World-Renowned and Well-Traveled, William Zimmerle’s Home is FDU

by Dustin Niles

A cold April shower drenches the Metropolitan campus, and Dr. William Zimmerle has just returned from speaking on the topic of frankincense at a conference in Bulgaria on the Byzantine period. His office is in the basement of Robison Hall, and he sits in it quietly. No music, no background noise, not even the sound of the rain outside. Just the sound of a fan. His desk, tables, and walls are adorned with artifacts, books, and cave paintings so numerous that they start to resemble the walls the paintings came from.

“As an archaeologist, I have colleagues around the world,” said Zimmerle. “I’ve been everywhere living abroad from Jerusalem, to Jordan, to Syria, to Dubai, to Germany, to London, Cypress, and Ethiopia.”

Zimmerle’s work is indeed a worldwide profession, and he makes it that way.

“If we’re not doing research, we’re really not adding new knowledge,” Zimmerle said. “There are many different types of scholars. Some like to spend 10 hours in a library, and I do like to do that, but I also know that I like to spend 10 hours in the field. In other words, going to the field, collecting new data is really the way for digging up information about the past, and for our future.”

Talking to Dr. Zimmerle, it is impossible to push the image of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark out of mind, but with more infrared cameras and fewer Nazis.

“We’re using the latest technologies to do the documentation work that we’re doing,” Zimmerle said. “And that affects everyone. Students over in the engineering department, who can do this kind of work very easily, have very strong cultural backgrounds, for example, that I’m sure they want preserved.”

For a profession that deals so much with the past, Dr. Zimmerle works with a lot of modern technology. For example, pictured is the difference between a regular high-resolution image of rock art that Dr. Zimmerle is studying, and an infrared image, which shows some ink that isn’t visible at all in the original image. Though rock art decorates the walls, tables, and computer desktops in his office, it took Zimmerle years to get to it.

For a man who has so much going on, the timeline of Dr. Zimmerle’s work is remarkably linear. Zimmerle started his academic career at FDU’s Florham campus, where he was interviewed for a scholarship by Dean Elizabeth Feeley, who still works at Florham as the Associate Dean of Student Services for the Maxwell Becton College of the Arts and Sciences.

“Afterwards, we had a reception and we’re sitting at a table, my father and mother and I, and Dean Feeley came over to sit down with us, and my father kicked me under the table, kind of giving a gesture like ‘This is a good sign!’” Zimmerle said. “I had no idea what I wanted to study. I figured I was either going to study psychology or business.”

Obviously, Zimmerle did not go on to study psychology or business. He would find his life’s work through a mentor and professor he met early on.

“My first semester, I arrive, I took a class called Ancient History with a scholar by the name of R. Thomas McDonald,” Zimmerle said, “He became my advisor and mentor.”

From McDonald’s instruction, Zimmerle decided on a history degree. In 2002, he would come back to teach that subject at FDU in an adjunct position before moving on to his current position.

“Last year, I was offered this position in digital humanities,” Zimmerle said. “Tom McDonald lives in Madison with his wife, and after the faculty orientation I drove over to see him and was able to tell him I got this job. Little did I know, that one month later he would pass from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81. So what was quite nice though, is that I was able to tell to tell my first real history teacher and advisor, who got me into the field, that I had gotten this position at Fairleigh.”

Zimmerle exhausted all the history courses at FDU and went on to continue his studies by taking classes at Drew University.

“I began to take classes there my junior and senior year over there, which was just across the street,” Zimmerle said. “By my senior year, I was working with a scholar there, who had a lot of connections and was very well known…I asked ‘What are some of the best schools for ancient religion?’ and Harvard was one…Tom McDonald had been a Harvard graduate, so he wrote the letter, he kind of prepared me. So I applied and was accepted. So I went from Fairleigh to Harvard for my Master’s.”

The story of his current research started in basement of a museum of archaeological artifacts at the University of Pennsylvania, where Zimmerle was looking for something to do his doctoral dissertation on.

“We’re talking about a million objects down there, and I’m looking for something to write on,” Zimmerle said. “I discovered small incense burners and nobody knew what they were.”

He has an incense burner very similar to the one he found in that museum in the University of Pennsylvania sitting on a shelf in his office. Early on in the interview, it went from the shelf to his hands, where it spun through them like an lucky old coin.

“Little did I know when I wrote my dissertation on it that it would become a major object of heritage in the Arabian Peninsula,” Zimmerle said. “It’s a symbol of national identity now.”

That incense burner became the topic of his doctoral dissertation, but also of research afterwards. He went to the Sultanate of Oman on the southeastern tip on the Arabian peninsula to research these box-shaped incense burners. He amassed “over 200 hours” of videotapes of women making incense burners very much like the one in the University of Pennsylvania’s museum.

“It’s not uncommon to see two or three translators, myself there, a videocamera I’m operating, a recorder getting it all recorded, and three or four potters who are women working in front of us,” Zimmerle said. “At first, when we did it people said ‘it can’t be done’ because you’re coming in as a foreigner…over time we couldn’t have gotten a better response and more cooperation. I think potters were just happy, in a way, that people were interested in the craft that they do.”

The work that the potters were doing was just a tradition that was passed down between family members, like your grandmother’s apple pie. But to Zimmerle, it was much much more.

“When we asked them ‘How long do you think this has been done?’ [they said] ‘Oh I don’t know, a couple hundred years at most.’” Zimmerle said. “‘How did you learn to do this?’ ‘Oh, my grandmother taught me and her grandmother taught her…’ But this has been something that has been passed down from generation to generation.” The incense burners have been made in that same form for thousands of years.

While researching the incense burners, he kept hearing from locals about rock art in the caves above the village. Zimmerle investigated and found out that there was remarkably well-preserved rock art on these caves. Later dating of the paints on the wall determined that the paintings had been there for over 2000 years.

It’s the rock art that currently consumes Zimmerle’s work. He now goes and talks about the caves at conferences like the one in Bulgaria. There’s a lot of work to be done. First, the languages marked on the walls have to be decoded. Zimmerle also wants to preserve caves that are in danger of crumbling. He also wants to find out why the paints on the walls lasted so long. And after that, he wants to turn these sites into cultural heritage sites and parks for other people to enjoy.

“I think we have to shock our minds,” Zimmerle said. “In order to understand how other people live and what they do, and what they believe in, we have to go to environments that are unfamiliar to us…it’s in the unfamiliar that we find ourselves and we find other people.”