Recently, I’ve been reading Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi’s account of his experiences in the small, poverty-stricken village of Gagliano during Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. One quote of his in particular, when he reflects on the process of writing the book, resonated with me as I think about my own journey to and in the field of cultural heritage:
“The process developed in successive books, changing the author’s spirit and body and words while in a period explosive with new awareness other men also changed. The process is not, and has never been, identification with a datum, a flight into objectivity, but is rather discernment of love.”
I am not trying to draw a parallel between Carlo Levi’s experience with destitution and poverty and my career-path to cultural heritage. However, I am trying to highlight some counterpoints between his process and mine, which have helped me make sense of my own journey so far: intellectual development, self-awareness and awareness of the world around me, and the effect of this new awareness on the direction of my career. To use the words of Levi, I found my journey to be a step away from attempts at “objectivity” and illusions of “data” and towards the discernment of love and truth and acts of justice and empowerment.
My interest in cultural heritage began with a curiosity for all things ancient. This led me from Dartmouth College to Turkey to a master’s program at Harvard Divinity School as preparation for a PhD program, focusing on early Christian and Roman history. While advancing my Greek and Latin and learning Coptic (the ancient Egyptian language written in the Greek alphabet), I also immersed myself in the texts and history of the time period. But while I and fellow classmates stared at enlarged photographs of rare Coptic manuscripts, arguing whether that letter was an alpha or an omicron, or read about the female figurines found all over Bronze- and Iron-Age Israel and debated whether they were representations of idols or the goddess Asherah, a voice in the back of my mind was always (annoyingly) saying, “So what? What am I actually doing with this?”
Starting the application process for PhD programs at the end of that first of two years of my master’s program, I asked a dear professor of mine, Karen King, to write me a letter of recommendation. She agreed, then looked at me and asked pointedly, “Why do you want to do it?” I fumbled for an answer I didn’t have and felt the intensity in her gaze as she explained that this was an important (if not the most important) question to have an answer to upon beginning a PhD program.
After a lot of (read: way too much) thinking, I realized that I…just didn’t know. The question of what I was actually doing with all this stuff I was learning, and, what, for that matter, academia was actually doing with all of its Knowledge and Scholarship loomed large and foreboding. The only response I could come up with—that I studied this stuff because, well, I liked it—no longer seemed sufficient, and I decided to take a step back, or rather, to the side, before making any decisions regarding a PhD program.
This questioning and side-step started a process of heightened awareness of the structures and hierarchies and the world around me. Fortunately, a particular course during the second year of my master’s program began to address the questions I had. In her “Biblical Studies as an Academic Discipline” seminar, the famous and formidable Professor Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza insisted that the task of future academic leaders is not so much one of communicating methods and results of scholarship to a larger audience (what one would normally think), but rather “to learn from and to cast their lot with wo/men struggling for survival and change in order to be able to translate wo/men’s quest for self-esteem and justice into the language and research goals of the academy” (Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space, 13). That is, it’s not an academic’s job to direct and produce knowledge (and empower others) from above, but to support the oppressed and to do something about this oppression by articulating their struggles in academic discourse. If you didn’t flinch at how radical Schussler Fiorenza’s idea is, read it again. She completely subverts the goals of the Academy, which has been the gatekeeper to knowledge and power throughout western history. It challenged the way I understood academia’s role, and thus my role, in the world.
I have spent the past two years on academic fellowships in Rome, Italy, trying to put Schussler Fiorenza’s theories into practice. My research started as a foray into funerary inscriptions in the Catacomb of Sant’ Agnese in northeastern Rome and ended as a series of case studies of the transformation of specific sacred spaces throughout the history of the city. Above all, it has made me realize how much “remembering” and history-making is inscribed into the physical objects and places themselves.
Many have mentioned the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern in places like Rome. I would describe it less as juxtaposition and more as a dizzying array of physical remnants of time past. Let’s take the complex of the “House of Augustus” on the Palatine Hill as an example. This area contains some of the earliest remains found in Rome, foundation stones of huts dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Today, when looking at these remains, which border the western side of the House of Augustus, tourists see the “Hut of Romulus,” mythological founder of Rome. But why? Because Augustus memorialized it as such by building his own residence next to it? Because later emperors paid priests to maintain it as such? Because 16th and 17th century noble families or fascist dictators wanted to call upon this ancient past and history to support their own political goals? Because modern tourists want to cash in on Rome’s cultural capital?
The multiple layers of physical memory and reinterpretation of this single architectural space from the Iron Age to today provoke questions of the valuation of space and cultural memory through time. And sorting through all this memory- and meaning-making, whether through texts or physical structures is no flight into objectivity. It is no examination of the cold, hard “data.” Instead, it is a dialogue between a multitude of contexts, time periods, memories, and political agendas that are cemented together in the places, monuments, and objects of the city. I felt lost in the open sea of knowledge: What was I searching for? I realized that amidst both the material minutia of the history here in Rome and the larger theoretical vectors that map its trajectory, I was searching for Truth. Love. Justice. However, it seems that Truth (with a capital T), Love, and Justice, are ideas that cannot be “found,” as it were, but constantly need to be discerned. In fact, I don’t think Truth, Love, or Justice can ever be separated from a process of discernment.
While I was struggling with all of the above, I attended the American Institute for Roman Culture’s “Unlisted” Conference here in Rome in 2011, where I stumbled upon a new non-profit organization, the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) that embodied this discernment amidst the whirlwind of academic discussion SPI’s mission is to preserve the world’s cultural heritage by providing sustainable economic opportunities to poor communities where endangered archaeological sites are located. By investing in locally-created and –owned businesses whose success is tied to the preservation of the cultural heritage site, SPI creates jobs and empowers communities to embrace their cultural heritage as an economic asset. Most of these businesses are local artisanal projects, where the work of local artisans are sold near the archaeological site to create a sustainable income for the community, and small touristic development—building visitors centers, training local guides, and publishing brochures for the site—and local artisanal projects,.
“People Not Stones,” is one of the mottos of SPI. As the economy of Italy falters, the travertine blocks of the Colosseum aren’t putting food on the table nor are they paying for the education of Italian children; and on the north coast of Peru, can we really blame mothers and fathers for looting an archaeological site to provide basics for the family to survive? My response is no. That, in these situations, the discernment of Truth and Love says you do what feeds that human being, what preserves that life.
Culture, the memory of culture, and its physical monuments are not just important because they teach and educate us about the past and our cultural inheritance and teach us about what it means to be a human being. They are important because they can fuel and transform communities and change lives TODAY. They empower people to invest in themselves. It is this effect of cultural heritage that has me most excited and I realized I want to take Schussler Fiorenza’s idea one step further. I don’t just want to articulate the struggles of the oppressed in academic discourse. I want to act.
Soon after learning about SPI in 2011, I started working for the organization. And, to be frank, our results are pretty amazing. Our first project at San Jose de Moro, one of the most important ancient cemetaries in all of Peru, has created over 40 jobs for local residents and generated over $16,000 in an impoverished community where the daily wage is only $9.50. Looting and destructive practices at the site have come to a halt and local residents now view the site as an economic asset. After just one year of operations, the project is completely economically sustainable. The local artisans informed us that no additional funding is necessary. Their local businesses (which necessitate the preservation of the site) are thriving on their own and transforming the local community.
What is all this cultural heritage (the sites themselves, the artifacts, and the work of historians and archaeologists studying them) doing and doing today in the world? And, more importantly, what are its possibilities? These are the questions I have been exploring since September 2012, when I moved to New York City from Rome to work full-time for SPI. The whole process is always one of discernment. The discernment of truth, love, and justice and your role in manifesting them.
This week, SPI is launching its first crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo.com to raise the $49,000 needed for our two newest projects in Bandurria and Chotuna, Peru. Both sites are home to poor communities and rich cultural heritage. Bandurria contains pyramids in Peru older than those of ancient Egypt and Chotuna is a 235-acre monumental temple and pyramid complex, where several ancient royal tombs have been discovered (see National Geographic link here). Neither place can afford such basics as running water and electricity or has a sewer system. There are few jobs, little income and no opportunity to escape this cycle of poverty. Our project aims for nothing short of alleviating poverty in these communities and saving the archaeological sites, and we want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to come on board.
Help us save sites and transform lives! Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution at indiegogo.com today and spread the word by liking our crowdfunding campaign on Facebook, retweeting us on Twitter, or pinning our project video on Pinterest!