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How does an excavation work?
It’s a valuable question, and a difficult one to answer. Every excavation is bound to be different. Some of those differences are unavoidable- climate and sediment type, for instance, will radically change the circumstances of excavation. One needs no training to understand that excavation in solid dirt would be different from excavating in a swamp, or a sandy desert. The type of site also makes a difference, whether it is a town, a cemetery, a crossroads; whether it is Greek, Egyptian, American, British. Different civilizations left behind different remains, and it is important to use the appropriate technique for the type of archaeology. Other matters that impact excavation are simple differences in objective, or in the personality of the director of a site. The excavation of the lower town of Ancient Mycenae it not representative of every excavation everywhere, but it is a fairly good model.
The field where we have been working is cool in the morning, even chill at times. It hardly lasts, though, and soon enough the sun is poking up over the eastern hill. People who mere moments before were complaining of being cold will suddenly find themselves too hot without the grace of a comfortably warm period in between.
We arrive at 6 a.m., some people still yawning, but everyone ready for work. By the second week of excavation everyone knows their appointed roles for the morning. Some people grab tool boxes for their trench. Some get the stool for the trench master to sit on. Some start taking wheelbarrows over to their trench or down to “the sift,” which I shall explain in a moment. Some intrepid soul takes the site camera, with which the day begins.
There is a moderately precise order of operations in archaeology, the forms of which ought to be observed as nearly as possible for the simple reason of clarity of data. These operations are most immediately overseen by the trench masters, each of whom is responsible for overseeing one or two trenches.
The trenches are fairly easy to understand. Imagine taking a field and laying a grid of 5x5 meter squares out over it. Each 5x5m square is one grid square. It is over one or, occasionally, two of these squares that a trench master has power. Each grid square is further divided into 1x1 meter squares, which serve as general guidelines to aid in spatial understanding.
Each morning before excavation the trench must be photographed for reference. The trench is also photographed at various other triggers which may occur during the day, and is photographed again at the end of the day. Think of this like a kind of flip book. Photographing the important steps of excavation serves to record, in a kind of stop-motion manner, the “life” of the trench. When the trench master, or site director, or even some scholar 50 years from now, wants to see what happened in a particular trench, all they will need to do is find these files and they will have a comparatively good idea of how the excavation was conducted.
Once photographed, unless there is some other work to be done, excavation can begin. The dirt must be removed carefully but quickly, in precise layers. The earth is loosened and broken up with a pick and then shoveled into buckets. Any artifacts that turn up are saved and the buckets are sent down to “the sift.”
All of the dirt must be sifted. At one end of the site there is a rough kind of framework, covered in tarps for shade, from which six sieves hang, suspended by ropes. Each bucket is emptied into a seive which is then shaken, and the remains are pored through by students who pick out anything of interest- usually pottery, bone, shell, plaster, or stone tools, though occasionally bits of bronze or even a coin will make it down. The useless dirt and stone is caught in a wheelbarrow and dumped on the side of the site.
Most of the artifacts that we turn up are packed away into massive bags for cataloging. For instance, at the end of the day we may have accumulated more than 100 pounds of pottery fragments, most of which are entirely unremarkable. It is only the most interesting pottery or bone fragments, which are set aside for closer, immediate consideration. The rest are sent to the museum at the top of the hill for study at a later date.
All of the minutia of excavation I will spare you. Everything must be catalogued. Everything in the trench must not only be photographed but planned on a grid, by eye. The precise locations of artifacts and architecture must be triangulated and recorded. The trench master must be acutely aware of changes in soil color or texture and must note these down. Profile must be drawn of walls and of soil, to understand the relationship between two different layers of dirt. Important artifacts must be sketched and their attributes described. And this is all on a boring day.
Things become exponentially more difficult and exponentially greater care is taken if something truly spectacular is found. A whole pot is enough to get everyone running for a look. A grave is an all day endeavor, and must be dug with the most exquisite care. We haven’t found a grave at Myceane in the last two years, but the two years before that featured several, though they dated from another time.
Thoroughness is important. Precision guides the hand of the archaeologist. The sad fact of the matter is that, just as the archaeologists of the early 20th century were incompetent idiots from what we know now, we are incompetent idiots from the point of view of archaeologists 100 years from now. This is inevitable. The best that we can do is try to be the best of the idiots, and the only way to accomplish that is to be thorough and to be precise.
Francis Cressotti was born and raised in Cheshire. He attended Dickinson College, where he studied archaeology under Dr. Maggidis and graduated with a degree in that field in 2010. This is his third summer in Greece, where he can often be found climbing mountains. Join him next time for a rather more entertaining portrait of archaeology.