'I Enjoy Seeing Sarcophagi Up Close. I See the Flaws and Remember People Made Them'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A student from London who knew she wanted to be an archaeologist when she was 3, and a student from Tel Aviv who see physics as magic

Alex Rodzinka.
Tomer Appelbaum

Alex Rodzinka, 24, lives in London and flying there

Hello, how did you spend your time in Israel?

I’m doing a master’s degree in archaeology and I was a volunteer on a team that excavated at Tel Yakush in the Jordan Valley. It’s an Early Bronze Age site and this was my third time digging in Israel.

What did you find at Tel Yakush?

We didn’t find anything super-interesting in terms of artifacts, but that’s not surprising, because it’s a site where excavations began in 2000, and then the chief researcher died. Excavation has only just resumed there. Actually, we reopened all kinds of quadrants.

What’s a quadrant?

It’s the area being excavated, a kind of grid created in the ground. Quadrants used to 10x10 meters, which is quite large, but nowadays the openings are smaller. I like digs a lot. It’s insane to me that there are places where you can get an archaeology degree without participating in one. At my university, you have to do practical work.

Why? Does it help in writing the thesis?

Not directly. I’m actually interested in Egyptian archaeology, and at present I am writing a thesis about pigments that were used for painting on sarcophagus in Egypt. There are all kinds of pigments used to produce paint, some of them organic, such as yellow ochre, red ochre, carbon for black or calcium carbonate for white. But the blue color, for example – that’s known as Egyptian blue, and it was made artificially, which is really cool.

How did you get into this subject?

I didn’t exactly choose this subject. We work with the British Museum, and when there’s a question that interests them they look for someone to research it. I am really interested in this. I enjoy seeing the sarcophagi up close. Generally they’re behind glass and look perfect, but when you take samples you can see flaws, like a small triangle where someone forgot to fill part of it with paint. When I see that, I remember that it’s people who did these things. Sometimes you can see that two sarcophagi definitely came from the same workshop or the same painter.

Is it possible to identify specific sarcophagus painters?

There are decorations that repeat themselves. We know of one person who signed his name on the sarcophagus, but most did not sign. In many cases we don’t even necessarily know where the sarcophagus came from, so it’s very difficult to study them.

Doesn’t the British Museum have exact documentation?

Not always. It’s possible that someone sent the sarcophagus, or maybe it was donated to the museum, and God knows where they got it.

From colonialists, not to mention antiquities thieves.

Yes, that’s a major issue now. There’s talk of returning items. Egypt has lost so many artifacts over the years that now they don’t even let you take samples out [of the country]. Only in Sudan can you still take samples. The truth is that there is so much material in the universities and museums [back home] that there’s no need to bring more. There are a great many things in storage that no one has even researched. My dream is to open all those crates.

How did that dream originate?

I wanted to be an archaeologist from the age of 3, and Egypt was always my preference. They painted flowers and plants so well and so precisely that you can actually tell which species of plant or animal it is. They also painted geese really well, and I love geese.

You have a precise way of describing your passion for archaeology.

We had many books at home, and there was one volume, about ancient cultures, that really interested me. One of my first memories, from age 3, is looking at that book. It had black-and-white photographs, and I remember them to this day: images of pillars with a quite simple flower shape from the Karnak Temple in Egypt. I remember myself being amazed by them. So it is very odd for me to be here and go all this way in order to be part of a mission in which everything I imagined collides with reality. It’s also weird that in the end, I found myself dealing with their technology instead of with the lives of the people, even though, of course, in the end you always come back to people.

Tomer, Alma, Yotam and Itai Naftali.
Tomer Appelbaum

Tomer, 22, Alma, 13, Yotam, 24, and Itai, 22, all from the Naftali family; Tomer, Itai and Alma live in Tel Aviv; Yotam lives in Berlin and is landing from there

Hello, what do you do in Berlin?

Yotam: I’m studying physics at Humboldt University, which Einstein attended. I’ve been in Germany for a year and a half, but until now I was mostly learning German. I live in Neukölln, in the eastern part. It’s great and I like the anonymity there, but I still don’t feel that I have really acclimatized, and maybe I never will.

But you just started.

It will be easier once I have a framework, but I think there’s a feeling of home only in the place you grew up in. Even though I’m young and don’t know anything, I feel that it’s less and less possible to feel at home in a strange place like Berlin. Maybe especially because I am Jewish.

The past is always there.

The Germans are always careful when speaking to us, and the Israelis are always looking to be sarcastic to break the ice, but the sarcasm is only embarrassing and silences the Germans, and they immediately become apologetic.

Then why Berlin, of all places?

I always wanted to study abroad, I don’t know why, and in Berlin it’s free.

Why physics?

Both my parents are physicists – they met as undergraduates – so maybe it’s in the genes. I was always interested in it; as a kid I asked a lot of questions. At first just nonsense, like why are there three shadows when you walk outside at night with a flashlight? Or at what stage is a ball moving fastest – when it leaves your hand or a moment before it lands? And the older I got the more complex the questions became, such as, why do electrons change energy levels when photons hit them?

A question I ask myself every morning.

In the end, my dad said, “I can’t explain it to you unless you study a little physics at university.” I’d thought of studying engineering, but I realized that there were other ways I could acquire a profession, whereas physics is like asking what’s magical for me in the world.

Numbers don’t stress you out.

I really like numbers, but not enough to study only them. Mathematics is the basis, but it’s impossible to see it; physics is like writing reality on paper.

You don’t talk like a numbers person, or dress like one, either.

Yes. Sometimes that dissonance is fun and cool; sometimes it bothers me. I think that if people would see me and straight off understand who I am, it would be easier for me. It’s like being told, “After all, you’re a geek, so why don’t you look like one?” So I’m a geek, I just like to dress cool. Sorry. Sometimes I also feel a need to apologize for the way I look.

Don’t apologize.

Maybe everyone feels they look different from what they are inside?

Maybe.

Because people like to get close to people who are like them. As human beings we have no choice but to put people in boxes, to see patterns, in order to know what to beware of and how to get close. But I feel a bit like a hippie, at least in terms of people who try to avoid putting others in boxes even though they themselves are of course in their own box in terms of the way they talk and dress. I’m talking more about hippies in the context of people who want to live in the way that suits them, no matter what. Maybe the contrast between appearance and physics is due to the fact that I have to connect with both groups. The problem is that one group doesn’t understand why I am talking about physics, and the other group doesn’t understand the tattoos.

You have a huge octopus tattoo.

A friend of mine used to call me Yotam-topus. I have more, like a tattoo of the blue man from the Israeli children’s story, about the green man. When I’m asked about the dissonance I tell that story. Anyone who doesn’t know the story – generally, it’s non-Israelis – always wants to talk to me about the ending. It’s cool to see how it gets to people.

Me? “I’m from a different story.”

Right! In short, I try to be the blue man.