goodbye week three volunteers! we’ll miss you muchly. welcome second-half dig volunteers!
things to look forward to this week:
Monday: National Geographic arrives to film!!! (ohhh yeahhhh)
Thursday: Community Day…where 40 high schoolers/parents/teachers arrive to dig for the day. mass chaos will inevitably ensue.
SO. Updates. Life has been insane - I really didn’t anticipate the sheer amount of work I would have as the excavation’s photographer - but after spending all today in the lab rather than the field and having MORE work after the day than when I started, I’m starting to get an idea.
Anyway, many an adventure has definitely been had - though I don’t actively excavate much myself anymore, I do get to help sweep and dig the best finds. Win. Last week, an excellent mosaic…wine vat? foot bath? hot tub time machine? came up in Grid 51, and that was pretty sweet. Thumbs up to the excellent volunteers who managed not to dislodge any of the tessera!
Last weekend I went to Jerusalem with some friends - and it was QUITE the adventure (in both good and bad ways), but I’ll save the stories for a separate post.
Last week, I had the wonderful time of celebrating my birthday. I can truly say it was the best birthday of my entire life, and celebrated with the best group of people I could ever ask for. I was sung to multiple times by the grid and by the entire excavation - and Grid 47 bought me popsicles at fruit break :) Also, they granted me the honor of excavating the treasure pit! The treasure pit is this AMAZING sewer system that simply has no bottom (yet) and leads to a mysterious tunnel. We remain convinced that the tunnel houses both the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant. Obviously. While I, unfortunately, didn’t find these things, I did pull up a large (10cm) piece of an intact glass bowl, an immature chicken with complete long bones, and a worked astragalus. Best. Day. Ever. Of course, the evening included about 20-30 people, a local bar, and much merriment and general debauchery. There also may or may not have been a birthday waffle involved.
Anyway, back to the lab…I’m starting my publication project tonight! I get to author or co-author it with some of the leading Israeli pottery experts, and I’m SO excited to get my name on such an incredible collection. More to come… :)
The best day I have ever had on the dig, in three seasons.
One of the best afternoons of my life, no question.
Typically, day three is one of the worst of the entire season, excluding the dreaded week five, which features Drama and Lack-of-Energy as its key players. On day three, the jet lag from day one has caught up and turned into pure exhaustion. The sore muscles first felt on day two were worked more and turned into pure pain. Cleaning is still happening, so most of the day is spent doing nothing except carrying bucketloads of dirt.
Instead, today reinforced everything I have ever loved about archaeology and turned into one of the most incredible dig experiences I have ever had. Win? Yes.
I can’t wait to feel the dirt under my nails, in my clothes, caked loosely on my skin. I can’t wait to let my sore muscles relax under a hurried, cold shower, and watch the clear water turn grey with the day’s debris. 3,000 years of historical dust, washed down the drain.
I can’t wait to groan as the 4:30 alarm goes off, and tie the laces on my boots with my eyes still closed. I can’t wait to drink those 8 oz of hot water, mixed with two packets of instant coffee, for the extra caffeine kick.
I can’t wait to scrape away the dirt, re-finding the lines that were so carefully preserved last season, but covered up by winter rains and dirt shifts. (I can wait to challenge the scorpions that have made our sandbags their homes for the last 10 months. Good thing my pastiche is freshly sharpened!)
I can’t wait to run down to the ocean during our afternoon break and lay in the sun for a brief hour, while the jellyfish play in the churning waves. To open a fresh, cold beer after a long day in the sun and relax in the hall with friends, discussing the high and low parts of the day, the absurdities of dig life, and the frustrations that inevitably arise.
I can’t wait to sit around a hookah at night, planning the next day or week’s schedule, relaxing under the Israeli sky in the company of those you haven’t seen for a year.
I can’t wait to photograph the pottery, catalog the collections, and start research on artistic and petrographic questions. I can’t wait to process the photos, analyze the similarities and differences, run comparative studies.
I can’t wait to get tired of digging and run away to the local mall with friends for an afternoon. To shop? Absolutely not. Rather, the mall has one of those oases that speaks directly to an archaeologist’s heart: Aroma. I can’t wait to sip that delicious iced coffee, an Israeli creation that is yet unparalleled by any Starbucks creation.
The question I’ve been asked most in the last few weeks is how I feel about going back to Israel in light of all that has happened recently. Anyone who even glances at the news can clearly see the political situation in many Middle Eastern countries is degenerating rapidly. I’ve been fortunate; the past few summers have been relatively calm. I’ve heard only 2 air sirens (alerting that a missile will hit somewhere in the general vicinity within 30 or so seconds) - and one was a drill. (The other hit a beach, and didn’t cause any damage.) My particular site happens to be situated fairly close to the Gaza Strip, however, so explosions from the Israeli Navy or sonic booms from the Air Force flying missions over Gaza are commonplace.
Unfortunately, it is true that the threat of attack, however minimal, still exists. I would be lying if I said reading news that the city where I dig was struck by missiles doesn’t make my stomach twist slightly. And when I’m actually on the dig, explosions in Gaza cause the dirt above our grids to shift slightly, sending miniature-dirt avalanches down the balk…well, it can be unsettling. Does that mean digging there is unsafe? Absolutely not.
The concept of a nation that suffers from such immediate and ongoing violence is especially foreign to the United States, as, barring terrorist attacks like 9/11and isolated incidents like Pearl Harbor, the US has been blessed with peace in its homelands. While we have obviously been involved in almost every major international conflict, the last time we had sustained violence on our home soil was the Civil War. For most Americans, the fear of a war-state is only heightened by the limited scope portrayed by the media. It doesn’t help that Israel most often makes the news when peace treaties and cease-fires fail, rather than during periods of sustained calm.
Israel does not feel like a war-state. Granted, it takes a couple weeks to acclimate to groups of soldiers, barely old enough to drink by U.S. laws, walking around with M-16s in public locations. But it becomes normal - there aren’t shootouts around corners, warships on the horizon remain on the horizon, and you start to use the daily Air Force flyovers as a way of marking how much time remains until breakfast.
I think many people who have never visited Israel fail to realize that Israel is used to the consistent flux between peaceful times and less peaceful times. Citizens I’ve talked to discuss surviving the waves countless times, and the complicated political situations become just another part of their everyday lives. Last summer, when I visited Jerusalem, one portion of the Old City was rioting. In the rest of the quarters, you would have no idea - life carried along in perfect normalcy.
All this being said, a certain degree of common sense is still crucial. When there are riots in Jerusalem, walk away from the plumes of smoke. When terror acts are becoming more and more frequent, avoid the use of public transportation in major cities. Postpone visiting Palestinian refugee camps, or cities in the West Bank.
And if you’re onsite and a rocket is headed your way? Well then, there is no safer place than an archaeological dig. Filled with deep holes, massively tall balks, and a myriad of shelter choices, the excavation site is one of the safest places to avoid incoming explosives. Just like the soldiers of WWI, we also have trenches…and we can use them!
So no, I’m not concerned about going back. Yes, I rearranged my post-dig plans and decided to explore Greece instead of Egypt…and I’m probably not going to be visiting Ramallah while in Israel. But I genuinely believe I will be safe - I trust the Israeli military technology (for anyone who hasn’t heard about their newly-implemented Iron Dome system, it’s worth checking out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Dome), and I trust to common sense to take care of myself. And in the case of extreme fighting, digs usually end the season early and send everyone home.
Danger is relative. Accidents happen no matter where you are. Besides, listening to a few explosions might give you a new appreciation for only being bothered by the sound of the commuter train outside your city apartment.
It’s a well-established truth that archaeologists are slightly insane. Normal people don’t enjoy waking up at 4:30am six days a week to do physical labor in extreme sun and high temperatures, working alongside all variety of disturbing, potentially poisonous insects. (Okay, admittedly, put like that, it doesn’t sound super appealing.) But every year, hundreds of professors, students, and eager adventurers pack their work boots, sunscreen, and trowels into backpacks and head out to domestic and international excavation sites to put themselves through an average 6-8 weeks of the aforementioned work environment. What’s the appeal?
Archaeology, mainly thanks to the Indiana Jones franchise and the over-emphasized chest of Lara Croft, is commonly perceived as a pseudoscientific pursuit that mainly targets bright, shiny objects. Conveniently, these objects turn out to be extremely valuable or possess mysterious supernatural powers. Unfortunately, the entire field historically developed out of a pursuit of such items, so the contemporary push to study cultures for the sake of cultural significance rather than monetary value has been a slow change.
For example, consider the most prevalent archaeological discoveries commonly known in contemporary society. Tutankhamen, or “King Tut!” as he has been affectionately dubbed, remains one of the most popular international attractions to date. This is due in no small part to the allure of the mythic curse surrounding the mummy and the original excavations. No less sensational, though definitively less historically-grounded, are the annual claims of finding Noah’s Ark, artifacts from the time of Jesus, and other biblically-charged “discoveries.” The drive for prestige based on the level of popularity and attention given to the find remains, sadly, one of the biggest obstructions to a true conception of what archaeology is and the importance it carries.
Just like cinematic sex scenes and the ability of movie protagonists to get through airport security without a ticket, archaeology is far less glamorous and exciting than Hollywood would have you believe. But this sentence remains true if the only reason one pursues archaeology is for the discovery of shiny things. Begone, magpies! Archaeology is for academics and historical enthusiasts. And no amount of physical pain, sunburns, or insect bites can detract from the high-energy, tense, exciting environment unique to an archaeological dig.
Every day is an uncertainty. There are the days where you dig and dig and find nothing more than bone fragments and pottery sherds. (And, on some digs, not even those.) Yet the potential always exists…the potential for a complete vessel, an inscription, a piece of jewelry, a burial, a temple, and, naturally, the hope of finding the archaeological discovery of the century. While such larger discoveries are not infrequent, more often, daily searches in the ground uncover more gratifying, albeit smaller discoveries. Perhaps one day a door is revealed, marked only by the rectangular pattern of stone. Another morning the dirt flakes perfectly off a lower layer, marking an ancient floor. And the next afternoon a piece of mosaic might be uncovered.
Each piece of history, however insignificant, is a piece of history taken directly from its time period. (Assuming the excavation has an undisturbed stratigraphy!) As an excavator, being able to hold even the smallest sherd of pottery, in the knowledge that you are the first person to interact with that artifact since it was buried, however many hundreds or thousands of years ago, is an emotion of wonder, passion, and exhilaration.
So yes, archaeologists are insane. There are much less strenuous ways to spend the best months of the year…or are there? For archaeologists, the addiction to the dirt, the history, and the potential for wonder are an irresistible draw. And for almost anyone, the excavations are a place, where for two months every year, you get to share and enjoy the experience with a group of people just as crazy as you are.