A passion for archaeology (also in Ticino)
Institutional Communication Service
23 May 2022
The world of archaeology in Ticino is very active. There are extensive areas of archaeological significance in the territory, professional associations and public events generate interest, and there are even those who - although working mainly in Southern Switzerland - have received important international accolades. Discovering and protecting archaeological sites and cultural heritage locally and internationally is undoubtedly a fascinating challenge. We talk about it with Marcello Fidanzio, associate professor at the USI-affiliated Faculty of Theology in Lugano, director of the Institute of Culture and Archaeology of Biblical Lands FTL and a member of the USI-FTL Center for Goren Monti Ferrari Judaica.
Professor Fidanzio, is it possible to be an archaeologist in Ticino?
Currently, the Canton of Ticino has outstanding archaeologists who have reached top positions. I am thinking, for example, of Andrea Bignasca, director of the Antiken Museum in Basel and the magazine "Quaderni Ticinesi di Numismatica e Antichità Classiche" or Simonetta Biaggio-Simona, head of the Canton's Office of Cultural Heritage. Then there are several scholars of the younger generation who have completed or are pursuing valuable studies. The limitation lies in the fact that university education takes place elsewhere. In the last fifteen years in Lugano, we have started an academic track with the Institute of Culture and Archaeology of Biblical Lands in the Faculty of Theology, now affiliated with USI. We are seeing the first results.
Can you give us some examples?
We have a summer archaeology programme in Jerusalem taught by archaeologists from different schools, denominations, and political affiliations. Twelve universities send their students every summer, and the course is recognised in their academic programmes. Lugano's name has also made its way into research on the archaeology of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with conferences organised in Ticino, archaeological excavations at the caves, and the commission to publish together with the École Biblique et Archéologique of Jerusalem the report on the excavations at the caves where the Scrolls were found.
In 2019 you were awarded the Biblical Archaeology Society's prize for the best scholarly publication in archaeology in the last two years: for what work of yours?
The award came unexpectedly for the volume The Caves of Qumran, which stemmed from the conference held in Lugano in 2014, where for the first time, archaeologists and text scholars came together to work on the caves where the Scrolls were found. The award recognised the path we had taken: we understood we were on the right track. Then we submitted a project to the Swiss National Fund, and today thanks to the support we received, we can work with ease and with the quality that such a task requires.
How vivid is the interest in archaeology in Ticino?
The risk for those working in universities is to close themselves in a bubble populated by insiders. In Ticino, my experience is that of a very receptive audience. Whenever we have offered public initiatives, the numbers have always been high and growing, and so has the interest. I still have vivid emotions about the last event before the pandemic. It was 4 February 2020, and we dedicated a half-day to presenting our work on Qumran using different languages: the immersive experience in the caves (together with USI Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio), a new documentary, a round table with leading international research figures. The auditorium of the University was bursting with people (standing, sitting, even on the steps...), and until late at night, we were asked to continue replaying the documentary. But if we talk about the relationship with the territory, there is above all the activities of the Ticino Archaeological Association: a presence that combines great participation and excellence of proposals.
The Ticino Archaeological Association (AAT), founded in 1986, aims to bring together all enthusiasts of this fascinating discipline: how do you view it in international comparison?
I truly admire the AAT. Even in Paris, the initiatives of a similar association do not reach the numbers of the ones present in Ticino. But it is not just a matter of numbers: interactions show the quality of participation. We know that one of the commitments of the University is the so-called "third mandate". In a context where the University in Ticino is only recently taking its first steps toward archaeology, the "third mandate" is already largely accomplished. I would also like to mention another reality, this time valuable in the field of research: the "Quaderni ticinesi di Numismatica e Antichità Classiche," a scientific journal that reached fifty years of publication this year. In Ticino, we do not yet have structured academic paths, but there are many quality groups that carry on the interest in archaeology.
Recently a new research project of yours was announced on the Great Isaiah Scroll as an archaeological object. It is perhaps the most important artefact found in Israel. This is an extraordinary opportunity for you and Lugano. Can you share a few words with us?
The Great Isaiah Scroll is a 7.34 m scroll. It contains the entire text of the biblical book in an artefact prepared in the late second century B.C. that is in excellent condition. The manuscript is at the heart of Israel's Temple of the Book, an institution symbolically built in front of the parliament. The new research project involves studying this scroll as an archaeological object, focusing on non-textual information. The text of the Bible stops being considered an abstract entity and finds a body in a manuscript. A body that shows all the signs of interaction with the men who produced and received it. The project, the Great Isaiah Scroll: a Biography, is carried out in collaboration with the Israel Museum, which grants access to the scroll. The curator of the Temple of the Book, Hagit Maoz, is participating in the research as a doctoral student. It is a source of pride for us that she has chosen to do her PhD at the Faculty of Theology in Lugano.