John Hale is an archaeologist — Louisville’s own Indiana Jones. He is Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville. He teaches Archaeology of Sacred Sites and an honors travel seminar. His investigation into the geological origins of the ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi proved that ethylene, a hallucinogenic gas, rose from cracks in the earth putting the oracle (over centuries there were many oracles, always a woman) into a trance. The oracle answered the questions of those coming to the temple for advice and guidance.
What was exciting about your discovery about the Oracle of Delphi?
That there is a geological fault running under the site that results in cracks and fissures allowing ethylene gas, which smells very sweet and is a powerful intoxicant and hallucinogen, to rise through the temple floor. The women of the village who served as the oracles inhaled the vapors, putting them in a trance that enabled them to make prophecies and offer counsel.
There was an historical conviction that the vapors at the Oracle at Delphi was a myth, but it is now found to be true and backed up by science. We must take ancient accounts and testimony to heart and have more trust in those eyewitness descriptions.
What prompted your interest in archaeology?
I never wanted to be anything else. I was 3 years old and sat on the knee of my great-grandfather. He put in my hand a gray granite stone axe that he had dug up from the garden of the house that he was living in then and that I live in now. He told me the story of finding the axe, and so I came to know that things come out of the ground. My parents encouraged that interest and I ended up going to Yale and majoring in archaeology. Yale was one of the few schools at the time that had a major in archaeology. I took my doctorate at Cambridge, where I studied Viking long ships and wrote my thesis on them.
Can’t get the knack of?
Ball sports. Rowing, though, is the perfect sport for me because I want to perfect one motion 200 times, I like being yelled at by the coxswain, and getting all sweaty. I rowed for Yale and Cambridge and helped get the Louisville Rowing Club started.
Why study archaeology?
Archaeologists are specialists in physical evidence just like NCIS or CSI forensic investigators. While those investigators solve the crime, we reconstruct the human past through physical artifacts. Whether that is DNA, the pyramids and tombs of ancient civilizations, or something as preserved as the village of Pompeii.
What’s the best advice you’ve acted on?
One of my Yale professors suggested that I might consider going overseas for Ph.D. work. That opened up new horizons for me that I would not have had in America. It helped get me launched.
A skill everyone should develop?
Listening, really listening. Not just to people talking but listening to the sounds of the world around you. The sounds of nature, ambient sounds, and music. It wakes you up to elements of the environment that sight doesn’t bring. We are a very visually oriented society.
Music has been a huge part of the enjoyment of my life. I play the French horn, I sang in the junior choir at my church as a child. Music helps teach you discipline, focus, and forces you to pay attention.
What does the average American not understand about archaeology?We archaeologists are lucky. We have Indiana Jones. His image is of a cool guy, and that’s great that there is that icon out there. But unlike Indiana Jones, archaeologists don’t work alone. They work as a team with specialists from different areas or disciplines.
What local historic sites have you explored?
I worked on the Riverport Industrial Park development site, which was originally farmland. We divided the area into segments and found objects going back thousands of years and one single artifact from 10,000 years ago.
At the site, there is another now-fenced-in area that was an ancient burial ground that we preserved. Every place on the planet has a deeper identity. I feel it’s a big responsibility to those who have inherited the land to be respectful to those before us, to be mindful of the past and what people did here.
P.S. Merrily Orsini’s defining moment.
BY: LUCY M. PRITCHETT | ILLUSTRATION BY DAN KISNER