Richard Mikulski Site: College Site, Sidon, Lebanon

I studied archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) where apart from feeling like Nemo in a sea of students, I also had the opportunity to attend a course module on human remains and ancient disease as part of my undergraduate degree. After a brief(-ish) hiatus helping to conserve turtles in the Caribbean, I went on to study for an MSc in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Bradford. Following the completion of my dissertation, I helped out re-boxing some of the human remains collections and it was at this point one of my tutors asked me if I’d be interested in joining an excavation in Lebanon.

Almost 15 years later, I am still heavily involved here at Sidon, having long since decided it’s highly unlikely I will get to dig another site like it. I have also been lucky enough here to excavate human remains (a group of crusaders from two mass grave deposits) which are currently the focus of my own PhD research at Bournemouth University, (thanks again to my old tutor, now supervisor, Professor Holger Schutkowski), but that’s a story for another day… 😉

Here in Sidon, my typical day starts at 4:55am with the usual panic that I am last to get up.

A typical breakfast consists of the following:

  • one flatbread neatly torn into three parts upon each of which I spread the following delicacies – Picon (the local equivalent of Dairy Lea/La vache qui rie e. processed cheese), raspberry jam and Nutella (the latter assuming Hassan has not finished it off…)
  • one small cup of industrial strength Arabic coffee as kindly made each morning by our lovely conservator Ms P.

Breakfast (Image: R. Mikulski)

Khaled, our driver picks us up in his minibus at 5:30 and we’re off with a clatter of clean cooking pots and Tupperware to Sidon proper where the excavation site is located right on the edge of the old town.

I’m lucky enough that where I am currently digging is beneath the superstructure of the new museum (currently under construction over part of the site). Not only does this keep me out of the baking sun most of the day, but it also provides me with the rather weak excuse that it is too dark to excavate the delicate remains of the burial we are uncovering at present for another hour or so. Consequently, I can get on with some paperwork and catch up with the recording of the burial archaeology. It also allows me to partake of Fadia’s (one of Claude, our director’s right-hand ladies) generosity and accept a fortuitous extra cup of coffee – even stronger than the first!

 

College Site, Sidon in 2011 (Image: S. Randall).

 

With new museum currently under construction. (Image: R. Mikulski)

I can generally start down on site just before 7am. This year I’m experimenting with some time-lapse video footage of one of the burials, which involves lugging the giant tripod down along with all my tools, finds bags, camera, notebook and the ever-essential large bottle of water.

My work on site invariably involves me sitting or lying down for long periods of time. Often as not, I’m to be found in one or other dubious positions, precariously balanced over one of a variety of different types of bronze age burial.

Hi Mum! Image: N. Maraanen

Up until recently, the focus of the research excavations has been mainly on the Bronze Age deposits and the Middle Bronze Age cemetery, which began about 2000 BC, its use continuing until approximately 1400 BC.

While the initial use of the cemetery began with some rather fancy, high status burials (single individuals, usually males with lots of grave goods such as bronze axes and spearheads and plenty of animal remains presumably to keep them going in the afterlife…), it’s clear that the cemetery soon came to include everyone from Bronze Age Sidon and burial practices became more variable, ranging from high status stone-lined ‘tombs’ to mudbrick ‘cists’ to the very neat jar burials usually accommodating children.

It’s also clear that space gradually became a premium and one of the main problems we encounter is trying to glean as much information from the truncated burials often missing parts or sections of the individuals’ bodies because of later activity cutting into earlier deposits. Things are made even more difficult as people appear to have revisited the burials, sometimes clearing the remains of previous burials but arranging them in neat stacks

This photo of a section shows an exposed child’s burial located directly above a jar burial, most likely containing another subadult. You can clearly see how the burial of the large jar involved digging a hole into the orange sand layer.

Section showing sand layer and jar burial. Image: R. Mikulski

The sand layer is a very useful part of what we call the stratigraphy of the site. It sits directly on top of the Early Bronze Age deposits, effectively sealing them and provides us with a horizon marking the start of the Middle Bronze Age, so anything that cuts into the sand must be later than c.2000 BC.

Unfortunately, it is rare that the skeletal remains survive well after exposure and lifting here in the Near East. The great age of the remains (at least 3,500 years in most cases) along with the ground conditions and long-term continuous urban activity on site, often result in a situation where the bones are softer than the soil around them and both dry out very rapidly in the extreme heat of the summer here. The sun especially has a detrimental effect on the remains almost as soon as they are exposed, with bones literally crumbling at the slightest touch. In the past, I have had to make do with some comedy parasols to protect the bones and allow us to get a good photograph.

“But I really need two parasols…” (Image: R. Mikulski)

However, this year patience has already been rewarded with a couple of burials which have turned out very well.

Nina Maraanen Site: College Site, Sidon, Lebanon

The view from the roof

Like Richard, my speciality is skeletal human remains. I have a degree in Archaeology from the University of Helsinki as well as a degree in Human osteology and palaeopathology from the University of Bradford, UK (in other words, I like looking at bones on and off the field). Currently, I am (also) located at the University of Bournemouth, working on my PhD that will include a number of sites from both Egypt and the Levantine area.

Unlike Richard, however, this is my very first dig at Sidon (my very first dig in Lebanon, to tell you the truth). My previous stints in the area have been situated in different parts of Egypt, though recently I have been excavating in Finland, where the summer excavation season does not necessarily mean the weather is any clearer, drier or warmer. When I was presented with an opportunity to retire my wellies (for now at least) and work in Sidon, I practically had my suit cases packed the next day.

Friday morning begins like any other morning, the alarm blaring off first at 4.50, then 4.55 and finally at 5.00 – I am most definitely not a morning person but luckily, years of forced early wake-ups have caused most tasks to become automatic, and the first conscious decision takes place only after Fadia has made her coffee round of the morning.

Afterwards, I follow Fadia down to Sandikli, where all the pottery from the site gets processed (though some of the burials are stored in the office, some are kept in separate storage). The human remains have already received a preliminary assessment, but my job is to confirm field assessments (such as age estimations) and take measurements wherever I can. This will give us a fuller understanding of the people who used to live and work at Sidon and how Sidon was connected to other places not only in Lebanon but further afield.

After marvelling about the importance of my work I am feeling quite hungry but it seems rejoicing one’s excellence burns more calories than one is able to consume in the morning, and the clock is stuck at 9.00am. So I hunker down for another hour before bouncing off to breakfast to hear how the others are faring for the day. Usually Richard will provide me with a juicy detail of whatever burial-related feature they have found and I can once again lull myself into thinking how much I love my work.

Office work in Sidon

After breakfast, the day always seems to speed up and before I know it, it is lunch time and soon after that we are packing our equipment and heading back to the house to unpack and unwind. Every evening, I dump my pictures of the day to an external hard drive (while keeping the originals as well). Mostly, it is images upon images of laid out skeletons or other exciting bits I’ve come across, but I also try and include work photos as well – of the team, the workmen, the scenery. Today, I had extra fun taking my work photos as I wore my Indiana Jones t-shirt in honour of the Day of Archaeology event. Indiana’s field work may have had more gun fights but he was still a big geek for Archaeology – just like the rest of us!

 

Nina at Sidon