Sunday, April 14, 2002

Duo digs for information

Area archaeologists travel to Albania as part of a multi-disciplinary expedition

By Jim Knippenberg,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The first year they went to dig up Albania's past it took six hours to go from airport to lodgings. Roads were clogged with sheep, homes were walled-compounds, people were walking around with guns and they encountered only one toilet in 10 days.

        Do Jack Davis and wife Shari Stocker Davis know how to pick a vacation paradise or what?

[photo] Shari Stocker Davis and Jack Davis.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Well no, but they do know how to pick an archaeological site so rich with artifacts that sometimes they don't even have to dig.

        Jack Davis, 51, is the Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and something of a star in the world of archaeology. Wife Shari, 43, is a doctoral student in archaeology and a star in her own right.

        They live in Clifton, but every June they trek off to Albania where they spend two months as key components of the Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project (MRAP). The multi-disciplinary expedition is studying prehistoric and historic settlements in central Albania, near the ancient Greek colony of Apollonia.

        And digging them up well enough that the journal Antiquity, an international quarterly and the world's highest-circulation archaeology journal, has a story due on them any day now. And Discover, covering the world of science, has one scheduled for July.

        “Actually we don't dig all that much,” Jack says. “We do dig, but the principal component is to look at the whole landscape. We walk through fields, mark artifacts, drill cores to study soil and take pollen to determine vegetation. The overall goal is a complete reconstruction of the past landscape.”

[photo] This photograph of a Albanian woman herding turkeys was shot by photographer Garrett Holden.
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        And not just the immediate past. Their work goes as far back as 100,000 B.C. and flashes forward all the way to the early 20th century.

        In doing so, they find things like tableware, storage jugs — usually broken — other bits of pottery, household goods, stone tools, animal bones and goodness knows what else.

        These finds then lead to theories about Neanderthal settlements in 50,000 BC. About the introduction of agriculture and life in 6,000 B.C., long before the arrival of the Greeks in 600 B.C. and the tense interaction with the Illyrians who lived there.

        Out of all this, they hope will emerge a picture of how the common man lived.

        “We know about emperors and high-ranking government officials,” Jack says, “but not very much about how everyone else lived, and that's 99.9 percent of the people. They're our concern.”

        Yeah, but why Albania?

        It goes back to when Jack was studying in Greece and the borders to Albania, still controlled by Communists, were closed. “So very near, yet so very far,” he says. “But I became more and more fascinated.”

        Later, in the early '90s when he and Shari were working in Greece and the borders were reopened, they went to a small village with a friend.

        “I looked at the ruins and thought this would be a great place to work. Maybe that was the seed,” Shari says.

        Later, the Davises were asked to play host to a team of Albanian archaeologists visiting Cincinnati. “We spent a week feasting and talking and then floated the idea of an archaeological partnership,” Jack says.

        The Albanians liked the idea and by 1997, with funding in place, the project was ready to go.

        And Albania was ready to blow. “They had an economic crisis and the violence became intolerable,” Jack says. “There were shootings in the streets, Communist arsenals were looted — one guy told me he had enough ordnance for 200 years — and everyone was armed.

        “We didn't get started until 1998.”

        Then came cultural shock. “Honestly, we were there 10 days and we only encountered one toilet. The rest was pit hygiene,” Shari says. “It took us six hours just to get from the airport to the site. The roads were that awful.”

        Things are changing today: There's one superhighway — “It's still blocked by herds of sheep, though,” Shari says — cutting the airport-to-site trip to three hours. The MRAP team has a new, modern villa and their once-obscure work has led other archaeologists to proclaim their site the most important archaeological site in Albania.

        Oh, and it's a lot safer than it used to be. “I'm always cautious, and I don't go out alone at night,” Shari says, “but I can't say I ever feel threatened. The culture is so male-dominated that in some ways they think of me as an honorary man. On our first trip I smoked cigarettes and drank beer with the men. Albanian women don't do that.”

        Their work there will never be finished — “we'll just go on and on,” Jack says — but it does go on hiatus at the end of July. Then it's off to Greece for August and September and still more opportunity to get noticed.

        It's here that Shari directs a project stemming from the work of Carl Blegen, the famous UC archaeologist who made an international reputation for himself excavating the Palace of Nestor at Pylos.

        When he died, the Davises say, he left behind several storerooms full of uncataloged artifacts and unpublished papers.

        Shari's job is to organize and study them, a project which has already paid off with one burst of international publicity. In analyzing animal dung and bones, her team proved that the Greeks did indeed engage in animal sacrifice.

        “Markings on the bones showed it was the type of sacrifice described in Homer, but there was never any archaeological evidence that it actually happened. Now there is.”

        It's finds like this, seemingly small to most but mighty big to an archaeologist, that keep the couple in the spotlight.

        Photographer and former Cincinnatian Garrett Holden has spent two years documenting life in Albania as well as the Davises' work there. An exhibit of more than 30 of his photos hangs in Room 6106, Edwards One, corner of Corry Blvd. and Jefferson Avenue through April 19.


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