Archæologist wins Royal Society medal

Oleson plays the rababah in a tent in Humayma, Jordon.
Photo: Robbyn Gordon Lanning

By Patty Pitts

A curiosity about the ancient world has taken University of Victoria archaeologist John Oleson from excavating the high Jordanian desert to harnessing the power of a nuclear submarine to scan the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. His dedication to learning more about life millennia ago has earned him many academic honours, and recently the Royal Society of Canada added one more—the 2010 Pierre Chauveau Medal for distinguished contribution to knowledge in the humanities other than Canadian literature and history.

"Your award is a telling recognition of your remarkable accomplishments and an invitation by your colleagues to further the leadership you have already shown in advancing knowledge and scholarship in Canada," wrote Royal Society President Roderick Macdonald in notifying Oleson about the medal.

"This award means a great deal to me. Public recognition is always nice to receive," says Oleson, who will attend the medal presentation in Ottawa this month. "I have received several other honours, but I haven't received an actual medal since I was a boy scout."

A fellow of the Royal Society and previous recipient of a prestigious Killam Research Fellowship and a UVic Distinguished Professorship, Oleson has been a UVic faculty member for 33 years. During that time he has conducted extensive fieldwork at Humayma, a vast ancient city site in southern Jordan, which includes an advanced aqueduct system, Byzantine churches, early Islamic houses and a well-preserved Roman fort.

Oleson is also a distinguished maritime archaeologist whose research involving Roman harbours and deep-water shipwrecks led him to join a 1997 expedition with adventurer Bob Ballard off the coast of Italy.

Using a US Navy research submarine and a remotely operated vehicle in the Mediterranean, the team discovered the largest concentration of ancient shipwrecks ever found in the deep sea. Oleson's projects have been featured in National Geographic magazine and he's served as an on-camera consultant to several BBC productions.

"This latest honour for John is so well deserved. His dedication and commitment to bringing ancient civilizations to life through his meticulous research is outstanding," says UVic President David Turpin. "Whether working with local communities in the Middle East or sailing off the coast of Italy in a research vessel, John epitomizes the enthusiastic scholar, always seeking new knowledge. His approach is indicative of why UVic is considered one of Canada's leading research universities."

Oleson is currently preparing to publish the three-volume final report on his 25 years of work and discovery at the Humayma site, where excavation continues. Although he no longer conducts research there, one of his former graduate students oversees new exploration at the site, maintaining Oleson's legacy of curiosity about ancient lives.

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