University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

I love Dirt

October 1, 2010

There are two types of dirt out there, I used to tell my field school students. Dirt Dirt, and People Dirt. People Dirt? You need to wash your hands before you eat, you know, you just got off the subway and hold on for the whole ride? But Dirt Dirt? You can safely eat your field lunch with dirty hands like that. I totally live my life on this philosophy. I love Dirt Dirt. I joke that I can tell what site a pottery sherd is from based on the way it smells. [Its not that far off. Different dirts smell different. It’s another rule I instilled in my field school students–use all your senses. You can tell you’re in a soil change based on color (site), density (feel) as well as moisture fluctuations (smell)]

The Flood Mud
The infamous flood mud on display in Archaeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands

But our “Flood Mud”? It’s the coolest dirt we have. It’s more than 10YR/7 to the academics. [You know how Pantone has a color chart so that everyone doesn’t just use “red” they use “red 468”? Well, archaeologists have the same thing for pottery and soil. You don’t just say “buffware with a brown stripe” you describe it as “10YR/2 with 5YR/4 stripe”]  It’s more than “proof of a large scale flooding event”. I always use it as an example to those same field school students: Sterile Soil isn’t always Sterile.

Ur's Royal Cemetery
The final depth of Pit X, excavated during the last season at Ur. The shaft of this pit has been excavated down to the flood stratum, requiring the removal of more than 13,000 cubic meters of soil. The excavation staff, including Woolley and Katharine, can be seen at the bottom.

See, Leonard Woolley was excavating away, found some “sterile soil”–or silt. He then moved to the other side of the site and dug again. He realized that this silt was at the same elevation on both sides of the site. He then realized it was a localized event, and excavated through it. I used to tease the students when they’d tell me that they were done. I’d tell them, “Until you hit bedrock? There could be a Royal Cemetery down there!” You know what we found in all those years of digging [10 years I’ve been telling students this story]? Bedrock. But an archaeologist can dream with every shovelful, every trowelful of dirt–you never know what lays below that dirt.  

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