January 7, 2021

Archaeology Weekend Goes Virtual, Attracts International Audience

t was midnight in Germany when an archaeology event highlighting ancient discoveries began livestreaming from 6,000 miles away at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, United States. But Evanthia Hatziminaoglou, an astrophysicist with the European Southern Observatory in Garching bei München, decided to view as much of it as her energy level would allow.

Hatziminaoglou had connected 10 years earlier with La Sierra archaeologists while serving as a dig site volunteer in Jordan. She had also delivered a joint presentation in Italy in 2019 on research into astronomy and archaeology with archaeologist Doug Clark, director of La Sierra’s Center for Near Eastern Archaeology (CNEA) on the school campus. 

On November 14, 2020, Hatziminaoglou watched from Germany as Clark and other La Sierra archaeologists delivered the center’s 12th Annual Archeology Discovery Weekend in a condensed, three-hour format. Typically an in-person event, the program was pushed online by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 200 people registered from around the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Portugal, Brazil, and Jordan to attend the webinar-style presentation over Zoom video conferencing. Titled “A Passion for Preserving the Past: Showcasing Archaeology at La Sierra University,” it was held from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time and featured illustrated presentations with Q&A, offering insights into the center’s decades-long, ongoing excavations in Jordan; use of new high-tech tools; current research activities and publication of extensive research findings; and a virtual tour of the center’s archaeology lab, as well as highlights of some of its thousands of ancient artifacts. Attendees were also proffered a glimpse at plans for a university museum project.

Hatziminaoglou managed to watch the presentations for the first two hours, until about 2:00 a.m., she said, and despite the late hour, was glad for an opportunity to reconnect virtually with the archaeologists and learn more about the center’s work. “I greatly enjoyed the event. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I found the talks well prepared, informative and educational,” she said.

Clark, who spearheaded the event and served as the primary host, introduced co-presenters from a staged area in the center’s archaeology lab, surrounded by ancient pottery dug from the sands of Jordan. Some presenters delivered their talks from far-flung locations, including Canada, Pennsylvania, and Washington, while others were on site. All individuals who participated on campus at the archaeology center underwent wellness check procedures and adhered to health and safety protocols.

Virtual Discoveries

La Sierra archaeologists Kent Bramlett, Chang-ho Ji, and Larry Geraty joined Clark in giving presentations along with partnering archaeologists and scholars. They delved into excavations at Tall al-‘Umayri, Balu’a Regional Archaeology Project, Khirbut Ataruz, and the Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project in Jordan. They explored the land and ancient cultures of the Ammonites and Moabites. La Sierra’s archaeologists have maintained dig sites in Jordan for more than 50 years.

Clark, with input from afar from long-time excavation partner and archaeologist Larry Herr, professor emeritus of religious studies at Burman University in Alberta, Canada, discussed key finds at Tall al-‘Umayri outside of Amman. After 32 years, the site ceased operation in 2016 due to issues with property owners. Ancient finds have included the discovery of a Bronze Age burial site known as a dolmen, which produced 25 to 28 human skeletons that are being analyzed for pathologies and ancient DNA; an administrative complex; a four-room house originating from about 1200 BC; and the discovery of 30 smashed storage vessels, some with chickpeas still inside of them that were stored there from about 2500 BC.

Bramlett and CNEA co-director Monique Vincent gave an overview of the Balu’a site, which includes a settlement dating to the Iron Age that researchers believe controlled a trade route through Moab. They noted plans for the site's multinational excavation team to return in summer 2021, provided participants can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Ji, an archaeologist, associate director of the center, and dean of La Sierra’s School of Education, discussed ongoing excavations at a 3,000-year-old Moabite temple at Khirbut Ataruz, a groundbreaking find discovered in the year 2000. His presentation included the 2019 announcement of inscriptions on a cylindrical altar that refer to a battle waged and won by Moabite king Mesha in revolt against a king of Israel.

Bramlett also provided insights into “cyber archaeology” and its many technologies and uses, such as carbon-14 dating in research and the center’s “cave,” a system of nine display panels that takes viewers inside ancient structures in a 3D format. Bramlett also explained how he has employed photogrammetry, which uses hundreds of photos to create a 3D digital model of structures under excavation to get a sense of what they looked like inside and out, similar to the 3D environments in video games that allow players to move around a virtual world. The archaeologists also used drones to photograph their excavations from above until new Jordanian laws prevented such activity.

Geraty, a center associate director, archaeologist, and La Sierra University’s president emeritus, relayed plans that are underway for the development of a multi-faceted museum that would place on display the ancient treasures residing in the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology.

Archaeology center curatorial assistant and graduate student Dawn Acevedo, a key organizer of the virtual archaeology event, hosted an online tour of the center and its labs and discussed components under consideration for the center, such as digital tours and virtual, immersive displays.

The Online Option

Hatziminaoglou volunteered at the Tall al-‘Umayri excavation in 2010 but had limited knowledge of the other sites led by La Sierra’s archaeologists. “Being an astrophysicist, not an archaeologist, most of what was said was new to me. What struck me the most, though, was the long history of archaeology at La Sierra and the magnitude of the projects,” she said. “Getting this overview was eye-opening and made me want to go back [as an excavation volunteer].”

Long-time CNEA volunteer and dig site veteran Vera Kopecky, an attendee of the center’s prior in-person archaeology weekend events, said she enjoyed the virtual program. “It was a nice way to connect this year, and I think it also had the added benefit of bringing people in that could not attend, regardless of Covid, with travel, health, or occupational priorities. This way, people all over the world could participate,” she said. “For that reason alone, I’d love to see the virtual format continue. The virtual event was easy to navigate, and all the speakers were great.  Even with it being the first time, everything appeared to go fairly smoothly.”

Beverly Beem, emeritus English professor at Walla Walla University in Washington and a past presenter at Archaeology Discovery Weekend events, tuned in to the virtual program on her smartphone from her home in College Place. She recalled enjoying Near Eastern food during past weekend banquets, visiting the CNEA library, and sipping tea while chatting with friends in the traditional goat-hair Bedouin tent that is typically set up as a reception site.

“That doesn’t happen in Zoom, but without Zoom, we wouldn’t have had a Discovery Weekend at all,” she said. “We couldn’t have seen our friends telling us about their discoveries at the last dig, the progress made on their two museums, and listen to their plans for the future. These are the things we wanted to know, and it was good to hear it, even if we couldn’t be there at the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology. I hope they keep doing this.”

The virtual Archaeology Discovery Weekend event pre-empted a planned in-person event focused on southwest Turkey’s famed cities, churches, synagogues, and mosques with discussions by leading experts, who were slated to fly in to give presentations. The pivot to the virtual event, a technological learning curve for its planners, was produced with significant involvement from the university’s IT department and entailed “a lab counter full of sophisticated equipment with three cameras, two light trees, several monitors, and computers galore,” Clark noted.

“While adjusting to new dynamics in new environments with new requirements, presenters rose to the challenge. Most of us were at CNEA and faced adjustments of our own. Still, those who co-presented from remote locations experienced other issues,” Clark noted in a post-event message to archaeology committee members. “Some of us could not see our co-presenters, which made it interesting to know when to stop or start speaking without a visual signal on our faces. In the end, however, the conversations seemed to go well. We hope that the focus on foreign field excavations as well as home-grown research, all connected to CNEA, spoke well of our commitments to preserving the past.”

The original version of this story was posted on the La Sierra University news page.