I had what I thought was a poetic notion:
The DIG revolves around a mystery: The Israelis have discovered a 4000-year-old burial in a sarcophagus in Jaffa. What is it? How did it get there?
But the real story is about Sally Jenkins, a world-renown genetic archaeologist, who has been summoned Israel to answer these questions. At the top of the field of ancient DNA, Sally has discovered a way to clean away eons of dirt and dust and replicate the material necessary to identify ancient burials, using infinitesimal fragments of bone.
Traveling to Jaffa the morning after her mother's death, she finds herself in a place where the mess of history — her own and that of the land she is working in — cannot be so easily cleaned away.
From writer and performer Stacie Chaiken:
In 2003, the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity commissioned me to write a play in Israel, spent nearly a year and a half mostly there and came home wondering what I had to say about my experience during that time.
The central character in the dig is Sally Jenkins who is, like me, an American sent to dig. Sally is an archaeologist with expertise in ancient DNA. I’m a writer-performer with a nose for story. Both our Hebrew names are Sarah.
I was there during the tail end of the Second Intifada. I came away awake to the palpable energy of the place, its blood-soaked history, and a sense that the conflict defining all of our experience was between two peoples—Palestinians and Jews—both of whom had been cruelly treated. Their identities were created by the violence done unto them; violence they had done to others.
Ten years ago, when I started writing The DIG, the analysis of ancient DNA was cutting edge technology. Tom Gilbert, who was then in Copenhagen (now in the UK) spent hours with me on Skype, explaining how he had designed a technology that could clean away modern DNA and replicate the whole genetic chain from minuscule fragments of ancient bone.
The study of ancient DNA is no longer all that new. The cutting edge genetic work is in the field of epigenetics, where researchers—in studies of Holocaust survivors and their children— have proved that trauma mutates genetic code, and that mutation gets passed down.
Add to that the research of the 2015 Nobel laureates, who mapped the body’s ability to mechanically repair DNA on a cellular level. Their findings could lead to us being able to eliminate genetic predispositions to certain forms of cancer — and our ability to reverse mutation due to trauma.
Might we be able to break that chain?