Dirt, Data, and Drones: Sardis from Site to Archive to Outreach

I’m a lucky duck in that I have a full time job with a major archaeological project, the Sardis Expedition, an excavation that has been ongoing since 1958 and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. I serve as the Publications Data Manager in the archive at the Harvard University Art Museums, but I also go to site for a bit in the summers. My digging days are over due to a back injury, but my storage depot artifact sleuthing days are in their prime, and this was my site goal during the first two weeks of June.

A good end of day hike

Sardis has a number of major publications in process right now: a manuscript on over 8000 coins, a huge volume of inscriptions, a tome on our Temple of Artemis, and a key volume with a 700+ object catalog of the Lydian “House of Bronzes” area, which will provide a much-needed study and chronology of Lydian pottery. My task: track down artifact stragglers to confirm their findspots, get them photographed for publication, and make sure they’re fully catalogued. One of my hunts was for some pesky imported fragments that were numbered but not formally catalogued from 1965, seen below.

Hunting for these 1965 ceramic stragglers

And even though we have thousands upon thousands of objects and fragments in the depots from 60 years of work, the system works beautifully, and I was able to find them and move them into the cataloguing queue. The depot is a well-oiled machine of conservators, recorders, illustrators, photographers, architects…you name it. And of course, a dig wouldn’t be a dig without some four-legged assistants. This little mamma cat, and her three kiddos, were excellent help and good for morale.

My dedicated depot assistant

Of course the 2017 season is discovering all kinds of new things, but big operations like this with a legacy of data can’t only focus on what’s being found today. We’re constantly reinvestigating and refining our older excavations, and the robust documentation system we have in place (using FileMakerPro and a lot of ingenuity!) is standing the tests of time. Our future publication goals will now include full data sets/catalogues in searchable formats on our website, alongside our newest work, so keep an eye out!

And while they continue to work over in Turkey at this very moment, I’m holding down the fort in Cambridge and giving a Day of Archaeology gallery talk at the Museum to show off three years of drone footage from site, including some shot just a couple weeks ago (and valiantly transported by a team member on a flash drive, from Turkey to Boston). Keep an eye on our YouTube channel, too, where we will upload more soon!

Excavating the Archive

I am the full-time data manager for the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, an excavation continuously co-sponsored by Harvard and Cornell Universities since 1958. As you can imagine, we have an incredibly rich archive of materials ranging from field diaries to maps, plans, reports, drawings, photos, and everything in between, from 1958 onion-skin typewriter copies to 2016 drone videos. We do all of our publishing in-house, so juggling manuscripts for materials excavated over the course of nearly 60 years keeps me busy and leads to uncovering absolutely fascinating moments in excavation history. It’s not only the history of Sardis itself, but also the history of the people that excavate it. I thought I’d talk about a dramatic archaeological moment from 1968 that I reconstructed with all of our resources, from photos to the memories of those who were present.

Last week while looking for an old plan, I came across this folder with the text, “Army jeep off the road. Dog killed.”  (I promise this post isn’t going to be all sad).IMG_4049 I was curious, so I decided to check the field books for July 18, 1968 to see if any of the excavators recorded this event. And one did: IMG_4050 Then I thought…surely there must be photo evidence of this…IMG_4051 Bingo. Photos of the Citroen crane used to lift heavy stone blocks and other things from excavations, this time to hoist an army jeep out of the trench! By coincidence, this was a year during which a museum curator I know (I was his research assistant many years ago) was a graduate student on site, so I sent him an email asking if he remembered this, and he responded right away that he did, as well as a few other  truck incidents! Ah, the excitement of excavating near a highway.

Archaeological archives are not just dusty repositories full of tomes and documents that won’t ever see the light of day. They can be invaluable, dynamic resources not only about ancient material culture, but also the very practice of archaeology. And sometimes…things get a bit dramatic.

From legacy data to drones

While my archaeological journey began in Italy and I still hang out with the Etruscans of Poggio Civitate, my day job is with the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis as the Publications Data Manager, a brand new position which I began in March of 2014, and FINALLY I’ve made it to site after messing with their data, images, documentation, and all things print and digital. Most of the time I’m in Cambridge (Somerville to be exact) cleaning up data, digitizing images, archivally storing those images, copy editing, website developing, and answering questions from scholars and fans of the Lydians and those who came after at Sardis.

My first day on site began with a ride in a land rover far older than I, crammed into the back with six conservators and equipment, to watch them take photos and take care of business on some newly exposed floor levels. The thing sounds like a swarm of bees, but looks like a good time to play with.  It’s less fun to have it flying right above you as you sweep a floor.  I got to hold a newly-lifted vessel in a box on its way back in the Land Rover to the compound.

Now I’m becoming accustomed to this depot, and after an hour it feels like home. I finally have the chance to weigh and measure a set of Byzantine glass weights that a scholar asked about a couple months ago for a new publication on this object type. Feels good to finally hold in my hands the objects I’ve only longingly gazed at in the images I archived.  Here at Sardis I’ve seen over 50 years of excavation, from paper tags to photogrammetry, shovels and drones, ancient past, less ancient past, recent past, present, and future.  So happy to be a part of it all.

Early morning photography of cleaned surfaces in some of this year's excavation units

Early morning photography of cleaned surfaces in some of this year’s excavation units

My natural habitat among boxes of artifacts

My natural habitat among boxes of artifacts


Etruscan Multitasking

It all started as a field school opportunity in the summer of 2001, and I never thought I’d help run an Etruscan archaeological project for 14 years.  From minion, to trench master, to cataloguer, I found my niche there as manager of materials and inventory for the lab and storerooms, or Magazzino, at the Poggio Civitate Archaeological Project, located in Vescovado di Murlo, near Siena, Italy.  Excavations have taken place continuously since 1966 and is now through the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and directed by Dr. Anthony S. Tuck.

I have since left work at Poggio Civitate to continue my professional career at Sardis in Turkey, but I came back to PC this summer to check in and help out for a bit. What is a day in the life of an archaeological multitasker? Well, the morning starts out with unlocking and airing out the storerooms, checking in with the conservator to see how we should best utilize our student workers, and filling water bottles.  As students arrive and are sent to dry brush ceramics found the day before, I check in with the director to establish priorities for the day, and that may involve cataloguing artifacts that have been cleaned and conserved, looking for comparanda for newly excavated objects, cataloguing objects excavated decades ago but never catalogued, pulling materials for scholarly publication, passing objects along to be photographed or illustrated, making inventory lists, tracking down missing information from the find tags made by trench leaders, restarting the database server if it goes down, flipping through old field diaries to find missing information from the database or to provide our GIS specialist with as much data as possible for mapping old trenches, etc. Let’s say I know where information is, whether physical or electronic, and spend the day either providing it or gathering it.

Of course there are the annoying bits, too…tourists wandering down into the storerooms by mistake, the town handyman needing to move a vehicle, but in order to do so, we need to move tables of pottery fragments, letting the cook know how many people are having lunch, eating lunch in a driveway, moving heavy things, killing bugs, and running supplies up to site when they run out.

But as head of the archive, I get to teach students and learn new things from them, work through issues with dedicated, enthusiastic colleagues, poke through boxes and boxes of nearly 50 years of excavation history for objects 2700 years old, and be a part of something that’s much bigger than myself.

At the end of each day I check in with the trench masters to see their new finds, spread out their pottery to dry, and make sure the conservators get their hands on new sets of projects and problems. Sweep the floors, close and lock up the archive, then march back to down for dinner and sleep before starting all over again.