Sitz Unseen: Looking at Archaeological Sites

August 22, 2014

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Anna Sitz

Many people think that archaeology is mainly about doing: breaking the ground with a pickaxe, shoveling and sifting dirt, using a trowel to uncover artifacts. These activities are all part of the archaeological process. But a large part of archaeology is about looking rather than doing. I am a fifth year PhD student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program, and I want to share some of my experiences with looking.

Ceramics from Alabanda, after washing

Several of my colleagues have written about archaeological surveys, in which a team walks through fields or over mountains, scanning the ground for pottery sherds (pieces of broken ceramics) or traces of walls. I participated in a survey a few years ago as a part of the Philosophiana Archaeological Project on Sicily. After a couple weeks of surveying, an archaeologist’s eyes become trained to pick out the colors and sharp edges of pottery fragments from the surrounding dirt, stones, and vegetation. Despite the bright Sicilian sunlight, I preferred to survey without wearing sunglasses, because accurately seeing color was such an important part of picking out the ceramics.

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Marsyas watches museum visitors in the Antalya Museum

Even when the digging begins, looking is still a major part of an archaeologist’s work. Each time a pickaxe, shovel, or trowel pierces the dirt, excavators watch the soil for artifacts or bones. The more spectacular of these items might end up in a museum, where the public encounters them as the most visible products of archaeology.  While digging, however, archaeologists are watching not just for these objects, but also for subtle changes in the dirt itself: a change in color, texture, or inclusions (such as pebbles or mortar). These variations are evidence of a change long ago- a flood, a new floor, a pit, a fire, etc. Ideally, the archaeologist can connect the changes in the color/texture of the dirt with artifacts (such as coins or ceramics) in order to date the layer.

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Dirt, Alabanda excavation

Of course, archaeologists are not often lucky enough to find securely dated artifacts and a distinct type of soil all at once. And even an archaeologist most carefully watching the dirt underneath her trowel may miss some of the more gradual changes in the soil taking place in the trench as a whole. At times, looking too closely can obscure the bigger picture. For this reason, many trenches have an area supervisor, whose job it is to watch, record, and assess.

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Lycian rock-cut tombs, Myra

The looking doesn’t stop even when the archaeologist exits his trench. In order to better understand the artifacts, walls, and contexts that emerge from the dirt, archaeologists have to look at other sites that have been previously excavated. This summer, I have been visiting several sites in Lycia, in southwestern Turkey.  This is the region just south of my normal area of fieldwork, at Alabanda in ancient Caria.

View from the acropolis of Olympos (Lycia)
Church at Patara (Lycia)

When archaeologists visit other sites, we enjoy the spectacular views and well-preserved buildings just like everyone else, but we are also keeping our eyes open for small details that can better help us understand our own work. We might look at a building’s layout and its masonry in order to see how it compares with what we are finding.

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View from the church at Arykanda (Lycia) into lower courtyard

We pay attention to sight lines, in other words, what an ancient person would have seen when standing in a building. We also think through the logic of building a structure in one place instead of another (for example, on a hilltop rather than in a valley), and the effect that location had on visitors.

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Tomb at Xanthos (Lycia) overlooking the valley
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Byzantine painting in church of St. Nicholas, Myra

My undergraduate training was in art history rather than archaeology.  While looking at a masonry wall is a completely different experience from looking at a Botticelli painting, there is quite a bit of overlap in the skills set needed to understand each one. Both art historian and archaeologist must develop an “eye” for the material they study – the ability to pick out pertinent details quickly, to identify the style of painting or construction technique, to draw connections with other material.

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Acropolis wall with reused blocks, Iasos (Caria)
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Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480. Wiki images







In this way, looking becomes an act in itself, a process of selectively seeing certain features and drawing mental connections. So the next time you visit an archaeological site, try to practice looking at the walls, ceramics, artifacts, and plans like an archaeologist. You don’t even have to get dirty to do it!