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.

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