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Michael Hoff

Professor of Art HistoryPut Yourself on the Map

Hoff spends his summers exploring the ruins of a Roman temple in coastal Turkey. A significant component of the field research is the assistance of undergraduate students. In exchange for their hard work, they receive an education in art history and engineering that cannot be duplicated in a classroom. Back at UNL, work continues during the academic year. Hoff and Erdogmus synthesize data collected in the summer, and attempt to assemble drawings of the blocks like puzzle pieces.

Michael Hoff

Michael Hoff: Professor of Art History, Turkey

As he sees it, Art History professor Michael Hoff has one of the best gigs in town.

Never mind the days of hard labor clearing brush in 120-degree heat. Swallowing clouds of dust while hauling giant stones. Negotiating prickly local bureaucracies.

Hoff spends his summers exploring the ruins of a Roman temple in coastal Turkey. It's hot, dirty work, which Hoff likens to "playing in a sandbox."

"This is very different than walking through a museum or going through books in a library, which is something we all have to do," he said. "This is excavating a 2,000-year old building, looking for the secrets of the past."

Hoff has already devoted more than 11 years to his surveying work in Turkey. Each summer, he and his colleagues stayed in the town of Gazipasha, and over the years he has gotten to know locals and government officials. In 2004, he met with the town's mayor, and mentioned that he would be interested in going beyond surveying - he proposed excavating and re-erecting a temple that he had identified near the town. The mayor was enthusiastic about the idea, as was the regional governor.

In 2005, Hoff began mapping the temple site and drawing and cataloging of all of its stone blocks. That year Ece Erdogmus, a professor of architectural engineering at UNL, joined Hoff on the project. A native of Turkey, she brought not only academic expertise to the project, but also language skills and a familiarity with the country's government. In 2007, the team-in conjunction with a local archaeology museum - began moving the blocks from the mound.

The undertaking has been massive. The team began by clearing away overgrown vegetation. On past research trips, they had documented, surveyed, labeled and cataloged the surface of the site, and so this past summer they selected stones to move each day. Students cataloged the stones and made sketches of their surfaces, then the blocks were lifted with cranes and carried to an adjacent field.

The history of the temple is slowly revealing itself.

"We don't know yet to whom the temple was dedicated," Hoff said. "We know it was a Roman imperial temple, built specifically for the worship of a Roman emperor. It dates to the early third century after Christ. Our hope is that next year we'll find more information. For example, we'll be able to look at faces of blocks that are currently covered up. We hope to find some statuary under the rubble."

Back at UNL, work continues during the academic year. Hoff and Erdogmus synthesize data collected in the summer, and attempt to assemble drawings of the blocks like puzzle pieces.

"Mapping where the blocks fell will help us determine where they belonged originally," Hoff said. "Looking at the scatter of how they fell with sophisticated programs, we might be able to determine the cause of the temple's destruction. Right now think it was either an earthquake or purposeful destruction, probably at the hands of Christian extremists."

A significant component of the field research is the assistance of undergraduate students. In exchange for their hard work, they receive an education in art history and engineering that cannot be duplicated in a classroom.

"In classes, we talk about how to put a modern building together, but this is reversed; we are trying to figure out how and why this temple collapsed, and the students are actually at the building site trying to revive it," Erdogmus said. "For me, I am thinking this will happen only once in my life, and I think it's the same for the students."

"Our students are getting in on the ground floor of basic archaeological research," Hoff said. "This is hands-on experience with real construction and reconstruction methods and methodologies. I can't imagine a greater undergraduate experience than that."

Professor first, college football fan second

Professor Hoff has long been struck by the parallels between two supposedly dissimilar institutions: college football and Roman religion. Putting aside aspects of divinity (although to some Bob Devaney is a good candidate for divine status), one is able to recognize within the entire panoply of big-time college football the basic elements common to religious zeal, such as ritual, community involvement, sharing of a common interest, and of course pageantry. And nowhere else is this best exemplified than with Nebraska Football. In a talk often delivered and always somewhat with tongue-in-cheek, Hoff demonstrates how on any given Autumn Saturday in Lincoln, football satisfies the basic elements of cult status within ancient Roman religion.

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