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Near Eastern Studies lecture hosts archeologist and professor Anne Porter

By RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI | October 31, 2019

COURTESY OF RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI Professor Anne Porter managed an archeology dig in Tell Banat in Syria.

Anne Porter, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto in the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Department, presented her findings from her former dig site in Syria as part of the Near Eastern Studies lecture series last Thursday, Oct. 24. She discussed her research on the site of Tell Banat, which held a complex of burial grounds both outside the settlement and within it. 

Porter began her lecture by explaining the importance of death within the ancient community. She connected these structures to a more intricate and complex narrative of daily life within ancient Syria.

“The dead loomed large. They overshadowed the daily activities of those who lived and worked around them, housed in structures of increasing size and strangeness,” she said. “The very bones of the dead were used to record the political history of their community.” 

Porter stated that there were two mounds that housed generations of the dead, and each was built on separate occasions, and each established ancestral claims in different ways. She explained that the monumentalizing of these burial sites represented the unique relationships that the inhabitants of the settlement had with each site. 

She noted that the White Monument stood tall over the settlement and that access to its grounds was restricted. In contrast, she explained that the other burial site, Mortuary Mound II, which was seated within the settlement, was open to anyone.

Porter asserted that while the exact reason both of these sites were constructed is unknown, the White Monument is strikingly different in its construction: As its name implies, the monument was built out of a luminous white stone. She argued that this was perhaps to imply a supernatural and otherworldly nature. 

Porter continued to explain what the differences between these two sites implies about the narrative of the ancient settlement. 

“The differences between the White Monument and Mortuary Mound II, the bodies inside them and traces of associated ritual practices all tell us something of a fraught political history,” Porter said. 

She posited that one burial ground was meant either for the elite or someone was trying to achieve some status of seeming elite. The other was meant for more quotidian burials.

Porter continued to explain this difference in more detail.

“The contrasts must have been deliberate and clearly understood,” she said. “External versus internal. Free and open versus controlled. Family versus individual. Those differences give tension if not outright competition between different sectors, different visions, of society.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, Laurel Poolman, a PhD student in the Near Eastern Studies Department, cited her own personal relationship with the material Porter presented. She spoke to Porter’s ability to place specific details about the sites into a larger theoretical framework of what life was actually like. 

“I’ve read a lot of Anne Porter’s work. She is truly prolific in terms of her theoretical contributions to the field. I don’t think there are many archaeologists who are as proficient at the details of excavation,” she said. “But then to put that in a comprehensive framework of ideas and truly what was a narrative of the world that these different sites played next to each other in dialogue with each other, it’s special.”

Porter said that her research into death came up by way of necessity. Due to the nature of the sites she was digging at, she consistently unearthed the remains of the deceased and through proximity, she learned more about the subject. 

Porter echoed Poolman’s comments about larger conceptual frameworks in an interview with The News-Letter, commenting on how they apply to the field of archaeology as well as touching on what she hoped attendees got out of the event. 

“Archaeologists can easily lose sight of the mind and the conceptual world that they live in and what they’re thinking about what they’re doing,” she said. “If people understand that there’s some pretty complex thought processes going on here, in the way these people understood their world and their place in it, then I will be very happy.”

She then explained the relationship between her work and present events. Because of the war in Syria, all the material she had unearthed is sitting in a storage unit somewhere inaccessible. 

Poolman expressed her own concerns regarding her access to the region. She explained that the construction of the Tishrin Dam Reservoir effectively washed away everything that was at Porter’s site, including the White Monument and Mortuary Mound II. However, she also mentioned the destruction and looting of archaeological sites at the hands of terrorists groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“Dr. Porter’s site, everything we saw up there, is gone. It’s been washed away by the Tishrin Dam, and that was before terrorist activity, all of the artifacts that weren’t sent to the museum were trashed by ISIS,” she said. “I think it teaches us to appreciate what we have in terms of material record and probably put more work into doing those secondary analyses. So much of it has been lost on a scale that’s unimaginable, truly.” 

Porter expressed her own frustration at the situation in Syria but expressed sympathy for those affected by the war and what they have been forced to do. 

“Far more of a problem is that the destruction of sites due to the war is pretty immense. That means when people go back, there will be a lot lost to them, just gone forever,” she said. “For various reasons, for families to just stay alive who have nothing and if they sell a couple of pots they can get money to eat, which I have every sympathy for, and the various armies using antiquities to fund their purchase of weapons, it’s devastating.” 

Poolman, however, pointed to the importance of the fields of archaeology and anthropology continuing despite the destabilization in the Middle East.

“Fundamentally what they are is that they are studies of how humans existed in the past,” she said. “Any expansion of that is huge to our understanding of ourselves as a species and understanding how we got to where we are today and having a broader perspective of the different ways that people can live, interact with and envision their own world.” 

Porter hopes that in the meantime, people — including newer academics — will not lose sight of the immense riches of Syria’s archaeological sites while the region tries to stabilize itself. 

“I hope... that graduate students in particular want to work on this material and keep it alive until things settle down and people can go back and dig,” she said.

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