An adventure with cannons and Crusaders: URI returns to Israel

Posted on
KINGSTON, R.I. — Feb. 18, 2014 — University of Rhode Island students will have a chance to learn more about the Crusades in a new field program in Israel this summer.

History professors Bridget Buxton and Joëlle Rollo Koster will lead the six-credit undergraduate course in the history and archaeology of Akko, Israel, one of the best-preserved Medieval towns in the world.

Buxton has been bringing students to the ancient city in northern Israel for several years to conduct underwater excavations with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Her underwater discoveries have made her a sought-after public speaker, and her work on the Archaeological Institute of America lecture circuit earned her an AIA “Lifesaver Award” in January.

“Excavating in the ancient port with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the students and I work on everything from 19th century shipwrecks and slipways for ancient galleys to the relics of ancient tsunamis,” said Buxton. “Last year we even helped raise a 16th century Venetian cannon. But Akko is also the best-preserved and most important Crusader port in the Holy Land, so logically the next thing was to try to do something on the Crusader period itself. Fortunately, my office is opposite Professor Rollo Koster’s, so I did not have to go far to find an expert.”

Rollo Koster specializes in the Middle Ages and has written several books and many articles on the papacy and medieval Avignon. She has taught a popular course on the Crusades at URI for many years. Local scholars and experts in Israel will also help teach the course.

“We will all be together for the Crusades course in the Old City in the evenings, because the days will be busy,” said Buxton. “Our land students will participate in a training program in Medieval archaeology, architecture, and conservation at Akko’s International Conservation Center, and the underwater team will dive. On weekends, the students will tour archaeological and cultural sites such as Belvoir, Caesarea, and Jerusalem.”

While the land students will learn how to restore Medieval masonry and explore the labyrinth of halls and tunnels under Akko’s stone streets, the underwater team will excavate the ruins of the ancient Hellenistic port. A massive first-century B.C. earthquake and tsunami may have destroyed Akko’s port and later, in the 6th century A.D., another earthquake seems to have destroyed it again. Some scientists have suggested that the devastating 6th century earthquake may have been partly responsible for the region falling to the armies of Islam.

Buxton’s work at Akko has been supported by the Honor Frost Foundation and ExploreOcean as well as URI alumni and private donors. This year the project includes collaborations with several European marine robotics teams.

Buxton said that finding shipwrecks is much easier than securing funding for projects. “Going out looking for extremely rare and valuable things that may or may not be there — that’s the riskiest thing you can do in archaeology, too risky for most grant-giving agencies,” she said. “So we’re dependent on donors with a similar long-term vision and entrepreneurial mindset. One thing is certain, however: the URI students we are able to share this experience with are transformed by it. Some of them have already used their projects in Israel to compete successfully for national scholarships and take the first big steps in their academic careers. I hope to find a way to bring all of them back to continue their research with our Crusades field school students this year.”

For more information about the program, please visit Akko & the Crusades.

While Buxton was receiving her AIA award, three of her Akko students were on their way to Quebec to present posters on their research at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual meeting. Abigail Casavant, of Coventry, and Emma Heidtman, of Cranston, are pursuing master’s degrees through the URI History Department’s Anthropology Option. Both students have won prestigious Women Divers Hall of Fame Cecelia Connelly Memorial Graduate Scholarships in Underwater Archaeology to continue their research at Akko in 2014. Morgan Breene, of West Greenwich, will graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in History and Anthropology and will continue her studies in the United Kingdom. Morgan’s honors research at Akko identified two lost shipwrecks from Napoleon’s famous campaign to capture the city in 1799.

Photo courtesy of Bridget Buxton, professor of History at URI.