Tag Archives: excavation

A Very Neolithic Halloween

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Mornings at the Çatalhöyük dig house were a chaos of tools and tea cups. Too many archaeologists were crammed into a small outpost in the middle of the dusty Anatolian plain and civility came later in the day, after breakfast. It is a very particular way of living that not everyone can cope with; in print I’ve compared it to Goffman’s Total Institution:

“a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life”

The specialists would retreat to their respective labs–paleobot, osteo, zooarch, lithics, pottery, finds–but the excavators would climb up the tell to escape, pushing squeaky wheelbarrows full of tools. The real prize was to be the first to get away, as you got the best tools and a wide open vista of blue sky and long, golden-brown grass. For a moment you could imagine that you were alone on that big hill, fat with archaeology and promise. And quiet. A little wind flapping the tent, but otherwise, gorgeous, gorgeous quiet.

Of course the chaos of the dig house would eventually clamor up the hill after you, and the day would roll on, but you’d hardly notice by then as you were stuck in, troweling, drawing, taking photos, bagging samples and artifacts. We were digging in Building 49, a smallish mudbrick building that fit onto a sheet of permatrace–so under 5m square, almost bijoux, but full of paintings and people buried underneath the floor.

All archaeologists are atheists, but we are all atheists with ghost stories. Actually, that is not even remotely true, I’ve met my share of witches and christians in the trench, and we are a profession ripe with superstition. I take it as part of my professional ethics not to believe in ghosts or anything remotely supernatural but if you study humans, then you must acknowledge a sort of placebo-effect of religiosity–if you believe it is true, then it is true for you. This is a convoluted way of saying that if you deal with the remains of people for long enough, you will eventually come across things that creep you the fuck out. Sometimes it’s not even in the ground.

So on that sunny, slightly misty morning in July, I pushed my rusty wheelbarrow up to the side of the trench. There was a fine layer of dew covering the archaeology, plaster floors, low, muddy walls, and pits where we’d dug several of the eventual 15 bodies to come out from beneath the floors of the house. I was preoccupied with a series of scrappy paintings layered on top of each other, black lines, then squiggles, then hands, then red.

That morning, there in the dew, a line of footprints snaked across the floors and platforms that we’d carefully uncovered the day before.  I was digging with two other archaeologists that year and we all stood at the edge of the trench, staring down at the footprints. The feet that had made the prints were bare, medium sized, and it was obvious where they’d came out of the trench and left the tent. What wasn’t obvious is where they’d entered the trench.

You see, nobody was allowed on the tell outside of working hours. I’d worked on projects before where people had illicitly come in the night and messed around in the archaeology to hunt for whatever treasure they thought we were after. In this instance, nothing was out of place. Someone probably just had a sunrise amble across the tell. Barefoot. Yeah.

So after a little while we just got on with it, took out our tools and went to work. But we never figured out who took a stroll through the Neolithic that night and I remember wondering if we should have recorded the prints before I used a small brush to gently whisk them into oblivion.

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Happy Halloween!

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?