All of This Has Happened Before…

Ancient sculptures and inscriptions say as much about modern society as they do about the cultures that made them

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There are few things that are as fascinating as uncovering the ruins of ancient civilizations: being the first person in millennia to see their sculptures and inscriptions. But archaeology is about more than just excavations and the past. Tim Harrison, professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, is more interested in what this multidisciplinary field can tell us about today.

The logic is simple: modern civilizations evolved from ancient civilizations, and understanding that entire span of time allows us to understand how things came to be as they are now. This has clear implications on our understanding of the origins of modern conflicts, such as in the Middle East. Harrison has been working to get scientists talking across disciplines to extract more information from the material we’ve uncovered.

Harrison explains, “A tremendous body of material that has been collected over the past century or more, and a lot of that material has largely been re-buried, if you will, in archives and museums and so forth, and it hasn’t really been fully exploited for the kinds of information it could give us.”

Looking at artifacts from the bronze and iron ages also provides the rich time depth needed to see the bigger picture in the physical sciences. Harrison says, “We look at changes over time at a pretty high level of resolution – they can span many thousands of years of human history. And so we could look at questions about health, questions about environment, climate change, things like that. We can look at the anthropogenic or human factor in those kinds of issues and we can look at them almost to the level of events or years now with the kind of resolution that we can bring to the archaeological records today.”

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Professor Tim Harrison is Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto; a position he filled in 1997. Prior to his appointment at Toronto, he was a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, where he began working on the Megiddo Stratum VI Publication Project. He earned his PhD in Near Eastern Archaeology from the University of Chicago in 1995, completing a dissertation on the Early Bronze Age in the Highlands of Central Jordan. He has directed excavations at the Bronze and Iron Age site of Tell Madaba, in Jordan, and currently is directing the Tayinat Archaeological Project on the Plain of Antioch in southeastern Turkey. These projects form part of a wider, interregional research effort that seeks to shed light on the early development of urban life and state-ordered society amidst the diverse cultures that have given shape to the eastern Mediterranean world. In 2012, he launched the CRANE Project (Computational Research on the Ancient Near East), an international consortium of projects conducting research in the Orontes Watershed, funded by a SSHRC Partnership Grant. In addition to his own projects, Prof. Harrison has participated in numerous other excavations and field expeditions in Israel, Jordan and Turkey. He served as President of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the leading professional association dedicated to the scholarly study of the cultures and history of the Middle East, between 2007 and 2013. He is currently Chair of the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, a post he assumed in 2011.