Tag Archives: Tel Akko

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.

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.

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.