Life as an Archeologist

Many people often wonder what it is we actually do when we are gone for long periods of time.  Well to start off my week, we work for five and a half days a week.  We start on Mondays waking up at 4:30 am. and getting in our vans to go to the site at 5 am.  We work until 11:30 am. with a break around seven for tea and coffee, then another break for breakfast around nine.  Also, sometimes during this time, we wash pottery from 6-noon.  When we get back to the site around noon, many of us either go and take showers right away, or do some other duties such as, wash pottery/bone, categorize artifacts, or try to take a quick nap before lunch at 1 pm.  We eat lunch either in a local factory or in our front yards.  Then three o’clock comes around and that’s normally the time people can either choose to go to a nearby pool or stay back and catch up on some paperwork or take another nap.  I prefer to take naps unless it’s ungodly hot outside.  Five o’clock is normally the time where as a big group we wash pottery buckets for an hour and a half, then have some supper.  Supper is normally the last thing on our agenda unless we have a lecture by one of the directors, but that normally happens on Tuesdays.  On Saturdays, we work for a half day, so we are done by nine.  With the end of our week being Sunday, this is our day for a whole day of traveling and doing touristy type things.

Now, what is it we exactly do?  Well to start, we want to figure out the best plan of attack to best date the evidence we find.  What I mean is that we would either use pickaxes, or our small towels to take away some of the dirt.  When we find a new soil layer that we believe to be older than what we were previously digging, we will start a new system of dating the material we find.  For example, we will use pickaxes and hoes to take away large amounts of dirt at one time.  We will remove any large rocks we see and use a metal rectangle that has some weaved wiring at the bottom called a sifter to sift through the dirt to find evidence such as pottery, bone, and glass.  When we come along some more important material such as plaster, which is what the Romans would use to put their paintings on or use as a water sealant, we would be more delicate with that and use our towels or brush to gently scrape away the dirt. When we have all of our evidence, we separate them into buckets based off of our different floor levels.  We also take elevations of our floors to see how much progress we have made in digging down as well as pointing out key features that are in our indiviual digging squares.  IMG_0892

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Pottery

Pottery. It’s something you see everyday out in the field. It pops out of the dirt as you use your pickaxe or trowel. At first, most people find this exciting, but the thrill begins to wear off as the days go by and more is found. As people wash pottery each day and find that it becomes monotonous, pottery does not seem to hold its same same value. This day never arrives for me.

Pottery is such an important aspect to archaeology. It allows us to glance into the past and see what was important to people. By finding what was used in daily life, we know more the similarities between then and now. Even something as simple as a piece of pottery connects us to the past.

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Bucket of washed pottery that will return back to the field  

I love finding pottery as well as cleaning pottery. Finding something that hasn’t been seen for thousands of years and being the first one to touch it is such an incredible feeling. When it’s dirty, you imagine what it looks like. When you wash it later, you get to see if your imagination was right. I love feeling the pottery to see if it’s smooth or rough, thick or thin, and what it could have looked like, as well as its size. My favorite thing is to flip it over and look for fingerprints. When you find one, it’s fun to put your thumb on the fingerprint and see if it fits. It becomes a way to connect to the past and try to imagine who the person was who made it. Things like this help you remember that that these people really lived and just weren’t written about in books.

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Small piece of pottery with black on the front

As we get closer to the end, I think about all this pottery. I think about the pieces that still need to be found, that can be reconstructed, and still can be cleaned (something I often get teased about since I can sometimes be found washing pottery by myself). Something as trivial as little pieces of pottery help us know what people used, why they used it, and what was important. Like today, you can find many different colors and styles to pottery. I like to think that style was just as important as function. I like to think that pottery will still be underneath the dirt and can waiting for me to find it.

Conceding to Time

I had been warned that archaeology was essentially an act of destruction, but the idea hadn’t actually dawned on me until I was ripping out the walls of structures, thousands of years old, stone by stone, tossing aside the rubble frantically, like I was trying to burrow underground.

Destruction certainly. What perhaps wasn’t stressed enough was the idea that archaeology is foremost a race against time. Five weeks to answer thousands of questions while only kicking up more in the dust—an unsettling task, an impossible one. The site looms like a massive, scattered jigsaw puzzle beneath earth and rock, with deteriorating pieces and a murky picture at best.

Soon five weeks is four. Then three. Two. At a defined point during the excavation, while standing in between the sinking trenches, gazing around at the cut stone and mess, one must concede to time.

My square mates and I have conceded. But not before covering plenty of ground. We opened and closed three different squares this season (some looked more like rectangles with appendages and offshoots, a lot like Tetris pieces), which means I had the opportunity to dig (and sweep) in three different areas and encounter different challenges and questions, and for this I’m grateful. And while I am mostly upset by the prospect of sweeping more dirt in the dark morning, I also know that I’ll soon miss it. One week.

I’ll leave you with some pictures. I’ve continued to take in as much of the country as I can with site visits to Caesarea Maritima on the coast, Gamla in the Golan Valley, Akko, and Beit She’An, and I’ve done my best to reflect the time here in some of these images I’ve taken below—the beauty of the site itself, three birds over the Sea of Galilee, some scenes from the open-air market and bazaar.

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6 AM. The eastward view from Omrit, featuring “The Mule”.

Bird on the Sea of Galilee

Three birds fly south over the Sea of Galilee.

Hula Valley

Evening in the Hula Valley.

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A scene between a young seller and an old man at Kiryat Shemona’s open-air market. 

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Sweets on display in the middle of Akko’s bazaar.

Ancient People are Impressive Architects

Being in Israel these past few weeks has been an amazing expierence for a lot of reasons. I have learned so much about how archeology works and how difficult and rewarding it really is. It is a great feeling when you realize that the work you have been doing is helping us learn about history and how people lived in ancient times. It is also amazing going to the other archlogical sites around the area and seeing how they connect and relate to the site at Omrit when people were living there at the same time. I have started to realize just how complex and skilled ancient people were to build these huge stone buildings and harness nature to thier will. For example, in Ceserae maratima a freshwater swimming pool was built in the Mediterranean Sea and huge freshwater bath complexes were built complete with heated floors and intricate mosaic designs. They also built giant temple complexes and huge stadiums that could seat thousands of people. I marvel at the engineering and planning it took to built these grand structures and also at the fact that they still exist today for us to enjoy even now.

Another thing that has amazed me about this trip is the diverse culture that this area possesses both in antiquity and in modern day. There are several examples in Israel of ancient synagogues are having mosaics of the pagan Zodiac on thier floors. There are many possible explanations for this, but it shows that even ancient groups were not culturally isolated from each other. We see evidence of cultures mixing ideas and traditions even to this day. Along each major road the sign markers are in three or more different languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English being the main ones. To me this shows how diverse the culture in Israel and the cultural identities. It is amazing how a country the size of Delaware could be so important to so many different people. I am so glad I got to expierence this place first hand both in the dirt of antiquity and the livelyness of modern cities.

 

The Harpoon Man

Israel’s landscape has several identifiable qualities: looming yellow hills, green valleys and ravines, and boulders sprinkled everywhere like pepper.

These are a few that I’ve noticed as we’ve travelled between sites and the Kibbutz, where we are staying. The quiet observations through the windows along the highways have been a valuable enterprise themselves in learning about Israel’s culture. Green, Defense Force soldiers wandering around with various slung weapons. The aggressive traffic. Sparkling pendant strings you might see at a car lot at home, strung in abundance. Bright yellow and red gas with enormous lettering. Bleary eyed truck drivers, pulling from cigarettes, staring diligently at the road ahead.

I’ve been relying a lot on my camera, but lately I’ve been trying to take in more with my eyes versus the viewfinder. I do have several favorites from our trip picked out however.

I know this image isn’t a shot of one of the many ancient sites we’ve visited, but as we stood on the beach of the Mediterranean this man walked past us several times, and it finally occurred to me that, until then, I had never seen a harpoon gun in person (I’m a big Bond fan, so I’ve read all about them). I’m curious as to what he could possibly be hunting that required such an arsenal.

I ended up snapping a couple images as he walked past, and this one turned out nicely.

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The harpoon man on the Mediterranean shore, just north of Caesarea Maritima. 11 June.

Back in the Dirt

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It’s been two years since my last archaeological dig. Two years since I woke up before sunrise. Two years since I spent hours using a pickaxe and a hoe. Two years since I felt the hot, Israeli sun beat down on me while I was looking at artifacts. Oh, how I have missed this!

Archaeology has a muscle memory, like riding a bike. I was able to get back into the routine easily and remember things I thought I forgot. Once I began, there it was, stored in the recess of my brain, where little archaeological facts are kept. I am home.

This is my first time at Omrit and I love it. I came not knowing anyone and I wasn’t sure how I would fit, since everyone came from the same school. Whether they knew each other or not, we all are here because we share a common interest – a love for history and archaeology. This helped us bond together quickly. And the fact that we spent every moment together helps. It might also help that each of us is covered in dirt…

As we conclude our second week, I am excited about the things we will find, the places we will visit, and the bonds we will create over the next month. It is a fun and exciting time to step out of one’s comfort zone and fly across the world to pursue a passion. And, it is so worth it. I look forward to these next few weeks under the Israeli sun and back in the dirt.

Archeology is Destruction and Basalt is Terrible

After being in Israel for two weeks working on the dig at Omrit, I have begun to realize what archeology really is. Destruction. Every time we yank out a bolder or sift our pieces of pottery, were are destroying the thing that allows us to understand it, the layers of ground that it was found in. We may take very good records and measure everything, but the fact is this is a one chance deal. One we dig the dirt up, it can never be put back in the same way again. Whatever evidence that we find is all that we have to go on from this point forward. This is why I find it a good thing that at Omrit we have not excavated everything that we could and instead are doing the areas we have the most interest in and leave the rest for the future. It is possible that as technology continues to advance, new techniques will develop with the ability to learn more information than what we can do now and by leaving places for that to happen, allows for a better understanding in the future. Even if that is the case, it is still important for us to be able to understand what we can about the past now to get as clear of a picture as possible. In order to do this though we need to dig.
Even though archeology is destruction, it is still extremely careful work. Depending on what we are working on, we might be using anything from a pick to a toothbrush. No matter what we are using though, we have to be very careful about what we are destroying. If we go too far down or shatter a find to pieces, we could lose all of the work that we put into it and also make the area undateable. As long as we are careful with how we dig, there is a lot that we can learn from any area. What can also be problematic though is what we decide to keep. At any one area that we dig, we may find thousands of small finds and shreds. What can be difficult is figuring out what we should keep and what we don’t need to collect. In an ideal world, we could collect everything and have enough time analyze all of our finds equally, but instead we have to prioritize due to limited resources and funding. Omrit is lucky because we study everything that we collect, but not all sites can do that. This is a shame because the things that cant be analyzed are thrown away and can never be looked at in the right context again. That being said, we can still learn a lot from what we do keep and help us further the story we are creating from our finds. It is almost as if we are reading the story of history backwards as we uncover, layer by layer, a new chapter while destroying the last one first. This opportunity at Omrit has allowed me to be able to contribute to this narrative and help us better understand a little bit more of the past. Archeology may be destruction, but it is also the way to cracking open the book of the past, one layer at a time.

On another note, as we have been digging these past two weeks, I have realized my growing hatred for rocks. Specifically, basalt rocks. The square my team and I are currently working on (Photo) IMG_0549.JPGhas at some time in the past, the walls around it tumble in, leaving giant boulders between the silt layers. I didn’t think it was possible,  but after pulling out more than my fair share of these giant, very heavy, volcanic rocks I have begun to form a hatred torwards them. They alaways seem to get in the way and are very annoying to clean around. Every time we dig another one up, I want to pull it out of the ground with a pick more and more. It is very satisfying however when we finally do get them out. We also have to deal with many limestone rocks as well, but they are not as bad as basalt becuase they are softer, lighter, and much easier to remove. Regardless, at some point I will have to come to terms with these rocks but for now they will be my mortal enemy.