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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  > > The End of Consulting?
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Records of a Revolution
  > >
Campus of the Big Ideas
  > >
You Go Girl!


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.

Why do we dig up the past?

"We dig up the past because we're human," quipped Paul Sereno, professor in organismal biology & anatomy. "We're curious about where we came from and where we're going, what's possible, what could have been, what could be. No other living thing can think about the past. It's what makes us human."

While Sereno digs for bones of dinosaurs that, long before humans came along, "clamored around" the swamps in what is now the Sahara Desert, his fellow panelists dig to learn more about our species.

IMAGE:  Michael Dietler digs up the past as an "antidote to historic myopia."
Michael Dietler digs up the past as an "antidote to historic myopia."

The earliest seeds of urban civilization have lured McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, professor in Mesopotamian archaeology, to northeastern Syria and a dig at Tell Hamoukar. There he studies "the way people stopped being hunters and gatherers, stopped living in caves, and how civilizations came about." Among the remains of a mud-brick city wall and a large two-story building with institutional-sized ovens, he has assembled evidence challenging the view that urban civilization began circa 3500-3100 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Uruk in modern-day southern Iraq and then spread through the ancient Near East. Instead, he argues, urban activity was under way in northeastern Syria at about the same time-or even earlier, between 4000 and 3700 B.C.

As the fascinated murmurs elicited by Gibson receded, Michael Dietler asked the group to put on their critical-thinking caps and consider momentarily "the good, the bad, and the ugly"-that is, the human-motives of archaeology. Dietler, associate professor in anthropology, studies the Celtic speaking peoples of Iron Age Europe, digging at the site of Lattes, near Montpellier in the Languedoc region of France. "Archaeologists have too often been the weapons of identity politics," he said, citing not only the notorious digs of Nazi-financed archaeologists but also France's own rising nationalism and the zeal to make national heroes of the native Gauls who fought the colonizing Romans. "I can't help but wonder," he said, "what layers were thrown aside, what layers were left undug" to validate a national identity.

Despite the bad and ugly, Dietler said he digs for the good: because "archaeology is the only antidote to historic myopia." By the early 20th century "half the surface of the earth's continents were under colonial dominance." Dietler digs to learn more about colonialism, particularly precapitalist colonial encounters. In his material studies of early Roman colonies in France, he has found among the objects, art, and self-representations made by the Celts "the only means to restore a voice to those who were written out of history."

As for the "where we're going" aspect of digging up the past, Susan Kidwell, professor in geophysical sciences, hopes to find some answers. Describing herself as an earth-sciences historiographer, she studies the "recent" fossil record (10,000-100,000 years ago) to judge its completeness and its skew, working to understand the resilience of the biosphere. Changes in climate, tectonic activity, ocean circulation, and mass extinctions are "huge natural experiments run by nature," she explained. "From them we can learn what determines resilience and what precedes failure." Her recent collaborations with ecologists and conservation biologists compare the current environment with the past, in an effort to determine how much present-day change is part of natural cycles and how much is caused by humans. She doesn't have firm answers yet-except to say that humans have been altering the environment for a very long time.

Quoting the novelist Russell Hoban, Kidwell summed up the human desire to dig in this way: "If the past cannot teach the present..., then history need not have bothered to go on, and the world has wasted a great deal of time."

1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?


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  JUNE 2002

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  > > e-Bulletin: 06/14/02



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