Tag Archives: archaeology

Digging the Dead…City: The Caere Project and the Excavation of Etruscan Ruins

Our latest post is written by one of our newest MA students, Kevin Lee.  We’re happy to have him helping out with the project and it sounds like he has an amazing time digging every summer!


You’ve heard of the famous Banditaccia necropolis at Cerveteri no doubt.  You know, rows and rows of Etruscan tombs and tumuli about 40 minutes northwest of Rome?  A veritable city of the dead?  Home of the friendliest stray dog and worst hamburger in the Repubblica italiana?

IMGA0459No?  Well, humor me anyway.  Suppose you wanted to visit this fabled land where the Etruscans of ancient Cerveteri laid their dead to rest and left them some goodies to enjoy in the afterlife until two millennia later when archaeologists so thoughtfully came in and jacked it all.  Imagine yourself in Rome’s Trastevere station (I choose that one instead of Termini because I’ve noticed Termini inspires very…mixed feelings, let us say, among those who have experienced its unique charms).  If you hop an FL5 train towards Civitavecchia and ride it out for about 20 minutes, you’ll arrive at a station called Marina di Cerveteri.  You disembark, and find yourself in a whitewashed resort town that has no intention of leaving the ‘70s, and realize this is not where you want to be.  So you follow the locals to the nearest intersection and catch that friendly-looking municipal bus which has enough legroom for people approximately 1 micron in width and ride it up the hill to Piazza Aldo Moro.  Ah, now you’re in Cerveteri itself, with that stately medieval castle of the Ruspoli clan to your left and the outdoor café to your right where the elders of the town seem to be practicing their age-old art of staring directly through you.  A pleasant walk around the medieval borgo and along the Via della Necropoli, lined with enough stone pines to make Virgil’s shade wax poetic, and within half an hour you’ve arrived at the Banditaccia’s gate.

Or you could just take a car or go with a tour group, but that would just be too easy, wouldn’t it?

IMGA0400If you’re lucky a huge white and well-fed Great Pyrenees will lop up to you at the gate, tongue lolling out, and roll over begging for pets on a stomach caked with approximately 5 years’ worth of unwashed dirt.  Inside you’ll walk among and through an array of tombs so varied and whimsical you’ll expect a purple-suited Gene Wilder to pop out of the Mengarelli Tumulus and start singing “Come with me, and you’ll be, in a worlllld of pure imagination.” Within moments you too will fall in love with (or at least be fascinated by…or slightly interested in) the Etruscans, and as you sit at the visitor center eating a dry hamburger whose thickness could have been used by Demokritos to demonstrate his concept of the atom, you’ll ponder this ancient people whom romantic writers like George Dennis and D.H. Lawrence liltingly lionized as peaceful, nature-loving hill-elf folk before those nasty Romans came with their laws and sewer systems.

10474856_10152429319705091_6191531623096349725_nThese are the people I’ve dug for the past three summers.  While my interest as broadly conceived is comparative urbanism across the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, my practical focus has been on digging Etruscans and Etruscan accessories.  Contrary to the notions of Dennis and Lawrence, the Etruscans were not Na’vi antici, but as Livy will be happy to tell you perfectly predisposed to some good old-fashioned cattle-rustlin’ in Roman territory, wars, and to becoming kings who made the Romans build those impressive sewers (the gall!).  They also weren’t particularly nature-loving in the modern sense.  On my first dig in 2012 at Poggio Civitate, the site of an Etruscan manor house in northern Etruria approximately 20 kilometers from Siena, our director, Dr. Anthony Tuck, would point to all the surrounding hills and note the relatively scrubby growth, saying “That’s in part because the Etruscans who owned this hill clear-cut the whole area to fuel their workshop.”  That ought to make James Cameron think he didn’t evil-up his cartoonishly villainous space miners enough.  Whereas they left intact large swaths of alien jungle in spite of their futuristic earth-movers and giant Tonka trucks, their 2,000+ year-old ancestors far outstripped them with little more than iron axes.  And using nothing more than those axes and their grit, the southern cousins of the Poggio Civitate lords cleared the defensible Cerveteri plateau and established one of the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean atop it.

While the Etruscans had a multitude of names for this city (e.g., Kaisra, Cisra, Kysry, etc.) the Romans knew it as Caere, and that is the name that has stuck.  Up until recently, the focus in Etruscan archaeology has been their tombs, as those were the big remains which captured the attention of earlier investigators.  Little overall was known about their settlements and cities, which, being made largely of perishable materials such as wood and mudbrick, were not as sexy to early researchers as those decorated tombs a short walk away.  Recently the winds have been shifting in favor of more Etruscan settlement archaeology, and the Caere Project is part of that wave.  I have dug there for the past two seasons, in 2013 and 2014.  The excavation is held near the approximate geographic center of the ancient city, in close proximity to the Roman theater built during the reign of Claudius as well as a large elliptical structure of uncertain status (council chamber? Ritual hub?) and two large Etruscan sanctuaries tentatively identified as being dedicated to Uni (Juno) and Cel (Tellus).

While today the area the Caere Project excavates is beneath a former vineyard, in the Etruscan and Roman periods it was home to a subterranean ritual space termed “the Hypogeum of Clepsina” by the project, after an inscription to the left of the entrance mentioning renovations during the tenure of the praefect Gaius Genucius Clepsina in 273 B.C.  Interestingly, just because the hypogeum was subterranean does not mean it was a room without a view. Excavations in 2012 revealed windows that looked out onto a great lustral basin.  Based on calculations made by the project director, Dr. Fabio Colivicchi, the hypogeum is aligned so that on the Winter Solstice, the Sun directly illuminates the a niche, where an altar or other ritual fixture may have once stood, flanked by painted palm trees.  Furthermore, echoes during the excavation process suggested the presence of more subterranean spaces beneath the hypogeum.

IMGA0434As exciting as it would be to excavate an underground complex, the paperwork and expense for such an undertaking is massive, so our Indiana Jonesing must wait and for the past two years the project has focused on the easier task of excavating the urban fabric surrounding the hypogeum.  In 2013 we dug the area south of the hypogeum, which contained a major road used during the Roman and Etruscan periods, on both sides of which were remains that suggest mixed domestic-production areas.  A small subterranean room with a pillar altar as well as a 6 meter-deep cistern and well were found on the south side, while a structure containing fragments of bronze and a corner pool (forge?) was found north of the road.  In 2014, we excavated a smaller and more concentrated area directly north of the hypogeum.  In spite of the plowing damage from early modern vine trenches and the modern town’s aqueduct pipe which blew right through the middle of our trench, we uncovered several structural remains, including a drain, a platform of some sort, and, most intriguingly, a c. 8th century B.C. hut, the oldest evidence to date of habitation on the plateau.  Unfortunately I did not get to investigate the hut, as my area was the very messy zone of mixed contexts (and thus relatively useless for analysis), the product of industrious plowing by the site’s medieval and early modern occupants.

The site has produced some fantastic finds for learning about the urban context of a southern Etruscan city: painted terra cottas, a wealth of pottery, utilitarian and otherwise, and votive heads, to name a few categories.  The spread is also interesting to note.  In the southern area excavated in 2013, most of the finds could be dated to the Roman period.  In the northern area excavated in 2014, most of the finds could be dated to the earlier Etruscan period.  We know that Caere’s fortunes waxed and waned over time.  After the city was subsumed into the Roman Republic it lost much of its prestige, but remained an urban center into the Julio-Claudian dynasty when Claudius gave special attentions to the city as a historic center of Etruscan culture.  The city gradually withered afterwards, although some ritual activity at least persisted at the site during the Severan dynasty, as an inscription in the hypogeum suggests.  These areas are not very far apart, so it is interesting that the finds from one are predominantly Roman and those from the other predominantly Etruscan.  Since the finds are of a different age, this demonstrates changing site usage through time.

IMGA0476Thus stands the Caere Project.  It is set to continue for the foreseeable future.  While yours truly will not be returning there this summer, having already signed on to another dig, the project’s progress can be followed at its website.

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The Future of Archaeology: Why 3D Rendering is Virtually Vital

Since starting to research photogrammetry in preparation for Saturday’s International Archaeology Day workshop, I’ve realized a couple of crucial points. One is that 3D rendering of objects and landscapes is fast becoming a standard practice in archaeology and the second is that the process is one of the few archaeological processes that can be picked up at home with no investment other than your time.

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For our workshop we are using the free software 123DCatch, which has apps for computers, tablets and smartphones. The multi-platform app means that a student – if they have WiFi at the dig site – could potentially photograph and render in 3D on site and in mere minutes with their cell phone, producing detailed and accurate copies of artifacts or archaeological features that were once painstakingly drawn by hand.

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If you’ve read Kat’s post on her dig over the summer in Italy, you already know there is plenty of slow, painstaking work in archaeology; there is no substitute for the precise, methodical uncovering of artifacts and features long buried under the dirt. (Fun party trick – just mention Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation tactics and watch your archaeologist friends cringe in horror and dismay.) That’s not to say that archaeological geophysics isn’t making strides in its own right, but those methods can only be used to identify buried features; no push of a button is going to actually shift the dirt carefully enough that we can replace eager students “cleaning dirt off of dirt”.

800px-Excavations_in_El-Wad

But where we can save time – in surveys, in rendering the artifacts and features more precisely and in greater detail – we have an obligation to do so. This is not just a question of getting your excavation finished in good time, or even getting the results published. I keep coming back to what Tom Elliott said when opening the EAGLE Conference – that we are all working together as the antidote to the destruction of our shared cultural heritage. This isn’t just an academic’s attempt to justify their work – there are genuine threats to our cultural heritage and the preservation of it is necessary and vital.

The Associated Press reports the Islamic State has taken to destroying key archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria– much of which includes the ancient land of Mesopotamia– and subsidizing their income with black market sales of ancient artifacts. In addition to Mosul, the Islamic State controls four ancient cities — Nineveh, Kalhu, Dur Sharrukin and Ashur– which gives them nearly unbridled access to a treasure trove of statues, tiles, and other highly-coveted items by collectors. Nineveh alone contains 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites. (Brietbart.com Sept. 21, 2014)

We fully believe that any student heading out on a dig in the future should be armed with a basic knowledge of photogrammetry, given how easily accessible the software is and how simple it is to use. Our scholarly focus may be on the past, but we need to keep our eyes on the future at least in terms of the tools and techniques we use in the field.

Further reading:

 A Discussion of the Analytical Benefits of Image-Based 3D Modeling in Archaeology

Photogrammetry in Archaeology: Using the Future to Understand the Past in the Present

Digital Archaeology in the News:

3D Model of the Amphipolis Tomb

Beyond Ankor: How lasers revealed a lost city

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Archaeology, Artifacts, Digital Cultural Heritage, DIY

Bringing the Domitilla Catacomb out of the Dark: Photogrammetry in Action

The first presentation at the EAGLE Conference was by Antonio Enrico Felle and Norbert Zimmermann who work on the Domitilla Project in Rome, and it was arguably one of the most impressive projects I’ve ever seen at a conference. The project has been working since 2006 to create a full 3D model of the Domitilla catacomb, 12km of subterranean burials from the 2nd to 5th centuries CE, which showcases one of the largest inventories of catacomb painting from early Christianity in Rome.

The catacomb was founded by Flavia Domitilla, niece of the emperor Domitian in the 2nd c CE. Christian burials were forbidden within the walls of Rome, so these subterranean burials had to be outside the city limits and there are at least 40 outside of Rome that have been discovered to date. Today catacombs provide the best examples of early Christian art; the Domitilla catacomb itself has over 80 painted tombs, and in the 5th century CE an underground basilica was added and became a pilgrimage sanctuary for the graves of martyrs Nereus and Achilleus.

Flavia Domitilla van Terracina, Nereus en Achilleus, Peter Paul Ruebens 1608

Flavia Domitilla van Terracina, Nereus en Achilleus, Peter Paul Ruebens 1608

The project’s goal was to create a 3D scan of the catacomb in order to facilitate research of the paintings and inscriptions found within, but also so that each feature of the site – chamber, painting or inscription – could be properly geotagged with their exact location. This would allow archaeologists to date the chronological development of the catacomb based on the dates of the tombs, paintings and inscriptions with more precision than had previously been possible.

Domitilla Project

Domitilla Project

Beginning in 2006 with three scanning campaigns, the team set out to determine the viability of using 3D laserscanners to create a digital copy of the catacomb.

The scanner orientates itself on temporarily applied reflector points (Fig.1). In 360-degree panorama-scans it generates so-called point clouds, which reproduce the surrounding area of about 1 m distance as a 3D-structure. In order to connect several scans with each other, further scan positions with at least five already known reflector points are selected. At the same time as the scan, a digital camera mounted on the scanner produces photo data that can directly be applied onto the point cloud. The advantage of this method lies in the mobility of these point clouds, which can be viewed from the outside as well as the inside and which can be virtually entered. Depending on the projection and position, a ground plan, cross- and longitudinal sections and 3D views are retrievable.

Once successful tests had been completed, the team moved forward with the scanning – moving the laserscanner eight meters for each set of shots, the scanner would record 2,000 points at each set up. They estimate they did two months of post-processing for every two weeks of fieldwork, and scanning continued through the beginning of their 2009 season when they registered the 1,800 single scans into a comprehensive point cloud. The final point cloud for the entire catacomb model contains 2 billion points, each with digital coordinates. This means anyone searching the model can pinpoint exactly where each feature of interest is located, and brings the epigraphy, topography, archaeology and art history of the catacomb together in a single application. Now that the digital scanning is complete, they are working on bibliographic information on the paintings and the saints buried in the catacomb.

To create photorealistic 3D models of the fresco paintings, meshed models are calculated from the point clouds and high resolution digital photos are applied to the model:

Domitilla fresco of  the so-called Chamber of King David

Domitilla fresco of the so-called Chamber of King David

The future of the project is a joint venture working with Terapoints on creating high quality visualizations of large data sets, such as the Domitilla Catacomb, as well as integrating the 3D photos of frescoes into the model.

In order to use the precise scan data as directly and unaltered as possible, the Domitilla-team was enhanced by new collaboration partners: the Institute of Computer Graphics and Algorithms of the Technical University of Vienna and the company Imagination, which are jointly developing the point-cloud viewer Scanopy. With its help extremely large point-clouds can be viewed in real time; the goal is to further develop this program according to the needs of archaeologists and building researchers.

There are some incredibly exciting developments in archaeological reconstructions happening these days. We’ve come such a long way from Sir Arthur Evan’s controversial reconstructions at Knossos. Digital models can be reconstructed, reinterpreted and manipulated a thousand different ways without ever degrading or damaging the fragile archaeological remains, which affords researchers more opportunity to explore theoretical reconstructions than ever before. And once the initial scans are done, digital sites are accessible to anyone with an internet connection, meaning it would be entirely possible to do a tour of the Domitilla Catacomb in any classroom in the world. There is no replacement for seeing sites like this in person, but for so many of us, travel and access to sites like this are simply out of reach; he Lascaux Caves, for example, have been closed to public viewing since 2008 because of fungus that threatens the paintings and requires careful monitoring so the images are not lost forever. Digital modelling offers a simple solution to problems of accessibility and responsible cultural heritage management.

For those in the Vancouver area with an interest in photogrammetry, the Vancouver AIA and From Stone to Screen are hosting a free workshop this Saturday, October 18th from 1-4 where participants will learn to create their own 3D models – email photogrammetry@gmail.com to reserve your spot! No prior knowledge required, just a camera and laptop.

 

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Filed under Archaeology, Digital Classics, Digital Cultural Heritage, Photogrammetry

Digitizing Squeezes for All to See – Presenting for the AIA in Vancouver, BC

Haley (left) and Heather (right) compare a squeeze to the epigraphic chart.

Haley (left) and Heather (right) compare a squeeze to the epigraphic chart.

If you are passionate about Classics and the ancient world in Vancouver, British Columbia, you might find yourself at the University of British Columbia once a month attending a lecture hosted by the local branch of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).  This week, From Stone to Screen had the amazing opportunity to present at one of these public lectures.  This was unprecedented – no graduate student had spoken at a Vancouver AIA talk in over six years.  Two of our own, Haley Bertram and Heather Odell, were asked to present on the project and its goals.  And so, after weeks of preparing, they found themselves at the front of a classroom in Buchanan building presenting the project to the Vancouver community for the first time.

The room was full; whether or not that relieved any of the pressure is difficult to say.  We were excited to see that that so many people not directly involved with the department were interested in the project— something we hadn’t been able to gauge before—but this also meant that Haley and Heather also had a bigger audience than they expected to speak in front of.  For someone who fears public speaking, having a packed room can be almost terrifying.

These two budding academics, though, kept it cool and pulled strength from each other.  “It’s like having a built-in person who has to listen to your ideas,” Haley joked.

Haley (left) and Heather (right) joke while working on the lecture.

Haley (left) and Heather (right) joke while working on the lecture.

While the two agreed that it may have been less efficient to work with another person, having the support and sharing the workload made the entire process easier.  They split the workload evenly between themselves and also decided to hand off different sections to one another during the talk.

Ultimately, they appreciated that the audience was composed of members of the public.  Until now, while From Stone to Screen has had several opportunities to write about the project, the presentation opportunities have been limited to department seminars, undergraduate classes and the UBC CNERS Graduate Conference this past May.  Haley and Heather were approached by several people in the audience after the talk who were interested in the new digitization methods and who wanted to speak about the uses for the new databases.  Having the feedback made all of the stress worth it in the end.

Heather Odell (left) and Haley Bertram (right) triumphant after their AIA talk last Tuesday.

Heather Odell (left) and Haley Bertram (right) triumphant after their AIA talk last Tuesday.

Despite the fact that they have both presented on From Stone to Screen before, Haley and Heather wanted to expand on the previous talks.  The work with Digital Initiatives this summer has catapulted the project forward significantly and they had a score of new images and techniques that they were able to share.  Working on a lecture that had already been presented several times, though, was more difficult than they had anticipated, especially since the first full-length version of it had been written by several of the graduate students involved in the project last year.  Writing this lecture, though, gave them the opportunity to gain new appreciation for the project and what it can do not only for the CNRS department but also others in the field.  Haley equated it to forgetting the thrill of finding artifacts on your first ever dig.  “You forget how super exciting that is… It’s cool to everyone else who hasn’t encountered it,” she mused, “you’ve just acclimated to it.”  Heather, who has worked on the project since its inception, agreed.  Talking to the audience members gave it new light again.  “You get a chance to step back and remember that what you’re doing is cool,” she added.

When I asked them if they felt the pressure of speaking to members of the public instead of members of the CNRS department, Heather said that it wasn’t so much the pressure to speak in front of strangers but the new information they needed to discuss.  So much has happened since the last talk in May that a large amount of it was still unfamiliar to them.  For the first time, the theme changed from ‘this is what we’re planning to do’ to ‘this is what we have done.’  Haley, on the other hand, was more concerned with the pressure of speaking at the AIA.  “Generally the people presenting are very respected in the field, they’re visiting scholars,” she explained.  The project is a collective work which helped, but there was still the pressure of presenting graduate-level work.

Members of the audience talk with the speakers about the squeezes following the talk.

Members of the audience talk with the speakers about the squeezes following the talk.

In the end, the talk ran a little over forty-five minutes (a relief to them both since they tend to speak rather quickly) and was hiccup-free.  Haley spoke about the background of the Athenian Tribute Lists and their importance to scholarship.  The high resolution images of our squeezes are allowing us to see details to the inscriptions that have never been seen before, and the timing of this with the reassembling of the original stone lists is perfect.  Ultimately our project wants to allow anyone to see copies of the inscriptions without needing to be in their physical presence, and having the information readily available to the public in an online database will help anyone wishing to work on the lists.  This is especially helpful since, by the very nature of how a squeeze is made, you have to read them backwards which adds more work to working on them.

Some of the artifacts from the Fuller collection were brought out for the audience to see, such as this Phoenician lamp.

Some of the artifacts from the Fuller collection were brought out for the audience to see, such as this Phoenician lamp.

In the end they were incredibly proud that the first talk of the season was on UBC work.  That and the interest at the end made them very proud of their talk – all of the feedback at the end reiterated that one of the project’s main goals, that is helping the public gain access to the artifact collection and the information on the squeezes, is something that is wanted.  The audience was enthusiastic about the information that can be gleaned from the squeezes and were even more thrilled at the chance to study the samples that Heather and Haley had brought with them to the talk.

Since our presentation to the Vancouver branch of the AIA, we have learned that our poster submission to the 2015 Annual Meeting has been accepted.  We are very excited to continue our AIA experience in New Orleans!

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Filed under Digital Classics, Epigraphy, Greek Inscriptions, Project Planning, Squeeze Collection

Can social media make a difference?

humbledon petition

Maybe you’ve heard the term “slacktivist” before. It’s used for someone who thinks adding a hashtag, liking a Facebook post or forwarding an email is the same as actually making a change in the world, and is most often used to criticize laziness or the kind of social justice warrior who doesn’t really want to get off the couch. And there are a number of cases where this kind of “clicktivism” just doesn’t succeed. But I’ve come across an interesting petition, started by two teenage girls in Sunderland, England trying to stop the development of Humbledon Hill, part of which was granted Ancient Monument status as recently as 2011. In their case, social media might be just what they need to get enough petitions to halt the development.

Details from english-heritage.org state that:

The settlement on Humbledon Hill includes the western half of a defended settlement; to the east, the settlement has been compromised by housing development, gardening activities and the construction of a Victorian reservoir. This area is not included in the scheduling, given the level of disturbance to which it has been subjected. Geophysical survey in 2003 and archaeological evaluation in 2006 and 2007 demonstrated that the defended settlement includes a roughly sub-circular enclosure measuring a maximum of 75m north east to south west by 62m north west to south east, within two ditches and a medial bank. The inner ditch is c.0.5m wide and 0.5m deep and is considered to be the remains of a palisade trench, which formerly contained a wooden fence. The outer ditch is situated about 9m outside the inner ditch and measures up to 3m wide and 1m deep. Between the two ditches there is a stone and earth bank standing to a maximum height of 0.8m interpreted as the remains of a rampart. There is an entrance through the west side of the enclosure. Two substantial, ditched features immediately outside the settlement on the south and south west sides have the same character as the outer ditch and are considered the remains of structures associated with it. Prehistoric pottery, recovered from the ditches, demonstrated that the inner ditch was dug during the later Bronze Age and the outer ditch was subsequently dug during the Iron Age. Animal bone, some of it burnt, and flint pieces were recovered from parts of the ditches. Also recovered was what was identified as the corner of a triangular loom weight of Iron Age date. Within the interior of the enclosure, there are a series of pits, each 2m in diameter and archaeological evaluation also uncovered what was thought to be the part of a Bronze Age round cairn.

The petition needs to be handed in on Friday, and Emmie and Lily Thompson are reaching out through twitter to get as many signatures as possible by the deadline. Please check them out on Twitter: @Save_Our_Hill, and please sign the petition to Save Humbledon Hill. I’m really hoping social media can make a difference and save this one small space.

For more on the archaeological finds at Humbledon Hill, check out the Tyne & Wear museum for information on the Bronze Age urns found on the hill in 1873.

twmuseum urn

 

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More News from the Trenches: Archaeology Student Blogs

Kat Solberg’s post struck a chord with so many people who expressed an interest in hearing about archaeology from those with first-hand experience that we have asked the other archaeology students in our department to share some of their experiences. While we eagerly await contributions from Haley Bertram and Brad Morrison, here are a couple other archaeology blogs to check out that might satisfy your curiosity about the day-to-day work of an archaeologist in the trenches.

"The Tower" at Eleon

“The Tower” at Eleon

EBAP Eleon is the student blog for the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project, which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Institute in Greece and the 9th Ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. Posts are primarily by archaeology students from the University of Victoria taking the course for credit who are usually on their first ever dig. My personal favourite is Steven Mooney’s post, Story Time, which turned his experience into the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air opening rap:

In west Calgary born and raised
Uvic was where I spent most of my days
Chillin’ out maxin’ relaxin’ all cool
And all writing some essays outside of school.

The entire masterpiece can be found in the July 2014 archives here.

We are also lucky to have our most vibrant and energetic PhD student back on campus this year. Chelsea Gardner spent the last year at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and while I’m sure she had a great experience there, we certainly missed her infectious energy back at UBC. While away, Chelsea wrote a travel blog, Wild Beneath the Skies, that gives an inside look at the daily life and opportunities of students at the ASCSA, the stunning scenery of Greece and is well worth a read. One of her most widely read posts is on the stray dogs of Greece.

Sleeping Dog on the Erechtheion,

Sleeping Dog on the Erechtheion,

The one consistent report I’ve heard from all our archaeology students when they return from a dig are the stories of “dig dogs”; the stray dogs that become part of their temporary family every summer, are beloved, fed and given silly names, but sadly left behind when the dig ends for the season. Chelsea’s post helped publicize the option of virtual adoption of dogs at the Zografou shelter in Athens.

"Helping" with the ASCSA excavations

“Helping” with the ASCSA excavations

These kinds of posts give a picture of the goofy camaraderie that springs up on a dig; just because there’s serious work to be done doesn’t mean you have to take yourselves seriously as well.

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Cleaning Dirt Off of Dirt: When Archaeological Students Learn What Archaeology Actually Is

Our latest blog post was written by Kaitlyn Solberg, one of UBC’s Classical Archaeology MA students. Enjoy!

 


To the untrained eye, dirty stones scattered throughout a square-shaped pit can look no different from the stacks of stones nearby which just happen to run in an almost-straight line. As I was squinting at such a mess of tan-coloured stones in the distance, Professor David George of St. Anselm College was proudly gesturing at a stack less than a foot high hidden behind some olive trees. “If you look at this wall here, it’s a Roman retaining wall which they put in to keep all the water uphill. As you can tell, it is still working today.”

Thirty pairs of (untrained) eyes glanced at the trench he gestured at uphill and, sure enough, there is at least a foot of groundwater resting at the bottom of it. Some of the students look impressed, others bored, and some don’t quite seem to grasp the importance of this fact. At this Roman and Etruscan site about eight miles outside of Orvieto in central Italy, an ancient retaining wall is proof both of the amount of resources and engineering put into the series of buildings in front of us and the constant battle against the ground water that this wall would put us through. At that moment, though, the wall he was so proud of hardly looked that impressive.

Coriglia

© Daniel George

Water was the constant factor at this archaeological dig. Rising ground water had to be bailed out of the uphill trenches every morning and water was what all of the buildings were designed around. There are the remains of a Roman hypocaust system, terracotta and lead pipes, drainage channels and wells, to name a few. Professor George believes there was a fountain and maybe some sort of a bath complex, common elements of Roman architecture. What this site had been used for, though, was still not entirely clear.

Although the site has been excavated since 2006, this was my first year on the project. Actually, this was my first archaeological dig ever. Being one of three graduate students on the dig (the other two had both been on this dig before) I was determined to learn as much as I could about excavations in the short five weeks I was there. I was like a sponge soaking up everything Professor George said on his tour of the site on the first day but I still stared at the many piles of rocks and had a hard time determining if they were important or not. My one advantage over the thirty undergraduate volunteers standing next to me was that I had been studying Roman archaeology for the past four years, but I had no idea if I was going to enjoy the physical aspect of my intended career path.

The site is located on the crossroads of the Via Cassia and the Via Traiana Nova, a strategic location for trade in the region. The late Republican and early Imperial buildings we were uncovering were built parallel to, and with respect to, Etruscan foundations. Given the total destruction by the Romans of most Etruscan towns and sites in the region, the Roman respect for the Etruscan layout means that this location most likely held some sort of religious significance. This was all explained to us on the first day and it was easy to forget that they had determined this after eight seasons of digging. You could see the anticipation in the faces of those who had never dug before, looks of hope and determination that we would find all the answers this very season.

Coriglia_2

© Daniel George

What the veterans knew, and luckily I had an idea of from years of reading excavation reports, is that digging is slow. Not only slow, but what few finds there are create more questions than they answer. I had learned all about stratigraphic layers, digging in a methodical manner in order to avoid missing something important, sifting through the dirt to find small important pieces and various other methods in classes over the years. Beyond this, I had drilled my classmates who had dug before about what I needed to know. I was warned about things like always wearing a hat, how sore your thighs and knees get from squatting for days on end, the boredom and the gallons of water you drink. Despite all of this information, though, I was shocked by both how much more boring it was and yet at the same time how much more interesting.

It became clear within a week or two who was actually enjoying the process. I discovered that I hated shoveling and using the pickaxe (although this wasn’t too surprising to anyone who knows me) but would articulate rocks, walls and roof tiles until the end of time if I could. To me, the pain in my knees and isolation in one corner of the trench for extended periods of time was worth being able to perfectly uncover a single cover tile. For everyone else in my trench, thirty minutes of articulating was more than enough. It worked for me, though, and I spent almost the entire time on my own slowly but surely scraping dirt off of dirt.

The three trenches almost took on personalities and became competitive with each other, each having its own strength and importance but denying the need for the other two. My own trench rarely turned up an artifact which could be deemed as cool, to our chagrin, but the architectural components of the buildings we were working on meant that we were discovering the most information for the overall picture of the site. We also broke more than our share of pickaxes and weren’t allowed to have nice ones any more. We would just laugh this off, though, and take the nice ones anyway. The competitiveness was almost forgotten whenever we all had free time and my classmates’ claim that the friends you make on digs were ones you’d have for life was quickly proven to be true.

COriglia_3

© Daniel George

Needless to say, we didn’t discover the secrets behind what the site was and why it was there. If anything, we created more questions and disproved past theories. Some students ended the dig completely frustrated with the lack of concrete answers and decided they needed to choose a different area of study. Others fell in love with the ancient world and transferred programs when they returned home. As for me, I came back with at least a dozen blisters, even more callouses, a sprained toe, multiple bruises, incredibly bizarre and stark tan lines, a dirty trowel, five more pounds of muscle and an immense sense of pride.

A professor once told me that there are two kinds of archaeologists; those who work in the field and those who read about it. I was immensely pleased to discover that I love the field and can endure the physical labour aspect of it given that I was as giddy uncovering my two hundredth roof tile as I was my first. I had developed a pretty killer ‘trowel hand’ with a massive callous in the middle of my right palm, disgusting to look at but something that I still show everyone with pride.   I learned that pieces of an amphora are useless if they’re not dateable, and that roof tiles can’t be kept because despite their overwhelming numbers, they can’t give any more information than the size of the roof. I learned how little pieces can change the look of the big picture and that to a Classical archaeologist anything that is Medieval is new.

 

Most of all, though, I learned that I love the challenge of understanding how even the smallest artifact can help determine anything from the use of a room to what a site was. The proof of this being that I spent 8 hours in one day digging out a well and was still grinning like a fool at the end of it from my excitement. What can I say? It ends up that I love what I do.

Coriglia_4

© Daniel George

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