Category Archives: History

Should we crowdfund archaeology? Regarding US Ambassador Heffern’s exhortation to develop archaeology & tourism in Armenia

In 2013, the United States Ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, gave a TedX talk in Yerevan about the wealth of archaeological remains just waiting to be excavated (and then conserved) in the modern Republic of Armenia. He argued that the vivid history in Armenia should be better known throughout the world, to bring development (i.e., tourist dollars and related construction projects) to Armenia, and also to heighten academic interest in its history, thereby also encouraging international collaboration.

To emphasize the value of bringing international attention to archaeology in Armenia, Ambassador Heffern pointed out a few somewhat recent finds from the caves near the town of Areni in Vayots Dzor, including the earliest known wine-making equipment and a remarkably well-preserved leather shoe that clocks in at 5,500 years old. He went on to discuss the wine-making equipment at length, because of its potential significance to development, as the region of Areni just happens to be the most famous Armenian region for wine production, suggesting marketing connections just waiting to be made.  Ambassador Heffern’s final exhortation to his audience was to look into the use of crowdfunding to help finance archaeological projects and conservation, and to promote the sites for education and tourism.

I am in such complete agreement with Ambassador Heffern’s main points that I have in fact spoken to audiences across the U.S. on numerous occasions about archaeology in Armenia, its origins, its history, and its current state.  In Armenia, if you walk through the countryside with one of the archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologist will point out a historic or archaeological site to your left; an artifact to the right; a series of memorials behind you; or ancient walls directly in front.  The landscape is dotted with reminders of the past, artifacts and constructions like those found in the Areni cave that tell a tale of very early times, up through material remains that teach us about the medieval period and beyond.  The very landscape tells a story, a complex story of different times and different people, and that captivating story—or really, stories—should indeed be better known.

I have even led a group of tourists through every part of the country, telling those stories of the past by providing a unique look at material excavated long ago as well as excavations that are currently ongoing. I led the tour to do exactly what Ambassador Heffern is calling for, to bring tourist money into the country while at the very same time educating people about the past directly under their feet.

And so, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the talk, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what impact crowdfunding might have on what is (and should remain) a social-scientific endeavor.  What happens if institutions like universities and organizations like the National Science Foundation are relieved of their responsibility to fund scientific projects like archaeology?  What happens if the model becomes, in fact, a business model?  Or even a privately-funded model?

I have other questions about the talk, such as why there was no mention of the many international collaborations already going on in Armenia, some of which have lasted for many years.  There was not even a mention of the teams at UCLA and University College Cork who work at Areni, although to be fair, Armenian archaeologists also hardly figured in the speech except to be seen in the photo at the Institute.  My point, however, is that collaborations and academic interest in Armenia already do exist; why not lend support to these projects, which already have the relationships and even infrastructure in place that will allow them to expand their efforts to illuminate the archaeology and history hiding in Armenia’s soil?

In the end, TedX talks are meant to be thought-provoking, not necessarily problem-solving. This talk certainly made me think, but largely, about the proposed solution to the problem of funding archaeological research, and about the problems that the solution might in turn raise.

Taking comfort in discomfort

Hegel’s a problem.  Seriously—what kind of person writes like that??  So, when you’re about to help a roomful of kids work through the Philosophy of World History, what do you do?  It’s tempting to walk them through the arguments and concepts: philosophical history, Idea, world-spirit, reason… (Of course, it’s also tempting to tell them to look at the index, already.)  It’s tempting to feed them concepts and arguments, to draw the connections for them, because, come on—Hegel is hard.  The students don’t necessarily have the tools to cope with his arguments, to grasp the synthesis of ideal and real, subject and object, particular and universal. So what do you do? Continue reading

Independence Day, Armenia-style

On September 21st, Armenia celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union.  There were concerts, dance performances, and a general party atmosphere all over the center of Yerevan.  In the evening, Republic Square was transformed into one large concert- and show venue, where a full orchestra played while dancers danced, singers sang, and a visual history of Armenia was projected onto the History Museum of Armenia as well as the two government buildings flanking it (the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance).  I’ve never seen anything like the light show played on the buildings; these photos don’t do it justice.  It was really remarkable.

The History Museum of Armenia

I had spent the evening with a couple of friends, talking, eating fruit and treats, drinking cognac and rose liqueur, and I decided I needed to witness the events in Republic Square.  A 20th anniversary only comes around once—and I figured that such a milestone would be perceived a little differently than, say, our 235th anniversary of independence.  I started my investigations into the holiday by talking with friends and colleagues, asking what they thought of the anniversary—both in general, and specifically, of the celebrations the government was planning.  The celebrations had clearly been in the works for a long time, including not just that day’s activities, but also an entire printed campaign with signs proclaiming “Hayastany Du Es!”, or, you are Armenia!, as well as a music video that played frequently all summer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dULlTcVjNk . Continue reading

Reflections on a return

figs in the window

I started to write a little bit about the things that I’ve missed in Armenia since leaving last year, but it quickly ceased to be “a little bit,” and so instead, I’ll talk about one of the most important things I’ve missed: the fresh fruit and vegetables.  I love my neighborhood produce store in Chicago, don’t get me wrong, but the summer produce here is incredible: peaches as big as softballs and as sweet as honey, watermelon that melts in your mouth, juicy figs that don’t cost an arm or a leg (maybe an ankle, but they’re worth it), and the tomatoes.  Oh, the tomatoes.  Juicy, bright red, tender, flavorful—not picked green and then sent to a warehouse.  All summer, before arriving here in August, I would look at even the organic tomatoes at my store in Chicago and sigh, reminding myself that true vine-ripened tomatoes were waiting for me in Armenia.

Armenia’s fruit- and vegetable-basket is the Ararat plain, a mountainous plateau that has been at the heart of Armenia since time immemorial.  Armenia has a number of inactive volcanoes and calderas in and around it, and it seems that the volcanic soil has a near-magical ability to grow a wide (and delicious) variety of fruits and vegetables.  One of the traditional dishes here is khorovats, or barbecue, where pieces of meat are placed on skewers and cooked over coals.  The meat is accompanied by whole peppers (spicy or not), eggplants, and tomatoes, all of which are also skewered and barbecued.  There might be a variety of side dishes as well—sauteed eggplant slices with garlic and walnuts, fresh herbs, homemade yogurt and cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, a million kinds of salads—but the simple preparation of the barbecued vegetables is mouthwateringly fantastic, with its combination of the charred exterior and the tender, juicy inside.  I don’t eat meat, but I’ve never left a khorovats dinner without being stuffed.

When I first stayed in Yerevan in 2008 (before that, I had only lived in a smaller town called Aparan), even the large supermarkets had mostly seasonal produce.  That meant that in the winter, there’d be primarily squashes and root vegetables, but it also meant that everything was fresh and not designed for optimal transportation.  Now, you can find quinces from Moscow, lemons from Georgia, and, to my surprise (and error) last week, apples from New Zealand.  I meant to buy some tasty local apples for my husband, but clearly, I should have been suspicious when I saw stickers on the fruit.  The last New Zealand apple is still on our table, while we’ve eaten our way through peaches, figs, and local apples.

fresh herbs and lettuce, all for less than $2!

There are many traditional dishes available in Armenia, but my tastes are quite simple and tend to revolve around the fresh, delicious produce.  I also find that I’m spoiled and rarely even buy some of these fruits and vegetables back in Chicago, preferring to avoid the mediocre and wait for the fantastic, when I come back to Armenia. I’m lucky that I get to come back frequently; scurvy isn’t fun, from what I hear.