Indiana Jones with a laptop. That’s how one writer described archaeologist Tom Levy. But for a more complete picture, add reams of data and a drone. Instead of a fedora, swap in a scuba mask or a checkered keffiyeh wrapped around his head. Or you can imagine him as he was dressed on the day of this interview, in sweats and sneakers, just before a visit to the gym.
By turns cinematic and humdrum, Levy is one of the world’s top experts in the archaeology of the Levant, a region of the Middle East from the Sinai in the south to Syria in the north that abounds with both history and conflict. For the past four decades, he has studied the area’s ancient states and chiefdoms, with a particular focus on the mining and metallurgy technologies of the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages from 4500 to 500 B.C. and how they influenced a society’s evolution. It’s a subject of biblical proportions—literally. Levy’s work has given credence to mythical stories of the times of King David and maybe the mines of King Solomon.
Although his work deals with digging in the dirt for long-lost societies (and sometimes the stuff of legends), Levy is also a pioneer in what he calls “cyber-archaeology.” In addition to using classic tools like shovels and trowels, the UC San Diego anthropology professor uses cutting-edge implements like ground-penetrating radar, laser scanners and custom-designed software to study massive amounts of digital data. To sift through the past, Levy has picks on one side, pixels on the other.
Levy was born in Hollywood, Calif., and grew up in the San Fernando Valley, “always anxious to get out of there.” A family friend, an anthropologist, often regaled his family with stories of working in West Africa. Enchanted by those tales, a teenaged Levy took off for his first dig. “It was in a very exotic place called the Pacific Palisades,” he deadpans, “in the Santa Monica Mountains.”
Though it wasn’t far from home, being out in nature searching for cultural artifacts was “the coolest thing,” Levy says. His fate was sealed just a couple of years later, on a spring break dig in Arizona, when he was so excited that the team had found human remains that he asked to stay up all night to keep excavating.
After graduating from high school in 1971, Levy left for Israel determined to join either an archaeological dig or a kibbutz, one of the country’s many farming communes. He ended up doing both. “To this day,” he says, “the only things I can do really well are archaeology and milking cows.”
That said, he hasn’t milked many cows since. He came back to the States for an undergraduate degree, then went to England to pursue a doctorate (where he met his wife Alina), before returning to Israel. He first explored the northern Negev, digging in a desert area near the Gaza Strip along the main wadi, or dry riverbed system, that empties into the Mediterranean. He identified the Negev’s first chiefdoms, dating to the Copper Age, and created the first Bedouin museum in Beersheba, ensuring the Bedouin’s nomadic culture would be preserved even as more and more members moved to established towns and villages.
A bit of a nomad himself, Levy spent time in Jerusalem until 1997, when he found himself in yet another desert, this time in Jordan. He fell in love with the country on his first Jeep ride there. And it was in Jordan, at the site of Khirbat en-Nahas (Arabic for the “ruins of copper”), that he made discoveries featured in the NOVA/National Geographic documentary Quest for Solomon’s Mines.
Khirbat en-Nahas is located in desolate lowlands south of the Dead Sea known today as Jordan’s Faynan district. The Old Testament identifies the area with the Kingdom of Edom, a mighty foe of ancient Israel conquered by its first king, David, and inherited by his son, Solomon. Ruins of 100 ancient buildings sit amid 24 acres of black slag, or waste from smelting metal. Ancient mines and mining trails abound, as well as the bones of presumed miners. Working with UC San Diego students and his longtime Jordanian research partner, Mohammad Najjar, Levy dug through more than 20 feet of the slag, down to virgin soil. Using high-precision radiocarbon dating and the latest statistical analyses, the team revealed new dates for industrial-scale metal production in the area.
“Prior to our work, scholars assumed that the area’s Iron Age was 600 to 500 B.C., so any kingdoms mentioned in the Hebrew Bible before that had to be myth,” Levy says—because they wouldn’t have been sufficiently organized or wealthy enough to qualify as kingdoms. But by pushing the Iron Age to the ninth and 10th centuries B.C., in line with the Biblical account, Levy’s work has put those stories back on the table for re-investigation. For instance, it might have been copper, not gold, from ancient factories like those at Khirbat en-Nahas that powered Edom and the kingdoms of David and Solomon.
Levy, who has been interested in the possibilities of digital archaeology since computers relied on Fortran cards, is on the leading edge of his field thanks in part to data collection and visualization tools developed at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute, where he heads the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability.
Digital tools allow for exploration in ways not possible before. At Khirbat en-Nahas, for example, Levy’s team has been able to capture a wealth of data about the site with GPS, ground-penetrating radar, LiDAR laser scanning, aerial drones and even rapid 3-D scanning by helium balloon.
These new types of recording equipment and analytical methods not only enable greater precision, Levy says, but also bring an invaluable level of objectivity to the field. “It’s especially important when the archaeological record grapples with sacred texts—whether the Bible, the Mahabharata in India or the Sagas of Iceland,” says Levy. “These are arenas of fierce ideological and cultural debates, where an objective, dispassionate methodology really helps.” For example, instead of relying on sketches of the dig site and uncovered artifacts, which can be prone to human error, Levy and his team gather multi-layered data in the field, which are later rendered with custom-designed software and visualized in 3-D virtual reality.
Digital documentation also helps to preserve at-risk sites, at least virtually, at a time when wars and looting, pollution and climate change are threatening or destroying monuments like never before. Levy works closely with UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, which he believes can serve as a model for digital data curation, enabling collaboration at research universities around the world, and in his view, diplomacy, too.
The preservation of the past for future generations is critical for Levy, and not just for his own two sons, Ben and Gil, but also for the legions of UC San Diego students who have joined him on almost all of his field projects. “Working with students is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job,” says Levy.
And students, it seems, are as excited about the possibilities of technology in archaeology as Levy is. In April 2017, the student-run Virtual Reality Club partnered with the center for the first cyber-archaeology hackathon, challenging participants to create an engaging virtual reality experience of at-risk ruins. Students were given access to raw data from several UC San Diego excavation sites in Jordan, Greece and Guatemala, including 3-D models, thousands of photographs and laser scans. They then had a weekend to weave the data into something that would help draw more people to the sites’ stories and lessons.
“Virtual reality is a multidisciplinary field, and a great medium for preserving the past,” says computer science major Connor Smith, president of the Virtual Reality Club and the event’s organizer.
The winning project—produced by a team that included students majoring in cognitive science, religion and computer science—ended up being a re-creation of the Iron Age mines at Khirbat en-Nahas, immersing people in the site and letting them take part in the different stages of copper production at the time.
Levy is pleased by this. It assures him that some of his preservation goals for the Jordanian site are on track. It also makes for a nice arc to his own story, a little bit like a Hollywood ending.
UC San Diego archaeologists like Tom Levy aren’t limited to land when studying long-lost civilizations. Cross-collaboration with experts at Scripps Institution of Oceanography now brings the search for ancient answers beneath the ocean.
“Over the last 10,000 years, there has been a tremendous amount of environmental change, especially the rise of sea levels. There are hidden coastlines all around the world where civilizations and cultures flourished,” says Levy, who is co-director of the new Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology (SCMA), a partnership between Scripps and the Department of Anthropology.
Around the world, researchers with SCMA are studying the influence of marine environments on human cultures at key underwater and coastal archaeological sites. By understanding the role of the oceans in past human cultural development, scientists can put the present climate challenges of these and other vulnerable areas into a long-term context.
“The seashore that we explore, use, and experience today is not the same as in the past,” says environmental archaeologist Isabel Rivera-Collazo, an SCMA collaborator. “There are lessons that we can incorporate into our modern knowledge to understand what we will be facing. … We can look at the past to understand and improve solutions to the present problem.”
Over the next two years, the center plans to launch a series of research projects studying climate change over the epochs in the Mediterranean, water dynamics in ancient South American and Puerto Rican civilizations, and in our own backyard, how changes in the California coast influenced prehistoric migration in North America.
Learn more about SCMA and view current field expeditions here.