built a thriving research center. My challenge is to keep that momentum alive while new research tools and theoretical frameworks continue to propel the discipline forward so that the Institute is always on the cutting edge, as it has been for over a century. The digital revolution has changed the way we do accounting, communicate and otherwise organize our business activities. The Albright must also keep pace with the more mundane developments in how day-to-day activities are conducted.
Read a web-exclusive report by Jezreel Valley Regional Project archaeologists Matthew J. Adams, Jonathan David and Yotam Tepper on the first archaeological investigation of a second-century C.E. Roman camp in the Eastern Roman Empire.
All of these and many other elements make up the exciting challenge that I face as the new director of the Albright. Once I received word of my appointment (over a year before taking over), I threw myself into it, studying the Institute, local laws, history, budgets—everything that I thought could inform my position. And I showed up on June 1, 2014, with the excitement and energy to take on the challenges facing the Institute in the 21st century.
My very first challenge came within about a month of starting the position, and it wasn’t one that I had planned for.
In June, a series of events in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including the deaths of Israeli and Arab youths, resulted in increased tensions in the region, specifically in East Jerusalem, in the center of which we are located. Riots and other incidents of property damage and personal injury broke out in areas surrounding the Albright. By early July this chain of events led to increased rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza, especially into southern towns such as Ashkelon. Even localities in Jerusalem, including the Albright—normally outside the range of such attacks—were under threat.
The Albright staff and I took the appropriate precautionary measures to be sure the Institute was secure and that plans were in place in case of an emergency. In fact, many of these procedures were already in place, as the Institute has weathered numerous conflicts in the past.
And then the calls started coming in. North American excavation directors working at sites in range of the rocket attacks turned to the Albright for advice and assistance in relocating their teams out of harm’s way. Daniel Master of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon was among the first to call. Through the Albright’s network, we were able to relocate the students in their educational program to the excavation at Megiddo (thanks to directors Israel Finkelstein and Eric Cline), which was out of range to the north, in order to continue their educational experience. While the Ashkelon staff could not complete their excavations, they still had a tremendous amount of paperwork and artifact processing to do. For them, the Albright became an emergency “dig house” where they could lay out their finds for final documenting, finish writing their reports and close down the excavation season scientifically. As Tracy Hoffman of the Ashkelon staff explained in her recent BAR blog post
on the Ashkelon situation, the Albright is an information hub for excavators, and in times of crisis, it is a lifeline.a
Amidst the chaos of intense protests, rocket sirens, news of war and the scurrying to help excavation teams and individuals however possible, there was a moment during which I realized something vital about the Institute. It was in the courtyard, where the configuration of the buildings and grounds blocks out most sounds from the world outside. The sun reflected off the fountain, and the smell of the pine trees and freshly planted flowers filled the air. The Ashkelonian “refugees,” Albright staff and other visitors were bustling about doing their various tasks. Some were eating, some were laughing—everyone was engaged in something. The Institute seemed especially alive and festive. In that moment of clarity, I saw how essential and central the Albright is to the community
of scholars working in the region. I hadn’t seen the Institute in quite that light before, but the lesson will inform my directorship for the rest of my tenure.
Matthew J. Adams is Dorot Director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. Adams has conducted research in Israel and Egypt since the late 1990s, including excavations at Mendes and Megiddo. He is director of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project, a long-term, multidisciplinary survey and excavation project investigating the history of human activity in the Jezreel Valley from the Paleolithic through the Ottoman period, and is on the staff of the Megiddo excavation.
“Archaeological Views: On the Shoulders of Giants: Directing Jerusalem’s Albright Institute”
by Matthew J. Adams originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review
a. See Tracy Hoffman, “Excavation Interrupted,” Bible History Daily (blog), July 23, 2014.