Tag Archives: archaeology

Screening, Sifting .. A Rose by any other…

One job that needs to be done on any dig site is screening dirt.  Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists don’t sit around with tiny brushes and tools slowly and carefully digging all the time.  Sometimes we use hand picks and trowels or even pick axes and hoes.  It depends on the job that needs to be done.

Consequently, in order not to lose valuable information and artifacts, every bucket taken out of a site must be screened or as they say in Israel, sifted.  So what does that entail?  There are different types of screens, some are on tripods and can be used by one person.  Or others are rectangular screens with legs for one person, but at our dig at Tel Akko, we have the two-person kind that is used over a wheelbarrow.  So, dump the bucket in the screen, remove any big stones, shake the screen back and forth to remove the silt, dust and dirt, and paw through the remains.  In the process, dust covers every part of you.  Some people wear sunglasses to protect their eyes, gloves to protect their hands and a bandana over their mouth.  I don’t use any of those and screening doesn’t really bother me except when we find little yellow orange centipedes in the screen.  They are poisonous.  Not cool.

A’ndrea Messer and Jessica Wells, both of Penn State, screening dirt.

Because I did my first field school in Israel, I was used to calling this process sifting.  When I began to work in Colorado, I got teased a lot.  Flour is sifted. Dirt is screened.  Now I’m back in Israel and I’m sifting.  “a rose by any other name…”

One never knows what is going to pop up in the screens.  Tiny little scallop-like shells with pierced holes, tons of pottery, ancient glass, pieces of flint.  All get collected and popped into the proper bucket for the assigned locus number and turned into the registrar who numbers, codes and orders everything we find and bring out of the field.

After screening a number of buckets, the screened dirt must be placed into plastic sandbags, which are earmarked for propping up walls and other areas for the close of the dig.

But here’s my secret.  I really like screening.  That way I get to see all the artifacts, pull them out of the screen, decide if they stay or go.  Know if they need a special finds bag or if perhaps they will win the “find of the day.”  It is hot dirty work.  In the sun rather than under the shades, but, the reward might just be worth it. A shell bead here, a beautiful rim, baby scorpion, centipede or grub.  Nearly anything can appear in the sift.

Holes, Holes and More Holes

I did almost 10 weeks of full coverage survey as fieldwork for my dissertation.  Walking three abreast over the landscape looking for surface artifacts.  Calling out when someone saw one — pottery, projectile point, worked stone.  It was hot.  Sometimes difficult terrain slowed things down, but all in all, those were fairly pleasant days.

At Tel Akko, as part of the Total Archaeology project, some of the students did shovel survey.  Not something I would have even considered.  Every 5 meters on a grid, two students dug a 40-centimeter by 40-centimeter hole, 40 centimeters deep.  They collected the artifacts for later investigation and moved on to the next grid point.  It was hot, it was dirty and it was hard work.  The field, when they were done, looked like a giant game of Whack-a-Mole or an invasion by some small, burrowing extraterrestrials.  All the pits were eventually recorded and filled in, and the survey team joined the rest of us in excavation.  They mostly thought excavation was a breeze, out of the direct sun and in one place.  I’m not sure they were totally right about excavation being easier, but it certainly is different.

One of the things that made the survey interesting was Jamie Quartermaine, an archeologist from Britain who was in charge.  He probably has more energy than any two teenagers and a tendency to veer off on tangents.  Much of the time he has tongue firmly planted in cheek and he is utterly delightful.

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.

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.