What does an archeologist bring to the post 9/11 story?
That’s the premise behind the “Excavating Ground Zero:Fragments from 9/11″ exhibition at the Penn Museum (runs until November 6 ). For renowned archeologist Richard Hodges, director of the Museum, this is a place where visitors can find room for reflection, within the context of the artifacts and ideas of ancient cultures.
(Photo: Computer keyboard recovered from Ground Zero by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office (OCME), NYC. On Loan from the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Photo: Penn Museum.)
A place for reflection
Today of course archeology can help us understand not just monuments not just artworks , we can study how people lived and in this case perished . So archeology allows us to reconstruct life-ways of ordinary people then and now. So this exhibit allows us to reflect as an individual. There’s nothing like that incinerated computer keyboard ( an artifact rescued from the Ground Zero rubble. See photo) to make us reflect in many different personal ways and that reflection is very important. We hope that Americans will think very hard about the event of 11 September reflecting on the last 10 years and what it meant. So as an archeology museum and actually as an archeologist, these objects make us think about what we call the Pompeian premise (in essence, the study of human behavior behind the artifacts, not just the artifacts New Archeology ) , what happens after a catastrophe, what happened to these people, of whom we know very little. But in this case we know a great deal as many of these tragic stories describe; And then to see the connections between these people and their lives, the connection with objects.
I hope this will inform people about the other gallery, not least the Egyptian gallery where we have mummies or the galleries where you can see the life-ways of people in distant past or more recent past. That’s the intention of the exhibit.
Witnessing a millennial change
Continuity is how we see the world for the most part and text always emphasizes essentially continuity. Objects, monuments, emphasize discontinuity.
In this case, I suppose you chose yourself what you think.
I tend to think personally that it was a moment of great change. It was a point when the United States, was , unhappily, so to speak, brought into something it has created , through circumstances it could never had envisioned, through globalization of a very particular kind. But in the same way you could say, if you look at our Roman galleries, and look at the houses from the Bay of Naples, you know 79 A.D. with the explosion of Vesuvius (volcano) burying Pompeii, it actually sealed a style of painting. and then the world changed after than in terms of how it represented itself.
I think the 11th of September was a moment of enormous change. It was a real millennial change because it’s a moment when globalization really became apparent to everyone on the globe. It had existed before but this was the first instance and indeed I saw what happened that day in New York, over a computer rather than on a television screen and I’d never watched any live images over a computer screen before . Yes it was a moment when, to use a contemporary word, essentially the world went viral.
The story behind the symbols
The intentions of the terrorists was to attack American symbols, particularly it’s finance, it’s military machine, its government. and so it attacked a series of very distinguished building, but if I may say, as an archeologist, besides the rhetoric of those buildings, which of course are important to this story, it isn’t the point of this exhibit.
The point of this exhibit is very much to reflect on the individuals, those individuals whom for the most part, in our archeological career we never get to engage with; the individuals that actually filled those symbolic buildings and to show through the almost trite elements, but important elements -which is the very stuff of archeology- those elements that show us how these individuals lived and in this case die. Yes obviously it was about symbols to a terrorist, from a political point of view but from the point of view of the archeologist it’s also about ordinary people and their lives.