An unpolished archaeologist

A street from the Roman era in Beit She'an. In the background Tell el-Husn. Source: Wikipedia

(This is a translation of an earlier posting on my blog, for the members of the Kibbutz Mesilot forum on Facebook:)

Ten years ago the Israeli archaeologist Pinhas Porat passed away. A blunt, unpolished, warmhearted and completely amiable man that I got to know back in 1986–1987. He was Inspector of Antiquities in the Beit She’an area in northern Israel and lived at kibbutz Mesillot. I had recently graduated from high school in a small Swedish port on the Baltic coast and had become a volunteer at Mesillot. There I often bumped into the roundish, mustache adorned man in the dining hall where all kibbutzniks and volunteers had their meals. Even as a youngster I had virtually read everything coming my way about ancient history and when I realized what he actually was working with I saw a certain possibility materialize.

One day I plucked up courage and asked him if he by chance needed help of any kind. With a skeptic wrinkle on his forehead he mustered me from top to toe, then his grizzled mustache fluttered a bit and that was it. I had become his little helper.

Not a Shekel did he pay me, but still I got a fortune of experiences. For several months I followed him everywhere, visiting Kaananite, Jewish, Hellenistic and Roman remains around Kinneret, at the Golan Heights and in the Valley of Jordan. Often our destinations were fantastic places far away from the beaten track and on several occasions we had to winch his jeep out of some mud hole or ditch. All the time Pinhas tought me about the hidden secrets of the landscape, which a trained archaeologist can spot, and he lent me books ranging from the archaeology of Palestine to Sumerian cuneiform tablets.

On the other hand, a more monotone part of  the workdays with an Israeli Inspector of Antiquities was the cataloguing of pottery shards, beads and other things that were laying in droves in the former mosque of Beit She’an – a backlog from old excavations. All the more exciting were the excavations that I could take part in, among other things the digging in a Roman family grave tomb near the village of Malkishua where we found pottery, bones and Roman copper and silver coins. At another time a sample shaft was dug at the site of an unknown Kaananite settlement south of Beit She’an, where a part of a city- or fortress wall came to light.

Probably the biggest experience of all, though, were the extensive excavations in the small, sleepy town of Beit She’an, which is built on the remnants of the old Hellenistic town Scythopolis with a grand hippodrome, a theater and thermae (Roman public baths), which could match similar establishments in Rome itself. The digging there was made by a special team, but at our frequent visits there I experienced the clearing of a central business street with its small shopping booths that once were in the merciful shade of mighty colonnades. A more practical lesson than that,  regarding the transience of civilizations, is hard to get.

The usually straightforward Pinhas Porat maybe hoped to make an archaeologist out of me, I reckoned, even though he did not say so. Maybe in the same manner that he once ended up in that line of work, as a volunteer with the legendary Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin. Pinhas had an enthusiastic disciple in me, but life doesn’t always turn out as you originally thought or planned. After all I did not become an archaeologist, but sought out other tracks, ending up (so far) as a journalist and author of historical non fiction books. However, many of the things he pointed out to me or showed me turned out to be a lesson for life.

The mere thought of Pinhas Porat, classical archaeology’s answer to David Attenborough and the ”angry chef” Gordon Ramsay in one and the same body, fills me with a warm feeling. Probably I will also shed a little tear.

PS. Here is a link to an interview with Pinhas Porat, dated 2001.

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