Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Bone: Digging Up Stuff


Thank you all so much for your lovely words (mostly not in blog comments but elsewhere) and for all the support that flowed in after last week's post about starting my new job. Another week has gone by and I'm still delighted- it is Bank Holiday Monday and I can't help wishing (in a sneaky little geeky way) that I'm at work! What a loser! Anyway, as it is a day off, I can blog- and I thought as it's time for a "Bones" post that I'd blog about the things I found this summer that actually connect up to people in the past. Things that you too can look at online, via the Poggio Civitate Excavation Database- we're proud to be fully open access (when the server is working, at least). Twelve artefacts that my team found in my trench made it into the cataloguing system that we use for artefacts that have a meaningful interpretative role to play. Of course, everything we find is recorded and in many cases drawn in our trench books- before being counted and recorded at the close of the book. Don't worry- all the information is safely stored in the magazzino, even to the weight of single pieces of slag.

I'm sorry that I can't tell you more about the features in the trench- I don't want to pre-empt the peer-reviewed publication and presentation. But I thought I'd write up those twelve things, including a link to them all- pulling together what they might mean for the site, as well as how they were recovered.  I often joke around with colleagues about "interpretation at the trowel's edge." This series of posts, I suppose, is exactly that- a biographical account of the discovery of these fascinating yet often mundane objects.


The first of my twelve had the honour of being labelled as PC20130001. It was found when I wasn't even in the trench, as I had gone back to England to have the interview for my new job! Our fab site director Kate stepped in to supervise for me, so this is really a find for her! My trench assistant John "Georgia" Duggan (who will have his own trench next year hopefully as he is a fantastic excavator and a great prospect for the future!) was working on the removal of a large stump, when out popped this particular find, a shining lump of metal. Everyone (I imagine) got excited, as there were little nubs of gilt on this object, which made it look really enticing. Unfortunately, it's not Etruscan. It's probably post-medieval. It's a gorgeous bronze pendant, which would have been covered in gilding, and it's moulded to show the figure of San Domenico on one side, identified by an inscription, and a woman and child (presumably the Virgin) on the other. It's a find that made me sad when I saw it after I got back- and not just because I missed finding it. I imagine a person losing that pendant, and feeling sad and full of regrets- and I know that's just splashing emotions inappropriately all over the past, but that's my honest and instinctive reaction. More seriously, the pendant confirms what we suspected- the area in which the trench was located, Civitate A, was clearly still being traversed by people in the centuries after Poggio Civitate was abandoned- over a thousand years later, someone came through, perhaps a shepherd or traveller, and lost this pendant. 


The next find (PC20130108) is Etruscan, or at least, I assume it was. And unlike the previous find, this one I found myself. I was excavating with my trowel in the eastern end of my trench, working in a locus (the locus system defines the contextual layers of soil in the order that we remove them, which SHOULD be the reverse order in which they were deposited) that was producing relatively large amounts of bone and pottery. I spotted this weird shape with my trowel- a circle, with a dirty cream edge smeared with dark earth. I rubbed the object very gently with my fingers, and pressed in the centre where the mud was- to find that it fell away. A super careful probe with my trowel point, and it was clear that this was a nicely hollowed out piece of worked bone, making a perfect little oval. I pretend that it doesn't matter who finds things, as we're all part of a team- but I was pretty chuffed to have this gorgeous little object turn up. The layer that this piece of worked bone was found in was full of Etruscan material- the area was clearly pretty busy in antiquity! Yet this little fragment proved that larger objects incorporating worked bone were either being made or used in the vicinity. 

The third find is again an industrial one (PC20130112). It looked bloody ugly as it came up- and as we found quite a few examples of these, I can't remember who actually found this one. Sorry! It was probably one of the great students we had on site this year- sharp eyed and sharp brained. One of them probably thought that this was a piece of pottery at first- a heavy, lumpy piece of coarseware.  Then they turned it over, and found a weird covering spread all over the inner face- a little bit shiny where not covered in dirt. The weird covering was actually molten metal- this pot was used in the process of creating iron artefacts- the find was a crucible fragment. So, not only do we have evidence for the presence of worked bone and possibly worked bone production, we also have evidence for metalworking in the vicinity of Civitate A. Someone, somewhere, during the Etruscan inhabitation of the site, was making iron implements.


The final find for this "Bones" post (PC20130136) is a little bit more exciting- and I remember the student who found it (I'm so sorry person who found the crucible fragment!!) as there were not many objects like this found in my trench this summer. Margot, a student from Mount Holyoke College, had quite a lot of excavation experience, and had even worked underwater! It was most likely the green sheen of bronze that first caught her eye- everyone on site knows that the colour hints at something special. Carefully using her trowel to free the delicate object from the soil, she called me over. It was pretty clear at first glance what Margot had found- a fragment of a fibula, or brooch, made of bronze. The coiled end and part of the pin were preserved, but the arch and catch were missing. We didn't find any sign of any other pieces of the fibula this year, even in slightly lower loci. So, I suspect that this object was already broken when it was deposited- thrown away, chucked out. Maybe it was too small to bother melting back down, maybe it broke while being worn and the piece was never recovered by the owner. But an Etruscan person was wearing that fibula at some point in the past, while they were living at Poggio Civitate. At least one person in this area of the site had access to a plain, but still quite classy, decorative pin for their clothes. 


So, there you are- my first four finds. I've linked in the find numbers, so you should be able to click on the "PC" numbers here and see the proper write up by our amazing cataloguer, Theresa. There aren't professional photographs yet- but there will be this time next year. Please enjoy browsing around for what other people found, too. Each find has a little biography, a story like the ones I've described here. The reactions of excavators are always fascinating to me- I would love to find some way of incorporating them into full publications, giving the people who do the digging a voice! How would you feel about seeing that for real? Do you think the internet provides an opportunity to open up archaeological interpretative methodologies? Or is recording instant reactions and assumptions a dangerous business, undermining the wider message published by an excavation director? I'm all for embracing subjectivity- but how far do we go? Let me know if you have any thoughts, or any discovery stories of your own.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Place: in the workplace!

The only way is up!



I have some news. Some flipping, effing awesome news. I came back from Italy on Monday of last week, and headed into my NEW JOB on Wednesday morning.

So yes, I'm employed. And, best of all, it isn't in a supermarket or fast food joint (not that that would be bad- it would probably be fun, but it's not archaeology, unless you're scooping up chicken bones off the floor). A job, a real job, in archaeology. I've done three days of it so far, and it still feels like a dream.

I didn't blog about this before, and I kept it more or less off social media, as I didn't want to jinx things- from the minute I saw the advert, I was desperate for this role. I honestly don't think I've wanted something so much since I was waiting to hear about PhD funding.

So, what's this job? Where did I hear about it? What am I actually doing now?

I'm now working as a researcher and archaeologist-in-residence at the amazing Andante Travels. They are a specialist company who put together archaeological holidays- all over the world! Yes, we (ahem) cover the big name places- Rome, Peru, Turkey, Etruria (!)- but we also cover all sorts of exciting archaeology that's more off the beaten track. Even in three days I have learnt so much- about rockhewn churches in Ethiopia, about incredible sites in Israel, even about the National Archives at Kew. My job is to design and research tours, and seek out the right people to lead them.

I'm still hoping to keep up with the academic world, and will be working on getting my thesis published over the next few months- but in the meantime, if it seems like I've fallen off the edge of the social media/blogging planet, it's because I'm too busy being overexcited about a new destination, or teasing out the best place to fly into to explore the archaeology of the Wild West! I will try not to be too rubbish though- promise!

And please, have a look at our website- it's amazing to be working in such an exciting, ethical and decent company that really cares about helping people enjoy the past, and putting a big fat grin on their faces while they do it. 

PS- If you feel like doing me a MAHOOSIVE favour, I'd be really grateful if you could vote for Andante in the British Travel Awards.We're nominated for three different awards- Best Special Interest Holiday Company; Best Escorted Tour Company and Best Holiday Company for Customer Services. You can win all sorts of prizes for voting- so please, if you have a minute and would like to help out, give us your vote!

PPS- I promise I won't get corporate in future- but Andante work bloody hard to ensure all their customers have a fabulous time, and put a lot of effort into keeping their tours archaeologically relevant, as well as accessible. Thank you so very much.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Pots: Digging Everyday



Summer is i'going out- the excavation season is over, I am about to print out the boarding pass for my flight home. There is still a month (maybe) of sunshine and warmth left, but I will be gleaning it from an English sun, rather than a radiant Italian sole. Ironically, the former has apparently been far more reliable than the latter for everyone in the UK. By contrast, here in Tuscany there have been storms aplenty. The storms haven't kept me from updating this blog- that's my own fault. So, for my first post back, I thought I would blog about what it is to work on an archaeological dig- the pottery side of this oh-so-glam profession. Scruffy and messy, broken and worn- that's the state of me after six weeks of digging, just like any of the scrunched pieces of ceramic mess I've hauled out of the ground. But unlike them, I'm pretty bloody satisfied. We. Found. Stuff. I have to be a tease, until that "stuff" is published. What I can tell you, however, is that it was a damn good season. And this is the story of one day of it.

A usual digging day starts at 6am. That's if, like me, you aren't big on breakfast and can walk quickly. Other people are up far earlier, not least the fabulous cooks we had this year, who have been up for an hour by the time my phone squawks in my ear. Time to get dressed- the scruffification (ahem) process begins. Try not to sniff the clothes as you put them on, unless it's a rare treat of fresh ones. Sports bra first. An old t-shirt, sleeves cut off and collar ravaged by kitchen scissors next. Then the oldest denim shorts I own, that have been coming with me to this place for four years and doing sterling service at home, in other places where nobody can see them who will be horrified by their grottiness. Roll down to the kitchen, fill up my water bottles- 4l on board, and a hunk of bread and Nutella in each hand and I'm out and off down the road.

The walk to site, and the quiet time alone (ish) by my trench that is the reward of doing the walk at top speed, are perhaps my favourite parts of the day. The walk is powered by my iPod, and I try and think of nothing but how the air feels and how long I can make my strides before I feel like a total idiot. The hill looms above me, but once the climb begins I am a part of it. Well, sort of. It tries to throw you off with washed out trails, and brambles lie in wait for the unwary or distracted. To the trenches, yawning open. In the early days of digging the earth looks sullen and brown, full of small stones and roots, with tree stumps sprawling in what should be a neat, flat surface. I think about what I want to do to that earth. I do not think about what I might find- or, to be more honest, I try not to.

Students arrive at 7, and we set to work. The methodology is devastatingly simple- pick, scrape, sort, sieve, dump, repeat. The large pick is abandoned after the first few layers of soil, loci, are removed, and work continues with trowels alone for the latter half of the season. The action of the trowel is deceptive. "Scrape with your whole arm," I prate at the students. "Don't use your wrist." It's a surefire way of catching blisters. Equally important is to use the trowel like your hand- hold it like a pen, it's an extension of you. Don't shove it, point with it. It's often better to use the trowel upside down, twisting and flicking the dirt rather than pushing and flailing at it. This is surprisingly hard to explain over the internet.

The trowel should be the first point at which you spot the past. The hand sort is the second check, the sieve the third. You can always repeat the last two, if you're worried you missed something. A paranoid flash of green- was that bronze, or just a leaf? The first two weeks (and more) of any season resound to the nervous questions "is this a rock?" "is this something?" Always better to ask than to assume negatively. A rock is a rock is a rock- but what if it's polished, worked or flaked? Even a rock has a story to tell. The bulk finds squat in their boxes, which are more confidently filled with each passing day. The special finds (anything not undecorated pottery or unworked bone fragments) have their positions and elevations recorded in the trench book, before being drawn into it.

The trench book is my prrrrecious. The pages are how I will be judged as an excavator- you can see me all over it, you can see how tired my hands are by the end of the day, when the standard of drawing, which is always as high as I can make it, begins to wobble. Each precious layer of soil is recorded, every change and variation. Each move of a pick, each scrape of a trowel- it's all in there.  Features and finds are drawn, stippled to show light and shade and pattern. The rhythm of digging gets broken by these moments of solitary contemplation- how do I accurately and quickly give the impression of that exact stamped decoration? How to draw a squodged up piece of slag? When it's done, I'm back in the trench.

Lunch comes at 12:00. We hide in the shade for a precous half hour, scarfing down bread, crisps and water. The accompaniments vary, but those are constants- carbs, salt and fluid. Peanut butter and jam on Fridays, sometimes. Cold meats, leftovers from dinner, cheese and eggs. Vegetables, fruit. The sandwich combinations make the mind boggle. We don't care- we're hungry and it tastes fantastic. When the food is gone, the mind goes back to the things in the ground, and after a few short minutes the body does too.

The day ends at 3:30. By ten minutes before, I like to be counting up the bulk finds- locus by locus, carefully recording what was found where. Elevations for the end of the day are taken- how far did we go down? This season, not far. In previous years, metres, though not in a day. Finds, bulk and special, all go to the magazzino- store and conservation studio, to be handed over to cataloguer and conservators for their scrutiny. If you've closed a locus, final pottery and bone counts can be done for it. The trench book must be typed up, to be included on the website

That's the end of the excavation day. And guess what, you're bloody knackered.