Honours for Jeremy Rutter

An excerpt from the concluding half of a piece in the Valley News:

[ …] In the archaeological universe, there are people who prefer to sit at a remove from a site, analyzing material in a lab: these are, said Rutter, the “cleans.” Then there are the other people, who like nothing better than getting out to a dig and sifting through the layers of civilizations: these are, said Rutter, the “dirtys.”

“I am definitely a dirty,” he said.

Or to put it another way: out in the field, said Roger Ulrich, a professor of Classics at Dartmouth and a colleague of Rutter’s, Rutter is “what we simply call a pot person.”

In the excavations Rutter has done in his life, Ulrich said, the thousands or hundreds of thousands of pottery fragments coming up in excavation are like “fingerprints or markers.” If you know what you’re looking at, and can piece them together, they can reveal much about these old civilizations: their rituals, their gods, their social and economic structure, their arts, aspirations and pretensions, what they ate and drank, how they lived, how they died and what they believed about an afterlife.

The trick, Ulrich said, is that to understand and interpret the minutiae of pot sherds requires years of training, a breadth and depth of knowledge and knowing when to go with your gut instinct.

“It takes a certain type of mind to look at this highly detailed stuff… and (Rutter) has become very accomplished about this. He’s one of a handful of people on the planet who can sort through this material and make sense of it,” Ulrich said.

Technically speaking, Rutter said, his specialty is the pottery of the Bronze age in Greece, from roughly 3000 to 1000 B.C.E, give or take a century or two. Asked to elaborate on the kinds of ceramics he’s studied and his doctoral dissertation, which has the weighty title, “The Late Helladic IIIB and IIIC Periods at Korakou and Gonia in the Corinthia,” Rutter, a wiry man who wears glasses and has close-cut hair, looked incredulous. “Oh my God! Do you want to fall asleep?”

Then he roused himself to an explanation of how he ended up in a profession that has been essentially devoted to what he calls “a treasure hunt.” The short version is that he hails from an old Pennsylvania family that dates back to the early days of the commonwealth. His father worked as a diplomat for the State Department so Rutter was raised in both the Washington, D.C. area and in Italy, Austria, England, Germany and Ghana.

As kids, he and his two brothers were marched around to museums and historical sites, and his interest in the ancient world derives partly from that early exposure but also from a child’s innate curiosity in exploring, digging, uprooting and unearthing, only kicked up a number of levels.

He graduated from Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia in 1967 with a degree in Classics, and then went on to get his doctorate in Classical Archaeology in at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, with a stint from 1969 to 1971 as a radio operator in the Army north of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Then began the round-robin of trying to secure an academic appointment, a process that he said “was no easier then than it is now.”

Eventually he ended up at Dartmouth in 1976, and during his tenure there led numerous archaeological expeditions to Greece for students, and earning, Ulrich said, the admiration of both peers and students for his dedication to teaching at the undergraduate level rather than pursuing a career teaching graduate students.

On the one hand, Rutter frequently runs into people who tell him they wanted to grow up to be archaeologists, imagining the glory of the big find. On the other hand, Rutter has heard some of the skepticism directed at archaeology as a professional pursuit, including from his own father, who was, Rutter said, not pleased when his son told him he was going into the field because “he didn’t see any point in looking backward.”

“What’s wrong with you people in archaeology?” Rutter said, parroting some of the bafflement he’s heard. “Everything’s about may or might or maybe. Isn’t there an end point?” But archaeology isn’t just about scraping dirt and mud off objects, said Rutter. It is “about the full range of human life and human behavior back then. … It’s about storytelling.”

What he tried to convey to his students, he said, was that studying archaeology had benefits beyond learning about old civilizations. “It’s an issue of trying to teach them to observe, to see what’s in front of them and to have confidence in their observational skills and to train them to write about this in a logical, coherent fashion. All of that would apply to any evidence-based profession,” he said.

“One of the things I try to teach my students is that we have been encultured to think of progress as a linear phenomenon, but in detail if you look at it, it goes up and down, and every time, out of the ruins of the collapse something entirely new arises.”

Ancient Greece, he said, is a “wonderful lab” in which to look at how humans have measured the idea of progress.

He recalled the dig he went on when he was 22 and 23, to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, which also was the site of the first Greek colony to the west of the Greek mainland. Called in Greek, Pithekoussai, and in Latin, Pithecusae, it was essentially a trading post. The Greeks had erected a town, temples, a cemetery, and the speculation is, Rutter said, that they had based a colony there to get at metals to the north on the Italian mainland.

“Greek archaeology was more interesting to me than Roman,” Rutter said. “If you’re going to do architecture, Roman is more interesting but if you’re going to do pottery, Roman is some of the most uninteresting the world has ever seen, while Greek pottery is fascinating. … There was a time when the finest Greek artists were working in ceramics.”

During his second summer there he went to the dig director and proposed opening up a trial trench off to one side of where the town site was. After getting the go-ahead Rutter and a colleague began to dig, delving down to where pottery fragments were denser. It was an area that seemed to have been the center of the town’s metallurgy industry. Over the course of the summer, they exposed some of the ancient buildings and the ceramics in and around them. Although Rutter says that “all evidence is good evidence,” most of the sherds they were bringing up were not terrifically interesting, with a notable exception.

One fragment, on close inspection, turned out to have a figure on it. Rutter eventually determined that it was a fragment of the rim of a krater, or large mixing bowl, in which people would have mixed wine and water for a symposium, the Greek term for a convivial gathering of people.

The fragment, which dates roughly to 700 B.C.E., showed a frontal bearded figure with wings and above it was a partial inscription, which turned out to be the artist’s signature. All that could be seen of his name were the letters, “inos,” but it was still a stirring moment. “That was very cool. There’s nothing like an inscription to make you feel close to the people,” Rutter said. It continues to be, as far as he knows, the oldest found fragment with the name of a Greek artist on it.

Which brings him to the serious ethical arguments that rage in archaeology, questions of cultural patrimony and whether to repatriate objects removed or looted from their original sites, the Parthenon (also called the Elgin) Marbles in the British Museum being a case in point. Greece wants the sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Athens back; the British have so far refused, citing concerns over whether the Greeks can adequately preserve them.

And then there is the cruel irony that even as archaeologists in every field make new discoveries all the time, there is a constant race between the archaeologist’s shovel and the developer’s backhoe, and the shovel doesn’t always win out. “A thousand years from now we will be crushed when there’s no original landscape to be found,” Rutter said. “What we’ll have lost will be huge. Thousands of archaeological sites are being lost every year.”

That aside, Rutter can’t complain about the direction his life has taken. “I never had to get out of the sandbox,” he marveled. “Boy, what a cool thing to do.” And while America is a culture perpetually criticized for its adolescent preoccupations, Rutter found a niche in a profession that places great value not only on conserving and understanding the past, but on the wisdom of the people doing it.

“There’s something to be said for an aging archaeologist,” he said. “It’s hard to bottle simple experience.”

… not sure if I’d like the ‘treasure hunter’ epithet, but it’s nice that his work is being recognized …

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