Dr. Paul Wallace: Archeologist, Intrepid Hiker & Bard of Mummy Tales


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It’s a faint trail steeped in ancient mystery that winds through almost twenty miles of rugged, Greek mountain terrain. A bone chilling downpour inaugurates the first hour of this fourteen-hour trek and the only equipment carried, is a flashlight and some water. The only guide through the weathered landmarks is a book written in 440 B.C.. The reason for this seemingly mad jaunt? The opportunity to traverse the Anopaia Pass just as it was done at the Battle of Thermopylae, a betrayal famously revisited in the recent movie, “300”.  

 

Thermopylae may have raged over two millennia ago but the romance of outnumbered Spartans desperately battling against a greatly superior Persian force still marks it as a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.* Discovering the 2,500 year-old path and hiking it at night as the Persian army did, was an adventure Dr. Wallace simply could not let slip away and in 1980, he published his findings in The American Journal of Archeology.

 

Dr. Wallace’s specialty is Greek and Latin literature but it wasn’t until he became a Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens that a deep fascination with archeology took hold. Visits to dig sites and mapping expeditions through ancient hills, accompanied by his faithful Herodotus, gave insights on archeology’s continuing importance for the next generation. Back home at Dartmouth (and later at the University at Albany/SUNY) he began offering general archeology courses rich with slide shows, mummy anecdotes and exacting tests. Eventually, word of mouth boosted course popularity to the point where his classes had to be held in some of the largest lecture halls on campus.

 

Later, these same insights illuminated a possible solution to a very old riddle.

 

In ancient times, the Kingdom of Alashia was an economic stronghold rich in copper deposits and located somewhere in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Records from Babylonia, Egypt and the Hittite realm (located in the area of present-day Turkey) pointed to Cyprus as the likely setting of this kingdom. Historical citations confirming this were few and scattered while knowledge about contemporary Cyprus was plentiful, but only to a certain point in time. Realizing this gap, Dr. Wallace began searching for references describing this kingdom and its possible connection to modern-day Cyprus. The range of items found was disparate, spanning medieval German travelogues, ancient texts, early Christian pilgrimages (the more well known being SS Paul and Barnabas) and documents from when Cyprus was part of the British Empire.

 

Over the years, texts and manuscripts continued to surface. These were edited into the fifteen volume set now known as Sources For The History of Cyprus* that helped garner Dr. Wallace the title of Distinguished Service Professor before his retirement from university teaching. Today, his former colleague Dr. Stuart Swiny has taken over the distribution of the series. When asked what sources have made the most memorable impressions, Swiny had this to say:

 

“What readers must remember is that in the Greco Roman world, Cyprus was the main cult center for Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. This aspect became an underlying fascination for many 19th century Victorian scholars whose semi-horrified imaginations frequently ran to luscious descriptions of cult ceremonies, such as the “requirement” that Cypriot virgins give themselves to strangers at the temple prior to marriage, when there seems to be little to no actual evidence supporting such a claim.”

 

Unfortunately, these Victorian ideas, along with Hollywood’s enthusiasm for oversized action flicks, still fuel public misperceptions on  archeology through such films as the Indiana Jones trilogy, The Mummy or even The History Channel’s Digging For The Truth. And frankly, why bother about seemingly minor details when one can be transported by a well-written, fast-paced adventure movie about mysterious kingdoms, intriguing finds and courageous acts? How many countless imaginations have been fired up for archeology by these glimpses into far-flung lands and cultures, regardless of full disclosure?

 

Dr. Wallace hastens to add that while the movie industry does insert elements of truth in these fun movies, budding archeologists would be wise to understand Hollywood’s tendency to skip over the realities of daily archeological life. The years of research, endless rounds of grant applications, hot, sweaty, dirty life on a dig with few amenities and risk of police arrest* can be wearing. But then there are those shining moments of discovery that trump it all – holding a beautifully painted shard or discovering a new temple.

 

Wallace also points out that excavations aren’t just about digging for pots.  Several interesting expeditions listed in The Archeological Institute of America, call for volunteers to help excavate the mammoth graveyard in South Dakota, art enthusiasts to find the ancient Silk Road wall paintings in Central Asia, and scuba divers to explore the  WWII plane wrecks in Micronesia. He emphasizes that time invested in some thoughtful reading, plus a little research to find the right dig, could go a long way in determining whether or not an archeologist’s life could be the right fit, regardless of age or previous career path. 

 

Dr. Wallace is currently retired from his busy university teaching and writing schedule, but even now he refuses to rest on past laurels. Presently, he is an active member in several historical associations, writing a book on the New Scotland Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Albany, NY and in his spare time, tracking down the location of Felix Powell’s cabin, the first settler in Burlington, Vermont.

 

It just goes to prove that archeologists don’t fade away. They just move on to the next fascinating cemetery.

 

*Note: Dr. Wallace advises prospective archeologists to be aware of their surroundings when hiking an overseas dig. Local police have mistakenly arrested him on at least two different occasions, thinking he was a potential danger. The reason? Photographing archeological remains that happened to be near a military base.

 

 

(c) 2009 by G.E. Anderson

 

 

References:

Battle of Thermopylae

The Archeological Institute of America

Volunteer Dig Site Possibilities

 

 

*Some examples from the “Sources For The History of Cyprus” include:

 

Volume III: 

A Pilgrim’s Account of Cyprus 

 

 

Volume V: 

English Texts: Frankish and Turkish Periods (i.e., the Crusades)

 

Volume IX: 

The Final Days of British Rule in Cyprus: Dispatches and Diaries of Consul General Taylor Belcher and Edith Belcher

 

For further information on these books, email Dr. Stuart Swiny at The University at Albany/SUNY

 

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