Tag Archives: Israel

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.

Pondering the Sea (of unpublished notes)

As I sit here in a Tel Aviv hotel overlooking the city’s marina, I’m pondering the future — well, at least the next month.  I’m going to Akko tomorrow to join the Penn State field school taking place there.  The project, co-led by Ann Killebrew, associate professor, Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Jewish Studies and Anthropology in conjunction with the University of Haifa, is called Total Archaeology@Tel Akko and includes a field school, underwater archaeology, survey, community outreach and excavation. It also includes a component aimed at documenting past excavations.

birds eye view of Tel Aviv marina
View of the Tel Aviv marina from 11th story of hotel. Public beach visible in foreground

Why?  Well, a dirty little secret of archaeology, especially in the past, is that many, many archaeologist never really published their findings.  The situation has gotten better, especially in the U.S. where state historic preservation offices often require field reports of surveys and excavations or at least strongly request them, and where funding agencies also require reports. But beside these field reports, there are often few places to publish the findings.  Compared to other fields, there are few peer-reviewed journals and the alternative is a book, which takes many hours and dedicated effort.  Researchers are often already off on the next project.

It is estimated that for every day in the field, another 5 to 7 days are needed to process artifacts, create maps, interpret the site and write reports, papers, etc.  Digging just for the sake of digging wastes precious resources and deprives future generations of knowledge.

This is not the first time I’ve dug in Israel.  I did my field school at Tel Sheva, the biblical location of Be’er Sheva.  There was supposed to be a book about the first seven years of that excavation.  I even prepaid for the volume.  Unfortunately, the researcher involved died and no book appeared.  I suppose somewhere, someone owes me $20.  That was a lot in the early ’70s.

I worked at a site called Halutzah in the Negev in 1980. Nabatean and Byzantine.  Very cool.  It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but I’ve never seen anything published on the excavations there.

Which brings me to Tel Akko.  The site was first excavated from 1973 to 1989 by Moshe Dothan and a team from the University of Haifa, in cooperation with Diethelm Conrad from the University of Marburg.  Part of the Total Archaeology project in 2010 and 2011 was to document and re-investigate Dothan’s excavation in three areas with the idea of publishing that work.  From my point of view, actually documenting past work and making it available to all researchers is incredibly important.  Too much of archaeology is so called grey literature — papers presented at conferences but never published and only available from someone who managed to get a copy or the original author, if they will supply it.   And then, the papers often say, “Please do not reference this work.”

Researchers say that because they have every intention of publishing, but often that just does not happen and the only record is a paper that exists in the grey shadows, presented, written, meagerly distributed but not officially published.

I admire anyone who tries to publish old data or figure out if old data can be reused. They are doing important work. Once archaeological sites are excavated they really can’t be re-excavated.  Artifacts are gone and more importantly, the stratigraphy — the pattern in which the layers of dirt formed — is forever destroyed.  But reading someone else’s field notes cannot be easy either.  Much as I try, I can’t always read mine.  So reconstructing unpublished past excavations is a daunting task.

We’ll see where this goes.