What is Field Archaeology? Part II: All of that Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff

This post is the second from Shoshana Hereld, a Masters student at UBC, whose first post can be found here.

img_5473If you perused my first post on field archaeology, you might remember that I spilled a lot of words describing what archaeology is not and from there attempted to figure out what exactly I was doing in the dirt for four weeks.  At that point, I had scraped lots of dust off a Late Bronze Age site in Cyprus.  Through a process of elimination, I eventually deduced that archaeology is “carefully getting your hands dirty and realizing that someone 3500 years ago made that jug you just pulled out of the ground.”  After another four weeks in the dirt, in Alba Iulia, Romania, I am ready to revisit and revise my initial definition.

Actually, pretty much all of that definition is true.  Everything except that in Romania, the earliest stuff we found was only from two millennia ago, not three.  Only two.  All of that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff feels surreal when you can casual talk about holding tens of hundreds of years in your hand.  Sometimes, you feel like you’re better friends with an anonymous medieval cow skeleton named “Sprinkles” than your neighbors next door.  Or, you have conversations like the following: “Oops, I scratched that with my trowel.”  “No big — that bit is totally useless because it’s a body sherd the size of your pinky nail.”  “But it’s Roman!/Late Bronze Age!/really f*cking old!”  “Just calm down and put it in the spoil heap.”  After enough of these conversations and enough bits of broken pottery, you just kind of stop caring.  It’s sad to lose that magic though.

img_5091-1Anyway, the principles of archaeology more or less carry through between digs.  The scientific and destructive natures of the discipline, the type of labor and post-processing techniques, the sweat dripping down your forehead and pooling in your sunglasses.  But some things do change: your colleagues determine the work atmosphere, the climate determines soil types and preservation, the culture surrounding the dig site determines how the dig is run and how you interact with the people around you.

img_5467In Romania, I was still hot.  I was still covered in dirt.  But there was no more powdered dust blowing in my nose.  The dirt felt alive – everything was dark and moist and alive.  I found roots and grubs and lizard eggs as I dug.  Rain would pour intermittently and cover our work with mud, so we would need to clean more thoroughly than just scratching off a little dust from the day before.  Because of the history of the region, we dug through layers of several distinct time periods before hitting the Roman layer, rather than only needing to remove top soil to uncover the Late Bronze Age material in Cyprus.  And when we locked the gate behind us at the end of the day, we emerged onto a Romanian city street, not a sleepy Cypriot town lane.

I feel very fortunate to have participated in two digs.  Had I only gone to Cyprus, I would have only one view of what a dig could be, and the experience definitely changes from place to place.    But does the archaeology itself change?  Not much.  For me, field archaeology is still spending incredibly intense weeks carefully getting your hands dirty and getting to be the first one to methodically uncover the secrets left by people before us.


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