28 August 2009

Beginner's guide to archaeology

Courtesy of The Guardian, so there is a noted British slant, but most of this holds up pretty well. Just remember the most important thing to take away from this article:
What to say when you visit a dig: "Can I buy you a pint?"

Beginner's guide to archaeology
Dig etiquette, a full glossary of terms, useful websites and crucially, an introduction to the real importance of pointing trowels

Mike Pitts
The Guardian
Friday 28 August 2009

Archaeology on television can seem like an activity for geeks in white coats and blokes in over-sized jumpers. But its range of activities is so wide – from laboratory to museum, from excavation to historic building – almost anyone can find a welcome somewhere. Master our quick guide, and you will soon sound like a proper digger.

Key concepts

Site: A place where something happened in the past that could be or is the subject of excavation.

Evaluation: Research, including the digging of narrow "trial trenches" (often with machines), to establish the quality of preservation at a site and its significance (Time Team digs are often described as evaluations).

Excavation: The real McCoy, from a few days digging in a farmyard, to years investigating 75 hectares (185 acres) by 80 field archaeologists, with a laboratory and 27 computers on site, prior to the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5.

Fill: Disturbed earth, rubble, etc, found beneath the surface, indicative of human activity.

Natural: Undisturbed geological strata at the bottom of the site.

Spoil: Excavated dirt that supposedly contains no finds (it ends up being dumped on the spoilheap).

Find: Any item worthy of individual attention, such as a coin, piece of pottery or animal bone.

Feature: Anything such as a pit, ditch or stain in the ground, typically with an origin and purpose that is not immediately obvious.

Structure: A former building or erection of any kind, indicated by post holes, wall foundations, etc.

Layer: Deposit of material that seems to have been made during one particular time.

Context: Perhaps the most important concept. Something distinct in the ground, such as a layer or feature that represents a definable unit of time, is known as a context; a grave, for example, might have a context number for the grave pit that was dug, another for the coffin and body placed there, and a third for the fill (the backfilling of the grave). Relationships between contexts (for example, that between one grave and another it was dug through) are recorded in a matrix, which on large urban sites can be extremely complex.

Stratigraphy: the science of unravelling how everything on the site got there and in what order (sequence), through study of finds, structures and contexts.

Key personal equipment

● Hard hat, high-visibility jacket and steel-toed boots (commercial excavation).

● Sunglasses, sunhat and tanning lotion (university excavation).

● Pointing trowel: first recorded archaeological use in 1808, since when it has been an essential mark of pride, professionalism and one-upmanship – the more worn and less useful the trowel, the more prestigious.

Key stages of a dig

1. Deciding why, where and when to dig. This can take months or years, with the initial impetus likely to be a threat to a known or suspected site (eg from coastal erosion or office development), or a research inquiry at an unthreatened site (eg Stonehenge). Often involves planning and permit issues, and always requires finding funds (from the developer, or grants).

2. Running the dig – the easy bit. Not all jobs mean you get cold, wet, bruised, grazed and dirty, but most do. Education and outreach (letting the public in) is seen as essential on large digs, though commercial sites can be secretive.

3. Post-excavation. The longest and most expensive stage, in which the records, finds and scientific samples are sorted and analysed, and hopefully used to produce a narrative of the site's history that will be published.

Why is everything old underground?

Aside from structures that are still standing, most everyday things of past lives have all disappeared; the exceptions are items that somehow became embedded in the ground and preserved.

If someone in the past dug down, for example to make a grave, a pit for food storage or a drainage ditch, sooner or later the hole will have been filled in. A skilled archaeologist can identify the ancient excavation and the fill it contains, which will often include deliberately buried or discarded artefacts and other remains.

Ancient land surfaces (much sought after by archaeologists) can be preserved by accidental burial. This can occur artificially (when a burial mound is raised, it preserves the surface on which it stands: at Silbury Hill, the huge neolithic mound in Wiltshire, even the grass survives, preserved by the lack of oxygen); or naturally, such as beneath blown sand or mudflows (at Boxgrove, West Sussex, a massive cliff fall 470,000 years ago buried the ground on which early humans sat around a water hole waiting for large game).

Anything on the ground surface left alone for long enough will sink down 10–30cm beneath an accumulation of earthworm casts. Charles Darwin demonstrated this process in his best-selling book of his lifetime, Vegetable Mould & Earth-worms (1881).

What to say when you visit a dig

● "I can't believe you sorted out the relationship between context 375B and the fill of cut 233. That took real skill."

● "I saw your outreach presentation on YouTube – cool, dude."

● "I've never seen such a worn trowel."

● "Can I buy you a pint?"

What not to say when you visit a dig

● "I've brought this stone I found in my garden. I'm sure it's a prehistoric tool – look."

● (As you clean a smear from your Manolos with a wet wipe) "I'd love to be an archaeologist, it's so romantic."

● "Are you looking for dinosaurs?"

● "Found anything yet?"

How can I get started?

Many archaeologists are keen to share their experiences with others, and encourage visits. The Council for British Archaeology promotes appreciation and care of the historic environment. Its website lists excavations, conferences and advice on how to get involved. I Love the Past reviews historic properties, museums and excavations. The magazines British Archaeology and Current Archaeology regularly feature excavations.

Look out for Portable Antiquities Scheme meetings in your area (England and Wales only), when archaeologists linked to the British Museum hold public "finds days".

Mike Pitts is editor of British Archaeology

13 August 2009

Syrian sculptures

This article, complete with awesome picture, is for you Brian. Welcome back.

Conservators in Berlin piece together the Tell Halaf fragments over 60 years after they were damaged by Allied bombs

By Martin Bailey
The Art Newspaper
Issue 204, July/August 2009

BERLIN. A group of 30 monumental sculptures from Tell Halaf, in Syria, have been reconstructed after being pulverised into 25,000 fragments in a bombing raid in World War II. Dating from soon after 1000 BC, the basalt statues were on display in Berlin until a combination of fire and water caused devastating damage.

Following the war, there were legal and political problems in even considering restoration. Although the reunification of Germany in 1990 eased the difficulties, conservators initially feared that reconstruction of the sculptures would be impossible. However, the painstaking work eventually began in 2002 and is finally nearing completion.

Tell Halaf lies in north-east Syria, close to the Turkish border and is now a Kurdish region. The site’s origins date back to 6000 BC, in late Neolithic times, but arguably the most important remains are those of the Aramaean civilisation, in the tenth century BC.

In 1899 Tell Halaf was discovered by Baron Max von Oppenheim, a German diplomat based in Cairo. He later sought permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate the site between 1911 and 1913. Work was interrupted by World War I, and his final dig took place in 1927. The greatest finds were the remains of the palace of Prince Kapara, which included a five-metre high ensemble of three gods standing on animals and a twice life-size figure of a seated woman (or goddess, as Oppenheim believed). The excavated finds were divided between the national museum in Aleppo and Oppenheim, who took his share back to Berlin.

In 1930 Oppenheim opened his own museum in Berlin, in a disused iron foundry in Charlottenburg. Among pre-war visitors were Agatha Christie and her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. She later recalled being shown around by Oppenheim for a gruelling five-hour visit, during which he “stopped his eager dissertation to say lovingly: ‘Ah, my beautiful Venus’ and stroke the figure affectionately.” This was the enthroned woman.

War brought disaster. On 22-24 November 1943 the museum was bombed by the British, and fire broke out, with temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees centigrade. This completely destroyed the wood and limestone artefacts from Tell Halaf, and the basalt sculptures were split by sudden temperature changes resulting from hosed water. Despite logistical difficulties during wartime, the director of Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East managed to get the fragments crated up on behalf of Oppenheim. In August 1944 nine truckloads of rubble were brought to that museum’s deep cellar, which forms part of the Pergamon Museum.

After the war, the Pergamon Museum was in Soviet-occupied East Berlin, while the burnt-out museum in Charlottenburg was in West Berlin, with the Oppenheim family settled in Cologne, in West Germany. Initially there was nothing that could be done with the Tell Halaf fragments in war-devastated Germany, and even when the economic situation improved there were difficulties: the rubble was owned by a West German foundation, but housed in an East German museum.

It was only after reunification in 1990 that attention once again focused on the Tell Halaf fragments. Archaeologists recalled what Oppenheim had written in 1944, in the depths of war: “How wonderful it would be if all the fragments into which the sculptures have been shattered could be gathered up and taken to the state museums of Berlin and there, eventually, reassembled. But what a horrendous task that would be, given that this collection has been smashed to smithereens. What I want most of all, of course, is to save the great enthroned goddess.” Oppenheim died in 1946, and it was to be over 60 years later before his dream was realised.

The reconstruction project began in 2002, in two huge halls in a former materials testing workshop in Friedrichshagen, in the eastern suburbs of Berlin. Eighty cubic metres of rubble were laid out on 200 wooden pallets, and the painstaking work of reassembling the pieces began. Initially, it was thought that computers could be used to scan images of the fragments, and match them, but this did not prove to be practical. “Humans turned out to be superior to computers,” explained project leader Dr Lutz Martin.

A minute examination of the basalt revealed very minor differences in colour, grain size and crystal intrusions in the stone used for each of the 30 sculptures and relief slabs. When it came to reconstructing the individual statues, carved exterior pieces with surface dirt were identified, and then the interior elements. It was like assembling an exceedingly complex three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Fortunately, however, there were good pre-war photographs to assist.

In the end, 95% of the material (by volume) has been reused, although a considerable amount of nearly pulverised sand remains.

Fragments were initially reassembled with temporary glue and later more permanently attached with reversible epoxy resin. No metal framework or pins were used.

Break marks remain very visible, and no attempt has been made to disguise them. Where large pieces are missing (some since antiquity), roughly shaped inserts have been added, using a mixture of ground basalt, sand and resin, in a slightly lighter shade of grey than the original stone. Some fragments of molten glass and bitumen from the Charlottenburg museum roof have been left on surfaces which will not be visible on display, since they are now part of the history of the sculptures. Conservation work is due to be concluded in October.

Legally, ownership of the sculptures rests with the Cologne-based Oppenheim foundation, although they are on long-term loan to Berlin Museums. The lengthy conservation process was funded jointly by the Oppenheims and the government’s German Research Foundation.
An exhibition on “The Tell Halaf Adventure” is being planned for Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East, from July to November 2010. Discussions are underway about other venues, possibly in Oppenheim’s hometown of Cologne, or international museums that hold smaller quantities of Tell Halaf material.

After this, the Tell Halaf sculptures will be integrated into the displays in the Museum of the Ancient Near East, within the Pergamon Museum. When the Pergamon Museum is fully renovated, the figures of the three gods standing on animals will serve as an impressive entrance to the Ancient Near East collection, but this is not scheduled for completion until 2028.

Once again, German curators, conservators and archaeologists have been strengthening ties with Syria. A large basalt bull from Tell Halaf belonging to the national museum in Aleppo has been restored in Berlin by the conservators who were working on the reconstruction of the war-damaged fragments.

German and Syrian archaeologists have, since 2006, been working on further excavations at Tell Halaf. Three campaigns have taken place, leading to the discovery of a tenth century BC grave of a girl, together with jewellery and textile fragments. Rounded buildings from the earliest settlement, in the sixth millennium BC, were also found. A fourth excavation campaign is scheduled for September.

Wax Philosophical

I believe we are officially in the dog-days of summer. It is getting warming around my region (as it typically is this time of year and will continue through September), which is good because I bought all these shorts to wear this summer, since I knew I wouldn't be in the field, and have only recently been able to really use them. This is the time of year too when people begin to think about their fall semester's and all the stuff they will be doing in the upcoming school year. It seems strange to me then that I will not be partaking in all that. I say "strange" but deep down it is actually wonderful and refreshing and all those emotions one feels when a weight has been lifted. And yet, with that comes the anxiety of "what's next?" to fuel my days. It doesn't help that I do not see much of my husband these days, leaving me plenty of solitude to wax philosophical. More changes are in the air, however. I can feel it.

Believe it or not, a pile of work has kept me from posting much this summer and in the interim, tons of exciting archaeology news has been piling up, such as:

-Paleontology and Creationism Meet But Don't Mesh: Another article about the Creation Museum in Kentucky that purports to offer the "same facts, different conclusions." Well my facts show that dinosaurs lived well before 2348 B.C. Hell, the village I wrote my dissertation on was carbon dated between 3600-2800 B.C. and I certainly don't remember digging any dinos. When are people going to realize that creationism DOES NOT have to adhere to the supposed timeline calculated from the Bible, which is based on our human time. How conceited are we? I am pretty sure God works on his/her/its own time.

-Work on the Ilisu Dam in Turkey to move forward, again: This dam will partially flood the site I was working on along the Tigris in Turkey. It will also completely flood Hasankeyf and, more importantly, displace thousands of local villagers (see previous post here).

-Another reason why technology and archaeology is a beautiful marriage: a computer technique that can tell the difference between ancient inscriptions created by different artisans. This same information can be deciphered by humans of course, but it takes years of study. Cool!

In other news:

-More "trying to prove the Bible through archaeology": Experts dig up dirt on David and Goliath

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