May 29, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 18

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    Profile: J. David Schloen

    J. David Schloen, Assistant Professor in the Oriental Institute and a specialist in Syro-Palestinian Archaeology, is a multifaceted scholar. He has a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Toronto, a master's degree in biblical studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from Harvard. His varied background has come in handy at the Oriental Institute, where his computer skills have particularly benefited fellow scholars who are working on difficult data collection and publication problems. Schloen has been on the faculty at the Oriental Institute since 1994.

    Your field is archaeology but you use computers extensively in your work. When did you develop your interest in computers? In high school I had a strong interest in computers and mathematics. When I went to college, I gravitated towards computer science as a major, and I worked as a computer programmer for a couple of years after college. But I began to feel that computer programming was really an interesting hobby for me and a useful tool, yet not something I wanted to make the focus of my research and study in the future.

    How did you end up in archaeology? I had always been interested in history and literature, although that was a stunted interest in college because I had majored so early in mathematics and computers. I also had an interest in biblical studies and theology. The work I did on biblical studies at the graduate level helped me clarify my interest in biblical archaeology, in particular. Many archaeologists working in Israel have begun with an interest in biblical studies. That was definitely the path I followed. This led me more and more into technical aspects of field archaeology.

    What was your most challenging archaeological experience? In 1989, I started as a field supervisor for the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which is one of the largest digs in the Near East, and is sponsored by Harvard University and directed by Lawrence Stager, who was my doctoral adviser. I have gone back annually ever since and am still closely involved with the project, now as associate director. The site of Ashkelon is on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, about 10 miles north of Gaza. It is a very long-lived site, with occupation at least from the third millennium B.C. through to Crusader times. It was continuously occupied and is therefore a very challenging and extensive site. It was a seaport, which provides a lot of interesting information for the various periods.

    What did you find there? We found the earliest known monumental arched gateway. It was not intact, but we can see how it was constructed. It was built of mud brick early in the second millennium, shortly after 2000 B.C. One of the famous finds from the site was a "dog cemetery" with close to 2,000 dogs from the Persian period. From the Byzantine period, we have evidence of infanticide, with skeletons of nearly 100 babies in the sewage drain of a bath house. We also found a dedicatory marble inscription from a Muslim fortification that had been defaced by the gouging of a number of Crusader shields. It turned out the heraldic insignia on the shields was of a baron of the Wake family of England who had come with Richard the Lion-Hearted on a crusade, in which Ashkelon was conquered.

    You obviously have a deep interest in doing research in Israel. What other work have you done there? When I came to the Oriental Institute, I took over a project started by my predecessor, the late Douglas Esse, at the early Bronze Age village site of Yaqush in the northern Jordan valley, not too far south of the Sea of Galilee. This is a very important site because it continued as a village for nearly 1,000 years in a period when many neighboring villages were abandoned. In 1995, I went on one brief expedition to continue Esse's work, and we're now in the process of publishing the work and planning for another season, possibly in 1998.

    How does your computer work connect with current trends that you see happening in archaeology? When I left the computer field for ancient studies and for archaeology, I did not guess that my expertise in computers would be terribly useful, but in fact it is. Archaeology is a very information-rich discipline. A typical modern expedition produces huge amounts of data -- graphical, visual and textual.

    Managing this data is a problem you're working on now, right? A project I've been working on for the last several years is to develop data management software to run under Windows. The program is tailored for archaeological purposes and solves some of the data management problems I have observed in the practice of archaeology today. In particular, I'm working toward a more general way of storing archaeological data that would be suitable for a kind of standardization of computerized archaeological data. Managing and publishing large quantities of information presents a major problem for archaeologists. I'm hoping to help solve it by facilitating electronic publication and analysis.

    -- William Harms