50 Shades of Brown – Phase 2 of Learning what Archaeology Really Is



On a Monday morning, at the ungodly hour of 7:45 am (ok so not so early compared to other archaeological digs but I really hate mornings), I looked out over the enormity that is trench C at Coriglia and muttered under my breath “everything the light touches is your kingdom.”  I glance over to my right where the new extension is still shaded by the surrounding olive trees and smile to myself.  ‘Except for that shadow right there – you must never go there.’

It was the start of my first full week as an assistant supervisor at Coriglia (or vice as the Italians call it) and I had no idea what to expect.  I had worked in a different trench the previous season (you can read about my adjustments to the world of archaeology here) and was a little daunted by the task of not only learning an entirely new trench which had been dug for almost two decades, but also being one of the people in charge of it.  The size of C cannot be overstated – it is enormous.  It’s large enough that it could be its own site, never mind a trench.  It has entire rooms, floors, drains, terrace walls, interior walls, brick, tufa, water features, dolia… anything and everything the Romans could conceive, there is an example of it in C.  And I was in charge… well, of half of it at least.  Our site director had decided to split the trench in half between myself and Pearl, who was also supervising for the first time.  While at first I was a little confused as to why we were sharing the role, I was relieved within the first few days when I realized just how much paperwork is involved in archaeology (Hours – the answer is hours).

© Laura Lansing

Trying to differentiate between two shades of brown © Laura Lansing

If last year was a lesson in how meticulous archaeology could be (it really is sweeping dirt off of dirt) this year was a lesson in how to write it up so that decades from now, someone could read my reports and figure out exactly what I was looking at even though we had torn out that section.  Colour, context, composition, every detail from who was digging it to their mood to the heat and everything in between.  At least, this is the theory behind what the paperwork is supposed to say.  My director joked with me that it would soon become apparent whether or not I could tell between different shades of brown.

There was more than one day when I would be staring down at the ground and thinking ‘different shades of brown, you have got to be kidding me.’  Sandy brown? Tan brown? Brown with red hints?  Sure that all sounds… somewhat accurate.  Then there was the awful realization that although you can see colour variations when the ground is freshly dug, as soon as the sun dries and hardens it (which in summer can be pretty instantaneous) it all becomes the same shade of brown.  Within the first week I had added the Munsell soil chart to my growing mental list of things to invest in for next season (also included was spray sunscreen so I’d stop burning my back, tougher work pants, a ruler, pencil crayons and a clipboard to store my maps in).

11012803_918248608232721_8939181410588368606_nWhile I was still desperately trying to come up with more than 5 shades of brown (black-brown, gray-brown, tawny-brown), I was also starting to see the bigger picture of what each individual day adds up to.  I began to see the process of where each task came from.  If we dig here, we may see this which will mean that this wall was built before/after this one.  I felt the frustration when in reality digging there showed nothing and we were no closer to understanding the phasing of the area, shrugged it off when we got to move on to the next project and then felt the frustration once more when I had to fill out the form explaining what we found there (umm, clay?  Hard clay? Red clay? Evil clay?) and what it meant in context to the site (they built a wall… for… protection?).

Taking photos for a 3D model

Taking photos for a 3D model © Laura Lansing

Becca and I working on a model before dinner

Becca and I working on a model before dinner

I was delighted when I was catching up with one of the returners, Becca Napolitano, who was in the same trench as me last year when I discovered she was into digital modelling.  Not of artifacts, though, but of a room or an entire trench!  After the work that I had done with From Stone to Screen learning about 3D modelling and the course that I had taken with Dr. Kevin Fisher analyzing the use of space in antiquity and digital ways of representing it, I was fascinated with the work she had been doing.  We realized we had a common interest and she quickly let me jump on her project during the dig and we worked to start photographing and creating 3D models of the more intact portions of the site.  In total we photographed 4 different areas with my camera, learning the different angles and time of day that worked best to create no shadows.  She rendered them on her computer and they turned out beautifully.

This season, my love of teaching was also reaffirmed.  Being vice allowed me the chance to work with those who were on a dig for the first time and I found myself explaining anything to them that I myself had been shown and then everything that I wish I had been taught but had had to figure out myself.  I’m sure sometimes the volunteers were rolling their eyes at my enthusiasm and passion for the tiniest things, but I know that it was infectious and that I was able to turn the season around for at least one of them and have them be excited for each new day.  If that’s the only accomplishment I had this season, I would say the whole trip was worth it.


Studying the southern extension to determine the next step

The division in the trench was difficult to bear, some days, especially when the South continued to find extremely amazing and, there’s no denying, sexier structures than we were in the North.  This is the nature of archaeology, though.  It’s really luck of the draw.  You can be so entirely certain that there is a continuation of a wall and dig and instead find niente, or even worse, evidence that the wall had been there once but a plow has, in the last two hundred years, somehow managed to rip it up and distribute it downhill.  The frustration, the grief, makes you grit your teeth, standing at the edge of the trench glaring at the offending locus.  Just when you’re ready to take a pickaxe to everything in anger you hear a shout of triumph from another part of the site and remember that we can still find the most amazing things.

For me, I get especially distracted when we find a personal object, something that would have belonged to an individual and had been carried around with them for years.  An earring, a ring, a hair pin, a fibula – when I hold any of these in my palm I always wonder who owned them, what were they doing here?  Did they live here or were they just visiting?  How long did they search for it before they deemed it lost and moved on with their lives?  This is my favourite part of archaeology and the reason I keep coming back – the hope that when we find out enough information we can piece together the people who used or lived at this site.  It’s easy enough for me to pull up the walls in my mind, add a roof, bring the road down the hill and stare out over the valley which probably hasn’t changed at all in 2,000 years and understand exactly why the Romans built here.


The view north over the valley early one morning… yeah, that’s why they built here.

And if you read last year’s post, no we still don’t know what the site is.  Guess I’ll just have to go back next year and find out.

Stay tuned for a post about Becca Napolitano and her 3D work that she will be continuing at Princeton this fall.


About Kat Solberg

Kat has her MA in Classical Archaeology from UBC, where she first became involved with the project. Its Media and Communications director, she is the voice of the project and all of its public dealings. When she's not glued to her computer, she can be found digging things up and obsessing over the Romans.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Using Plato for Quantum Mechanics – Becca Napolitano | From Stone to Screen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.