LMU’s Archaeology Museum may be Westchester’s best-kept secret

By Joe Piasecki

William Fulco handles an ancient Egyptian mask Photo by Maria Martin

William Fulco handles an ancient Egyptian mask
Photo by Maria Martin

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The 2,800-year-old sarcophagus of Nes-Khonsou, Keeper of the Storehouse, keeps watch over the library and museum of Loyola Marymount University’s Classics & Archaeology Department.

In adjacent rooms on the third floor of University Hall, cuneiform tablets — some of the earliest examples of written language — keep the company of Babylonian gods, Dionysian revelers painted on ancient Greek vases, pre-Roman gorgons threatening to doom trespassers and hundreds of other heirlooms of the distant past.

LMU students are encouraged not just to view these treasures behind glass, but to pick them up and handle them — to actually feel the stone, wood and ceramic in their fingertips.

Theirs is the only hands-on undergraduate archaeology program in the country, and Professor William Fulco, S.J., who assembled this collection over six decades of field work and teaching, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Every piece is a friend of mine. I know its history; I can picture who made it and how they made it,” says Fulco. “That’s why it’s so important for my students to hold these artifacts, to pick up a bowl and know that 4,000 years ago a woman cooked with it.”

Fulco, 80, traces this philosophy back to one afternoon in Jordan about 25 years ago, when he and a colleague were drinking scotch during the seemingly tedious job of sorting through hundreds of ancient ceramic pots.

“I remember picking up a pot and saying, ‘This is a very ugly pot.’ He turned to me with almost tears in his eyes — of course the scotch helped — and said, ‘C’mon, pots have feelings too, you know.’ In a sense, he hit it: We were having a kind of communion with the people who had lived there. This was their lives. This is what they were doing. We were holding stuff that they created, repairing it, getting to know them.”

A gift for ancient and modern languages propelled Fulco into archaeological study and eventually a doctorate degree from Yale. He has been in charge of the archeological collection at the Jesuit House in Jerusalem — including a fully intact mummy — for the past 50 years.

Fulco began the archaeology department at the University of Southern California in the early 1990s before a 1998 National Endowment for the Humanities grant allowed him to found his current program at LMU, its collection seeded by his own as well as gifts to the university. (The sarcophagus of Nes-Khonsou was a gift from local developer Jim Kilroy and his wife Nelly Kilroy, a member of the LMU Board of Trustees.)

To Fulco’s surprise, he and colleague Caroline Sauvage can’t offer enough archaeology classes to satisfy demand for enrollment — particularly a course on how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics and the program’s flagship Archaeology and the Bible course, which generates a constant waiting list of more than 100 students.

“We can’t offer enough archaeology,” he says. “We encourage students to look at reality in new categories and to understand themselves in a richer, broader way. I think the kids find that a relief from all the career-oriented disciplines they get involved in.”

Some in the field have criticized his hands-on teaching policy as accelerating wear and tear on the artifacts, but Fulco isn’t concerned and confesses that he’s the only one who’s ever broken anything.

“The advantage of these being held by students transcends everything,” he says.

LMU’s archaeology library and collections are open to the public on a limited basis by appointment only. Call (310) 338-5835 or visit bellarmine.lmu.edu/classics/ for more information.