All of you reading this know that we at Omrit have spent the past four weeks digging ancient Roman garbage out of the ground, but probably not everyone understands what we do with it and how exactly it helps us to answer our research questions. When I say “garbage” I mean that literally – most of we we have dug through in L21 are layers of fill that were poured in during different stages of construction, so they are composed of whatever the settlement was throwing away at that time. Mostly this is comprised of pottery sherds, animal bones, and glass sherds, with lamp fragments and coins being less common. Pottery is the largest of this by volume, with each square normally collecting at least one bucket’s worth every day, which is then washed, dried, and read, and the reading normally results in a large pile of local cookware, a sizable collection of large ceramic storage, and a few pieces of finer tableware. While the body sherds (pieces that broke off the middle of a ceramic jug) do not relate much about the vessel beyond it’s style, the diagnostic sherds (which include rims, feet, and handles) can be used to identify the specific vessel they came from by cross-referencing it with diagrams of intact ceramic found elsewhere.
Lamp works much the same way, though the body sherds are more helpful to identifying the type. All this ceramic is invaluable to dating the loci of each square and identifying time frames of occupation. Since we are working mostly in fill layers and everything is in secondary or tertiary usage, the pottery we find is already decades old when it was placed, but usually there will be just enough material contemporaneous to the building layer in which in was dumped to allow us to date the locus by the latest datable material. For instance, one of L21’s loci had pottery sherds from the mid-second century, but also contained lamp fragments in a style from the third century, so we knew that the material was dumped in the early third century and was already almost a century old by that time. In an architecture-heavy sight like Omrit, the ability to date our structures through pottery is imperative to understanding the different phases of construction. Another useful artifact in terms of establishing time periods are coins, when we are lucky enough to find some and they are in good condition. Coins are especially helpful to answering historical and historiographical questions because they can provide data on specific dates, imperial iconography, trading patterns, etc. Since practically all the coins we find at Omrit are bronze and have corroded, they have to be cleaned before they can be read. To do this they undergo a process called electrolysis, in which an electrical current is run through saltwater, and essentially peels layers of rust off the coin. Coins found at Omrit have been helpful in dating the street and colonnade we’ve been excavating, and the evidence from these indicates lots of activity at the site during the third century.