G. Buccellati, February 2014

In the Eye of the storm

An illustrated narrative of a live project
A moral presence
The abiding relevance
Midwives to the past
Grassroots empowered
The forever changed horizons – revisited
Unplanned planning

An illustrated narrative of a live project

     It is with real emotion that I have written the narrative included here under the title In the Eye of the Storm.
     I report on a live project.
     The life we are used to look for, as archaeologists, is that of ancient people, long since dead and, literally, buried under the soil they once trod.
     But now: we are as distant from that soil in space as the ancients are from us in time.
     And yet: we are bridging the distance in wholly unexpected ways that bring everything to life.

     Thus it is indeed a live project with which we are involved.
     We the men and women of an archaeological project that combines, more than ever, research into the past and commitment towards the present.
     The men and women are those in Mozan and the the other villages around the ancient city of Urkesh. And they are those of our staff who in countless ways carry forward an abstract research endeavor into the many yesterdays of Urkesh and, at the same time, develop a very concrete outreach towards the needs of the today of Mozan.

     Against the backdrop of the current Syrian tragedy, one will understand why this report cannot be a technical account distant from the emotions that have gone into making it possible.

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A moral presence

     An archaeological project explores the past. But it lives in the present.
     It is not only that the history, extracted from the ground, speaks to our immediate concerns, by revealing the continuity of us, humans today as they were humans yesterday.
     It is also (perhaps: especially) that our collective identities rest on the vertical sense of self that only our past can give us. We are our past. And caring for it is the responsibility we share.
     It is, then, with tender care that we must nurture a project like ours – aimed at a remote Syrian past, and yet so full of meaning for the Syrian present. So we had to design wholly new ways of showing how much life there is in the remoteness of a buried past. It is a moral presence. But not in the rhetorical sense that we only speak about it. Rather, in the very concrete and real sense that we are transforming culture into a social glue.
     We were ready, though we had clearly not been expecting war.
     And yet it was as if we had. However unwittingly.
     It was the attention we gave, over the years, to two central concerns: a possible protracted absence on our part and the need to raise local awareness for the subtle richness of their own culture.
     Training in conservation and education at all levels were the mechanisms to meet these concerns. Our previous folios witness the regular recurrence of our plans.
     We were ready. And it was through major grants from Gulfsands, from the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of Research at UCLA, and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, that we were enabled to live up to our readiness. Through their support, our moral presence has become ever more real on the ground where ancient Urkesh stood millennia ago, and where modern villages are keeping guard, with our help, to their ancient territorial forebears.
     The results are far reaching. From politics to economics, from social awareness to, certainly, the scholarly dimension as well, the Gulfsands Urkesh Exploration Fund has set new standards and become a model. Putting together all the strands that derive from it, reveals the richness of its message and defines the uniqueness of its scope.
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The abiding relevance

     Times of turmoil encourage an intense reflection on the ultimate validity of our field work in foreign lands. Identified as we become with the people, committed as we are to recover their territorial past, engaged as we still remain in the more esoteric dimensions of our research – the question of relevance emerges with urgency.

     It is the case, today, with regard to our field work in Syria. We are identified, we are committed, we are engaged – to where we feel foreign no more. Because of our attitude, because of their openness. Our heart is very much in Mozan while our mind dwells on Urkesh. Our heart is in the streets of Syria today even while our mind seeks to define something as seemingly remote as Late Chalcolithic 3 pottery.

     “Seemingly” remote? You might object: how can one claim relevance for ancient pottery when people are dying in the streets? But even ideas do, strongly, matter, because the whole effort ultimately evokes and nurtures the sense of dignity that sustains us humans when everything else around us is in doubt.

     Archaeologists, we serve as purveyors of a past in which the present sinks roots that are all the deeper when the sense of identity is under attack. We come to feel that in some unexpected way, the Syrians of today can also lean on the Syrians of yesteryear, those ancient Syrians we help bring back to light.

     Almost unbeknownst to us, we had prepared for this. We had prepared as we were striving to conserve the fragile mudbrick walls of four and more millennia ago, as we were endowing this remote past with faces and names, as we were showing how the delicate disentangling of ruins from the grip of the earth is laden with meaning.

     We had prepared because, in doing this, the people affected – we who dig, and they who live the results – have become jointly empowered with the richness of memory. And this memory is the treasure to be defended.

     Thus it is that we feel confident about the Syrians of Mozan having become the guardians of memory, enabled to protect the Syrians of Urkesh from the ravages of war. Thus it is that the Syrians of yesteryear can in turn lean on the Syrians of today.
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Midwives to the past

     Communication is the start of preservation. Alongside conservation, alongside interpretation. Communication conceived as education. An education that educates us as much as “them,” as we all learn, together, that to attribute meaning is to affirm relevance.

     Ours is a lifelong project. And it is projected into the future as well. Certainly, all archaeological projects should be conceived in this manner, even those that are planned for a limited time period. Because the incidence on people’s lives endures well beyond the tenure of the excavations. That is what we are experimenting now at Mozan.

     Events have, de facto, imposed a substantial time limitation on our project. We have been absent from Mozan for three years now. But “absent” is the wrong word. For indeed we have been, and we are, present. It is because we had communicated, effectively, the sense of our joint belonging to the past. In this sense we were truly midwives to the past: we did not invent it, we only helped in bringing it to the light of consciousness.

     It was a simple recipe. We were, all along, committed to values.

     It is these very values that are now affirming us.
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Grassroots empowered

     This Folio is a witness to the resilience of the people in and around Mozan, and to the validity of an approach we have systematically marshaled over the years.

     I will speak, below, of the effectiveness of our site preservation program, in all its aspects. Maintaining the status quo was significant enough. But, as you will see, we went beyond, introducing new approaches, interacting creatively with our “Mozanians” on the ground, with the wonderful dialectics that commonly available technology, from digital cameras to internet connections, makes possible.

     I will speak of the awakening of consciousness – how, throughout our three year absence from the site, instead of fatigue and neglect, a much greater sense of initiative developed that spurred an effective long distance dialog. Colored with nostalgia, it strengthened a professional and human bond we had strongly felt all along but which, put to the test, gained in even greater intensity.

     I will speak of the vigor of the women. They have always been in the background for us. It was a special sense of dignity, I believe, that kept them from working at the tell (villages from other areas do not have this limitation). But now they have found their own niche, and have taken hold of the idea with real vigor.

     In our Mozan experiment, terms like “stakeholders,” “sustainability,” “grassroots,” “bottom-up” come across with a whole new forcefulness. No theory, here.

     Or rather. Theory is vindicated by the natural impulse that life brings to the fore. Reality precedes the words.
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The forever changed horizons – revisited

     In the last Folio the title "Forever Changed Horizons" referred to a very remote past: we had discovered that Urkesh went back in time to five millennia ago. The earlier mound would have looked as in the silhoutette below.

     But this same title acquires a whole new meaning today.
     The "forever changed horizons" are no longer those of ancient Urkesh, but of modern day Mozan.
      War and strife have seared the horizons of the Syria we knew and loved so well.
     There was no slowly gathering storm. The storm gathered as a sudden explosion, a thunderbolt that starkly changed all that we were used to.

      Against the backdrop of five millennia, three years are, to be sure, a very short time.
      But it is precisely our being used to a different scale of time that makes us sensitive to the vast implications of sudden change.
      We had, clairvoyantly and unwittingly at the same time, prepared for these new horizons.
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Unplanned planning

     The developments that have taken place at Mozan in the wake of the tragic Syrian upheaval have been remarkable. We had planted a seed. Unwittingly, a consciousness took root that validated our efforts. “Unwittingly,” because we had of course never anticipated the disaster that would ensue. And yet: the commitment to the goal was so profound, that there was no question about the results. Our planning was unplanned as to words. But it could not have more clearly planned as to the intent.
     This was possible because there was, in the first place, a dimension of trust. We had laid out concrete mechanisms for maintaining contact with our local collaborators, whom we expected to carry out various activities while we were there. But we could not anticipate all details, nor could we micro-manage the situation from afar, once it became impossible for us to return regularly. What made up for it was the reciprocal trust, that helped us, on both sides of the great chasm, to interpret the essence of what was needed, even when explanations could not be forthcoming.
     The heart warming and comforting result was the realization that out of the worst can come the best. The dynamics of human situations is like a spiral, and the initial direction of the movement is perhaps the defining moment. If it spirals downwards, one is sucked into a progressively more negative trend. It is therefore important to lay the groundwork so that the thrust is upwards from the beginning. That is what happily happened in our case.
     I will close with two e-mails dated November 2013, from Ibrahim and Kameran of our Mozan staff. They add more light on the attitude with which they see the joint commitment we share for the site.
     “Excavations good, but always lacking materials and most of the time I do I bought on my account such as threads, needles and oil and other materials”

Hello Dear Samer
     We the workers we bought materials, such as nylon and other materials debt, from when our friends
[they bought plastic sheets with their own money] in order to cover the walls And Abe before the rains, to come Mr. Sabah and covering Abe well
     We've temporarily covered with nylon and also some of the walls
[they wanted to cover the underground structure in anticipation of heavy rains expected before Sabah, the smith, could complete his new cover for this structure]
     After we finished the coverage was really there was a heavy rain, but we got back up In a timely manner and there was no damage to the site
Thank you
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