He digs it

Desert

It was those faces, eyes lined in black, crumbling like dried pie crust in the sun — statues uncovered accidentally during a construction project in Jordan — that would put a spotlight on a young archaeologist.

And the spotlight remains.

The cache of plaster faces and figures, the world’s oldest statues ever found at that point, dated back to about 7900 B.C. And at the helm of careful excavation operations and restoration from 1982 to 1998 was Gary O. Rollefson, now an associate professor of anthropology at Whitman College and esteemed expert in Near Eastern prehistoric archeology and prehistoric religion.

And still Rollefson continues to make news, most recently being tapped for the November Smithsonian Magazine to give expert analysis about a southeastern Turkish site of 11,000-year-old rock monoliths discovered by a German archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt, a close associate of Rollefson’s.

“It’s an amazing contribution to archaeology,” he said about Schmidt’s years of work at the site.

A mentor and international lecturer, including at the Smithsonian Institute, Rollefson, in his mid-60s, still hasn’t given up on the desert nor his own journey of archaeological discovery.

Rollefson, who is finishing a book about prehistoric Jordan, “Prehistoric Archaeology in the Deserts of Jordan,” still returns to Jordan every summer to work. He knows precisely where he’ll be this summer, and probably for the next five: In his recently discovered “city of the dead.”

“The city of the dead has taken control over me,” he said recently and laughed.

He said he accidentally happened upon this necropolis, located about mid-way up Jordan’s panhandle toward Iraq, during a casual walk.

He said he felt like he’d been “slapped in the face” when he realized what was there.

It’s a 250-acre site of 10-foot-high tombs, streets and pathways, dating back 9,000 years. The site has good bone preservation and he hopes they will be able to secure DNA that will then lead to information that can help determine marital patterns and more.

Rollefson, chair of Whitman’s anthropology department, is also co-editor of a Neolithic archaeology journal, co-editor-in-chief of an academic publishing facility at Freie Universität-Berlin, is a consultant for Jordan’s Department of Antiquities and is organizing a major 2009 prehistory conference there.

Through the years, Whitman students have been able to work with him — excavating, surveying and mapping and experiencing sometimes harsh field conditions — in Jordan through Whitman’s Louis B. Perry Summer Research Scholarship. Next year, he hopes to have a student with him at a Saudi Arabian project.

He said his fascination with how people live their lives was evident even in childhood, in rural Iowa. Rollefson, from age 10, worked on the struggling family farm. In his spare time, free fun included playing by the river. But he also remembers a fascination with abandoned homes. And one not so abandoned.

He said people didn’t lock their homes there, and when a neighbor left his home unlocked while in Florida, Rollefson and a boyhood friend went into it, strictly out of curiosity.

“It was fascinating seeing how someone else lived,” he said.

He said they were careful not to touch the neighbor’s many antiques, and were amazed at all the books. His family, of limited means, owned no books and was dependent on the library, like most in his community.

He didn’t know anything about anthropology, then. He aspired to be Iowa’s first Nobel Prize winner in physics and an astronaut. A topic of conversation with his science-oriented friends on the way to a school football game might include an analysis of solid rocket fuel, leaving his mother in the front seat shaking her head in disbelief and admiration.

But Rollefson’s space-travel aspiration crashed. Severe headaches in fifth grade resulted in his having to wear glasses — disqualifying him from any future pilot program.

He still had the physics goal. But then, while a student at University of Berkeley, that dissolved, too. Trigonometry he loved: “I’d go into rapture,” when working on a particular trigonometry formula. But he hated calculus. He then found anthropology, which, nicely enough, uses trigonometry at times.

He then happily spent extensive time as a research assistant and graduate student unearthing stone tools from Israel’s Tabun Cave, leading to his dissertation: “A Quantitative and Qualitative Typological Analysis of Bifaces from the Tabun Excavations, 1967-1972.”

When offered a fellowship to Jordan in 1978, he accepted it knowing that little research had been done on the country’s prehistoric period. That began to change after Rollefson began excavating.

Cultural rituals were among the things learned during Rollefson’s excavation of the plaster sculptures and a 35-acre ancient agricultural village at the edge of Amman, Jordan’s capital. In addition to the plaster sculptures he found — which were made by modeling plaster over a framework of reeds — there was another ritual involving plastering. But not of reeds. Typically, one family member would be buried under the house’s plaster floor only to be unearthed two years later. Any soft tissue left would be removed from the skull and a face would be fashioned on it from plaster and put on display in the house. Rollefson said the plastered skulls may have been an “ancestor link” for inhabitants to consult in times of stress or perhaps used for specific rites. And the sculptures, stylistically similar, may have represented the ancestral spirits, or founders of a lineage or clan, or humanity itself.

Anthropology, and teaching it, at various universities in the U.S. and abroad, including Cornell, San Diego and Heidelberg, now has long been his life and hobby — besides marriage to a veterinarian, a camel specialist working part-time in India. And being dad to two who have been pursuing education in Germany.

In the evenings, he goes home for a couple of hours, and then it’s back to his Whitman office from about 6:30-9:30 p.m. And digs in again, into his life’s work.