Cleaning Dirt Off of Dirt: When Archaeological Students Learn What Archaeology Actually Is

Our latest blog post was written by Kaitlyn Solberg, one of UBC’s Classical Archaeology MA students. Enjoy!


To the untrained eye, dirty stones scattered throughout a square-shaped pit can look no different from the stacks of stones nearby which just happen to run in an almost-straight line. As I was squinting at such a mess of tan-coloured stones in the distance, Professor David George of St. Anselm College was proudly gesturing at a stack less than a foot high hidden behind some olive trees. “If you look at this wall here, it’s a Roman retaining wall which they put in to keep all the water uphill. As you can tell, it is still working today.”

Thirty pairs of (untrained) eyes glanced at the trench he gestured at uphill and, sure enough, there is at least a foot of groundwater resting at the bottom of it. Some of the students look impressed, others bored, and some don’t quite seem to grasp the importance of this fact. At this Roman and Etruscan site about eight miles outside of Orvieto in central Italy, an ancient retaining wall is proof both of the amount of resources and engineering put into the series of buildings in front of us and the constant battle against the ground water that this wall would put us through. At that moment, though, the wall he was so proud of hardly looked that impressive.


© Daniel George

Water was the constant factor at this archaeological dig. Rising ground water had to be bailed out of the uphill trenches every morning and water was what all of the buildings were designed around. There are the remains of a Roman hypocaust system, terracotta and lead pipes, drainage channels and wells, to name a few. Professor George believes there was a fountain and maybe some sort of a bath complex, common elements of Roman architecture. What this site had been used for, though, was still not entirely clear.

Although the site has been excavated since 2006, this was my first year on the project. Actually, this was my first archaeological dig ever. Being one of three graduate students on the dig (the other two had both been on this dig before) I was determined to learn as much as I could about excavations in the short five weeks I was there. I was like a sponge soaking up everything Professor George said on his tour of the site on the first day but I still stared at the many piles of rocks and had a hard time determining if they were important or not. My one advantage over the thirty undergraduate volunteers standing next to me was that I had been studying Roman archaeology for the past four years, but I had no idea if I was going to enjoy the physical aspect of my intended career path.

The site is located on the crossroads of the Via Cassia and the Via Traiana Nova, a strategic location for trade in the region. The late Republican and early Imperial buildings we were uncovering were built parallel to, and with respect to, Etruscan foundations. Given the total destruction by the Romans of most Etruscan towns and sites in the region, the Roman respect for the Etruscan layout means that this location most likely held some sort of religious significance. This was all explained to us on the first day and it was easy to forget that they had determined this after eight seasons of digging. You could see the anticipation in the faces of those who had never dug before, looks of hope and determination that we would find all the answers this very season.


© Daniel George

What the veterans knew, and luckily I had an idea of from years of reading excavation reports, is that digging is slow. Not only slow, but what few finds there are create more questions than they answer. I had learned all about stratigraphic layers, digging in a methodical manner in order to avoid missing something important, sifting through the dirt to find small important pieces and various other methods in classes over the years. Beyond this, I had drilled my classmates who had dug before about what I needed to know. I was warned about things like always wearing a hat, how sore your thighs and knees get from squatting for days on end, the boredom and the gallons of water you drink. Despite all of this information, though, I was shocked by both how much more boring it was and yet at the same time how much more interesting.

It became clear within a week or two who was actually enjoying the process. I discovered that I hated shoveling and using the pickaxe (although this wasn’t too surprising to anyone who knows me) but would articulate rocks, walls and roof tiles until the end of time if I could. To me, the pain in my knees and isolation in one corner of the trench for extended periods of time was worth being able to perfectly uncover a single cover tile. For everyone else in my trench, thirty minutes of articulating was more than enough. It worked for me, though, and I spent almost the entire time on my own slowly but surely scraping dirt off of dirt.

The three trenches almost took on personalities and became competitive with each other, each having its own strength and importance but denying the need for the other two. My own trench rarely turned up an artifact which could be deemed as cool, to our chagrin, but the architectural components of the buildings we were working on meant that we were discovering the most information for the overall picture of the site. We also broke more than our share of pickaxes and weren’t allowed to have nice ones any more. We would just laugh this off, though, and take the nice ones anyway. The competitiveness was almost forgotten whenever we all had free time and my classmates’ claim that the friends you make on digs were ones you’d have for life was quickly proven to be true.


© Daniel George

Needless to say, we didn’t discover the secrets behind what the site was and why it was there. If anything, we created more questions and disproved past theories. Some students ended the dig completely frustrated with the lack of concrete answers and decided they needed to choose a different area of study. Others fell in love with the ancient world and transferred programs when they returned home. As for me, I came back with at least a dozen blisters, even more callouses, a sprained toe, multiple bruises, incredibly bizarre and stark tan lines, a dirty trowel, five more pounds of muscle and an immense sense of pride.

A professor once told me that there are two kinds of archaeologists; those who work in the field and those who read about it. I was immensely pleased to discover that I love the field and can endure the physical labour aspect of it given that I was as giddy uncovering my two hundredth roof tile as I was my first. I had developed a pretty killer ‘trowel hand’ with a massive callous in the middle of my right palm, disgusting to look at but something that I still show everyone with pride.   I learned that pieces of an amphora are useless if they’re not dateable, and that roof tiles can’t be kept because despite their overwhelming numbers, they can’t give any more information than the size of the roof. I learned how little pieces can change the look of the big picture and that to a Classical archaeologist anything that is Medieval is new.


Most of all, though, I learned that I love the challenge of understanding how even the smallest artifact can help determine anything from the use of a room to what a site was. The proof of this being that I spent 8 hours in one day digging out a well and was still grinning like a fool at the end of it from my excitement. What can I say? It ends up that I love what I do.


© Daniel George

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.


  1. We should all be as lucky to find a profession that we love and be able to do it. Good luck and I hope the next time you go for a dig, you find something extraordinary.

  2. Dust is the new tan line. Wear it with pride.

  3. Rather you than me in regard to the hard work, but I do value knowing about the good side of empires such as Rome. Have you noticed that the said good side involves those citizens who create life-related technology, and the bad side is the gangsters calling themselves aristocrats who deal out enslavement, torture, and death?

  4. Reblogged this on liemrivano and commented:

  5. Its about time we focus on things important.

  6. It’s a magical thing to dig under the ground and find what was there before, perhaps thousands of years ago. I lived in an old house as a child and we were always digging up interesting things in the garden – bones, old bottles, children’s toys. I wondered if one day someone would dig up the things we dropped, and wonder about who we were. It’s a beautiful cycle.

  7. Great post! I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology, but it’s often easy to forget what a process extracting new information from the ground can be. Kudos!

  8. Perceptive comments, and they apply to other fields, too!

  9. Interesting that there was a carefully engineered retainer wall to control ground water…and it still works. I noticed in my travels around the world that those ancient societies that could control water were often very powerful or prosperous…for example, the ancient ruins of Yemen’s Marib Dam or the underground irrigation tunnels in Afghanistan that watered the wheat fields Alexander the Great coveted. Have fun on your future digs, and I wish you a great career visiting interesting places.

  10. Your blog is great! I was hoping you could visit my blog and have a read of my latest post as I’m new to blogging?

  11. I love that you love what you do too! Great post!

  12. Great post, I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the life of archaeology. It has always fascinated me 🙂

  13. Your passion is amazing. Very well written, and I look forward to reading more on this blog. Archaeology is an amazing field 🙂

  14. Pingback: 50 Shades of Brown – Phase 2 of Learning what Archaeology Really Is | From Stone to Screen

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

  16. Pingback: When Three Halves Make a Whole - 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.