Monthly Archives: August 2010

Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field

Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than this relatively straight-forward flow chart would make it out to be. A more accurate representation would include items such as decision-making power, respect for your labor, if the archaeology is nice, and if it greatly benefits your CV. One factor that I was relatively surprised to discover was the absolute necessity for collective down time.  There needs to be a point in the day when everyone quits working, sits down, and relaxes.  It is also vital that this relaxation be respected, that what you do during this time is nobody else’s business, unless, of course, it seriously jeopardizes the project.

There is no privacy on excavations and very often people can be out of their element. It’s important that they have a place away from the stresses and the judgement of locals and dig directors (unless the director is good enough to cast aside the day and have a drink) where they can chat. Small things like a cup of coffee or a game of backgammon can become disproportionately important.

Archaeologists are also naturally curious, and they generally like to do things with their hands–it kinda comes with the territory.  Better yet if there is an outlet for that.  The excavation team at Çatalhöyük comes together each week to build a bonfire, but they also have built a bar (to better keep the noise away from sleeping members of the team), a garden during one of the long seasons, and have experimented with making Neolithic ovens work, among many other things. Having a constructive outlet redirects energy from the griping that inevitably occurs on site.

Of all of the things that recommend one to an excavation, hearing that the excavation director “takes care of their people” is, to me, the highest.

Archaeological Field Schools and Management Styles

One of the things that you don’t really learn much about in graduate school is how to manage the nuts and bolts of an excavation.  We pick a lot up from experiences at different sites, but there is little explicit direction regarding managing teams of specialists, students and workmen.  The structure of the site hierarchy is something that is partially extemporaneous or assumed as part of a legacy from previous excavations, much like excavation style.  While this sort of trade knowledge can be good, it also results in the perpetuation of archaic recording systems and strange on-site bureaucracies that quickly grow unmanageable and static, unable to change long after they have become obsolete or shown to be actively destructive to the archaeological process.

This lack of explicit direction is probably a result of an increased emphasis on the cultivation specialisms in graduate school, versus an excavation director-style generalist. Also, most sites that are excavated in the United States simply do not require the large scale planning and human resources that tell sites in the Middle East need for proper excavation and study. I’m not even sure that other graduate students would take a class in site management and personnel issues–Berkeley is considered fairly radical just to have a pedagogy class where we learn how to, y’know, teach!

The progress of excavation and happiness, education, and involvement of the participants of the excavation is an interesting problem in itself, and I have seen the results of this equation play out in many different scenarios.  For reasons laid out fairly ably in Berggren and Hodder’s Social Practice, Method, and Some Problems of Field Archaeology, having paid, professional excavators on sites (especially those that feature complex stratigraphy) enables the removal of many layers of bureaucracy wherein inexperienced graduate students who are training unexperienced undergraduates have to be watched by marginally more experienced field directors. This is often the justification for digging with baulks, that even if these inexperienced excavators destroy the archaeology, it can be reinterpreted by the excavation director at a later date.  This is wholly irresponsible, but can only really be alleviated by the very thing we do not have in archaeology–more money.  One could argue that these sites should not be excavated at all if there is not enough money to produce quality data, but the willingness to capture secure data for all the specialist information that we can therefore produce seems to be marginalized or misunderstood by many projects.  The craft of archaeology suffers through the deemphasizing of excavation methodology and our data suffers as well.  I cannot count how many times I’ve seen really interesting hypotheses presented in talks that were subsequently shattered when the details of their data collection were revealed, usually unwittingly by the presenter.

How does one balance correct excavation techniques, the education of undergraduates, and the demands of interested parties who are funding the project?  It’s a question that I’ve been asking for a while now, and that I will probably continue to ask throughout my career as an archaeologist.

I’ll probably attempt to pull these posts together into something a bit formalized later, but I’m happy having it in blog form at the moment. Any comments or suggestions would be welcome!

Next up: Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field



Trench II at Priniatikos Pyrgos is near the apex of a promontory that juts out into the Aegean, much higher in ancient times, but still visible from the local beaches that surround the site.  At the northern tip of the small peninsula is a ragged edge of gray bedrock, haloed by ocean spray on windy days.  It’s good to look out there while digging, sometimes to relieve the tedium of removing more layers of 10YR 5/4 yellowish brown sandy silt with sub-angular cobbles, but also to remember what lies directly below the earth, erupting out of the surrounding matrix to provide a hard chronological edge.

It’s bedrock. You are finished here.

I’ve never dug a site down to bedrock before, and there’s something about the finality of it that is both confusing and satisfying.  One of the areas I was working on was interpreted as exterior to all visible architecture and I removed dirt from the area until it was about 60% bedrock, then that part of the trench was shut down.  Another part of the trench just to my west was riddled with finds, all tucked into pockets in the bedrock, mortars and pots, sitting in a dark reddish dirt that I previously thought was decaying limestone, fallow and unoccupied. Now I know that it’s probably just iron-rich deposits accumulating just above the hard edge of bedrock.

So the early Minoans were living in and around these bedrock spurs, using them to support walls, smoothing out the surface for floors, stashing away household items in convenient pockets that have since filled with dirt.  It makes the stratigraphy difficult to interpret at times, as you end up with lots of these little pockets that are islands in the Harris matrix, disconnected from each other by unyielding physical fact: bedrock.

It was satisfying to see it emerge from beneath the pickaxe and the way that the dirt would come off of it was dissimilar enough to other stones that by the end of the excavation it was so immediately apparent that it hardly merited discussion.

I wasn’t able to bottom out my trench for various reasons–it was a large space and had two rooms that had to be dealt with in a sensible, strategraphic fashion and the rep was particularly sensitive to the use of pickaxes, even to rubble-filled topsoil. Still, it was interesting to see the use of bedrock as cornerstones, as containers, as the raw materials that people were modifying over the ages to incorporate into their daily lives.

During the last day on site I sat doing some paperwork on a particularly comfortable outcropping just outside what I thought was the front door in the north room. It was pretty much at the level the surfaces were at when the building was constructed and I wondered how many other folks sat on the stone over these thousands of years.

At the Souvlaki Stand


Three old Greek ladies with gold cross necklaces, swimming and smoking, smoking and swimming. They wash their feet off in the little beach shower and join their friends at a larger table.

It’s windy and the shirtless boy that serves the dakos and souvlaki and raki puts the napkins under the bread baskets, a bracelet guarding against the evil eye sliding down his wrist.

On the west side the stand is bordered by a buttressed Ottoman building that everyone pees inside of.  East is the beach, a small shower head mounted in concrete by the shore, a Byzantine wall eroding out of the sand, more beach, then the site at the far end.  I could probably see people working there from the stand, but I’m always the one working, and I wonder if they watch us hopping on walls and scratching the dirt during the day.  Mountains rise above the shore, craggy and cloudy in a very Greek there-could-be-gods-here sort of way.

The sunsets are always lovely, but not spectacular with gaudy colors. I’m watching another one, alone, drinking my second big Mythos out of a small cup and eating some salty peanuts. I hunt through the shredded pile of skins, find another one, and pop it into my mouth.

There are grape vines everywhere, and trees shade the diners. Two old men shout across my table at each other, discussing their day or the weather or I don’t know.  An ice cream cooler is next to the beer cooler, so it’s a popular spot for the archaeologists after we finish our day. The plunge into the ocean after a brutally hot day on site is too sweet for words.  So we come by and swim, and chat about our day, dripping salty water into the dust under the trees at the souvlaki stand.

The souvlaki stand has a puppy out back, and just yesterday I noticed that there is a low wall behind him that is built into the bedrock that eats through the shore.  The bedrock has been rounded off on top, and a few flower pots are placed in the crevices.  We have been uncovering rocks just like it on site, with obsidian blades tucked in between them, the neolithic less than a meter underneath the Byzantine.

I’ve finished my beer and my peanuts, the sun has gone down and the tables full of greek families are emptying, one by one, to go eat dinner and tend to the large olive groves that line every road. We are lucky, archaeologists, for being able to stay in one place for this long, and we tend to find things like the souvlaki stand to make us comfortable, so far from home.