From hiking to archaeology, KSC instructor Beck redefines retirement

·5 min read

Jul. 9—Bob Beck, who spent his career working in U.S. embassies around the world, has a bit of retirement advice.

"You want to retire to something, not from something," Beck, 61, said. "And the 'to something' doesn't have to be, you know, making $70,000 a year; it could be getting into gardening. It doesn't matter. It's something you find productive and is going to be invigorating for you."

After more than three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service, Beck moved to Peterborough two years ago with his wife of 36 years, Meg, a New Hampshire native. He quickly began teaching foreign policy classes at Keene State College's Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning, a program aimed at seniors and the retired.

He spent about two weeks last month helping his daughter, Jess, a bio-archaeologist, on the excavation of a Bronze Age burial mound in the mountains of western Transylvania, and worked similar stints on the project in the summers of 2018 and 2019.

Beck is on the Monadnock Summer Lyceum board, which puts on lectures, and the Peterborough Recreation Committee. He volunteers for the state parks system and The Nature Conservancy. He also plays tennis, bicycles, swims, hikes and climbs peaks from the White Mountains to the Alps.

In a recent interview, he said it's good to take on challenges in retirement.

Working on the burial mound on a remote ridge of the Apuseni Mountains of Romania fits into that category.

"Archaeology is an area I knew very little about," he said. "As you retire, it's healthy to push yourself into areas you're not comfortable with."

The dig has also given him a chance to spend quality time with his daughter, who is on a two-year postdoctoral teaching fellowship at Harvard and leads the excavation along with a Hamilton College professor and a senior Romanian archaeologist affiliated with a museum.

There was a learning curve for Beck, who helps out by sifting dirt for significant items. Initially, he kept thinking he'd found something worthwhile, and his daughter kept saying, "Dad, that's a rock."

Eventually though, he found bones, and someone else found a full skeleton in a fetal position in 2019. Pottery remains and a stone arrowhead, possibly from a spear, were also unearthed. This year, another skeleton was found, this one missing its skull.

Laboratory analysis can yield clues about diet, climate and the geographic origin of bones and other material. Old injuries or signs of violence can also be discerned on ancient human remains.

Items found during an archaeological dig can create new questions.

Many individual bones were found in an area beneath rock slabs, but Beck said it's unclear why these bones were placed there, while the skeletons were elsewhere at the site. It's also not known why one skeleton was missing its skull.

Researchers want to learn more about the people who built the 20-foot long, 18-foot wide and 6-foot tall mound more than 4,000 years ago, and how their lives differed from those who lived in the river valley below.

While the people at lower elevation grew crops for food, those who lived in the mountains are thought to have depended more on sheep, he said.

One day while the archaeological team worked, a shepherd moved his flock near the dig site, something people have been doing in this region for thousands of years.

The ongoing project is being conducted in a beautiful part of the world, Beck noted.

"It is just a stunning place, 3,000 feet up in the mountains with a backdrop of 5,000-foot mountains," he said. "I also liked working on a team. It's good honest work, and it's detail-oriented."

This sort of endeavor is quite a departure from the communications work he did during his career at U.S. embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The classes he teaches at Keene State are informed by his international experiences, some of them harrowing.

When he was posted to Iraq in 2010, the embassy took artillery fire. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he was in his office at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, Syria, when attackers using improvised explosives and gunfire tried to storm the compound but were repelled.

But there were also plush assignments, such as the years he and his wife, who was also in the Foreign Service, spent in Paris and Vienna.

Beck grew up in Indianapolis, the son of a worker for the Indiana Bell Telephone Company and a stay-at-home mom. He went into the Foreign Service after earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland in Soviet and Eastern European studies, following service in Germany with the U.S. Air Force.

Beck, who has a master's degree in international relations from Boston University, understands global politics and has insights with relevance to the Russian war against Ukraine, the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II.

In an op-ed piece in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript on May 31, he noted that the bloody war's ripple effects include "skyrocketing energy costs, waves of refugees, warnings of global food shortages, threats of nuclear war and changing strategic alliances."

The conflict has highlighted the struggle between democracy and autocracy and put a new focus on the U.S. relationship with China and that country's longstanding dispute with Taiwan, he said.

Heather Jasmin, program coordinator of Keene State's Office of Graduate Studies and Extended Education, said Beck's classes and speeches are quite popular.

"He did a one-time talk on Ukraine that brought in almost 200 people," Jasmin said. "He does a really good job of making it accessible and interesting to his students."

Beck will speak about the Romanian dig at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, in the Peterborough Town Library.

Rick Green can be reached at RGreen@KeeneSentinel.com or 603-355-8567