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UPDATED: January 15, 2017 at 9:28 p.m.
Harvard archaeology professor and scholar Lawrence E. Stager ’65 died Dec. 29 after injuries from a fall in his Concord, Mass. home. He was 74.
Colleagues and family said they will remember Stager as a trailblazer in the field of biblical archaeology and as a warm friend with a genuine personality.
Stager was a graduate of both the College and the Harvard Divinity School; he earned a master's degree and Ph.D. from the University's Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department. After temporarily leaving Cambridge to serve as a professor at the University of Chicago, Stager returned to Harvard in 1986 as the inaugural Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel. He founded and led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon—one of the largest and longest projects in Israel—and also served as director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum.
Though now remembered as a prominent leader in his field, Stager’s path to archaeology was not always clear. He grew up on a rural Ohio farm and was recruited as a first-generation college student by the Harvard Club of Dayton, Ohio.
But Stager nearly failed to complete his freshman year. When he returned home for Thanksgiving his first year at Harvard, Stager told his father he wanted to drop out of school and become a farmer, according to Stager’s daughter, art historian Jennifer M. S. Stager ’00.
Stager's father insisted he continue studying at the College, Jennifer said. Stager obeyed and eventually graduated magna cum laude.
After graduation, Stager briefly contemplated a legal career, according to Jennifer, but changed his mind while excavating in Israel during a postgraduate fellowship. After that dig, Stager realized his passion lay in archaeology and he soon returned to Harvard for his graduate degrees in NELC.
Throughout his career, Stager helped unveil the lives of ancient Canaanites and Philistines, even discovering a Philistine cemetery at one point. His work tackled outstanding questions of ancient world history, focusing on the origins of monotheism and the rise of ancient economies and states in the Near East.
Joseph A. Greene, curator of the Semitic Museum and a former student of Stager’s, called his teacher's approach to archaeology revolutionary. Instead of simply hunting for physical traces of important biblical events and locations, Stager instead worked to build a picture of ancient lives by weaving together material, textual, and scientific evidence, Greene said.
“It was not a matter of taking a text and a shovel and in fact demonstrating that what was written in the bible was the gospel truth,” Greene said. “It was an attempt to reconstruct ancient society using a full panoply of evidence—the textual, the material, and the scientific.”
Daniel M. Master, co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition and a former graduate student of Stager’s, also said he thinks Stager's work was groundbreaking. Master said he will never forget the time Stager sent him to the basement of the Graduate School of Design to read through the entire collection of the Journal of Garden History.
“What other archaeologist was doing that, trying to pull together these disparate strands?” Master said. “He had these ideas and was able to pull them together into these articles that I use in my classes today, even though they’re 30 years old or 35 years old, because there really wasn’t anything else like them.”
Master added he will also remember how Stager brought together experts from a wide range of fields to contribute to his archaeological digs—whether geologists, botanists, anthropologists, or ceramicists. Master said Stager was one of few archaeologists alive who could "control all of those pieces."
Friends, family, and colleagues said they will never forget Stager's candid and jovial personality. Greene said Stager was always “wickedly funny.”
According to Jennifer, Stager thrived on vigorous debates about topics ranging from archaeological theories to politics to his contempt for organic produce. But no matter how passionate the argument, Stager never stooped to personal attacks, Jennifer said.
“There was a colleague of his with which he vehemently disagreed about various academic matters,” Jennifer said. “I noticed that his bedside table had his most recent book on it, so I think for him the bonds of the academic life were stronger. He was very happy to have those debates. If anything, he was energized by them.”
Once, to illustrate a point on camera, Stager waded out waist-deep into a pool of water at an excavation site in Carthage, Tunisia, Greene said. Stager ended up proving his point: He demonstrated that an ancient landlocked harbor had sunk over time.
“He was the same in the field and out of the field, he was the same in the classroom and at a party,” Adam J. Aja, an assistant curator at the Semitic Museum and a former student and expedition coworker, said. “People have different masks that they put on for their different audiences. He was just Larry.”
Aja said she will always remember Stager’s distinctive catchphrases.
“We would always end up imitating him,” Aja said. “He captured the room when he was in it and swept the rest of us up at that time with him.”
Stager is survived by his two children, Jennifer and David Stager, and four grandchildren.
“He had a really adventurous and exciting life and it was really a life of his own crafting,” Jennifer said. “He was really a proponent of finding the thing that you loved and continuing to do it with all of your effort.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: December 15, 2017
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Jennifer Stager. In fact, Joseph A. Greene said Lawrence E. Stager '65 was "wickedly funny."
—Staff writer Sofia W. Tong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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