Memory Palaces, Archaeological Sites, and Postex Planning

A plume of dust spread over the tanur I was drawing and my tape measure fell over and shuddered shut with a metallic clang. The wind had been steadily getting worse throughout the day, until it became an unrelenting blast furnace. I sighed and glanced up at the rest of the team. There were four of us on site, and everyone was neatly framed by the measuring tapes wound around grid pegs; five ¬†meter boxes that we were neatly drawing at 1:20 scale on permatrace. I’ve railed against Americanist thinking-in-boxes for so long that it was a bit funny–but these were invisible boundary lines, and the layers were continued on the next piece of permatrace without the messy guessing of baulks.

Regular site work has come to a close; we cleaned up for aerial photography earlier in the week and are now drawing a large multicontext plan of the site before we cover it all up with backfill. I’ve done similar things before, but never a detailed plan over this large of an area–200 square meters. A few of the areas are pock-marked nightmares of postholes and clay-lined firepits–think circles within circles surrounded by circles. Other areas have bits of architecture or large layers of sandy-shelly accumulations.

I’ve worked over roughly the same area over the last five months, following the stratigraphy back and forth across the trench. Large areas can be difficult to excavate and I’d find myself chasing stratigraphic relationships in circles sometimes–not so hard to imagine when you know that the site depositional processes included sandstorms that would periodically blow thick layers of sand across site and we’d have to dig ourselves out time and time again.

While I was drawing I would remember the walls and the layers of sand that I’d taken off, but I’d also remember what the weather was like that day, who was on site with me, whether the general mood was good or bad. I’d remember if I was chatting to my workmen or my fellow archaeologists, or listening to a podcast or music (usually on windy days when I was using my headphones as wind muffles)–I have a very singular association of a midden dump and a low wall made of orangey-crumbly-crystally anhydrite slabs with a discussion of the concept of “the tipping point” courtesy of BBC’s Thinking Allowed. My thoughts wandered farther: what was the “tipping point” of midden accumulation–when was it accepted and acceptable to dump your garbage next to a wall? What started it? One camel bone? A piece of dog shit? Is there a broken window theory of midden dumping? I should look that up.

I recalled all of this as my pencil traced the outlines of layers yet to be removed. Archaeological sites are memory palaces in every sense of the term. We are re-remembering the past shapes and modes of dwelling and adding our own on top. As the site disappears in discreet episodes, paperwork and memories pile up in place of the stones and walls and sand.

I’d like for my future work to be in this arena, with location-based digital annotation, as most instances I’ve seen so far are completely separate from the lived experience of archaeology. Sadly, most avenues for this work immediately separates me from this very thing that I am most interested in–communicating the poetics of place. We’ll see if I can work something out.

5 responses to “Memory Palaces, Archaeological Sites, and Postex Planning

  1. That’s a very interesting question, but I wonder if you need to turn it inside out. Here in Australia, there are some shellfish middens that are thousands of years old, and were still in use 200 years ago. But while the middens were permanent fixtures, the people who used them moved from place to place, revisiting them at certain times of year. Maybe the midden predates settlement elsewhere too, so it’s not the first bone dropped beside the wall, but the first permanent wall built beside the midden, that represents the tipping point. Just a thought.

  2. Happily we can tell if the wall or the midden came first through the stratigraphic relationships on the site. Certainly there are walls built on middens, or through middens, but in this case it was an accumulation after the wall had been built. Cheers and I like your blog!

  3. Nice. No matter that it’s sand and not snow or icy water blowing in your face, evocative of many digs. And, funny that the ruminations might sometimes be almost as productive as the digging…

  4. I like this post…I love when you write about the meaning of the excavation and the cultural implications of excavating itself, not just the value of the things we find. It’s true: the last day of field work is not only an exercise of recording what we’ve found, but also in remembering the process of the discovery in the first place, the hard work, the discussions, and the teamwork that goes into it.

  5. Thanks, Terry! I should post about backfilling these monster trenches next–maybe when I’m not caught up in the flurry of the last week on site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s