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Willamette Archaeologist Digs History

Religious Studies Professor David McCreery was headed for a career in the ministry but got sidetracked. Rather than restricting his search for meaning to books and churches, he has spent the last 35 years searching underground, unearthing ancient cities and artifacts in the Near East. In the 1970s he spent three seasons excavating at Bâb edh-Dhrâ'-- believed by some to be the biblical city of Sodom -- where he felt his way through layers of sun-dried mud brick with a trowel.

The History Channel recently filmed at the site of two ancient cities (Bâb edh-Dhrâ' and Numeira), thought by some to be Sodom and Gomorrah. They both show evidence of fire and collapse, and their apocalyptic downfall corresponds with the biblical account of dense smoke and burning sulfur that rained from the skies -- divine retribution for sins, according to Genesis. The History Channel program, which includes an interview with McCreery, will air April 24.

McCreery, who is a paleoethnobotanist, reconstructs ancient environments by looking at preserved seeds, crops and foods, conducting archaeological research in what is known to many as the "Holy Land." When he began excavating in Jordan in the mid-1970s few archaeologists had attempted to recover botanical material, and the Bâb edh-Dhrâ' site was an open book, with everything preserved in a layer of ash.

"Fire is the best way to preserve organic material," McCreery says. "Plants carbonize, so it's an ideal situation for archeologists. They last for thousands of years." When the reed roofs burned, they fell and sealed each layer, preserving the houses, along with grapes, barley and other crops.

"The city may have been destroyed by an earthquake or by an invading army," McCreery says. "It was common for invaders to pillage and burn cities."

Located on a trade route, Bâb edh-Dhrâ' was small by contemporary standards but large by ancient local standards, with about 500 inhabitants. "It probably wasn't as big as the Willamette campus," McCreery says. "Cities were a lot like the medieval castles in Europe where the wealthy lived inside the walls and the lower class lived outside."

McCreery went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary after college, and happened into an archaeology course. He volunteered to help his professor at a dig in Cyprus during the summer break, and surveyed tools and kitchen utensils from ancient homes and clay figurines from temples. In spite of the dust and heat, something about the experience must have drawn him in; halfway through his doctoral studies he switched from theology to archaeology and began his own archaeological investigations.

For more than three decades McCreery has worked on archaeological projects in Cyprus, Syria and Jordan, and published numerous articles about Near Eastern archaeology and paleoethnobotany. He directed the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan from 1981-88. The excitement of the "find" is still with him. "Archeology is not like writing a 'book report,'" he says. "You are uncovering something valuable and unique."

Since coming to Willamette in 1988, McCreery and his students have excavated tablets buried under the Star Trees in 1942, and uncovered the site of the original Oregon Institute, Willamette University's first incarnation. When he's not in his office surrounded by maps, a weathered hat, tattered books and shards of pottery, he speaks to church groups and service organizations about the Old Testament, Near Eastern archaeology, the ancient and modern Middle East, and Islam.

The History Channel's production, "Digging for the Truth: The Real Sin City: Sodom & Gomorrah" will air on Monday April 17 at 9 p.m. PST and Tuesday April 18 at 1 a.m. PST Check your local History Channel listings for other air dates and times. (The History Channel is channel 37 on Comcast Cable in Salem.)