Monthly Archives: February 2013

TAG Chicago: Simulacra and Cultural Heritage in Qatar

I just submitted an abstract for Catriona Cooper and Sara Perry’s Seeing, Thinking, Doing: Visualisation as Archaeological Research session at the Chicago Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting, 9-11 May. They haven’t accepted it yet, cross your fingers for me!

Simulacra and Cultural Heritage in Qatar
Colleen Morgan and Daniel Eddisford

“Old” is a new topic in cultural heritage and preservation in Qatar. In the past four years we have worked on projects that have investigated archaeological remains from a variety of sites in the region, and virtually reconstructed these remains, drawing on the archaeological record and standing buildings in the region. Other reconstructions in the region include a town that was reconstructed for a movie and the heart of Doha, Souq Waqif. These reconstructions did not adhere to the “truth” of the archaeological record, but elaborated on aesthetic aspects that were important markers of cultural identity. In 2012-2013, we excavated within a “heritage house”, a reconstruction performed in 2006, and documented the differences between an archaeological past and an aestheticized past. Our paper queries ideas about “truth” in archaeological reconstructions, both virtual and actual, and the conclusions we can draw from these truths.

Re-thinking “Construction” and Phasing at the Ridwani House

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During the midday lunch break, the Ridwani House becomes a gathering place, a place to eat, chat, rest and pray away from the dust and machines that completely surround it. Dan, Katie, Kirk and I usually head out to a local Indian restaurant for an absurdly inexpensive Thali for lunch. When we come back, full bellies making us slow and somnambulant, we sit in the shade of the porch, careful not to disturb the sleeping construction workers.

The Ridwani House was fully reconstructed in 2006, not even a decade ago, and it is set to be reconstructed yet again. The archaeology that we are excavating underneath the Ridwani House reveals that the singular house was probably once two houses, joined in the 1940s, and then fully made-over in 2006. It is set to become a museum with a feeling of “Old Doha” in the middle of a concrete and glass wonderland. Though it lacks furniture beyond a few woven mats, construction workers who are building the surrounding skyscrapers use the Ridwani House as a source of comfort.

A construction horizon in archaeological recording is not unique. Buildings are built, remodeled, leveled, reconstructed, and generally messed around with for all of their “lives.” A construction phase shows the general level of activity with the accompanying change and untidiness until the construction is deemed finished and life starts again. This period of disruptive flux marks the end of one phase of the building and the beginning of a new phase. But who are these mid-phase travelers, construction workers occupying the house, living there in their own way? All of their activity is reduced to a dotted line on a matrix.

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Anyone who has done any kind of construction on a house knows that the workers leave their own traces between walls, whether these are particular craftsman-like touches or graffiti (see http://www.constructiongraffiti.com/ and some particularly interesting examples inside the WTC memorial: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/racist-sexist-slur-filled-graffiti-covers-new-wtc-article-1.1249195). The historical archaeology that we are doing is so recent that it bleeds into contemporary archaeology–rooms that we have excavated are now filled with concrete and are used as mosques and lunchrooms.

The Ridwani House will be reborn in a few years as a museum, technically in its fourth phase, depending on how you like to lump or split your archaeology. The construction horizon will be finished, and the building will enter another phase of uselife. I suppose it wouldn’t bother me as much if I didn’t know how invisible construction workers are in this whole process. Doubt me? Put on a high-viz, hardhat and a pair of boots and fade away.

Archaeological Kit – a few of my favorite things

IMG_4180A post-Valentine’s day homage to a few of the tools of the trade.

* I love the old-school wooden folding ruler that I keep in my kit. There is a satisfying stiffness to it, a reliability, as I creak those old joints open to draw a fire pit or a wall. I draw alone most of the time instead of having someone call out the measurements for me, and having a wooden ruler that stays in place helps speed the process along. It’s also handy if you are working in a gale–I had two lines break on me last year, one had the temerity to also pull out the site datum it was attached to as well. My hand tapes die fairly regularly as well, and my latest one is already slow to retract, grinding unevenly through grit.

* Blank tyvek labels with reinforced holes. Invariably dig directors and finds managers make finds tags with set spaces for finds, bemoaning the forgetfulness of diggers in labeling up. These tags get more and more elaborate, until they’re huge quarter-sheets of paper, two-sided and you spend all day replicating your context sheet on the stupid tag. It’s a poor finds system that needs much more than a site code, context number, date, and initials of the digger on the tag. And artifact tags that aren’t tyvek? Are you kidding? Ridiculous.

* Properly sized nails are always in short supply. I get hollered at every time I steal them out of Dan’s kit bag.

* 6H pencils–I have tried the mechanical pencils with 6H lead, but it seems too soft and smudgy to be 6H. For the uninitiated, they’re for writing on permatrace, another of my favorite things. Speaking of stealing, I love stealing stationery the most, especially if it has another archaeologist’s name written on it. It’s a momento. It’s a bad habit and people get really angry, but I’ll only steal your stationery if I like you.

* Small, well-wrapped bits of string. There’s an almost unholy reverence for string among archaeologists–good, non-elastic, sturdy string is difficult to find and usually runs out or gets forgotten. Good string is carefully tended, never cut unless it’s absolutely necessary, and glorious when you realize that you have the perfect length. Yes, string.

…and then there are the days that you spend with your head down a toilet.

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Digging in the center of a “Heritage House” in Doha.

We got the call and three days later, we were on a plane back to Doha. So we’re back digging in Old Doha, finding remains of an older house beneath a “Heritage House” that has been preserved in the middle of an enormous construction site.

Every trench that we’ve opened has revealed either architecture or evidence of occupation, so we have a lot to work on in the next couple of weeks. There’s been a lot of “beasting”–moving lots of dirt in a rapid fashion. As most of it was construction infill, there weren’t a lot of photos or levels taken, just a lot of pick-axe and shovel handling. Exactly what I needed after being so well fed in England!

Yesterday I beasted out the rest of the construction fill from a small 4m x 3m room and so today I was rewarded with digging some archaeology, which meant a massive slow-down in pace and a lot of paperwork. I have to climb a ladder to get in and out of the trench, as the room I am digging in is about 2m below the threshold now. The whole room has been heavily invaded by the later structure and there is huge concrete, stone, and industrial epoxy mess on the east side of the trench that I try not to look at too often. It’s horrible and I don’t plan on chunking it out as it underpins the building. ugh.

Sorry about the terrible photo--I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

Sorry about the terrible photo–I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

But I have a couple of walls surviving and there was cut in the western bit of the room to poke at as well. It was sealed off with concrete, so I hacked away at it and found that it was filled with rocks. Lovely. About 30 cm down (.30m for nerds) there was a layer of concrete that had been smeared on to some other rocks–you could still see the finger impressions. There was a hole in the middle and that is when I realized that yes, I was digging out a toilet.

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The first 20 cm of the fill had a bunch of broken tile, probably the remains of the fitting out of the bathroom. Then…yep. Yellowish-brown silty stuff. Happily I was wearing gloves.

I got about a meter into the fill then stopped, as it was too deep to dig safely. As it was, I was balancing myself on my hands awkwardly in a small rectangular cut–good thing I’ve been practicing my handstands. I finished digging the toilet (hamam) and saved all the fill for our lovely paleobotanist, Mary Anne Murray.

So now I have to finish that pesky application to the R1 University. Happy digging, y’all!

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.