Archaeology may never have been like the popular conception — layer after chronological layer of material culture neatly laid down across the millennia, awaiting careful excavation. It has almost certainly been much messier.
Felipe Rojas, assistant professor of archaeology and ancient Western Asian studies at the Joukowsky Institute, studies Roman Asia Minor.
“What the Romans were doing is somewhat similar to what happens today,” he said. “They too lived in the midst of ruins. There were art collectors and antiquities collectors in the Roman period. There was looting of antiquities and there was a market for antiquities that was strong enough to prompt looting in the first place.”
An important line of archaeological inquiry, then, explores the motivations for this interest in the material traces of the past — trying to understand, say, ancient Lydian culture through the later Roman culture that adopted or repurposed its remains. “If you have a Lydian statue in a Roman temple, well there are almost 10 centuries between the moment of production and the moment of display,” Rojas said. “Something is going on, but exactly what is much harder to get at. What might motivate someone to display or even to fake antiquities, to produce something that looks 10 centuries older than it is? Those are exciting questions.”
Rojas wrote his dissertation (Ph.D., University of California–Berkeley, 2010) about the “imagined past” of Greek and Roman Lydia. “I worked for 10 years at Sardis in Western Turkey, capital of the Lydian Empire that fell in the mid-sixth century B.C.E. We weren’t finding simply Lydian materials, though. We were finding Lydian materials in Roman contexts — Lydian objects out of place. There was a lot of material that could shed light on the complex layering of pasts at Sardis.”
Understanding the archaeological record requires a broad acquaintance with several disciplines — ancient languages, archaeological techniques, anthropological methods. Classics, he said, is a field that is ideal for cross-fertilization, but “it’s a rare school that tries to have philologists do fieldwork or ensure that archaeologists read ancient languages at a very high level. It wasn’t always that way.” The distance between philology and archaeology grew during the 20th century, he said, a development he is hoping to reverse.
Rojas began as a trained architect in his native Colombia, but had also achieved proficiency in Latin and Greek. “I knew I wanted to keep doing the classical languages,” he said. “What happened was that through architecture I was able to work at archaeological sites as an architect, as a draftsman. I basically drew in the field, which gave me plenty of time to stare long and hard at ruins that others before me had also seen as ruins.”
He earned master’s degrees at New York University (2002) and Harvard (2004), different programs that allowed him to further combine archaeology and philology.
He has worked in the field since 2001, at Aphrodisias and Sardis, and with the Brown archaeological project at Petra since 2010. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Joukowsky Institute last year, and it was mostly the Joukowsky Institute that drew him to Brown.
“The Joukowsky Institute was very exciting. It’s a young institution with a top-notch faculty. I knew of them and had been working with some of them in Petra. It seemed like a great place to be,” he said. “I think the impact of the Joukowsky on American archaeology will be felt. We’re small, but we’re dynamic. I knew about it even before I was a part of it.” He also knew Brown as an intellectually stimulating place where his brother had earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
This semester, Rojas is teaching a course about ancient antiquarianism — ancient collectors, ancient forgers, ancient looters — but also about present-day limitations in envisioning the past. Next semester, he will teach the pre-Greek cultures of Anatolia — the time between the fall of the Hittite Empire and Alexander the Great — and, consistent with his interest in bringing philology and archaeology closer together, he will also be teaching an introduction to the Hittite language.