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Honoring a Treasure Hunter

Saturday, December 29, 2012
Archaeologist Jeremy Rutter and his wife, Sally Rutter, live in Lebanon on a hill that looks southwest toward Mount Ascutney. The house’s vaguely salt-box architecture and wood siding evoke rural New England rather than, say, the ranch style of 1950s Los Angeles. By the standards of 21st century American life, the Rutters live comfortably in the kind of home to which we wouldn’t pay too much attention if we drove by it except to note that the people who live there probably chose the site for its panoramic view.

They can see into the Mascoma valley below, see the settlements that have crept up the hillsides, the traffic that moves east and west on Route 4. By coincidence or design, the site also affords the kind of perspective onto patterns of use and development that an archaeologist has to consider out in the field. The only slight oddity is that, while the house’s placement on the hillside is fairly remote, it sits cheek by jowl with another house that looks nearly identical.

But what if you came back to the same site 100, 200, 500 years from now? What would it look like? What would you find? What would you conclude about the people who’d lived there? Would the house still be there, or would you find foundations only, just as a walk through New England woods often takes you past mossy stone walls and crumbling cellar holes now obscured by trees that have grown up around them in the 170 years since farmers abandoned the stony soil to move west.

Rutter, who retired this year from a 36-year career in Dartmouth College’s Classics department, where he taught Greek archaeology, is by inclination and training a thinker about the past.

For his contributions to the field, he will receives the Archaeological Institute of America's Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement at the AIA annual meeting next week in Seattle. In archaeological circles, this is officially a big deal and Rutter is “enormously happy” that he got it, even as he undercuts the distinction a bit by pointing out that the gold medal is just another artifact.

But thinking about the past also means thinking about the future, and the nature of time and historical memory: Our present will be an archaeologist or historian’s past.

While we tend to think of ourselves as living in an age of inevitably ascending technological and social progress, the study of archaeology demonstrates that other civilizations have labored under the same illusion, only to implode and then disappear, or mutate into something else. What will remain of our own culture? How will the electronic data and technologies on which we rely survive? Or will they survive at all?

So, when Jerry Rutter looks at his own house and property, where he and his wife of 42 years have lived for two decades, he subjects it to the same kind of critical analysis he’s applied to Bronze Age sites in Greece that are thousands of years old. “It’s a standing joke that among those who do it regularly, archaeologists of the future will have a hard time figuring out X or Y because of the crazy way we live,” Rutter said.

Rutter explains that when the access road was put in, it was supposed to lead up the hill past cluster housing in groups of four. While foundations were laid for four houses at the top of the hill, only two houses were built. “I can imagine some archaeologist in the future would come out and dig up these retaining walls ... and then find nothing underneath, and they’ll scratch their heads and say what the hell was this supposed to be?”

Dusty, Mundane Work

Figuring out what the hell this was supposed to be is what has driven Rutter in his life, from when he was a child doggedly digging up the ground to build an underground cavern like the one for the Lost Boys he’d read about in James Barrie’s Peter Pan, to sites he’s helped to excavate as a young man in Maryland, on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples in Italy, at Paleolithic sites along the Rhine in Germany and significant sites throughout Greece, from the Peloponnesian peninsula to Crete to the smaller islands.

Although archaeology has a grip on the popular imagination because of the great finds at Troy, Mycenae, the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the Incan site of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes and the Mayan temples at Chichen Itza in Mexico, to name just a few, the reality of the daily work of archaeology is more mundane, less stumbling onto a lost city in a jungle and more stumbling onto a tiny, dusty, dirty pot sherd whose origins, function and historical meaning are not immediately apparent but which you try to determine through forensic and contextual analysis.

In the archaeological universe, there are people who prefer to sit at a remove from a site, analyzing material in a lab: these are, said Rutter, the “cleans.” Then there are the other people, who like nothing better than getting out to a dig and sifting through the layers of civilizations: these are, said Rutter, the “dirtys.”

“I am definitely a dirty,” he said.

Or to put it another way: out in the field, said Roger Ulrich, a professor of Classics at Dartmouth and a colleague of Rutter’s, Rutter is “what we simply call a pot person.”

In the excavations Rutter has done in his life, Ulrich said, the thousands or hundreds of thousands of pottery fragments coming up in excavation are like “fingerprints or markers.” If you know what you’re looking at, and can piece them together, they can reveal much about these old civilizations: their rituals, their gods, their social and economic structure, their arts, aspirations and pretensions, what they ate and drank, how they lived, how they died and what they believed about an afterlife.

The trick, Ulrich said, is that to understand and interpret the minutiae of pot sherds requires years of training, a breadth and depth of knowledge and knowing when to go with your gut instinct.

“It takes a certain type of mind to look at this highly detailed stuff... and (Rutter) has become very accomplished about this. He’s one of a handful of people on the planet who can sort through this material and make sense of it,” Ulrich said.

Technically speaking, Rutter said, his specialty is the pottery of the Bronze age in Greece, from roughly 3000 to 1000 B.C.E, give or take a century or two. Asked to elaborate on the kinds of ceramics he’s studied and his doctoral dissertation, which has the weighty title, “The Late Helladic IIIB and IIIC Periods at Korakou and Gonia in the Corinthia,” Rutter, a wiry man who wears glasses and has close-cut hair, looked incredulous. “Oh my God! Do you want to fall asleep?”

Then he roused himself to an explanation of how he ended up in a profession that has been essentially devoted to what he calls “a treasure hunt.” The short version is that he hails from an old Pennsylvania family that dates back to the early days of the commonwealth. His father worked as a diplomat for the State Department so Rutter was raised in both the Washington, D.C. area and in Italy, Austria, England, Germany and Ghana.

As kids, he and his two brothers were marched around to museums and historical sites, and his interest in the ancient world derives partly from that early exposure but also from a child’s innate curiosity in exploring, digging, uprooting and unearthing, only kicked up a number of levels.

He graduated from Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia in 1967 with a degree in Classics, and then went on to get his doctorate in Classical Archaeology in at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, with a stint from 1969 to 1971 as a radio operator in the Army north of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Then began the round-robin of trying to secure an academic appointment, a process that he said “was no easier then than it is now.”

Eventually he ended up at Dartmouth in 1976, and during his tenure there led numerous archaeological expeditions to Greece for students, and earning, Ulrich said, the admiration of both peers and students for his dedication to teaching at the undergraduate level rather than pursuing a career teaching graduate students.

On the one hand, Rutter frequently runs into people who tell him they wanted to grow up to be archaeologists, imagining the glory of the big find. On the other hand, Rutter has heard some of the skepticism directed at archaeology as a professional pursuit, including from his own father, who was, Rutter said, not pleased when his son told him he was going into the field because “he didn’t see any point in looking backward.”

“What’s wrong with you people in archaeology?” Rutter said, parroting some of the bafflement he’s heard. “Everything’s about may or might or maybe. Isn’t there an end point?” But archaeology isn’t just about scraping dirt and mud off objects, said Rutter. It is “about the full range of human life and human behavior back then. ... It’s about storytelling.”

What he tried to convey to his students, he said, was that studying archaeology had benefits beyond learning about old civilizations. “It’s an issue of trying to teach them to observe, to see what’s in front of them and to have confidence in their observational skills and to train them to write about this in a logical, coherent fashion. All of that would apply to any evidence-based profession,” he said.

“One of the things I try to teach my students is that we have been encultured to think of progress as a linear phenomenon, but in detail if you look at it, it goes up and down, and every time, out of the ruins of the collapse something entirely new arises.”

Ancient Greece, he said, is a “wonderful lab” in which to look at how humans have measured the idea of progress.

He recalled the dig he went on when he was 22 and 23, to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, which also was the site of the first Greek colony to the west of the Greek mainland. Called in Greek, Pithekoussai, and in Latin, Pithecusae, it was essentially a trading post. The Greeks had erected a town, temples, a cemetery, and the speculation is, Rutter said, that they had based a colony there to get at metals to the north on the Italian mainland.

“Greek archaeology was more interesting to me than Roman,” Rutter said. “If you’re going to do architecture, Roman is more interesting but if you’re going to do pottery, Roman is some of the most uninteresting the world has ever seen, while Greek pottery is fascinating. ... There was a time when the finest Greek artists were working in ceramics.”

During his second summer there he went to the dig director and proposed opening up a trial trench off to one side of where the town site was. After getting the go-ahead Rutter and a colleague began to dig, delving down to where pottery fragments were denser. It was an area that seemed to have been the center of the town’s metallurgy industry. Over the course of the summer, they exposed some of the ancient buildings and the ceramics in and around them. Although Rutter says that “all evidence is good evidence,” most of the sherds they were bringing up were not terrifically interesting, with a notable exception.

One fragment, on close inspection, turned out to have a figure on it. Rutter eventually determined that it was a fragment of the rim of a krater, or large mixing bowl, in which people would have mixed wine and water for a symposium, the Greek term for a convivial gathering of people.

The fragment, which dates roughly to 700 B.C.E., showed a frontal bearded figure with wings and above it was a partial inscription, which turned out to be the artist’s signature. All that could be seen of his name were the letters, “inos,” but it was still a stirring moment. “That was very cool. There’s nothing like an inscription to make you feel close to the people,” Rutter said. It continues to be, as far as he knows, the oldest found fragment with the name of a Greek artist on it.

Which brings him to the serious ethical arguments that rage in archaeology, questions of cultural patrimony and whether to repatriate objects removed or looted from their original sites, the Parthenon (also called the Elgin) Marbles in the British Museum being a case in point. Greece wants the sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Athens back; the British have so far refused, citing concerns over whether the Greeks can adequately preserve them.

And then there is the cruel irony that even as archaeologists in every field make new discoveries all the time, there is a constant race between the archaeologist’s shovel and the developer’s backhoe, and the shovel doesn’t always win out. “A thousand years from now we will be crushed when there’s no original landscape to be found,” Rutter said. “What we’ll have lost will be huge. Thousands of archaeological sites are being lost every year.”

That aside, Rutter can’t complain about the direction his life has taken. “I never had to get out of the sandbox,” he marveled. “Boy, what a cool thing to do.” And while America is a culture perpetually criticized for its adolescent preoccupations, Rutter found a niche in a profession that places great value not only on conserving and understanding the past, but on the wisdom of the people doing it.

“There’s something to be said for an aging archaeologist,” he said. “It’s hard to bottle simple experience.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at


This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Friday, Jan. 4 edition of the Valley News:

Jeremy Rutter of Lebanon recently received a medal for distinguished achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America. A story in the Dec. 29 edition of the Valley News gave an incorrect name for the organization.

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