ExplorersBio

Thomas Levy

Archaeologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee, Expeditions Council Grantee

Birthplace: North Hollywood, California

Current City: San Diego, California

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

From the time I was 14, I was determined to be an archaeologist.

How did you get started in your field of work?

While in high school, I had the opportunity to volunteer on a dig in Pacific Palisades run by the archaeological survey at UCLA. After that I joined a field school near Tucson, Arizona. Ever since then, I have never worked in anything but archaeology.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

I think the past offers so many important lessons for the present. The past is also a place of mystery with so many puzzles to solve about how societies evolved, how technology influenced those changes, and how people adapted to their environments. These problems fascinate me 24/7.

What's a normal day like for you?

When I'm in the field (and I am leaving this evening for the desert of southern Jordan), I am usually the first one up around 4 a.m. I then wake the team. We usually drive out to our sites off-road using a four-wheel drive pickup. As the principal investigator, I have the good fortune to walk around the different excavation areas and consult my field archaeologists (usually my graduate students) and interact with the undergrads. If they find something interesting, I often join in helping to excavate it. In the field lab (and back at UCSD), I coordinate the research efforts.

Do you have a hero?

One of my heroes is the American archaeologist Nelson Glueck, who pioneered systematic archaeological surveys in Jordan back in the 1930s. He was the first archaeologist working in the southern Levant (Holy Land) to understand the importance of small pottery sherds for helping to date ancient sites. Glueck often road camels during his surveys and covered vast areas of Jordan. The result was some of the first settlement pattern studies of the region—all of which helped him identify historical changes in the country that ancient texts could never inform on. I admire his original thinking, toughness, and passion for the field.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My first major archaeological discovery was in Israel's Negev desert back in 1976 when I surveyed the Wadi Beersheva for ancient sites dating from the Neolithic to Early Bronze age (ca. 6,000-2500 B.C.E.). I could only afford a bicycle (one-speed) at the time and would ride out to the desert each day to systematically look for sites. One day, in the middle of an Israel army firing zone, I came across the largest un-reported Chalcolithic (Copper Age, ca. 4500-3600 B.C.E.) village site. It was massive (over 24 acres) and covered with ancient pottery fragments, flint tools, and the foundations of buildings. This was the Chalcolithic Nirvana for me and I dedicated around ten years of my life excavating and publishing this site. During the survey I was shot at a few times—that was challenging.

What are your other passions?

I love hiking and walking with my wife, Alina—around our neighborhood or around the world.

What do you do in your free time?

I'm fortunate. Archaeology is both a job and a hobby, so the two go together for me constantly. When I have free time, I like to read and reflect on life.

If you could have people do one thing to help save world cultural heritage, what would it be?

If I could have people do one thing to help save world cultural heritage and their natural environments, I would have them travel to national parks and World Cultural Heritage sites. They would become advocates for these treasures and consistently lobby and write their government leaders to work to preserve these unique resources.

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In Their Words

I think the past offers so many important lessons for the present. The past is also a place of mystery with so many puzzles to solve about how societies evolved, how technology influenced those changes, and how people adapted to their environments.

—Thomas Levy

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