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The Big Dig: What Do Archeologists Find? Treasure? Glory? How About Walls

August 8, 2011 by Special To The ...

The Big Dig: What Do Archeologists Find? Treasure? Glory? How About Walls

What do you find in archaeology?
This is the most interesting and, in a sense, the most important question of all. It is what people always ask when you tell them that you are an archaeologist. “What did you find?” can be the most Romantic question of all. Gold? Bodies? Tombs? Fabulous caches of beautiful vases or jewels? Everyone, from the interested bystander to the seasoned archaeologist cannot quite contain that quickening of the pulse, that deep desire to find buried treasure.
The archaeologists of the past- say, the late 19th and early 20th centuries- were, more often than not, equal parts antiquarians and treasure hunters. Heinrich Schliemann, entrepreneur and archaeological enthusiast whom I have mentioned, was not purely driven by love of the past and scholarly devotion. No, he also felt that certain lust for, as Indian Jones puts it, “fortune and glory.” After he found the legendary city of Troy, one of the most famous pictures which was published across the world is of his wife, Sofia, wearing several pieces of gold jewelry found on excavation. Good archaeology? No. Fortune and glory? Absolutely. Such glories have colored the popular perception of archaeology ever since.
The truth is slightly less glamorous. It is no longer acceptable to hunt for treasure at the expense of good archaeology. The modern era has helped to clarify and codify appropriate archaeological methods. Great care is taken in excavation to be slow and careful, and to record everything. Everything must be recorded. All finds must have their positions triangulated; they must be photographed; they must be sketched. Then, and only then, may they be removed from their position and sent to a museum for cleaning and processing.
Ah, but the question remains, what do you find?
That depends upon the site. At Mycenae, we find literally tons of fragments of pottery, great quantities of broken bones, a few stone tools, and many, many walls. Most of the pottery is unremarkable, but occasionally we find painted fragments that show small parts of beautiful patterns. Some of those patterns are simple, merely lines either parallel or in basic geometric patterns. Some show small, schematic paintings of people or animals. Others show abstract designs, inspired by sea life or plants.
Every once in a great while we will find large fragments. This year we found, in several pieces, nearly a third of a broad mouthed, thin lipped bowl. In past years we have found a few entire pots, some as small as the palm of your hand, others as large as a pineapple. These have been exquisitely decorated, either with paint or with incisions into the clay itself.
As for bones, most of the bones we find are animal bones, usually from small animals. These have comparatively little meaning, they are so common and show up everywhere. Simply by walking around the landscape for a day you are likely to see the skeletal remains of sheep or foxes. Of rather greater significance, several years ago we found a few burials, which brought parts of excavation to a standstill for a few days.
There are a few other things that turn up from time to time. Ivory will bring gawkers from the students in the next trench over. Fragments of bronze turn up and earn an appreciative “ooh, ahh!” from those who see them. The Mycenaeans are known for their doll-sized figurines, which take the form of people or animals, some of which turn up in the trench or in the sift. Some small, beautiful stone blades are found, but they must be handled carefully for some of them are still razor sharp.
One of the most abundant and puzzling things that we find, though, are walls. Generally speaking walls are a joy to archaeologists- they delineate space, they provide definition, they separate one area from another. You know where you stand with walls.
Not so in Mycenae. Three different periods of occupation have left an absurdity of superimposed walls, some too close together, some too far apart, some at the wrong angle, some of the wrong construction. What should be nicely cordoning off the site into discrete units, “a building” here or “an entrance” there, serve instead to make the site into some sort of ghastly logic puzzle. Trying to untangle the various threads of evidence- soil consistency, pottery remains in the area, type of masonry used, position relative to other walls or layers- is a bit like trying to solve a Sodoku, half of which has been torn away and half of which has already been solved. Incorrectly. In pen.
At the end of the day we all trundle back to our hotel, minds abuzz with whatever we've found and what private theories we are nurturing. Most of the afternoon is given to processing data, inking plans, and trimming photos. Each day's events must be logged in a report, which will serve as the permanent record. Interesting pottery and bone is cleaned and quickly studied. Slowly, people finish their work and filter out for naps before dinner time.
Such is the professional life of the archaeologist. Join me next week for my final article about the character of the archaeologist, and my reflections on the summer.

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 his final article, a summary of the summer.

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