Tag Archives: field work

“Found any gold?” Piggott in the Pub

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The Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle, courtesy of the British Museum.

Stuart Piggott is my academic grandfather–the advisor of my advisor–and I’m sad that I never got to meet him, because all the stories I’ve heard about him are great. I was particularly delighted to find this story, in his own words from The Pastmasters:

My memories of this extraordinary occasion (working at Sutton Hoo in 1939 with Charles Philips) are those of mixed feelings of inevitable excitement at the splendour of the finds, and a sense of frightened inadequacy in making the drawings to record the burial deposit, in which every feature was unique and startling, and where no precedent existed to guide us. We had to keep the sensational nature of our finds secret, carrying back the most valuable pieces to the pub in Woodbridge where we stayed, and locking them in a suitcase to await Kendrick’s next visit to transfer them to the British Museum. Coming home one evening and making straight for the bar, I was met with the inevitable hearty greeting,

“How are the diggings, ole chap? Found any gold?”

“Yes, weighted down with it”, I answered, covertly grasping in my pocket the box containing the great belt-buckle, over 400 grammes (16 ounces) of solid metal.

“Ha! Ha! Jolly good. Have a drink?” I accepted, knowing the truth would not be believed.

I have to wonder how many finds got lost back in the day after a good evening in the pub. Raise your next pint to Professor Piggott, and his ridiculous goldy gold belt buckle.

Bug Stories.


After all of the horrible, dense, theoretical verbiage I’ve had to toss at the screen today, I got in the mood for a little storytelling, inspired by an exchange on twitter. Every archaeologist has their own bug stories, so I’ll share a few of mine. I’ve worked in a few places in the world, and each has their own array of flora and fauna. I run a strict no-kill policy in my trenches. Spiders, snakes, lizards, worms, we get it all, and I do my best to carefully move them to another place. I’ve also had goats, puppies, cows, raccoons, cats, and mice in my trenches, but we’ll stay away from the mammals for now. (Also a rather creepy set of barefoot human footprints on a restricted site that did not appear at all outside the trench…yeah.)

I did my first field work in Texas, where there are an uncommon quantity and quality of bugs. There are the generalized menace bugs, such as horseflies, ticks, centipedes, chiggers, and fire ants and these are pretty much a fact of life. Add that to poison oak, poison ivy, heat stroke, and the fact that every single goddamn plant south of Austin is sharp, it can make survey pretty miserable. There’s a plant called crucifixion thorn that doesn’t even have leaves, only thorns…and the horse cripplers and the bull nettles. But again, I’m not here to talk about plants.

I was working with John Lowe (was it the Siren site?) when I got a mean set of chiggers. Chiggers aren’t well known to the rest of the world, but they’re mean little mites that like to burrow through your socks and give you a terribly itchy bite. They burrow into your skin, eat a little bit of you, and then fall back out again. They tend to leave horrible mountains of puss on me…not so pleasant. The next day me and my co-worker Tina stumbled into a seed tick nest, which makes you look like a poppy seed bagel, all covered in tiny little black spots that are biting you. When I got back to my hotel room I picked them off. I stopped counting at 70. Finally, I got bitten by a spider while riding in the site vehicle back to the office, which left an egg-sized welt on my inner wrist.

A few days later, big lumps started forming all along my shins and upper arms. I ignored it until my joints started seizing up and I couldn’t walk anymore.  I went to the doctor and it was one of those things where they started calling in more and more people to check me out. Turns out I got Erythema nodosum, an autoimmune response, in my case, to “excessive envenomation.”

One more story, and I’ll call it a night. I have to get back to the ol’ dissertation. There’s a lot of spiders around, including the pregnant camel spider I have pictured above (it’s actually a bit small for a camel spider), the bright green spiders that come out alongside your trench when it’s over 100F, and the baby tarantulas that are in tunnels they burrow in the ground and flop out wetly into your trench when you accidentally expose them. I was at another site in South Texas, lovely site, basically a riverbed with lovely cherty gravels and some questionable paleoindian artifacts mixed in. I’m afraid that my employer didn’t get their full day of work from me, as I spent at least a solid hour watching a tarantula fight a tarantula hawk. Tarantula hawks are large wasps that like to find tarantulas and paralyze them, drag them back into their nest, and lay their eggs in their still-living bodies. Pretty cool stuff.

This dance lasted a long time, the tarantula waving its front legs around, trying to run away, the gorgeous black and russet wasp diving in again and again. Finally, the wasp got behind it and I could see the tarantula twitching as it was stung with the long stinger. The wasp dragged the tarantula for what seemed like ages. I’d go and sort rocks and then come back and the thing was still dragging the big hairy spider around. Finally it disappeared somewhere, I’m assuming the burrow, and all was peaceful again.

A lot of people will kill bugs first thing when they see them, and I slap mosquitos and fire ants like anyone else. But checking out a preying mantis, or those ridiculous big black beetles as big as your thumb that would turn over on their backs and just helplessly twitch at Catalhoyuk, finding a ridiculous looking caterpillar, being tasted by butterflies…it’s just another reason I love archaeology. Bitey, evil bugs and all.

Diggin’ Deep at 100 Minories

As I mentioned in the last post, we are digging deep at 100 Minories. We finished up last week at a depth of around 7.5 meters beneath the ground surface. Working this deep is extremely dangerous and we are given a long brief about all the equipment required, called an induction.  We are in a testing phase, basically exploring the depth of the deposits while evaluating our needs for post-excavation specialists (pottery, animal bone, etc) so that L – P Archaeology knows how how much to charge for excavating the entire area. Evaluating trenches are used sparingly as they are understood to potentially interfere with the broader archaeological sequence. Preservation by record–fully excavating and recording all of the deposits impacted by the building–is standard operation in the City of London (different from just London London). London archaeologists consider these 2x2m test trenches as inferior for interpretation and while they are recorded meticulously, they are used to evaluate the presence or absence of cultural remains and are not used as a primary excavation technique as they are in the States. Basically, yes, there were Romans here, no we cannot characterize their lifeways from digging a phone booth through their deposits.

For example, there was some debate over whether to call this feature that Neralie is cleaning brick paving or a garden path:

While the pit is roughly 2x2m Neralie is standing in a 1x1m that was excavated in the corner to determine a further sequence–we were not allowed to remove architecture in this case as the site may not go to full excavation…in theory, at least. You’ll also notice that she has 2m of concrete above her, and no shoring, as the concrete was determined to be stable. She does have a superstructure over the pit to ensure that nobody falls in:

In the 1×1 she is down about 1.20m from the bottom of the concrete, at that point shoring was installed.

Checking out these test trenches was an interesting return to squares after digging in open plan for many seasons. We do not collect all of the finds, just a sample to characterize each context, again to determine which specialists we’ll need to look at the materials from the site. The top trench has reached what passes for “natural” here, river terraced gravels, but it can still contain “monkey rocks”–the rather unique term that London archaeologists use for mesolithic artifacts. Another term that I’ve only heard here is “plus.” I’ve drawn them plenty, the little plus-sign at the top of the Harris matrix that indicates surface, or no previous deposits. Here “plus” can be material remains–all of the modern intrusions that are not recorded in detail are called plus and are dug out before the matrix begins. Sorry, contemporary archaeologists! Though with 7m of strat to record, the “messed-about” nature of the surface deposits in a place that is as heavily occupied as London, and the time/money calculation always running in the project manager’s head, I can’t find much to criticize. Criticise. Whatever.

Lest you think we are entirely crassly indifferent to more modern garbage, these were saved from the fills associated with the construction of the brutalist concrete building at 100 Minories that will be destroyed before we continue work. It’s a Coke can that you have to open with one of the old can-openers and two tags that had “1961″ written on the back of them. They were near some rebar found in test pit #4, and probably were attached at some point.

The evaluation trenches are closed now–we’ll move off site today and I’ll be back in California in a little more than  week’s time. I’ve enjoyed my crash course in London archaeology, and hopefully I’ll be back for more in the Spring.

 

The Hunt for Al-Huwailah

The scene from last week really should have been filmed in grainy black and white–classic 1-2 head shot, reaction shot, static-strafed classical music in the background:

(Fade in – A tiny office, somewhere hot and dusty, the site director and the field archaeologist, talking over tea)

Site Director: “There’s an archaeological site that was excavated forty years ago, but has since been lost. We want you to find it.”

Field Archaeologist: (straightening her pith helmet) Absolutely, sir. I will find you your missing site.

(cut to the windiest, bleakest desert you’ve ever seen)

Though the desert part is accurate, the rest of the montage that follows is considerably less romantic. We found Beatrice de Cardi’s volume from her ten-week season in 1973, made a photocopy of the aerial photography of the site, Al-Huwailah, and noted the description of the location. (Marginalia – the report was actually written by Peter S. Garlake, who got fired by the Rhodesian government as the Inspector of Monuments–he wouldn’t deny the African origins of Great Zimbabwe to reaffirm crazy racist theories. I’m guessing that he hooked up with this project while hanging around UCL–anyone know for sure?) After making the photocopies and checking out possible locations for the site on Google Earth, we headed out. How hard could it be?

Several hours later, nauseous from driving fast over dunes and avoiding detention by the heavy security around a large oil refinery, we huddled together over a cracked and peeling tablecloth, sopping up steaming dal with fresh paratha. How could a site that’s 2km long with a big fort remain entirely undetectable? In previous years another team conducted a Google Earth/satellite image survey of Qatar, and placed the GPS point for Huwailah right in the middle of a trash-filled goat pen. Not so much.

This quest was becoming decidedly less romantic.

While the Google Earth map of the area showed development, I didn’t know the extent of it until I tried their “rewind” back to 2004. Mordor, aka the oil refinery that sits at the easternmost tip of this north-facing coast is visible from pretty much the entire country. The development that has been performed in conjunction with the refinery has completely altered the landscape in the area. Well, there’s that, and the giant earthen platforms that I thought were defensive emplacements, but then was told that they’re just viewing platforms for local racing.

We finished up for the day and returned to the dig compound, a bit dejected. Still, we kept at it, scouring satellite photos, playing with Google Earth, and looking up everything anyone has ever said about Huwailah. I found a reference that said that the fort was still standing to a height of 30′ in 1920. Between 1920 and 1973-1977  when it was investigated by English and French teams, it had lost 9 meters in height. Since then, it seems to have lost the rest.

It still seemed improbable that there weren’t any surface remains at all. Finally, we looked at the aerial photo taken by the French team–there was a little bit of ocean visible and a road that curved slightly to the northwest. In a modified digital extension of Prince’s principle, we overlaid the aerial photograph onto the Google Earth image…and we had a pretty good match. Sadly, I can’t show you the overlay that would disclose where we think the site is, but I will tell you…

…it’s directly in front of the food stand where we sat and argued over dal. Figures.

The site has been mostly destroyed by modern construction–indeed, the fort is undetectable and the city has been reduced to a surface scatter of pottery. Al- Huwailah, the most important pre-Zubarah and pre-Doha city in Qatar, is still by most standards, lost. Still, locating the site gives us an idea of the future of these coastal sites without protection and archaeological intervention.

Field Archaeologist: Boss, we found the lost city…but you aren’t gonna like it….

(originally written March 16th)

The Field – 2010

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A lot of the romance of archaeology is tied up in notions of going to “the field.” The field is where archaeologists are the most visible, slinging pickaxes and sieving dirt in our shabby army pants and t-shirts.  Some archaeologists resist this image, telling people that there is a lot of lab work and writing and library time involved and this is certainly true.  But I deeply relish going to the field and feel most myself when I have my hands in the dirt.  Well, and while I’m slinging back Lonestars with my friends at punk rock shows in Austin, but that’s another point entirely.

This year I’ll be headed to two projects, back to Dhiban in Jordan with the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project where I’ll be digging and putting on a photo show.  We’ll be blogging from the site, and I’ll probably update both this blog and the official blog.

I’ll also be heading to the Priniatikos Pyrgos Excavation Project in Crete with Barry Molloy’s team, but that is later on in the summer.

In the interim I’ll be in Syria and Jordan, doing an informal “survey” of sites for potential postdoc work and future projects.  Internet will certainly be limited at times, but I’ll try to do a better job keeping this blog updated than I have in previous years.  Regardless, I generally update my Flickr account when I can.

Until then, I’m horribly busy with people coming into town, preparations for going out of town, and trying to get other projects in shape before I head out.

To the field!