Thursday, April 12, 2007

Jodi Magness

While some people have a hard time memorizing a five-minute speech, professor Jodi Magness can talk passionately about religious studies for more than an hour - without using so much as a note card.

About 200 students, some of whom resorted to sitting on the floor of Murphey 116, listened intently Tuesday as Magness narrated a tale about the Roman siege of Masada, a site of ancient palaces in Israel.

And although many typically consider history lectures dry and trite, Magness' unique teaching style of using vivid anecdotes kept students on the edge of their seats.

"You constantly want to know what she's going to say next," said freshman Ben Liebtag, who is taking "New Testament Archaeology" with Magness.

Magness, who has been teaching at the University for five years, said she knew she wanted to become an archaeologist at age 12 and dedicates all of her spare time to learning about the subject.

"That's pretty much what I do 24/7," said Magness, who has a bachelor's degree in archaeology and ancient history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a doctorate degree in classical archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

She said she hopes to retire doing exactly what she does now - digging for ancient artifacts and writing and teaching about archaeology.

Magness, who has written four books about archaeology, spends her summers in Israel digging for ancient artifacts.

Students said she is so passionate and knowledgeable about the subject that they sometimes have a trouble keeping up while taking notes.

"She has hands-on experience of everything," said junior Allison Beck. "If Jodi says it, that's what I believe."

And her credentials make her class a one-of-a-kind experience.

Magness said she is the only person in the U.S. with a doctorate degree in classical archaeology who has a full-time appointment in a religious studies department.

Magness said that she never anticipated becoming a professor but that she thoroughly enjoys sharing her love of archaeology with students.

"I just like to get people excited about archaeology," she said. "It's inherently interesting stuff that everybody can relate to."

Magness gained most of her teaching experience as a professor at Tufts University for 10 years. Although she said coming to UNC from Boston was a big transition, it didn't take long for her to adjust.

"The students here are wonderful," Magness said. "They love the fact that they're at UNC. It's almost universal that everyone who is here is where they wanted to go."

The sentiment seems to go both ways. Freshman Jonathan Hecht said Magness has a way of making the subject come to life.

"Jodi Magness is wonderful in every shape and form," he said. "She's on the Discovery Channel every other day. It's a privilege being in the same room with her."

Friday, April 6, 2007

Attack on Israeli Archaeological Practices

A Brief Evaluation of Methodology and Use of Evidence in Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society by Nadia Abu El-Haj

Command of the Hebrew Language

El-Haj has undertaken to write an anthropology of Israeli attitudes towards archaeology and their role in "self-fashioning in Israeli society," yet there is no indication in the text that she either explored these topics in conversation with Israelis in a systematic way (she cites only conversations with tour guides) or by reading materials published in the national language. Indeed, there are indications in the text that she was not capable of doing so due to her apparent unfamiliarity with Hebrew. Even when following a source (p. 95), El-Haj repeatedly mistakes neve (settlement) for nahal (stream), misnaming, for example, Nahal Patish as Neve Patish (writing, roughly, the town of Patish in place of Patish Creek, a stream valley named for its hammer [patish]-shaped rock formation.)

On the next page (p. 96), she accuses Zionist pioneers of naming Tell Hai, Tell Yosef, and Tell ha-Shomer in a manner intended to mislead, that is, by implying that these new villages were built on tells, that is, on sites "of the remains of ancient settlements." El-Haj not only condemns such misappropriation of the word tell but asserts that the government Committee on Place Names (Va'adt ha-Shemot) "insisted" that "such improper terminological uses could not be continued."

Throughout this remarkable passage, Abu El-Haj appears to be entirely unaware that tell (tel) is a common Hebrew word meaning both "hill" and "artificial hill created by the remains of an ancient settlement." A direct translation of Tel Aviv, for example, is Hill of Spring, a hopeful name for a city that makes no pretense to antiquity. El-Haj's assertion that the names of these towns were condemned by the Va'ad ha-Shemot is sheer untruth.

A lack of familiarity with the language of a nation disqualifies a scholar from attempting certain projects. Lack of Hebrew disqualifies a scholar from undertaking a technical discussion of Hebrew and Arabic place-naming.

A study of "archaeological practice" in Israel could be carried out without a working knowledge of Hebrew. It would require the investigator to master the fundamentals of archaeological field research. There is no indication in the text that El-Haj has conducted such a study.

Familiarity with Previous Scholarship

In her discussion of place names, El-Haj demonstrates no knowledge of the indispensible work of Ruth Kark, Haim Goren, Yossi Katz and Dov Gavish. In her discussion of Israeli historical memory, she demonstrates no awareness of the important work of Nahman-ben-Yehuda, Anita Schapira, or Yaakov Shavit. Lack of familiarity with the work of the leading scholars who have written on her chosen subjects is part of what marks El-Haj’s book as falling outside the realm of scholarship.

Use of Anonymous Sources and Unsourced Assertions

El-Haj repeatedly makes assertions of fact based on citing unnamed informants or no sources at all. These assertions would be shocking, if they were true. Examples:

“One archaeologist told me of a right-wing colleague who was constantly labeling Christian sites Jewish.” (p. 233)

“In general, however, in Israeli archaeology… the practical work of excavating favors larger (mostly, well-preserved architectural) remains over smaller remains…smaller finds…do not survive the onslaught of bulldozers.” (pp. 148-9)


On page 148, El-Haj makes a direct, personal attack on David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, whom El-Haj accuses of “bad science,” using “large shovels,” failing to sift dirt “in search of very small remains,” and of using bulldozers “in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible.” According to El-Haj, he did so in such a way that “the remains above it were summarily destroyed.”

El-Haj supports these assertions with nothing more than stories “recounted to me after the fact by both archaeologists and student volunteers,” none of whom she names.

Ussishkin has responded that “All her accusations are based on talks with anonymous participants after the excavations…This is not a proper and serious way of research.” He details his field methods and demonstrates the falsity of her assertions.

We consider El-Haj’s accusations to be slanderous.


Facts on the Ground exhibits an inability to understand the language (Hebrew) of the nation that the author pretends to study, a broad failure on the part of the author to encounter the scholarly work in her field, a failure on the author’s part to understand the use of evidence, and, finally, descends to the baseless slander of a highly respected scholar.

Signed by the Va’ad ha-Emet (Truth Committee)

China's earliest modern human

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing have been studying a 40,000-year-old early modern human skeleton found in China and have determined that the "out of Africa" dispersal of modern humans may not have been as simple as once thought.

The research result will be published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on April 3.

Erik Trinkaus, Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, his colleague Hong Shang, and others at the IVPP examined the skeleton, recovered in 2003 from the Tianyuan Cave, Zhoukoudian, near Beijing City.

The skeleton dates to 42,000 to 38,500 years ago, making it the oldest securely dated modern human skeleton in China and one of the oldest modern human fossils in eastern Eurasia.

The specimen is basically a modern human, but it does have a few archaic characteristics, particularly in the teeth and hand bone. This morphological pattern implies that a simple spread of modern humans from Africa is unlikely, especially since younger specimens have been found in Eastern Eurasia with similar feature patterns.

According to Trinkaus and Shang, "the discovery promises to provide relevant paleontological data for our understanding of the emergence of modern humans in eastern Asia."