All posts by Andrea Elyse Messer

Through a Rabbit Hole

The first time I saw the balloon used for taking images it was teetering on the edge of a table unused.  The reason being that the helium filled balloon with a digital camera attached just barely sits above the ground or a table if there is no wind.

On Tel Akko, there is no wind until about 9 or 9:30 in the morning, and so, until then, the balloon cannot be flown.

Another thing about the balloon that I found out, is that the images, which are taken automatically at intervals of 10s of seconds, become useless if there is anything moving below the camera.  I got caught on the south side of the tel with the balloon high overhead and had to stand stock still for at least 10 minutes while the balloon moved out of range.

Even so, the images that the balloon can create are truly amazing.  An Adobe Acrobat pdf of one of the images can be manipulated using a mouse to see bird’s eye views, slanting views and even a look at the sides of walls and pits.

Click on the photo to download the pdf.

The 3-D imaging is not just being used for the site mapping, but also for individual unit mapping, helping with the usually tedious drawing of unit or top plans.  Because individual rocks, pottery and features can be seen in the 3-D images, the units come alive with a clarity that is never seen in a flat photo or a scale drawing.  By tying the 3-D images to actual points on the ground, they can become accurate site plans and unit maps.

Ode to a Former Grecian Urn

It doesn’t really matter where one digs, in the American Southwest, the Middle East or a Colonial New England Site, pottery of one type or another will appear.  When I wrote about the excavations at the Priestly House in Sunbury, Pa., there was Jasperware from England; in the Southwest Four Corners area we have graywares and black and white pottery; and here at Tel Akko, we have everything from Bronze Age through Iron Age to Persian, Greek, Roman, Crusader and Ottoman.  That is a lot of pottery and a lot of styles to learn to identify.  Happily, I don’t have to learn them.  We leave that to an expert.  But we do have to collect them and haul them off the tel buckets full at a time.  Most of the pottery is pretty utilitarian.  Cooking pots, oil lamps, storage jars.  Some is quite beautiful with nicely slipped surfaces or painted patterns.  I’m especially fond of the Attic pottery from Greece.  Think Ode to a Grecian Urn illustrations and you are just about there.  The pottery has a shiny hard black or red surface with ornate designs.  It is really pretty.  But more importantly, the smooth surface makes washing it incredibly easy, as the dirt does not generally stick to it.

Because wash it we must.  First looking to see if there are any ostraca – hand written notes on pieces of pottery – and then so it can be dated and typed.

Some of the coarse pottery is nearly impossible to clean with rootlet trails and calcium deposits, but nothing seems to stick to the Greek stuff.  And it feels so nice and smooth to the touch.

Unlike the bottom of the soaking buckets, which contain all the silt that melted off the sherds and is slimy and just plain icky.  No one wants to be the one to search the bottom of the bucket deposits for that last piece of pottery.  It’s just so gross.

Blocked Content

Yesterday I visited with a friend in Caesaria.  She is a geoarchaeologist who received her Masters from Penn State and is now on the faculty at University of Haifa and usually does underwater archaeology in Caesaria.  We were talking about our time together in the anthropology department when she asked me if I had read “Sex at Dawn,” because she said it relied heavily on the work of Stephen Beckerman, associate professor of anthropology, Penn State.  This is work that she knew I had written about and she thought I’d be interested.  I was.

When I got back to my room at the Israel Naval Academy where I am staying, I turned on my computer and went to with the idea of buying the book.  I chose a book search and typed in “Sex at Dawn.”  To my surprise, the screen went black and read:

Request Blocked

Your request is blocked by the intermediate content-filter. It may be due to one or more reasons listed below:

  • The URL contains a disallowed keyword.
  • The URL is categorized as a bad page.
  • The web page belongs to a disallowed domain.
  • The web page contains improper keywords.
  • The request contains one or more syntax errors.

To solve the problem, you may consult the MIS department in your organization for more details.

When I did a general search on Google I got

405. That’s an error.

The request method XET is inappropriate for the URL /search. That’s all we know.

Now I have to agree that sometimes sex is an error, but all the time?  Really.  Apparently the students at this school do not receive any sex education, can not access any site that uses the word sex and certainly can’t purchase a cultural anthropology book titled “Sex at Dawn” or any other time.  And yes, this is a coed school.

City of Gold

It has been a long time since I went to visit places in Jerusalem with someone who has never been there before.  Everyone in my family has been several or more times, as have most of my friends.  Whether you love Jerusalem, revere it or feel uncomfortable there, it is certainly not a city that one forgets or ignores.

Penn State’s Tel Akko project visited Jerusalem last weekend.  There were stops at the City of David, the Western Wall, the new Mamila Mall (more on that later) and the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher.  I’ve pretty much seen them all before, but many in our group had not.  Most are not Jewish, but all visited the appropriate side of the wall – one side for men and one side for women – with proper dignity and respect.  It is an awkward place.  There are many women sitting and praying and always a line of women up at the wall itself making personal supplication or placing a small note between the stones.  What becomes awkward is that no one ever turns around and walks away from the wall, one must back away.  Lots of tourists and locals backing out of a small space can be chaotic.

The Wall is the remains of the outer retaining wall of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great.  This is all that remains and of course, nothing remains of the First Temple, built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians.

The City of David, however, is an interesting site.  Done up in a sort of Disney park motif, it is perhaps the location of where David built his palace when he, if he, came to Jerusalem.  Excavations in the area have gone on for a while, but there is great debate as to how old the ruins are and to whom they should be attributed.  I’d like to think they were King David’s, but the archaeologist and scientist in me want some solid proof.

A house with numbered stones that has been deconstructed and reconstructed
The Stern House where Theodore Herzl slept was removed and reconstructed in the Mamila shopping mall. The stone numbers have not been removed. Credit: Avishal Teicher.

The strange thing about Jerusalem – besides the various religious groups and the many sects of these religious groups, Jewish, Christian and Moslem — is that wherever you walk, you appear to be walking uphill.  There are either stairs, which one never returns down, or slopes one never sees the upside to.  I realize that Jerusalem is not an M.C. Escher painting, but it acts that way sometimes.  Climbing stairs with rails as hot as a stovetop and the golden sandstones, so indicative of the city, reflecting the glaring sun in your face.  I do appreciate Jerusalem, but I must say, I don’t necessarily like it.  Eventually, I left the group, before the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher (which I have seen many times) to walk through the shuk (outdoor street market) drinking Diet Coke and looking for a place for lunch.

Much more civilized.

But here’s the interesting bit about the Mamila Mall.  A new mall was built by the Israelis to go over one of the valleys that surround the old city.  It makes movement from one hill to the other much easier.  But among the existing houses on the streets that were converted to the mall, was an historic house, the Stern House where Theodore Herzl, a late 19th early 20thcentury Zionist leader, stayed on his one visit to Israel.  Rather than destroy the house, they numbered every single piece of stone, took the building down and then rebuilt after the base of the mall was built.  It still has the numbers on it.  Looks very weird.

Brushing Dirt

Anyone who has ever done any archaeology knows that at one point or another dirt needs to be cleaned.  I realize this sounds oxymoronic, but in truth, dirt floors of a habitation need to be swept before photographing or drawing, rock wall have to be swept to see the stones that delineate them, and other features from time to time need to be swept.  There are no special implements for archaeological sweeping.  We use push brooms and whisk brooms and paint brushes and we sweep into dustpans, put dirt into buckets and then wheelbarrows.  Any pottery sherd or other artifact goes into a bucket for evaluation.

The first time I found myself sweeping a plaster floor with a push broom a simply stopped in the middle of the act and smiled.  I thought, my mother would be bent over laughing to see me sweeping dirt when I gave her so much trouble sweeping my room or the kitchen floor.  But somehow, it just seems different when it’s archaeology.

The beginning of a season at an existing site consists of a lot of cleanup.  The off season, usually winter, brings with it windblown dust, waterborne dirt and roots and weeds that spring up all over and refuse to be tamed.  Any prophylactic activity done the season before, such as sand bagging baulks – meter wide pieces of earth that are left in place to preserve the stratigraphy – must be removed.  The site needs to be pristine before work can really get done.

Once everything is satisfactorily tidy, then we take photographs, measure elevations, map in features and prepare to dig.  Areas started the season before continue as they did then.  New areas must begin at the modern ground surface and gradually go down through possible levels.

At Tel Akko, we have Early and Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Persian, Greek and maybe Roman remains.  In the city of Akko there were also Crusader and Ottoman occupations.  So we dig, looking for clues to who lived there and how they lived.  Where they got their “good china” from and how they made metals.

At the same time, Tel Akko is a city park where early morning walkers stroll and groups of tourist surge by.  The past meeting the present.