Tag Archives: excavation

Who Digs? Craft & Non-specialist labor in archaeology

Dan and I wrote a short polemic for Bill Caraher’s series on Craft and Archaeology. It was a hydra of a piece to write–we wanted to be succinct and direct, but it kept spiraling out of control. We obviously have a lot more to say on the subject, here’s a short excerpt:

Digging is the most evocative archaeological practice, yet it is the most undervalued mode of archaeological knowledge production, least cultivated skill with fewest monetary rewards, and is considered so inconsequential that non-specialist labor is regularly employed to uncover our most critical data sets.

Click HERE to read the rest.

Archaeological Dig Houses: the Best, Worst, and Weirdest

Rainbow over the Chicken Shed by Jason Quinlan

Rainbow over the Chicken Shed by Jason Quinlan

About a month ago I asked archaeologists on Facebook and Twitter about their dig house experiences living in a dig house.

What kinds of “dig houses” have you lived in while doing archaeological field work? Weirdest? Dirtiest? Most amazing?

I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a fairly overdue article about a contemporary archaeology of dig houses, an elaboration of our short buildings report on the Chicken Shed at Çatalhöyük. It’s a subject that I enjoy and will probably revisit over the years. Anyway, as expected I received some great responses. All of the authors will be anonymous unless they choose to reveal themselves.

Weirdest: 

Modern monastery in San Ignacio, Belize.

Monk’s quarters in Vescovado di Murlo, upper floor, with bathroom window onto the Tuscan hills.

Ounces Barn at Boxgrove. My room was an old bull shed with mating contraption in the corner

Bush camp in Kruger Park, South Africa, next to river…crocodile eyes at night & woke up to find leopard tracks outside the tent.

Air cadet base on Jersey – woken up by post plane, & nearest drinking hole is the airfield club bar.

Elementary school gym & classrooms in Vescovio.

Recreation hall of an old leper colony

Dungeon of a château in Alsace

Best:

The Princess Room at Giza. Carved king-size bed and two chandeliers.

A very large house backing on to the Thames at Wraysbury.

Rooms above the bar, Stymphalos

Tent in the Alps at 2400 meters

Swiss dig house in Petra

Chan Chich Jungle Lounge and nature reserve, Organ Walk, Belize

Chateau d’Aramont

Historic Commune north of Taos, slept in tipis and tents, used communal spaces and helped garden.

Two-story mudbrick compound in Dahkla, Egypt…except for the gigantic termites living in our dirt-floor bedroom.

Luxury high rise in Downtown Riyadh. Personal dare devil for a driver. Machine gun escorts. Office in the Embassy.

Townley Hall – a 200-year-old Georgian mansion.

On the Circus, Bath, two doors down from Nicolas Cage

Saqqara dig house before it was demolished. Amazing, but still quite colonial.

Worst:

Some kind of adobe mud house halfway up a mountain in central Madagascar. Cockroaches everywhere, dozens of them crawling up the walls, falling from the ceiling into my cup of wine. Didn’t notice at first, took a swig….

A newly redone B&B, no facilities, and owner couldn’t cope with people coming home dirty (cream carpets, floral bed coverings, etc). Constant stress, high additional costs and no comfort.

The infirmary of an orphanage, constantly feeling sick….

Bog in Tipperary, abandoned, rat infested farmhouse, we suspended shopping baskets from roof to store food….

Ruth vs. the Intercutting Firepits

The QIAH has been conducting work at Freiha since 2009, revealing dense, complex occupation. This video is a time lapse of my good friend (and coworker) Ruth Hatfield excavating a series of intercutting firepits. Photo and Video Credit: Qatar Museums Authority – QMA.

We built a small structure over a fraction of the firepits to provide shade and then Ruth did her thing, digging all of the firepits under the shade in two hours. This time lapse demonstrates the principles of single context recording on a microscale–Ruth would dig and record the fills and cuts, all in stratigraphic sequence, showing which of the pits were dug last and working back in time. The last little bits were dug (and burned) first and truncated by later firepits. In some ways it is too bad that the camera was on a timer–you only see Ruth measuring or taking photos a couple of times. I’d like to do a time lapse that shows the entire recording process for each feature–but that might be just too tedious. Sadly I had to use iMovie to edit–my old Final Cut Pro license expired and the new FCP is appalling.

Incidentally, the font for the video is one of my favorites, Lavanderia, inspired by the writing in the windows of the San Francisco Mission:
Download Lavanderia

The music is licensed under Creative Commons and is available on Soundcloud:
Kitab el 3omr by Yussof El Marr

Please comment and let me know if you show the video in your classroom so that I can report back to the QIAH and the QMA and show them that making these things is time well spent!

Haptics and the Physicality of Archaeology

A gust of wind whipped the context sheet from under my hand, leaving a long, thin, bloody line across the back of my thumb. I sighed, but it only added to the current tally of open wounds on my hands–four. Most are small, little nicks on my knuckles from troweling over rocks and happily there aren’t any opened blisters. I’ve had a particularly stubborn cut on the back of my other thumb that refuses to heal–I cleaned and bandaged it immediately, but it seems like no matter what I do I have a dirty, shredded rag instead of a bandage at the end of the day and a bright red line of infection around the wound.

My knuckles are already thick, but they seize a bit sometimes, especially my right forefinger, my “troweling finger”, which has an awkward bend common to archaeologists. One of my friends here told me that he wakes sometimes with his fingers hooked and has to bend them back into place. My knees creak and pop and I have bruises along my shins from kneeling on rocks–we don’t have desks on site and we often have to crouch on our knees over our paperwork to protected from the wind, or rain, or sun.

Sometimes when I kneel, troweling across the 40/60 salty, silty sand I think I can actually feel the ground leeching the water from my body–the heels of my palms and my fingertips are chafed, dry and callused. Last time I was in Doha I went to a fancy shopping center that carried fine silk and linen dresses–my fingers rasped and caught as I touched them. The haptics of class, I suppose.

Most academic archaeologists have never spent more than a month or two at a time digging, indeed many professional archaeologists are the same–who can pay for long excavation seasons in this economy anyway? We aren’t doing the hardest excavation in archaeology; trowels in sand cannot compare to shovels in clay, even on the windiest of days. Working with your hands is a fairly romantic notion these days, and it’s one of the things I love about archaeology, dirty bandages and all.

But we know we can’t do it forever. The knees go. The back goes. Problems with eyes, hands, even the skin can remove us from our profession. I had a few pre-cancerous lesions burnt off of my face a couple of years ago, accompanied by a stern warning by the dermatologist to stay out of the sun as much as possible. And I’m certainly one of the lucky ones. I know at least a dozen people who have had to change careers after a physical malady.

The visual in archaeology is often emphasized in academic circles, with occasional nods toward the other senses adding to “a sense of place.” We awaken our senses, what does it feel/taste/smell like to be on an archaeological project? How can we share that with others? I’m writing about some of that in my dissertation, but now “being in the field” is becoming so normal that it is hard to remember to share. Sometimes I’d rather deaden my senses, something that can be difficult in a country where alcohol is mostly illegal. I wonder if reflexivity is easier when performing a rarified, vacation-like excavation after a year of teaching. The lived experience of archaeological investigation and engagement with place can be exhausting.

It’s the weekend–I think I’ll go back to bed.

Archaeology & Being “Game”

Between digging up wedges of wind-blown sand and anhydrite stub walls I’ve been thinking about archaeology and reflexivity quite a bit lately–what we are allowed to do and think while we are constructing a record of the past. My daily experience of site is fairly rote; I clean the context, photograph, draw, level, record, dig, sample, record, sort artifacts, write 1000 labels, rinse, repeat. A criticism of single context recording is that it is deadening to creativity in interpretation, but I think that is a critique more of the application of the methodology than the methodology itself.

Though I find many moments in the day where I could be creative, where I could take a moment to take an unnecessary but beautiful photograph, where I could try to chat with my workmen about their opinions of the site, think about the architectural phasing and recreate the paths around and in-between the buildings that people could have taken, I often retreat back into single context.

Clean, photograph, draw, level, record, dig, sample, record, sort artifacts, repeat. Faster.

Among professional archaeologists it is often frowned upon to step outside of these lines. Most people don’t really want to talk about their day job while they aren’t on the clock–it’s an unwelcome intrusion into relaxation time. It can be a hard balance while on an archaeological excavation–sometimes you are just exhausted and talking about stratigraphy or methodology can be dry dinnertime conversation.

Still, I consider “being game” an essential part of being an exceptional (or at least interesting) archaeologist. Want to find a nearby clay source to reconstruct an earth oven to see how it works? Okay. Want to find the only soccer field with grass within 100km and play on it until the evening call to prayer? Okay.

By “being game” I mean being open to experiences of all kinds, and importantly, letting this allow you to see your archaeology in new and interesting ways. It is easy to become hide-bound and it is a truism on sites that archaeologists don’t like change–they don’t like new people, different accommodations, new rules, but it is important to stay open and excited about archaeology. And life.

I think that there is a balance in archaeology, as with most things. Staying passionate and invested in your profession while living life as an ongoing adventure can be tricky, to say the least. But it’s a worthwhile cause, if only to maintain some semblance of sanity, right?

More about reflexivity, soonish.

Visual Annotation in Japanese Archaeology

Once upon a time I wanted to excavate Yayoi era sites in Japan. Strange, but true. I still check out photos from sites in Japan on occasion and I find all the multicolored flagging tape and paint on the ground completely baffling.

Are they recreating the building? Marking sections? Does anyone know?

Meditation on a Broken Horse

Sure enough, among the chalk rubble, medieval pot sherds and sheep bone, there they were–big, articulated bones. Not really something you want to find during what was supposed to be the last day of digging, but most archaeologists will tell you that is exactly when you find the most important, or in this case, the most complicated digging–the last day.

There was a lot of speculation about the position of the horse, whether it was one horse or two, but I just kept digging–the bones would reveal all. The sacrum of the horse was wedged into a tight cut and upside-down, looking all the world like the folks trying to cram it into the hole in the chalk had to actually widen the hole specially for it. Various comedy scenes fired in my head as I carefully cleaned between the caudal vertebrae, up the lumbar, revealing the ribs.

On its back, the horse’s ribs formed an arching, cavernous void. I brushed the rich, brown, midden-soil from ribs, each that mottled orange-white of freshly excavated bone. I found the teeth shortly afterwards, thinking at first that the head had been removed, but no–it was arched back sharply toward the tail, in a backwards, upside-down fetal position. The legs were covering the head, making the horse look like it was cowering, hiding its eyes. We realized that the legs had been chopped off and thrown in on top.

It was breakfast time, and the site cleared out. Though the horse had been adequately excavated (especially considering the distinct lack of time we had to remove it from the ground) I wanted to spend a little more time with it. It was sunny that day and mottled patches of sunlight shone through the old oak trees around the site. I gave the horse skeleton a gentle final clean, clipping away roots and removing stray pebbles from its eyes, shoulders.

I’m getting married this week–my fiance and I dug up the horse together, sharing tools, chatting about the likely position of the horse, the various bones, what was done and what needed to be done. We work well together and a shared excavation project was a nice change from trying to schedule buses and flowers. Though a bit macabre, the horse is beautiful in its own way, arranged in an unlikely position in a trash pit and revealed centuries later by the hands of two people who are very much in love.