Lucas Grimsley is a heavy lecturer.
So much so, that the students in his biblical studies classes might not notice how he intentionally incorporates elements of Roman archeology and ancient urbanism into his lectures. They are usually too preoccupied with copying lecture notes off of his slides to pay attention to his poised and calculated arguments about the architectural details of Herod’s reconstruction of the Jewish Temple’s platform, or things of that sort.
Often, he will pull up a slide with a diagram, or perhaps an image of an archeological finding, to support the biblical claims he educates his students on in class.
But few are aware of Grimsley’s area of expertise outside the realms of Duke Academic Complex.
For eight consecutive summers, Grimsley has traded his business casual attire and the comforts of an air-conditioned classroom for the dry heat of the island of Cyprus’ Mediterranean climate, where he has worked as an archeologist in the ancient city of Kourion. He is one of almost 25 members of the Kourion Urban Space Project (KUSP), a partnership between local Cypriot authorities and the Tandy Institute for Archeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). The project aims to excavate the remains of a large urban structure that suffered in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck the southwestern coast of Cyprus during the late 4th c. A.D.
The city itself is perched atop a set of cliffs that overlooks Cyprus’ coastline, more than a continent away from where Grimsley’s students learn about the island’s urban centers where Paul and Barnabus ministered in the 1st c. A.D.
After each season of excavation, Grimsley returns to Duke’s classrooms to bring the distant archeological sites and ancient cities that Jesus and his disciples were said to visit closer to the reaches of his pupils’ imagination. Grimsley’s ability to support the biblical claims he discusses in the classroom with empirical data, while simultaneously acknowledging his personal biases as a Christian, makes the discussion of Christianity and faith seem more real. More tangible, even.
“What I hope to accomplish in the class is to provide some of the ways in which these forms of Christianity developed early on in the first couple of centuries, and hopefully provide a perspective that despite the differences that there may be within Christianity from culture to culture, shows that there is archeological support for Christianity and for faith,” Grimsley said.
One man’s trash, another man’s treasure
The late 4th c. A.D. earthquake devastated urban life in Kourion. To this day, abandoned piles of rubble lay scattered around the city. But to an archeologist, these heaps are unexcavated treasures.
When the building (building 4) that the KUSP team is excavating collapsed, the tenants’ belongings were buried under the building material that toppled over it. The air pockets that were created between the crumbled structure and the objects underneath preserved those antiquities to this day.
“That, is an archeologist’s dream,” Grimsley said. “We get to see life in the last moment that is was used, and it lets us reconstruct not only the building but also some of the cultural practices and habits of the individuals that lived in the building.”
From there, the team began to reconstruct some of the cultural practices and historicity of the ancient civilizations that inhabited not only the excavation site, but the city itself.
The reconstruction process itself is complex and scientific.
Laura Swantek, a senior staff member at KUSP, said 99 percent of archeology is not digging, but rather studying, recording and taking meticulous notes on material that has already been dug up. As a result of this practice, the team has amassed a whole storeroom of little satchels and zip-lock bags filled with valuable archeological finds.
The contents of these satchels range from stone figurines to spiky, palm-sized seashells with elongated spines. These shells were filled with dried dirt when the archeologists uncovered them, but they were once inhabited by tiny sea snails.
“In the Roman world, mounds of these shells were found in processing areas because they would use the ink that the animal inside produced to create purple dye for clothing,” Swantek said.
“Imperial purple,” as Swantek describes the color, was only accessible to wealthy individuals with trading connections in the ancient world. The tiny murex shells had to be imported into the Mediterranean world. There is a missing link as to why they have been uncovered at the site, but it supports the archeologists’ conclusion that the people who inhabited the building were affluent.
“Archeology is just a big puzzle, and these,” Swantek points to a mountain of bags filled with archeological finds, “…are the various pieces that go together. Amassed, all these tiny fragments of colored glass, mosaic tiles and painted plaster begin to put a picture of the kind of life that people lived while they inhabited the space that is under study.”
The evidence of this rich continuity of life upon Cyprus is what drew Grimsley to the project. But what he found particularly compelling is investigating the evidence that narrates the island’s transition from the classical worship of Greco-Roman deities to the worship and veneration of Jesus Christ.
The catch to this study is an unaccounted for 80 to100-year period following Roman emperor Constantine’s issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., which legalized Christianity and allowed for freedom of worship throughout the empire.
The question the KUSP team is seeking to answer is simple: what happened during this transition?
“We are curious to know how people are expressing themselves and what led culturally to the movement of Christianity at least at Kourion and then potentially on the rest of the island,” Grimsley said.
It is for this reason that the project’s director and principal investigator, Dr. Thomas W. Davis, professor of archeology and biblical backgrounds at SWBTS, amassed a team of archaeologists affiliated with various institutions of higher education in America to work on the site back in 2012.
Davis described his decision to do so a “mad moment of lunacy,” winking at the team members who overheard his remark in the small proximity of the old, traditional Cypriot home that they run their operation from.
The other one percent of archeology is not quite like what the Indiana Jones franchise depicts it to be, but it is similar in the sense that it consists of a eureka moment and an adrenaline rush.
This was the case in the summer of 2014 -their third season of excavation- when Grimsley’s colleague fell through what the team assumed to be an air pocket.
“We heard this distant scream,” Grimsley recalled.
It turned out to be a deep cavern, which altered the archeologists’ approach to the project entirely. It indicated that the building consisted of two stories rather than one, and revealed to the KUSP team that the pile of rubble that they were slowly digging deeper into could potentially answer their inquiry into the role of Cyprus in the dispersion of Christianity to the rest of the world.
Where science meets religion
As a Christian, Grimsley admits that personal biases are an inherent challenge within his profession.
“My approach to archeology has always been that I am a Christian, and I am also an archeologist,” Grimsley said. “I feel that part of my responsibility is to do justice and to accurately investigate and do my job as such.”
Grimsley’s approach does not come without recognizing that at times, things that we perceive as facts may not always align as we expect them to with archeology. In that sense, he believes there must be a “looseness” in his analytical approach to what he is excavating alongside his team.
He has often found himself reflecting on his perspective on Christianity and asking himself, how does this impact my faith and what are the consequences?
“I have found that more often than not, that the material, in many ways, will support the history of Christianity and support my faith,” Grimsley said. “But I have to be willing to flex my personal perspective, and in doing that, I have found that there is a complementary component between my faith and archeology.”
Back to the classroom
Grimsley’s journey of becoming an archeologist began as an accident. He took an archeology class while working on his master’s degree in theology at SWBTS, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I realized from that moment that there was so much more to the Bible than just some words and teachings,” Grimsley said. “I started to realize how understanding the background and context of history and human culture can greatly help with understanding and interpreting the biblical text.”
That is exactly what he preaches to pupils in his own classrooms: to recognize how to approach archaeology in connection to their faith.
Through teaching the Bible, he has brought the biblical world to life for numerous cohorts of APU students. Through his archeological endeavors, he has attained a higher understanding of that world in all of its intricacy. And by combining the two in a way that compliments his faith, Grimsley has managed to find a way to dedicate his life to something he truly loves.