They used to call it the shock of recognition -- that moment when the art or the artifact of some other civilization produces in the observer a sudden realization that here is the work of a real human being. A Harvard-sponsored team of archaeologists must have felt that shock this summer when, at Ashkelon on the Mediterranean shore of northern Israel, they started unearthing the kind of details that bring a multidimensional culture alive. There was a fourth-century bathhouse, the kind where more than just bathing may have gone on. And for those who would rather not identify with this kind of thing, there was a cemetery containing the lovingly buried remains of several hundred dogs.
Such lively quotidian detail about ancient history is good for more than just chuckles. We are now in the midst of one of those periodic, and laudable, bursts of public enthusiasm for reviving the study of the classics. High school Latin and Greek enrollment is up. John Agresto, deputy director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recently applauded this rise but bewailed the tendency of schools to recommend the study of Greek and Latin for utilitarian purposes, such as vocabulary building, instead of for the love of truth, proportion and beauty. The ancients, he says, are "like us, but not exactly," and therefore worthy of attention.
Students just embarking on long labors of declension and memorization may doubt both the kinship and the immediacy, but archaeologists know better. Consider first the dog cemetery. The dogs, similar to greyhounds, range from puppy age to old fellows with arthritic skeletons; each was laid on its side with its tail tucked neatly around its hindquarters. The best bet is that this was some kind of central breeding kennel for hunting dogs. This was in 400 or 500 B.C., when Persian and Phoenician settlers had created a booming leisure economy in the cities along a shoreline previously depopulated by the Babylonian Captivity. Leisure was also at issue in the special inner rooms of the Ashkelon bathhouse, also discovered in recent weeks but dating from some six centuries later -- of which, says Prof. Lawrence Stager of Harvard, certain details "demonstrate I suppose that they were not just used for bathing." Cited as evidence are a sign in Greek urging visitors to "Enter and enjoy," a lot of varied and imaginative erotic lamps and, about the same time, recorded decrees from Emperor Constantine that Christians should stay away from houses of mixed bathing.
This is probably the tip of the iceberg. Ashkelon has been inhabited for something like 5,000 years, which leaves a lot of time for leisure pursuits, and the Harvard-sponsored team is only three summers into its 10-year dig. All up and down the Mediterranean coast, other such excavations are going on, many of them staffed in summer by student, faculty and various other interested volunteers. Teachers and school systems at a loss for how to interest kids in those formidable-sounding Ancient Civ and Latin classes might consider sending them overseas next summer with a sifter and spoon. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.