Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
An archaeologist’s life is full of challenges: early mornings, long hours in the sun, going sometimes days without access to Facebook, Instagram, or the latest sports stats. But these obstacles are really just the tip of the iceberg. Fieldwork often includes even more daunting tasks. Large quantities of dirt must be dug manually and then removed. Each find must be recorded and kept, and special finds, such as coins, should have their exact find spots recorded. Ancient walls must be drawn down to the last stone. Thousands of pottery sherds must be hand-washed and sorted. Despite these challenges, I am routinely amazed by the results of dedicated human labor, usually without mechanical aid. This summer, I excavated at Corinth, Greece, and Labraunda, Turkey, and I would like to share some of my experiences with you.
The way that archaeologists ensure that each of the above tasks (and more) is completed is through the specialization of labor. At Corinth and Labraunda, local workers dig with picks, shovel the dirt, and remove it in wheelbarrows. At Corinth, we were digging inside a Byzantine (eastern medieval) cistern that extended more than 13 feet into the earth, so the digging conditions and dirt removal (by bucket) were even more challenging than usual!
Depending on the context, archaeologists may decide to sieve all or some of the dirt that is coming out of the ground. At Corinth, one worker was on full-time sieve duty, using her sharp eyes and quick hands to pick out small finds from the dirt, such as coins, metal nails, or jewelry, coal, bones, or pieces of glass. Of course, sometimes even the untrained eye can find an unexpected surprise in the sieve.
PhD students like me are tasked primarily with recording data as the workers dig and digging with the trowel in more delicate areas. We pay attention to changes in the dirt, take measurements and photographs, record find spots using a measuring tape or total station, make sketches or drawings, and give an initial interpretation of what all of this information adds up to. After material is removed from the ground, it passes into the care of conservators or pottery specialists, who painstakingly clean or mend the finds. To see some of the spectacular finds from previous seasons at Corinth, check out the online database at http://corinth.ascsa.net/research.
Most of the work at an archaeological site is done entirely by hand in order to protect the archaeological material we are excavating. This may seem old fashioned, but I am frequently amazed by the achievements of a few dedicated individuals and basic tools. For example, workers using only a hand-powered winch (very old technology) are able to move huge blocks safely and efficiently, as I witnessed at Labraunda.
Of course, there are times when it’s helpful to use more modern technology as well. Check out this 3D model of Labraunda created by drone photography.