The Mamluk Emporium

As previously mentioned, I have been spending these last few weeks excavating a Mamluk-era barrel vault here at Tell Dhiban. This has meant several weeks of lifting guffaws full of dirt and rocks up out of the building to remove the collapse while documenting brief re-occupations of the building. Finally, on Wednesday, I came down to a nice dirt layer that the collapse respected, meaning that it fell mostly on top of the floor, with a few heavier ashlars more embedded in the softer ground. At first I was afraid that I might have missed the floor—we were expecting flagstones—and had moved on an earlier construction phase by accident. But as we were coming down to the surface we had fewer finds, and the dirt was pretty “clean.” For a tell just lousy with occupation it would have been difficult to get a construction fill that didn’t have loads of artifacts embedded in the matrix. I also didn’t see much of what could have been flagstones—it was all rubble from the collapsed ceiling and floors. We’ll see how accurate my interpretation is when we get more of the building cleared out!

The dirt floor also respected the bin in the south wall, which ended up diving down much farther than I expected. As I was excavating the last of the collapse back, I noticed that it also respected a line of ashlars effectively bisecting the building right at the cistern. We have a similar construction pattern in the west half of the building and whether this is some kind of water management system from the cistern or delineated activity areas, I’m not sure. I am currently leaning against the idea that it was a water system linked with the cistern because it appears that the cistern access was blocked off at this phase by a rebuilt wall. Again, this remains to be seen as we clear more of the collapse out.

From what I’ve seen, the phasing of this building (which I’ve jokingly called the “Mamluk Emporium—everything MUST GO!”) is a bit complicated—it was originally built with two doors, one into another room to the north and another out to a courtyard to the west. Then the north wall was cut away and a cistern was installed between the two rooms. Then, for whatever reason, the cistern was blocked off, but a niche was left where the door once was.

It’s these kinds of puzzles that make excavation so exciting for me—figuring out the architecture, revising my phasing narratives, finding things that completely turn your interpretations around. Not to mention other odd things like there being such an overabundance of Roman, Byzantine, and Iron Age pottery, with a relative paucity of Mamluk artifacts. The Mamluk were re-using stones from other buildings—a fact that makes reconstruction difficult (let’s use a Byzantine column base for a niche corner!) and excavation a bit of a headache. We’re also very near the acropolis of the tell, so wash can only explain so much intrusion from earlier artifacts.

There are a lot of things that happen after the excavation ends—Alan will be running his float samples, there will be other artifact analyses, and a mountain of paperwork—but making sure that the archaeology is properly excavated in the first place is what gives the rest of our work meaning. While this seems obvious, I don’t think that enough of an emphasis is given to the craft of excavation and there is certainly not enough training for archaeology students who want to go on in the field.

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One response to “The Mamluk Emporium

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