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haskel greenfield, a man wearing a blue button up shirt and a beige hat, pictured on a wood deck with scenic hills behind in the distance.

Haskel Greenfield, UM archaeologist and distinguished professor (anthropology).

Uncovering heritage: Jewish Heritage Month feature

May 13, 2024 — 

University of Manitoba archeologist Haskel Greenfield can sit for hours under a hot Middle Eastern sun looking for microscopic crumbs someone left behind while eating in one of humanity’s oldest neighborhoods.

He does this and other work at ancient archaeological sites located in modern Israel. While many of these cities were likely destroyed by fire in a battle, they are still packed with clues of how everyday people lived—and ate—in typical neighbourhoods almost 5,000 years ago.

As May is Jewish Heritage Month, UM Today wanted to share the work and insights of Greenfield, and so we took a page from his book and dug up an old story from our past. Below is an article originally published in UM’s publication TeachingLife back in 2016 and it tells about Greenfield’s work in Israel, his views on history, and his own (fascinating) personal history. Here it is with some new updates, including this one: in May 2024 he was awarded membership in the Academia Europea, a pan-European Academy of Humanities, Letters, Law, and Sciences.

The Making of an Archeologist

He was born into and grew up within the orthodox Jewish world until he was 12 years old. In his early years, he moved a lot across the USA. With a Jewish rabbi and U.S air force chaplain for a father and an artist, filmmaker and educator for a mother, young Haskel Greenfield lived in five cities by age six—from San Antonio to Pittsburgh—before arriving in New York’s Greenwich Village as a teen after his parent’s divorce.

In his apartment, you’d find his mom Rita Fecher (by then a single parent), his two brothers, five monkeys, and a collection of pythons and snakes (including boa constrictors). Fecher shared with her kids the neighbourhood’s avant-garde art, music and theatre scene of the 1960s and 70s. Famous actors and musicians regularly passed through their home. By the time Greenfield was 15, he was fetching drinks for Janis Joplin and other stars backstage at concerts. From a childhood peppered with eclectic characters—army brats, his orthodox Jewish grandparents, famous folks like Doors frontman Jim Morrison—grew a curiosity about who we are and where we come from.

For the past 45 years, Greenfield has been exploring subjects ranging from the beginnings of humans in Europe and the Americas to the earliest farming cultures and civilizations in Europe, Middle East and Africa. He helps us better understand the development of societies from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages of thousands of years ago and champions the relevance of ancient cultures in modern times. Greenfield insists: We need to know where we come from in order to know where we’re going.

For many years (2011-2017), he led the University of Manitoba’s archaeological excavations of the Early Bronze Age layers at the famous site of Tell es-Safi/Gath in Israel (in partnership with Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University). An international team of more than 100 professors and students was uncovering architecture and artefacts—animal bones, plant remains and pottery shards—that allowed them to piece together what life was like for the early Canaanite residents. In a later period (Iron Age), this site is believed to be the hometown of the famous Philistine giant, Goliath. He has also worked on material from many other famous biblical sites, including Jericho, Beth Shemesh, and Shiloh in his Near Eastern and Biblical Archaeology Laboratory (NEBAL) in St. Paul’s College. The site of el-Hammam in Jordan is now being investigated as forming the foundation for the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

His lab is full of animal bones. As a zooarchaeologist, he is most interested in the relationship between animal remains and the people in archaeological sites. By figuring out what people are eating, it is possible to reconstruct the ancient food economy and ecology of the region and sites. He can tell where the animals are bone, were raised, how they were raised, and where they ended up. He can tell if they were sacrificed for ritual purposes, or simply eaten as normal foods. For example, at Tell es-Safi/Gath, buried beneath the floors of houses from 4,700 years ago in the Early Bronze Age, people sacrificed and buried early domestic donkeys as part of urban renewal – to sanctify and protect their homes.

In his own words

  • As a kid, I found it stressful [to move a lot]. You make friends, then lose them. Some people respond by pining away for their lost worlds, so to speak. Our frequent moves helped build part of my character and gave me the ability to be flexible and happy wherever I live.
  • My mom would take me and my two younger brothers, even as children, to rock concerts and avant-garde theatre performances. Sometimes, we would hang out until three in the morning at places like Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan. We would all go to the performances put on that evening, then we would party late into the night. Finally, she would have to go to work, as an art teacher in New York City high schools, and we would drag ourselves off to school. Can you imagine what state we were in? How will I ever explain this to my children who have grown up in middle-class Winnipeg?
  • We as children had access to worlds that included many famous people, such as Janice Joplin. At 15, I was bartending backstage, serving her drinks. We would see Grace Slick or Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and many others—but I was a child moving through those worlds. I was like background noise to them. It was a great, exotic, exciting and vibrant time but it took a terrific toll on people. Many that I knew from that generation died of AIDS or drugs overdoses. At times, I feel like a survivor, with all the questions that come with it.
  • We had five monkeys—two squirrel, two capuchins and one spider. Filthy animals, they are. My two brothers and I would sleep on a loft bed that was built over their cage. If we did not keep it clean, it stunk to high heaven. And we also had a number of snakes, such as boa constrictors and pythons, and of course we were raising rats in the basement of the apartment complex to feed them. You can imagine the fright when one day we came home and found that the snakes had escaped. My mother found one in the bathtub as she was sitting on the toilet. I never saw her run so fast. The upstairs neighbour had a heart attack when she found one of our missing snakes in her bed. Our life was never boring.
  • My mother brought the family to Woodstock in 1969. We didn’t have to wait to get into the event; we went in with musician groups. We had a Hell’s Angel motorcycle escort, going down the back lane. We drove in my mother’s VW Beetle that was painted in psychedelic colours with naked women. The large headlights were their breasts. The police used to regularly pull us over to search for drugs. Needless to say, they never found any.
  • My earliest memories are living on US Air Force bases as my father was the Rabbi chaplain for the Strategic Air Command. It was really special being the son of an officer in the U.S. air force. You get treated very differently. You get taken everywhere, get taken to see airplanes—I remember being brought on fighter jets, as a small child.
  • In those days, at the height of the Cold War, they would put a chaplain often on B-52 squadrons if they were going to the Soviet border. My father had to learn to parachute at 10,000 feet. It was understood that if the squadron had the go-ahead to penetrate Soviet airspace, a chaplain should go with the squadron because it was expected that nobody would come back. He was there for the men. There was a wonderful part of [having a chaplain for a dad] and also terrifying because you understood that he was at the forefront of what could be a nuclear war.
  • The religious, Jewish world—we grew up in that world—where there is timelessness and the lessons of antiquities, the patriarchs and matriarchs, Moses and King David, and the Bible and the people of the Bible and their messages still transmit down to modern times. You have a sense that antiquity and the ancient world is real, it’s tangible, it’s relevant. It’s not ancient history. It is part of the present. Our ancestors are real people and they are talking to you from the past and if you open your ears and open your eyes, the messages they transmit, you can absorb and are still relevant today.
  • In the first year of university, I didn’t have a plan. I was going into business at that point. I was poor; I had been working since I was 14 and was out of the family home by 16. Since then, I was living on my own. I needed to make a living. I thought business—math—would be good, but I hated it. I took an ancient history course as a lark and just fell in love with it. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. The professor was magnificent (Tom Logan, an Egyptologist). He understood it wasn’t just about dry texts, it wasn’t about just reading ancient manuscripts, but going to the field and making exciting discoveries and finding ancient artefacts—the entire package of excitement and of discovery.
  • The best way to define archaeology is the study of ancient peoples and cultures through their material remains or their garbage—the destroyed remnants of their house or stuff they’ve thrown out. We’re trying to define and understand ancient behaviours from those tiny things that are left over. Imagine what it would be like reconstructing your behaviour at home from the garbage that you throw out.
  • My mom said that as a child I was always digging up my backyard. I hoped to find dinosaur bones. She never discouraged me. She said that if you follow your dreams, you will be happiest. I try to do the same thing with my children (Rachael, Channah, Noah and Boaz). My wife (U of W zooarchaeologist Tina Jongsma-Greenfield) and I would bring them along on our excavations [to places like] Serbia, Bosnia, South Africa and Israel.
  • My colleagues, and my youngest son Boaz, helped find the Philistine gateway of ancient Gath (Tell es-Safi/Gath) [in 2015]—this is the gate that Goliath walked out of. He would have walked out of this gate, turned right, walked up the valley and about 10 kilometres in the valley to where David and Goliath did their famous battle. My other son (Noah) participated in the excavation of the largest intact Philistine temple and altar at the site in 2012.
  • I’m excited about what I’m studying. And I bring that excitement into the classroom, but I’m not trying to be a teacher—they’re for grade schools, high schools. I’m a professor; I do my research all the time. Being a professor is a 24-hour-a-day lifestyle, not a job. I try to bring that sense of dedication and enthusiasm into the classroom and use it to provide knowledge and the excitement of learning to my students. Part of being a professor is that I have to be an effective teacher as well, but if I just had to be a teacher, I would end up as a boring, bitter person looking forward to retirement. Instead, I remain active professionally with no intention of retiring soon and am deeply involved with new field projects. Archaeology lets me enjoy both being in the classroom and out in the sun, and sometimes rain.

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