What is Field Archaeology?

Never having wielded a trowel, I somehow managed to sweet-talk my way onto the digs of not one, but two professors this summer.  I was warned by multiple professors that this was probably not a great idea (I should be working on my thesis and comps readings, as well as the fact that it’s a lot of weeks if one ends up hating the activity), but stubbornly I decided to go for it.  Why wouldn’t I want to spend a month in Cyprus and another in Romania?  Two different places, two different digs.  Having just completed the dig in Cyprus, I would I would like to take a moment to reflect on what I got myself into this summer.  What the hell am I doing in the dirt?  What is all this digging nonsense?  What is field archaeology?

IMG_4892I obviously cannot claim to answer the last question after one month as a beginner on a single project looking at Late Bronze Age Cyprus, but here are some of my initial thoughts on the subject.  Who knows what I’ll think after a month of staring at the remains of a Roman temple in Romania.

Anyway, perhaps it is easier first to say what archaeology is not.  First, any archaeologist will tell you that it’s nothing like Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Indiana Jones might have gotten them into the profession, but that’s about it.  So, here goes.

Archaeology is not…

…treasure-hunting.  See above paragraph. Archaeology may have started out like this (lots of problems with people taking shiny pretty stuff and colonialism and state-sponsored robbery — there’s a thesis topic in here somewhere, so stay tuned), but the discipline has come a long long long way in the last few centuries.  So as much as you want yank that sherd out of the ground to see how much pithos you’ve got, you need to slow down.

…pretty.  Or I should specify, archaeologists are not pretty while in the field.  You will be covered with sunscreen.  On top of this is a layer of dust.  Squeezing its way through both of these layers will be another of sweat.  Or many of sweat.  Just lots of layers of grime that don’t really come off until you exfoliate with sandpaper.   You will also be wearing clothes that (hopefully) you don’t care about destroying, because you will destroy them.  And if you choose inappropriate clothing, you might end up with awkward sunburns.  (Because a tramp stamp sunburn is always a good look…oops.)  You will probably be wearing a goofy hat because anything to keep the goddamn sunlight off your face will be welcome.  Because of the tools, your hands will blister, pop, and callous.  Even indoors you cannot escape the filth, because when you blow your nose, the tissue will be brown from dust.

On some level, though, the soil itself doesn’t feel dirty.  Stepping in dog shit feels dirty.  Walking barefoot in a public pool locker room feels dirty.  The dumpsters in the back alley feel dirty.  But on a dig, you’re covered with dust.  It’s just bits of earth that felt like coming along for the ride.  Now the sunscreen chemicals?  Those feel like dirt.

Since there is absolutely no way to keep clean, you learn to let go.  You stop worrying about how you look and start focusing on the work — or how to keep every last inch of your skin from burning.

…comfortable.  You will be working in direct sunlight in obscenely hot weather.  As in, 35+ Celsius.  On our dig, it got up to about 42.  There may or may not be a breeze, and there certainly won’t be at the bottom of the trench.  You’ll be squatting in the dirt for hours on end with someone sweeping dust in your face.  You’ll be dragging heavy buckets between trenches and dirt piles.  You’ll be swinging pick axes at rock-hard clay.   Remember the blisters?

But this is also something you get used to.  You gain muscle.  You learn how many liters of water you need to keep functioning (i.e. a lot).  Your dig managers bring you a second breakfast with delicious olive bread.  You whine and swap stories and sing with your trench-mates.  You make it though.

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…objective.  I thought archaeology was science.  And it is (see below), but there is no clear-cut path from the grass on top to the ruins underneath.  Archaeologists try as hard as they can to uncover history meticulously, accurately, but there are so many choices along the way that are just that — choices.  An archaeologist chooses where to dig, how much soil to take off, what determines a context, whether to save a fragment of pottery, and on and on and on.  Every time a decision is made, the site is shaped by the excavator.  The end product is a joint effort between the years of historical change to the landscape and the person or team uncovering that story.

Archaeology is…

…scientific.  I said archaeology was subjective, was an art.  And it is — but it is most definitely a science as well.  To counteract all of the decision-making and human error, every attempt is made to keep things scientific.  Everything is documented to the best of one’s ability.  Everything from context shapes to soil types to pottery styles is categorized and recorded.  Careful thought is given digging location and order.  The sides of the trenches are kept as straight as possible so the stratigraphy is obvious.  Everything is as scientific as possible.

…destructive.  There is no way around it.  Archaeology is destructive.  I thought uncovering ancient ruins would just involve brushing off a little useless dirt from around the edges.  Nope, no siree.

The moment you put the tip of your trowel in the soil, you begin the destruction.  Every choice, while leading to the acquisition of new knowledge, also destroys history.  For example, a decayed mudbrick wall needs to be removed to find the stone foundation of that same wall; but that layer of  collapse tells you what was on top of the rock.  Or a plaster road might have a section removed to view the drainage channel beneath.

Plus, for newbies especially, there’s a good chance you’ll accidentally scratch an artifact, pop a stone out of a wall, or chip a plaster floor.  Been there done that.  Sorry!

And all of this doesn’t even cover the habitat destruction.  Brace yourselves for hippie talk: I know they’re small, but ants and worms and snails all have lives too.  And frankly, it was really distressing to know that I was smashing both them and their homes to bits.

…digging.  Yeah, you probably guessed this one.  This takes up a good bit of time, after all the planning.  Hands in the dirt.  This is why you’re not pretty.

…post-processing.  But archaeology isn’t just about the digging.  It’s about doing things with what you find.  Understanding what you’re uncovering.  It’s washing pottery and floating soil samples and building 3D models.  What is the point of dusting off an old wall if you have no idea why it was there in the first place?

So, what is field archaeology?  Carefully getting your hands dirty and realizing that someone 3500 years ago made that jug you just pulled out of the ground.

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  1. Pingback: What is Field Archaeology? Part II: All of that Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff - From Stone to Screen

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