Archaeology and Modern Scholarship on the Crusades: An Interview with Dr. Adrian J. Boas

As president of the Society for the Study of the Crusades in the Latin East, the most influential and authoritative scholarly organization devoted to the study of medieval crusading, Israeli archaeologist Adrian J. Boas is at the forefront of efforts to promote better understandings of the crusading movement among both scholars and the public. He is an ideal leader for such an organization, as not only is he a leading scholar of the crusades, widely respected by other scholars, but he is also an excellent ambassador for the field, as he is accessible and active as a public scholar through his many invited lectures or participation in international conferences as well as through his highly regarded blog and social media presence.

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Above Images: (L) Adrian’s popular blog, which focuses on his professional research. See https://www.adrianjboas.com/blog. (R) Taken in 2011 at a conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies Eighth Biennial Conference in Dunedin, New Zealand.

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Like many Israeli scholars, Adrian has a fascinating background. An Orthodox Jew, he moved from Australia to Israel at the young age of 16 in 1969. After serving for three years in the Israeli Defense Forces, he spent a few years in the U.K. and Italy, before returning to Israel in 1978 at which time he married. He then worked for several years as a graphic artist, only beginning his university studies at the comparatively mature age of 32. It was in 1985 that Adrian began his formal studies of crusading, enrolling as an undergraduate in the Departments of Archaeology and General History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1985 to 1989. He then completed his M.A. (with honors) in 1991, before working on his Ph.D., which he completed in 1996, both also at Hebrew University. His dissertation, titled Domestic Architecture in the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, was written under the supervision of the influential and highly regarded scholars Benjamin Z. Kedar (now Professor Emeritus of History) and the late Yoram Tsafrir (Professor Emeritus of the Institute of Archaeology).

During his studies at Hebrew University, Adrian participated in and co-directed a number of excavations and surveys throughout Israel sponsored by Hebrew University or the Israel Antiquities Authority, and later would direct similar efforts sponsored by the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, and Deutcher Orden. Since 2006 Adrian has been the Director of Montfort Castle Research Project, sponsored by the University of Haifa and the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East, overseeing both surveys and excavations.

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Above Image: Adrian notes, “Taken in 1999 in the courtyard of the abbey of St Anne, Jerusalem. I had the museum curator carry the hauberk out into the light for a photograph for a book I was writing. The poor fellow was later banished back to France for having taken it out of the museum which apparently was against regulations.”

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As Professor of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, where he has taught since 1995, Adrian has published several highly regarded studies on the crusading movement in the Latin East based on his extensive archaeological research over the course of his career. Indeed, he has published no less than eight books, with his 2016 edited volume The Crusader World winning an Outstanding Academic Title Award by Choice Magazine and his 2017 work Montfort: History, Early Research and Recent Studies of the Principal Teutonic Fortress in the Latin East, winning the Verbruggan Prize offered by De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History.

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Above Images: (Left) Adrian’s first book, Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, first published in 1999 with a second edition issued in 2017. (Center) Adrian’s 2017 work Montfort History, Early Research and Recent Studies of the Principal Teutonic Fortress in the Latin East, winner of the Verbruggan Prize. (Right) Adrian’s 2006 book, Archaeology of the Military Orders: A Survey of the Urban Centres, Rural Settlements and Castles of the Military Orders in the Latin East (c. 1120-1291).

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Due to Adrian’s research, he has also been able to offer his students a unique variety of courses on the crusades, to include, Building Methods in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Daily Life in the Latin East, Material Culture of the Crusader Period, Churches and Monasteries in the Crusader Period, and Agriculture and Industry in the Crusader Period. He has also provided considerable service to his profession, serving as Secretary of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East from 2009 to 2016 and then becoming its President in 2016, a position that he continues to hold.

Considering all of Adrian’s efforts and achievements, it’s not surprising that he is highly regarded by his colleagues. When I asked Professor Benjamin Z. Kedar if he would comment on Adrian for this profile, he replied with the following note:

“Adrian Boas is one of the major figures in present-day crusade studies. His ongoing excavation of Montfort Castle is exemplary; his study of Frankish domestic architecture is groundbreaking; his books on the material culture of the Latin East, on the archaeology of the military orders and on Jerusalem at the time of the crusades are grand syntheses permeated by sundry original observations; and the leading of the Montfort Castle Project, the edition of the prize-crowned volume The Crusader World, as well as his recent activities as sixth president of SSCLE, mark him as an outstanding organizer. Adrian stands out also for his great modesty, unflinching support for novices in the profession, and constant openness to new initiatives.”
– Benjamin Z. Kedar

Fortunately, Adrian has kindly agreed to answer some questions for this blog.

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When and why did you decide to become an archaeologist? What was it like to work with the great crusade historian Benjamin Z. Kedar? How influential was he to your career? Also, considering the broad variety of archaeological opportunities in Israel, why did you decide to focus on the crusading era?

Like many significant decisions in life (in my experience at least) becoming an archaeologist was not one that I had originally intended to take. When I began my university studies I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do, which was to expand my knowledge and understanding of modern European history. As the university program required a secondary field of study I chose archaeology, partly I suppose because of a fascination I have had since childhood in tangible evidence of the past, and with the possibility of holding in one’s hand an object that was held by someone a long time ago. Of course, in Australia, where I grew up, that meant at best, objects dating to the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Moving to a part of the world where recorded history was considerably older and where the physical remains of even the very distant past were pretty much all around, my interest in archaeology grew, and when I considered it, the idea of combining the study of history and archaeology seemed to make a great deal of sense.

As regards the crusading era, I had been fascinated by the Middle Ages through reading about it as a child, but it was only when I began my studies at the Hebrew University and had the good fortune to participate in classes given by the renowned historian Joshua Prawer, that the crusader period and the Latin East became more than just an interest, but a passion. My original idea of studying modern European history was quite quickly shelved, and by my third year at the university, after having attended a number of professor Prawer’s classes, I spoke to him about the idea and received his full support. At the time there were no archaeologists in Israel whose main efforts were directed towards the crusader period, and no courses in crusader period archaeology at the Hebrew University.

It was Joshua Prawer who suggested to me that I carry out my MA studies under Benjamin Kedar and I can say without any hesitation that that was the most important recommendation I received in my entire career. He is one of the finest historians I have known, exemplary for the quality of his scholarship, and his multi-disciplinary outlook. It has been an exceptional privilege to have studied under someone of his caliber.

How has living and working in Israel influenced your study of the crusades? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

I suppose that if you choose to study the crusader period, you cannot do better than live in the part of the world most influenced by the crusades. Obviously, residing a five minute walk from the Old City of Jerusalem gives one a unique perspective. If, when writing on the period I wish to get into the desired mindset, I merely have to stroll down the street I live on, past a twelfth century graveyard and water reservoir, past the Fatimid moat and forewall beside which Godfrey of Bouillon had set up his encampment in 1099, past the remains of the Tower of David, and enter the former Hospitaller compound or the twelfth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As an archaeologist there is a great advantage in being able with considerable ease to visit the most important sites: cities, villages, fortresses and battlefields. Being an archaeologist in Israel has enabled me to survey and excavate at sites like the fortresses of Montfort, Beisan (Beth Shean) and Blanchegarde, to work at urban sites including Jerusalem, Acre and Caesarea, and in Frankish villages and farmhouses.

Living in Israel has also enabled me to collaborate with other scholars in the field, such as my friend and colleague, Ronnie Ellenblum with whom I was involved for three seasons on his project at the remarkable Templar fortress of Vadum Iacob, and to participate in the guidance and advancement of a new generation of scholars in crusader archaeology. Today, unlike the period when I was starting out, there are a number of excellent archaeologists and specialists in Frankish architecture and material culture.

What are the disadvantages? Only, I suppose, the unfortunate inability to visit several of the neighbouring countries where some of the most spectacular crusader remains survive, and the difficulty, and sometimes inability to share academic knowledge with some of the fine scholars working in those countries.

Why have you, fairly recently, established yourself on social media and begun blogging? What inspired you? It seems that more and more medieval scholars, for a variety of reasons, are becoming active on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc…. I have spoken to junior scholars, some who are still doctoral students, who think it is necessary to establish a blog, or a Twitter account, if only to begin to build a public voice or presence as a scholar. What would you advise someone in this position who holds such a view?

My natural tendency as a fairly private person was to steer clear of social media. However, when as an effort to build an author’s platform for a planned trade book on the relationship between the Frankish settlers and the Italian merchants I began to write a blog, I found that it was a wonderful way to share some of the knowledge that I have accumulated in my years as a researcher and university lecturer. An added benefit of the light format of a popular history blog is the possibility to use the platform for a bit of nostalgia, lessons on life and humour; in short, as a means of self-expression.

Would I recommend it to junior scholars? I doubt that my own blog posts would be as interesting as I hope they are, had I written them as a young scholar with a great deal less accumulation of knowledge and understanding. That said, and although my own use of Twitter is merely as a means of directing readers to my blog, from my observation of what others are doing in this medium I can certainly see its value in creating a community of scholars and as an educational tool.

What has been your experience as President of the Society for the Study of the Crusades to the Latin East? What are the challenges? What do you see as the most important issues that will need to be addressed for the future of crusade studies? How rapidly, for example, is new technology and social media influencing, if at all, the direction or development of the field?

For several years I served as a committee member under our former president, Bernard Hamilton and that gave me the opportunity to observe at close hand the workings of the society and to appreciate its importance for scholars working in the field. The SSCLE is a wonderful organization. It is the ideal format for established scholars to share their work, whether through the website and bulletin which contain information on ongoing research and publications, through papers in the outstanding journal – Crusades, or through sponsored conferences and sessions. It is also a means for a younger generation of scholars to become acquainted with what is going on in the field and to make others aware of their own work. The quadrennial conferences are one of the most important venues for the presentation of the latest crusader scholarship.

Having, as president followed on the heels of some of the finest scholars in the field, the main challenge for me has been to maintain the high level of the society involvement in supporting and spreading an interest in Crusader scholarship in general. A public relations campaign is underway which hopefully will increase the number of our members from Middle Eastern countries, the Far East and parts of Europe that have been less active in the past. We have continued to support young scholars through sponsorship of conferences and bursaries. One of the important contributions of the current committee with regard to the younger generation of students of the crusades has been the establishment of the Bernard Hamilton Prize, an annual competition for the best academic paper by a doctoral student, or recent doctoral graduate. The first wining paper was published in the most recent volume of Crusades. As the first archaeologist to hold this position it has also been an opportunity to make some advances in the dissemination of information of ongoing field projects. A section in our recently updated Webpage presents some ongoing archaeological projects and I hope to expand this in the very near future.

With regard to important issues that will need to be addressed for the future of crusade studies, I would say that as an archaeologist in the field, but one who believes that the distinction made between the study of written sources and the study of material finds is often too rigidly drawn, I would like to see a greater openness among historians in making use of archeological research. This was recently promoted by Benjamin Kedar at a conference in Cardiff in honour of Denys Pringle, a scholar whose work exemplifies the value of combining historical and archaeological research. As to social media and its influence on the direction or development of the field, I think it is still early days to tell how positive or otherwise that is in the long term.

You have had an extraordinary career. What else do you hope to accomplish, in terms of research, before you retire as a scholar?

Although in 2020 I will be retiring from my post at the university, I have no intention whatsoever of retiring as a scholar. Quite the opposite. Without the need to attend committee meetings (one of the few requirements of academic life that I have found tedious and often pointless) and without being required to spend several hours each week on the roads, I am hopeful that the coming years will prove to be a more active period for me as a scholar.

The main activities I plan to be involved in are the continued advancement of the SSCLE, the continued exploration of Montfort Castle, and the writing of the book I am currently in the early stages of (an attempt to demonstrate how important the alliance between the Italian merchants and the crusaders/Franks was, both for the survival and economic development of the Frankish states in the East and for the evolution of medieval Italy and post-medieval Europe). As long as my ideas do not dry up I also hope to continue writing my two or three weekly blog posts. With regard to Montfort I also plan to advance, together with various scholars involved in the project, on a major publication of our architectural and material finds from ten excavation seasons. The excavations have to date exposed the Great Hall, a second gothic hall the existence of which was formerly unknown, sections of the outer fortifications, the castle stables, the latrines and in the coming August we are planning to excavate a beautiful gothic structure, possibly the castle’s guest house, at the foot of the valley below the castle – in short, enough to keep me fairly busy over the coming years.

Finally, what do you think are the five most interesting or important sites to visit in Israel for those interested in the crusades? Why?

That is an almost impossible question to answer. There is no issue regarding the first two sites – they are fairly obvious. Jerusalem and Acre, both for their historical importance and the large number of medieval buildings and installations surviving in and around them make them a must for anyone with an interest in the crusader period. The difficulty is in choosing just three of the many other remarkable sites. If pressed I would say Caesarea for its remarkable well-preserved thirteenth century defences, largely the work of Louis IX; Hospitaller Belvoir Castle which is not the largest or most well-preserved of crusader castles, but is certainly one of the most remarkable from the point of view of architectural achievement in the creation of an almost perfect and highly effective layout; and perhaps Ascalon for its dramatic medieval defences running along the top of a huge Middle Bronze Age rampart.

But then what about the striking ruins of the castle of Arsur (Apollonia), earthquake shattered Vadum Iacob, the huge and romantic remains of Château Pèlerin (‘Atlit), albeit only viewable from a distance, the beautiful frescoes of the crusader church at Abu Ghosh, not to mention the picturesque ruins of Monfort in the Galilean forest. No. I would say that if you can only afford to visit five sites, you would do better to save your money for when you can make a longer trip.

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